Social Work Values and Pacifism: Opposition to War as a Professional Responsibility

By Verschelden, Cia | Social Work, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Social Work Values and Pacifism: Opposition to War as a Professional Responsibility


Verschelden, Cia, Social Work


In the fall and winter of 1990-1991, as large numbers of U.S. soldiers were deployed to the Persian Gulf and reports of hostilities filled the media, the reality of war and its impact on the human condition became a salient concern to Americans. For many the Persian Gulf War challenged us to examine not only our views about this military action but also about the appropriateness of war in general. The personal views of social workers about war vary greatly according to philosophical and political outlooks. As professionals, however, social workers have a common set of guidelines that define our values and prescribe our behavior.

In the United States the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has delineated a set of values for the profession (Morales & Sheafor, 1992). The Code of Ethics is the statement of these values translated into prescriptions for professional behavior (NASW, 1990). This article illustrates the logical connection between social work values and opposition to war: If social workers behave professionally according to our prescribed values and ethics, it will follow that we are working from an active pacifist perspective.

The idea that pacifism is a natural concomitant to social work is not new. Social work pioneer Jane Addams was an active pacifist: "She opposed war on the pragmatic grounds that it was a wasteful and ineffective method of solving social problems; that, indeed, it created more problems than it solved" (Lasch, 1965, p. 218). She was certain that money badly needed for social services should not be spent on weapons of war making (Levine, 1971).

Social justice is a central issue for the social work profession. The issues of war and peace are intimately related to concerns about social justice. In writing about social workers and the nuclear threat, Rice and Mary (1989) cited a 1988 study by Van Soest and Johnston of the views of social work faculty on domestic policies and militarism. The researchers suggested that social workers have not yet recognized a connection between personal and domestic forms of violence, social injustice, and the violence of the nuclear threat. Their work led them to the conviction that peace and social justice must progress hand in hand.

Definition of Pacifism

Although people may manifest a pacifist view in many ways, the following definition expresses the basic tenets of the perspective: Pacifism is "opposition to all war and armed hostility; belief that national or international disputes should be settled by peaceful means rather than by force or war" (Webster's New Twentieth-Century Dictionary, 1983, p. 1283). Thus, a pacifist opposes war and supports the peaceful resolution of conflict. To further clarify the meaning, it is useful to contrast pacifism with "passivism" and with "warism."

A common misunderstanding is that pacifism is the same as passivism, that a pacifist is passive. This implies silent suffering and a defeatist posture when confronted. Although some pacifists may be passive, most are clearly activists who are working constructively to find alternatives to the violence of war as a means of resolving conflict (Cady, 1989).

In defining pacifism, Cady (1989) contrasted it with warism, which he contended is the predominant perspective in most Western countries, including the United States: "Warism is the view that war is both morally justifiable in principle and often morally justified in fact". Militarism is the manifestation of a warist perspective in a national government that has a "policy of maintaining strong armed forces and being ready and willing to use them; aggressive preparedness" (Webster's, 1983, p. 1141). In the warist perspective war is morally acceptable, and alternatives are considered only if they promise distinct advantage over military options. Pacifism is the view that war by its nature is immoral and that everyone must work for peaceful resolution to conflict and discover or create and practice alternatives to war. …

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