William James: The Moral Equivalent of War

In his essay titled, The Moral Equivalent of War, 19th century American philosopher William James writes, “History is a bath of blood. Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us.” Although war is horrific, it is also beneficial. Wars promote political unity by uniting people against a common enemy, and wars promote the cultivation of virtue by inspiring people to perform noble and heroic deeds of self-sacrifice. In this video, we will discuss William James’ examination of the relationship between mankind and war.

Throughout history, men have gone to war. “The earlier men were hunting men, and to hunt a neighboring tribe, kill the males, loot the village and possess the females, was the most profitable, as well as the most exciting, way of living. Thus were the more martial tribes selected, and in chiefs and peoples a pure pugnacity and love of glory came to mingle with the more fundamental appetite for plunder.” Here, James implicitly alludes to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which states that characteristics which are advantageous to reproduction are passed down to successive generations. In the case of mankind, James argues that a war-like disposition is advantageous to survival; and therefore, modern man has inherited a war-like disposition.

But modern man has demonstrated a mixture of opinions about war. Some men revere war, other men condemn it. “The military instincts and ideals are as strong as ever, but they are confronted by reflective criticisms which sorely curb their ancient freedom. Pure loot and mastery seem no longer morally allowable motives, and pretexts must be found for attributing them solely to the enemy.”

James argues that this dichotomy between war hawks and pacifists is irreconcilable. Pacifists often urge that war is horrific and irrational, but this has no effect on militarists. “The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.”

Furthermore, militarists argue that war cultivates virtue and that, without war, mankind would degenerate into a cowardly and despicable species. “If war ever stops, we will have to re-invent it to redeem life from flat degeneration. Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of boldness and daring, and human life with no use for these ideals would be contemptible.” In other words, the war hawks believe that the benefits of war outweigh its horrors and atrocities.

Because the urging of the cruelties of war have no effect on militarists, pacifists must adopt an alternative strategy to end war. This strategy must cultivate all the virtues and benefits derived from war if it is to persuade militarists. In the words of William James, the pacifists must identify a moral equivalent of war.

At the end of the essay, James outlines a moral equivalent of war. He proposes that mankind’s propensity for violence and domination be shifted away from mankind and toward Nature, specifically toward the injustices related to financial inequality. “There is nothing to make one indignant in the mere fact that life is hard, that men should toil and suffer pain. The planetary conditions are such, and we can stand it. But that so many men, by mere accidents of birth and opportunity, should have a life of nothing else but toil and pain and hardness and inferiority imposed upon them, while others no more deserving never get any taste of this hard life at all, — this is capable of arousing indignation in reflective minds.”

To remedy financial inequality, James advises governments to conscript youths to labor armies against Nature rather than to military armies against other nations. “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.”

In my opinion, James’ proposed solution is not an adequate moral equivalent of war. Indeed, communal hard labor – like war – inspires a sense of civic duty and brotherhood. But, once released from the labor armies, some of the wealthy and powerful youths will regain their sense of superiority, and lose their sense of duty and fellowship with other citizens. Furthermore, compulsory labor – unlike war – is not conducive to the performance of noble and heroic deeds. It is absurd to consider a member of James’ labor armies heroic for washing a window.

Nevertheless, I do believe that a moral equivalent of war exists. “War is not the only stimulus known for awakening the higher ranges of men’s spiritual energy.” The first stimulus that comes to my mind is Love. Love cultivates all the martial values that militarists hold dear. The lover is bold, daring, noble; he is willing to sacrifice himself for his beloved; and he imparts meaning to life itself.

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11 thoughts on “William James: The Moral Equivalent of War

  1. The great error that philosophers, like James, make, is presuming that a human is a stable persistent thing. It is an error that occurs because 10 thousand years of consistent story can seem like an unchanging thing. it is a human error but a failure in developing a scientific view of human history. In the full view of human history and evolution 10,000 years is only .5 or 1%. Likewise as for stability, we now know that the epigenetic features of human environment are very significant in how we are physiologically and psychological. So, if we begin to broaden peaceful decades across the globe, improve nutrition, and enhance intellectual pursuits, then we have the beginnings go developing a human being that has never been seen on this planet. Thirdly If we then, look at the history of humanity through a different lense of evidence, we see that the empathetic process has developed on empire building but has been the civilising process when the empire(s) have failed. Empires fail because when they are built on war, supply eventually becomes compromised. Nonetheless warring empires are a vehicle (sometimes by creating an antithetical response to itself, as in the Roman empire, not, I would argue, the aim of the empire). So, my argument is that we have been spending 10,000 years building a global human civilisation that required psycopathic males to frontier, sycophants to build, and, now democrats to forge the future. The first was founded on merciless justice, the second on warring city-states, the third will be built on peace. Projecting down another 10,000 years, and another 100,000 years we have become a strange kettle of fish indeed in which the whole premise of the ‘battle’ in any of its meanings, may have disappeared.

  2. Modern political thought is misguided in that it starts from the premises that evolution is progressive rather than random and that there should therefore be a move over time towards material well being and the moral good. With a world population approaching 8 billion and finite resources that looks an extremely unlikely outcome though I wish it was otherwise.

  3. It is simply incorrect to assert that inter-tribe conflict, by virtue of its apparent parallels to mutational advantage in natural selection (the biggest, baddest dog wins and passes on his big bad genes), brings mankind towards some universally advantageous position, when of course we know that tribal warfare on the national scales witnessed in today’s world is more likely to lead mankind towards its own destruction. William James seems awfully oblivious to the cold, hard reality that war is a form of accelerated consumption of resources and of lives which breeds and begets itself; killing our own species and consuming our own planet ad infinitum are quite obviously the diametric opposition to what mankind actually need to survive as a species on Earth. Either the paradigm shift towards world peace must radically progress soon, or almost all of us must be killed off. I know exactly which option the vast majority of humanity should prefer.

    James also offends any decent intellectual among us by asserting both that the continually warring man is the honorable among our species and that a world without war would be regressive rather than progressive — that tells me he’s an adherent of the archetypal “pacifists are pussies and humanity doesn’t need pussies” falsely dichotomous idiocy, the like of which I only see otherwise in knuckleheaded military brutes and religious fundamentalists. He also offends anyone reasonable by asserting that war’s benefits to the social togetherness of certain tribes or nations is a primary reason why war should be maintained as a practice, for in a globalized world tribal conflict is starkly divisive, not cohesive. His arguments are also in part backed up by casuistry; he interprets Darwin’s theory of evolution to conclude that social Darwinism is what it is about — it is not. Mr. James clearly has a warped, fascist ideal of what humanity should be — slaves are made of us; labour is forced; the centre of all human motivation is military in nature.

    Totalitarians, such as William James is, don’t deserve the space to be heard with any level of seriousness even close to that which was afforded the man in this blog piece. I’m rather sorry I bothered to take the time out of my day to read him.

    Let me finish by saying that James essay falls to pieces on one singular notion, which is his notion that the warring man of action has the reproductive advantage over the cerebral pacifist. This is simply false: scientists build the weapons, politicians order the strikes, and the warring men die in the battles.

    • Hahah aren’t you the contentious little fellow today!

      “It is simply INCORRECT to assert that inter-tribe conflict… brings mankind towards some universally advantageous position, when OF COURSE we KNOW that tribal warfare on the national scales witnessed in today’s world is more likely to lead mankind towards its own destruction.” Those are some bold assertions. Methinks they lack supporting evidence.

      “Killing our own species and consuming our own planet ad infinitum are quite obviously the diametric opposition to what mankind actually need to SURVIVE as a species on Earth.” Some people want more than mere survival, no matter the costs.

      “James also offends any decent intellectual among us by asserting both that the continually warring man is the honorable among our species and that a world without war would be regressive rather than progressive…” You misinterpret James. He is anti-war. In his essay, he proposes a solution not only to end war, but also to maintain war’s beneficial influences on society. In other words, he proposes a Moral Equivalent of War. It’s the title of his essay, in case you didn’t notice.

      “Let me finish by saying that James essay falls to pieces on one singular notion, which is his notion that the warring man of action has the reproductive advantage over the cerebral pacifist. This is simply false: scientists build the weapons, politicians order the strikes, and the warring men die in the battles.” Please clarify – do you mean to say that cerebral pacifists are scientists who build weapons and politicians who order strikes? In my humble estimation, such people are warring men.

      I find your righteous indignation both amusing and pleasantly surprising. There are very few people who care much about ideas. I’m glad that there is still some fire in this mass of clay.

      • If the world keeps being consumed at this rate, there will not be a world left. That is a very simple, scientifically established premise. War is of course a period of increased consumption. And if people carry on warring with ever decreasing constraint, what we head towards is perpetual war, which again, from history is a well established premise: wars beget wars. As for “cerebral pacifists”, what I really should have said is that pacifists do not engage in wars, but warring men do. It was an allegory of sorts, to say that the men who most directly engage in war, the soldiers, are the men least likely to father children, because they obviously are more likely than average Joe to spend their time on battlefields. At any rate, I don’t care much for the idea that military pursuit is the central driving force for mankind, nor for the notion that young people should be put into forced labour to take their oppositional defiance out on “nature”. Women, in particular, would disagree with James’ notions therein, vehemently. War is, historically, a man’s game, but this is no longer just a man’s world.

      • “If the world keeps being consumed at this rate, there will not be a world left. That is a very simple, scientifically established premise.” Eventually, there will be no world left, despite all our efforts. As a species, we will have to move. In order to move, we will need to develop technology that will allow us to colonize other planets. War is a significant catalyst for technological innovation (e.g. microwave ovens, canned foods, the jet engine, gps, drones, etc.). One might even argue that without war, we will not develop the necessary technologies to leave this planet.

        “As for “cerebral pacifists”, what I really should have said is that pacifists do not engage in wars, but warring men do.” Yes, you should have said that.

        “Men who most directly engage in war, the soldiers, are the men least likely to father children, because they obviously are more likely than average Joe to spend their time on battlefields.” Any woman who holds herself in esteem would not want to mate with a coward and breed more cowards. Romance stories revolve around the warrior archetype. In those stories, no woman ever becomes mad with love for a sniveling pacifist. Such a story is absurd. She always pines away for the bold and daring warrior-type of man.

        Mind you, not all men who remain at home during war are cowards. And not all men who go to war die. In other words, enough brave warring-types of men exist and propagate to compensate for the sneaking cowards who manage to deceive a woman about their value as males long enough to impregnate her.

        “I don’t care much for the idea that military pursuit is the central driving force for mankind, nor for the notion that young people should be put into forced labour to take their oppositional defiance out on “nature”. Women, in particular, would disagree with James’ notions therein, vehemently. War is, historically, a man’s game, but this is no longer just a man’s world.” Ah, you’re a female and a feminist. That explains it.

        Have no fear my little lady. Eventually, you won’t need men anymore. You will be able to just harvest our sperm and do away with all of us bad men. In the meantime, try to smile and laugh a little more.

      • I’m male, anti-neofeminist, humanist, atheist, and you’re condescending, not to mention a little bit insane. You think there’s an exclusive type of man that every woman likes because romance stories are written about warrior males? You seem to be missing that most of these stories revolve around morally purist, idealistic men and women who fight against tyranny rather than for the material comforts of a cushy, consumerist Western life (which is of course what modern wars are about). Do you think a woman can’t find value in a man who fights for justice or fairness or the rights of women, against tyranny and against untruths, without resorting to violence in order to do so? If the answer’s yes, I’d say you’re a hundred percent wrong.

        There’s a massive difference between abstaining from violence towards a safer society, and being a “snivelling coward”. I find your stance against pacifism bullish, biased and anti-intellectual; frankly, overly-zealous machismo is repulsive to most women.

      • “I’m male.” I doubt that.

        “You’re condescending.” I’m sorry. Did I hurt your feelings? A woman is easily offended. Are you sure you’re a male?

        “…these stories revolve around morally purist, idealistic men and women who FIGHT against tyranny…” ‘Fight’ is the key word in that sentence.

        “Do you think a woman can’t find value in a man who FIGHTS for justice…” She can find value in such a man. Again, ‘Fights’ is the key word in that sentence.

        See, you value fighting. You really are a militarist at heart little lady. You just haven’t realized it.

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