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.