Jon Roland: Introduction to The Moral Equivalent of War

Introduction

by Jon Roland

to The Moral Equivalent of War by William James

This classic essay by philosopher William James, published in 1910, was based on a speech he delivered at Stanford University in 1906. James considered one of the classic problems of politics: how to sustain political unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or a credible threat. The standard solution for the problem of sustaining political unity and civic virtue has been either war or a credible external or internal threat, and to make the threat credible it has often been necessary to actually go to war. Moreover, the actions taken by nations to create credible threats has often led them to be attacked by others, or to stumble into wars no one wants. World War I was to become the classic example of this tragedy, and this essay can be read as anticipating that conflict.

It can also be read as anticipating the use by political leaders of imagined internal or external threats to achieve and maintain their power and the political unity that would discourage opposition to them. The twentieth century was to see not only internecine international wars, but genocidal civil wars, pogroms, the Nazi and Cambodian holocausts, and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

The traditional way in the United States and a few other countries like Switzerland to achieve and maintain civic bonding was the militia system, but by 1906 this traditional institution had declined in the United States for lack of external or internal enemies. The institution had suffered a critical setback from the Civil War, because the core of the militia traditionalists had been killed, wounded, or demoralized during that conflict. In contemplating a system that would function like the militia to foster social unity, James, a strong opponent of war of any kind, sought an alternative that would function like a militia but be motivated by threats of an impersonal kind. This led him to propose a form of national service that would conduct "warfare against nature".

This concept is regarded by some as the origin of the idea of organized national service. The line of descent can be traced directly from this address to the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, to the Peace Corps, VISTA, and AmeriCorps. Though some phrases grate upon modern ears, particularly the assumption that only males can perform such service, several racially-biased comments, and the now discredited notion that "nature" should be treated as an enemy, it still sounds a rallying cry for service in the interests of the individual and the nation.

The solution to the problem remains an open question, now that "nature" is not to be regarded as an "enemy". The real "enemy" is our own darker human nature, and no one has found a good way to oppose that without slipping into opposition to individuals or groups seen as embodying that darker nature. It would appear that the traditional militia system remains the best solution anyone has found, provided a way can be found to revive support for it, when the main remaining threats are crime, governmental abuse, and natural or manmade disasters.


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