restricted access Nonviolence and Moral Equivalency
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Nonviolence and Moral Equivalency

I. James’s Moral Equivalent

In 1910, William James made his contribution to the “war against war” in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War.”1 “Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood,” he argued. “It is a sort of sacrament.”2 The warrior is truly a hero because he exemplifies hardiness, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Some other cause and project will need to be found that can inspire these same qualities, if militarism is to be countered effectively. A “moral equivalent to war” is required.3

James employed this phrase earlier in his Gifford Lectures in defense of asceticism as an exemplar of hardiness. “Poverty indeed is the strenuous life,” he wrote as he wondered whether a reconsideration of poverty as religious vocation might be a cultural counter to the love of wealth that dominated his generation and “may not be ‘the transformation of military courage,’ and the spiritual reform which our time stands most in need of.”4 James also saw a kind of ironic moral meliorism in asceticism. The monk does not ignore what is wrong in the world as the ultra-optimist might, but neither does the monk merely give in to these wrongs and accept them as necessary or natural. Asceticism “symbolizes . . . the belief that there is an element of real wrongness in this world, which is neither to be ignored nor evaded, but which must be squarely met and overcome by an appeal to the soul’s heroic resources, and neutralized and cleansed away by suffering.”5 The problem with asceticism is its extremism and the “uselessness of some of the particular acts of which it may be guilty.”6 But James imagined that at least representatively and symbolically, the strenuous and self-sacrificing life of the monk might be “something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and [End Page 172] yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible.”7

In the later essay, James pressed past this symbolic gesture toward a more practicable solution in which he envisioned that an army be “enlisted against Nature.”8 The idea was that youth, including the “gilded youth,” be conscripted to participate in every facet of the manual labor necessary to economic growth. Every youth would have a part in stoking the fires of the foundries and washing the dishes of the dining halls in order “to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”9 James’s “warfare against nature,” though, not only voiced the myopia of the gilded age with regard to human relation to the environment, but also overlooked the linkage between economic and military might that James could have seen in a review of human history.

Still, James’s basic insight might be helpful. War cannot be countered effectively only by use of careful diplomacy, conflict resolution, disarmament negotiation, or even the sheer force of a careful philosophical argument. The war against war will also have to be fought at the level of culture, at the level of meanings, values, and significations, if it is to be fought effectively.

Perhaps using James’s insight, then, we can set out some criteria for the moral equivalent of war. First, the equivalent of war will have to be sufficiently moral or, as James put it, “compatible with spiritual selves.” The equivalent will have to combat real wrongs in the world and do so in such a way that the means and modes of this combat do not betray the human spirit. Second, the equivalent of war will have to be sufficiently heroic. It will have to call the combatant to loyalties beyond the self and enable her to exhibit qualities of hardiness, tenacity, and courage. And, finally, the equivalent will have to be sufficiently universal in its appeal. It will have to have the potential to become as culturally significant as war has proven itself to be. This essay pursues the question of whether nonviolence might be such a sufficient equivalent of war.

II. The Moral Nature of...