The Moral Equivalent of War by William James

The Moral Equivalent of War by William James

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War is a hard thing to describe. It has benefits that can only be reaped through its respective means. Means that, while necessary, are harsh and unforgiving. William James, the author of “The Moral Equivalent of War”, speaks only of the benefits to be had and not of the horrors and sacrifices found in the turbulent times of war. James bears the title of a pacifist, but he heralds war as a necessity for society to exist. In the end of his article, James presents a “war against nature” that would, in his opinion, stand in war’s stead in bringing the proper characteristics to our people. However, my stance is that of opposition to James and his views. I believe that war, while beneficial in various ways, is unnecessary and should be avoided at all costs.
James begins his proposition with a hypothetical example. There would be a poll for all of the US citizens to take part in. They would vote to either keep the Civil War in our history, or to expunge it entirely and replace that time with a period of peace. He claims that only a “handful of eccentrics” would opt to get rid of it. I find this to be a very valid point, however it does have a fundamental flaw in it. Knowing the consequences and events that resulted from the Civil War allows us to decide whether or not the war was worth the pain and suffering it caused.

Yet ask those same people whether they would be willing in cold blood to start another civil war now to gain another similar possession, and not one man or woman would vote for the proposition. In modern eyes, precious though wars may be, they must not be waged solely for the sake of the ideal harvest (95).
To have a war for the sole purpose of having a war is ridiculous. Another civil war right now would hardly reflect the original Civil War and we would not be able to predict the consequences it might bring. All wars do not bring the benefit that James is looking for.

James agrees with the reflective apologists for war who claim that
[War’s] ‘horrors’ are a cheap price to pay for rescue

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from the only alternative supposed, of a world of clerks and teachers, of co-education and zo-ophily, of ‘consumer’s leagues’ and ‘associated charities,’ of industrialism unlimited, and feminism unabashed…Fie upon such a cattleyard of a planet!” (96)

By agreeing to this, James implies that there is only one alternative to a land with war, and he does not care for that one alternative. This alternative, according to James, is degeneration. He claims, “human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible” (96). War is not the only home for hardihood, nor is it the only thing standing between our world as it is and a “cattleyard”. These are all biased opinions or unfounded judgments by James. One can never truly tell how a life without war would be without having lived in one.

James asks “Where is the sharpness and precipitousness, the contempt for life, whether one’s own, or another’s?” (98) He asks this implying that we would not have these things in a peaceful society. I find that I consider contempt for life to be a rather bad thing. Not only can it potentially cause racism when fighting in a war with a foreign country, it is also dangerous to have contempt for one’s own life. James uses this as a positive side effect of war, but I find it just another reason to avoid war if at all possible.

After reading all of his support for war, one might not think of James as a pacifist. However, he admits to his own idea of a perfect world, and this consists of a “reign of peace and a gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium” (98). He admits that he sees war as absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity. This goes against his whole article, but it happens to be the only thing that he wrote that I agreed with. However, it seems a bit contradictory for him to say this after professing his support for war.

In the conclusion of his article, James proposes an idea that, he thinks, will end the need for wars and will still provide the people with the ideals of hardihood and discipline. This is to “coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers…” (99). If this is indeed all that is needed to gain the benefits of war without unnecessary bloodshed, then I don’t see why he bothered to say we needed war at all. We could maintain this lifestyle without war and establish a peace-economy. I agree that we could survive very healthily simply by working as such, but I disagree as to why we should do it. I do not believe that we need this “hardihood” that James speaks of, and I do not believe that we need war or any moral equivalent to do well.

However, with the pretty picture that James paints with war, it is hard not to find any positive elements. He uses patriotism as one of the reasons why we should partake in war, and I concur. Only in times of war or times of crisis do people see the patriotism that really makes a country proud. With that said, I do not believe that this patriotism is worth waging war for. It certainly is a positive side effect, but is not something we should actively seek out by means of fighting other countries. It also has a high price. Besides the lives lost in war, we also potentially create racism and hatred towards the enemy. It is easy to feel as though one’s country is superior to the enemy’s when they are consumed in the extreme patriotism that is caused by war. This leads to a chain of events that lead to typecasting and ultimately racism.

With all of the prices one has to pay and with all of the negative consequences that come from war, it is hard to fathom what could possibly be worth the trouble. For this, I find that war is wholly unnecessary, and I believe that we can flourish under a peace economy. James’ theory of going against nature is an unorthodox way of bypassing war, and I find it acceptable. However, I do not feel that we absolutely need this “hardiness” that James so adamantly believes in. It is my humble belief that we could live peacefully and happily as well as have our society thrive.
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