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No. 2113:
Moral Equivalent of War

Today, we try to replace war. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A century ago, William James spoke at Stanford on The Moral Equivalent of War. That term has been bandied about ever since. Now, browsing the 1910 issue of McClure's Magazine, I trip across the first published text of his talk. 

William James, 1842-1910James was 64 when he spoke at Stanford and this article came out the year he died at 68. These are the thoughts of an older man in time of peace. WW-I looms and he knows it'll be waged by a generation with little experience in war. James remembers his two younger brothers going off to the Civil War. He mentions the mania that'd recently swept America in the Spanish American War. He asks, Can we sustain political unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or a creditable threat? 

He answers the question with another question: Is war the result of fear? When he was younger, he'd posed his famous bear question, Do we run when we see a bear because we fear, or do we fear because we run? James believed fear is bound up in running. Now he suggests that fear does not cause war either, it follows war. We go to war for other reasons, and those reasons must be replaced with something better.

So he looks at armies, and he suggests something that resonates with my own experience. It is that army life provides a model for a peaceful existence in which the good of the group is a higher principle than self-interest. That, says James, should be experienced by all, not just by a chosen few. We need, he says, universal conscription into an army whose only enemy is nature. 

He uses the word nature for those inanimate external forces that we constantly struggle against. He mentions tunnel and road building, dishwashing, erecting buildings. He says, 

Such a conscription would preserve in the midst of [peace] ... toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible, and painful work done cheerily because the duty is temporary, and [does not threaten] to degrade the whole remainder of one's life. 

James' vision resurfaced during the Depression in the form of CCC Camps and the WPA [or the PWA]. It became the Peace Corps in the 1960s. The Peace Corp provided action, instead of fear, for dealing with James' bear -- now the Russian Bear -- but only for the few who chose it. James, by the way, called himself a pacifist, then spoke scathingly about pacifists who liked to advocate peace from within completely comfortable lives. 

The bear of war is still very much at our door and, as we run, we fear. James' universal conscription is political suicide. Nor does anyone like to talk about his notion that basic human nature has to be weighed in any attempt to create peace. 

But remember James' bear. We fear when we run, not when we're in action. If we're to survive as a species, we'll have to put action back in the equation. We'll have to find our moral equivalent to war, whether it's James' idea or something else. War itself has grown too large and terrible. It has become impractical.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

W. James, The Moral Equivalent of War. McClure's Magazine, August, 1910, pp. 463-468. 


Image from McClure's

Image added at the end of the McClure's article