Friday, November 19, 2010

William James's Gamble

William James' essay The Moral Equivalent of War (1906), which can be accessed here, provides a glimpse into what is most optimistic and most naive in American thought.  James felt that the direction that the world was going would lead to a predominantly socialistic system around the world.  Along with this, the willingness of nations to engage in expensive, destructive conflict would fade.  However, he also writes that this may not be successful, or even desirable, if the psychological impetus toward the "martial type of character" isn't given an outlet.  James, an avowed pacifist, makes the admittedly paradoxical claim that tied into the horrors and destruction of war there is an element of it that is conducive to building a moral edifice.

James seeks to find a balance between two trends: the apparent need to engage in life threatening behaviour that is not linked to material reward but instead satisfies notions of honour and demonstrations of the strong life, and the peaceful future he envisions.  His solution is to encourage the discipline, ambition, and show of strength of the martial type, formerly developed through armed conflict, against a new target.  His proposed target is nature, and the methods he suggests is a conscription of the youth to engage in the labour of various kinds for a specified duration.  Work in coal mines, fishing vessels, road building, etc. are some of the labours that he suggests would help continue to develop the positive virtues of the military type, reinforced by the understanding that this work is temporary and thus would be done "cheerily."  He writes that military innovation outstripped civil innovation in his time, and the martial character he wished to harness for a peaceful civil society would balance the development.

Needless to say, James only had an eight year respite before World War One demonstrated that nations would continue to go to war over a trifle, and that the war-party continued to have greater influence than the peace-party.  His essay came on the cusp of the most conflict ridden, destructive century known to humankind.

Would James's proposal have made any difference to our world.  It is legitimate to question the emphasis on progress that James implies in his calling out of nature as the force that must be rallied against.  Where would that have brought us?  We are warned daily of the risks our environment is facing, with an origin in the belief that nature is to be subjected.  The same century that saw the most conflict has also seen the fastest development of non-militaristic technology, used in the broadest sense of the term.  There doesn't seem to be a steady state of the martial feeling and the desires and satisfactions produced militarily are not offset by concurrent emphasis elsewhere.  All this without the formal implementation of James's proposal.

I sought James's essay because it was mentioned as a "book for the world ahead" in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs.  While James has been proven wrong by history, his optimism and desire for a better world, along with attempting a suggestion on how it may be achieved, are admirable.  However, I find it worrying that his essay can be seen as more than a historical curiosity given the developments of the 20th century.  His fundamental point, how to best maintain social unity and virtue in the absence of war, seems to me to be better served by re-evaluating such virtues from the ground up.

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