The Moral Paradox of Peace and War

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Professor John Carl Flugel
Professor John Carl Flugel (1884 – 1955)
Professor George Williams Keeton
Professor George Williams Keeton (1902 – 1989)
Conway Memorial Lecture
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at Conway Hall 23 March 1941. Chaired by Professor G W Keeton and presented by Professor J. C. Flugel.

The phenomenon of war raises a number of problems for ethical philosophy. War is an almost ubiquitous feature of large and complex social formations. It seems to result from 3 basic human traits: aggressiveness, gregariousness and intelligence. At the same time, these traits have been necessary, from an evolutionary standpoint, for biological success. War is largely in conflict with all developed ethical notions of an ultimate good, be it enjoyment, pleasure, maximal development of all our faculties, or adherence to conscience. It is also the negation of the freedom of others, the enemy, by the act of killing.

Further, ethical issues focus on tensions between individuals, or between individuals and groups, whereas war is conflict only between groups: a situation in which the more complex, individual-oriented/ethical issues are submerged, since the individual is required to conform to the group. While ethical thinking is highly developed regarding the behaviour of large groups, especially nation states, between the latter relations are still at a morally crude, even immoral level. This is especially evident in time of war.
Nonetheless, war does produce in people an emotional thrill, and one which is felt to have moral value. This thrill is partly to do with a love of adventure which war provides: adventure that stands in stark contrast to the hum-drum daily routines of peacetime. It also derives from a sense of our faculties and capacities being tested to the full; and from a sense of danger, which requires us to confront and overcome fear.

This thrill is also seen as morally significant because it produces a feeling of unity with others. War satisfies men’s gregarious instinct to an exceptional degree, and diminishes the problem of egocentricity and self-absorption. It enhances allegiance to the nation as a whole, as distinct from customary allegiance to small groups within the nation. It creates an unusually strong sense of common purpose. Along with this, it fosters in the individual a powerful sense of being needed, of doing important work; and so raises self-esteem and the feeling of moral worth. In addition, the social harmony which war produces is partly the result of all tendencies to strife and aggression within the nation becoming channelled outward toward the enemy nation. This process increases the conviction of the moral rightness of the national cause. All in all, the war situation enlarges the individual’s perspective, and can produce genuine self-transcendence.

However, this transcendence can be the price of abandoning the responsibilities of individual conscience and judgement. Where so, it is regressive: an atavistic surrender to external authority. Also, war elevates violence to the status of a virtue, thus giving leeway to all kinds of violent impulses, including psychologically dubious ones.

Given that the war situation contains moral pluses as well as minuses, our aim should be to retain as many as possible of the virtues and moral satisfactions of war, while abolishing war itself, since the latter also and inevitably contains many evils. Totalitarianism, as a social system, has the same kind of moral appeal as war, but is at the same time tyrannical, inhumane and crudely homogenous.

Only democracy allows heterogeneity and differentiation between individuals and groups, and so it is to democracy that we must look for a viable source of moral harmony equivalent to that found in war. Democracy can forge a common purpose which deeply engages its citizens; and this purpose, unlike those of war, is wholly constructive. This purpose is the collective endeavour to tame those natural forces which are hostile to man; and where possible, to turn them to human advantage. Such a project would enlist all the positive energies that war call for, but at the same time would be to everybody’s benefit.

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