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Conscientious Objection: the Writing and Speeches of Bob Rowan

On Conscientious Objection

As you read this essay you will soon recognize that it heavily reflects its period of writing (completed in late 1968).  WWII was only 23 years ago, the US was beginning to wind down its disastrous war in Viet Nam, the Korean War was only uneasily “truced” and remains so today (in 2012).  War was present or steadily threatening, as in the Cold War which was on in earnest and would continue for several more decades.

The US at that time still relied mainly on conscription (the “draft”) to fill its military ranks.  Where military forces rely on voluntary (i.e. self-selected) members the problem of conscientious objection does not arise.  But, in a different form it may arise in the course of action even among volunteers, if orders begin to be given which systematically, somehow, conflict with members’ strongly held principles.  That raises a complicated related problem which won’t be discussed here, but it does arise.

Incidentally, it can be argued that the shift from general conscription to a military force comprising volunteers probably makes easier, and more sustainable, imperialist wars and adventures, as in the US invasion of Iraq (2003).  But that, too, is a different story, not to be told here.

Berkeley, 2012



The existence of conscientious objection as a legal classification appears to be an anomaly.   At least I find it so in two related ways, both of which I want to discuss in this essay.

First, as I shall show, the existence of conscientious objection cannot be justified by any application of standard arguments which deal with the equality of the laws.  Nor can there be any question that the classification raises the problem of equal protection of the laws, and even more raises the question of equal law, in its most poignant form.

Second, the apparent deviation from equality represented by conscientious objection seems, paradoxically, to be welcomed, not grudgingly tolerated, as it is in other cases.  It is beyond denial that many but by no means all of us take positive pride in being members of a community which has such people and which makes legal provision of this specific kind for them.  We do so, moreover, without respect for whether we or those close to us are conscientious objectors.

Just why we do so, however, is not at all clear.  And while clarity may not be a strict necessity at all points, it would be especially welcome here.  For in addition to the important problem which it raises concerning equality and the law, conscientious objection raises difficulties of the most general kind concerning the very foundation of our moral and political understandings – the nature and purpose of the state, and the relationship of morality to civic duty.

Indeed, I find that in order to give any adequate account of these matters at all I must go far out, to conjecture, maybe even to conjure, at a level that seems not to be in the ordinary view of things.  Whether these conjectures will prove illuminating, or even relevant, remains of course to be seen.

The classification, in itself, is simple.  It provides that certain people shall be exempt from the burden of military service, even in time of gravest emergency, because they hold principles prohibiting the exercise of violence and the taking of human life.  (Sometimes it is provided that the objector must engage in public service in lieu of military service, or that if he will accept military service, he is exempted from combatant duty.  These provisos change nothing in the argument.)

Conscientious objection is not in any way unusual because it exempts from burden.  Public law and policy is full of provisions which impose burdens, exempt from burdens, and accord benefits differentially, (of which more will be said shortly).  Nor would it be unusual or even interesting it if were merely a political response to the pressure generated by organized religious bodies.  We are by now familiar enough with “pressure group politics” and “special interest” legislation to know that their names are also their explanations.  True, there is often a religious bias built into the classification which favors objectors whose principles rest on religious rather than on moral or philosophical grounds.  Such a bias raises problems, as I shall show and may indicate response to special group pleadings, though it need not indicate that.  Still, neither religion nor religious pressure can make up the whole story.  To make that point stick, however, I must tell the whole story, at least as I see it.


In any large and complex civil community there is not likely to be much legislation which is really general, which regulates the behavior of all, or even most men in the same way.  The reasons for that are plain:  not all the fish we have are for frying.  Most legislation, therefore, distinguishes and classifies.  Law creates distinctions within the population, requiring behavior or providing treatment which is not the same for the various classifications.  These classifications must be relevant, in appropriate ways, to some purpose, and the purpose itself must be good or legitimate.  It must be reasonably related to some benefit of a general or public nature.

Instances abound: they are more the rule than the exception.  The young and the old are rarely treated the same in law.  Special provisions of treatment are accorded them for a number of reasons.  The same is true of the physically handicapped, and of the emotionally and mentally disturbed.  Special schools, care and other provisions are made for them.  It is also true of those who suffer other handicaps, financial for instance.  Our regulation of production and trade, such as it lamely is, displays the same feature:  classifications which carry with them different benefits.  This pattern in law and policy is everywhere found, and everyday is found more often as the community moves from the mere regulation of behavior deemed anti-social into the regulation of other, wider areas of public concern.

So far, so good.  But as was suggested earlier, there are complications.  They arise from the demand for equality, for equal protection of the laws, and for protection of equal laws.  Laws classify for a purpose and to achieve the purpose they discriminate in assigning burdens and benefits.  But in this necessary power to classify, legislation carries with it also the dangerous potential to classify in ways which are unfair or discriminatory.  Burdens and benefits may be assigned in ways which are sometimes rightly claimed to be arbitrary, discriminatory, unreasonable, of little or no general utility.  One way of assigning benefit is by providing specific exemption from a burden for some people who might otherwise be expected who might otherwise be expected to carry it.  (as is the case with conscientious objection).  And that is fine, if the reasons for the exemption are relevant, reasonable, possessed of a significance which can be seen as general and worthy.

When a claim of unequal treatment under law is raised, either in the sense that an unfair burden has been assigned or an unfair benefit accorded, we immediately look to the purpose of the law.  If we can make out its purpose (a surprisingly awkward task sometimes, but which must be performed) and the purpose is not in itself either unequal or forbidden, we are then in a good position to assess the claim of inequality.  We can discover whether the classification is relevant to the purpose in the appropriate ways.  More importantly, we can discover whether the classification precisely fits the purpose, for a classification may be generally relevant to the purpose, yet not include all the people it should or include some it shouldn’t.  Some may be excluded who are similarly situated with respect to the purpose or some may be included who are not similarly situated.  Laws, thus, may fail to provide equal protection because the classifications they create are under or over-inclusive.  There are even laws which manage to contain both defects.

Situations arise in which these forms of inequality exist in a degree which is quite tolerable.  Some deviations from the most delicate requirements of equality are acceptable because the matters concerned are unimportant, administrative or other difficulties are substantial, and the burdens and benefits of less than the greatest consequence.  However, where those conditions do not exist, there the inequality from under or over-inclusion is no minor matter, certainly not easily tolerated.

Returning now to conscientious objection, it is worth noting that the classification is plainly unequal because under-inclusive, in those cases where it favors or makes mandatory religious grounds for objection.  That is not my major concern in this essay.  Nevertheless, if we assume, as at this stage we reasonably must, that respect for the principle of non-violence represents the purpose of the law, then it can be strongly argued that principles are principles, meriting respect whether their grounds be religious or not.  If I am correct on that, then some people similarly situated with regard to the purpose of the law, i.e. respect for the principle of non-violence, are not included in its provisions, when it has as it often does have the religious condition.

And since it can hardly be claimed that administrative or other difficulties require the exclusion of those whose principles rest on non-religious grounds, and further, that the burdens and benefits are of the greatest consequence, then it follows that the inequality which is part of the law on conscientious objection, when it includes the religious condition, is a most serious defect, not easily tolerated.  It simply does not provide equal protection of the laws.

As I said, however, that defect even where it exists is not my major interest in conscientious objection.  Nonetheless, it does serve in a left-handed way to bring me close to it.  Conscientious objection would no doubt be even more welcome to those who now support it if the under-inclusive feature of the law were eliminated.  If that were done, it would also be welcome to many who presently have serious reservations about it because of the discriminatory defect.  But conscientious objection would still labor under a strong presumption of inequality, I maintain, because the purpose of the law is, itself, highly suspect.  It appears, at least on its face, to be an instance of grossly unequal law, inherently discriminatory, since it exempts a group from a most onerous burden for reasons which look so arbitrary and preferential as to be unlike any others in law.  Here, if anywhere, would seem to be a clear instance of forbidden purpose….yet we somehow find it welcome.

Having said that, the cat is out of the bag.  And I don’t believe it can be got back into the same bag again.  Whether another can be constructed large and strong enough to hold the creature, I’m not sure.  What does seem sure, at least at this point, is that exemptions and deferments from military service in time of war are quite common, their justifications well understood, yet the case of conscientious objection doesn’t fit their model at all.

For instance, governmental officials in the higher echelons are usually exempt from military service, or are deferred so long as they hold office.  They are exempt despite the fact that they may possess all the qualities requisite for military service in one capacity or another.  The reason for these exemptions is plain.  The utility, the service to the community in having able and experienced officers of government is normally so great as far to outweigh any utility which might lie in adding them to its military roster.

Service to the community also justifies exemptions from military service for those possessing special skills or knowledge which are required for war-production, the waging of war, or for maintaining some minimal level of health, welfare and productivity in the community which supports and supplies the community’s war effort.  In such classes we would probably find those who man the intelligence services, physicists and chemists, high-powered engineers of various sorts, skilled technicians, some engaged in agriculture, and no doubt others.  The purpose of exemption or of deferment also seems plain here:  these people best serve the community in their special roles.

In recent times a complication has arisen with respect to military service in time of emergency, particularly in the U.S.A.  It is concerned with what amounts to deferment for the purpose of continuing formal education, frequently over substantial periods of time.  These deferments will in fact often amount to total exemption from combatant military service for various academic generations, since hot-war involvements these days tend to be recurrent and intense but of relatively short duration.  Thus considering this case here is appropriate.

The grounds of this form of deferment-exemption are found in an earlier policy which was not directed towards serious military involvements.  Thus its present logic is not yet altogether clear, but we can try to piece some parts of it together.

The community apparently believes, sometimes mistakenly, that it will not be caught up in the emergency for very long and its war-effort need not be total.  Those beliefs allow the conclusion that it should make that effort with minimal interruption of careers, at the same time providing for its general welfare in the future, to which education does contribute.

Against that chancy, presumed logic must be weighed, however, the nature of the emergency and the unique quality of the burden which is borne by those who serve in combatant military roles.  The outcome of that weighing does not indicate to me the justice of a policy of blanket deferment for the purpose of continuing formal education.  The quality of the burden deferred is extraordinary.  The risk of injury is, in itself, sufficient to raise deep suspicion concerning the equality of this exemption.  But from the perspective being taken in this essay, the requirement to inflict injury or death on others, to engage in violence, is more important.  That is an awful task, being required to do it is more awful, even when one assumes that he engages in violence with right.  Exemption from that burden which ought, if any ought, be most equitably distributed, requires a searching, delicate and conscientious assessment.

It is obvious, given the educational exemption, that the extraordinary burden of violence falls on those who only work, loaf, meditate or study.  Moreover, the burden will fall most heavily on the lower social-economic classes, where formal education beyond high school is much less common.  When those facts are recognized it is hard not to conclude that the spectre of class preference and class legislation is lurking about somewhere.  I believe that it is and that it operates here as it always has:  to make easier a wide range of policies (in this case, military involvements) which a whole people would have much less zeal to engage in, though they would have more ease justifying, were the burdens of it distributed fairly.

Returning now to the consideration of various types of exemptions from military service, we also find them required for people handicapped in certain physical, mental or emotional ways.  Here, too, the major grounds of justification are found in the notion of service to the community.  Harsh though it may sound, the presence of handicapped people in military roles would complicate much while contributing little.  It might be thought that these cases have essentially to do with compassion, but I think not, since compassion here, though no doubt present, is decidedly ancillary to service to the community.

Another set of exemptions is seen in “hardship” cases, for which the grounds are found in the needs or condition of the person’s dependents.  Often such needs are simply financial; the person is the sole support of one or several other people who are incapable of supporting themselves.  There are other cases in which constant care and attention is required by dependents which no one else is in a position to provide.  So far as I can see the merit of such exemptions is to be found in reasons of “administrative difficulty” alone.  Were the community efficiently geared to provide financial and other attention for this class of dependents, the warrant for exemption would be removed.  And apparently we so reason if the military manpower needs grow:  hardship exemptions decrease, provision of some sort is made for dependents, even if it is not all it might be.

It is no doubt true that compassion plays some part in our judgment of those cases, but it is better reserved, in my opinion, for another set of cases.  There are forms of dependency, and thus of hardship, which do not stem from administrative difficulty.  There are, for example, forms of psychological dependency for which no administrative substitute has yet been found, and which are not neurotic or in any way other than they ought to be.  The need of children for their fathers, if not of fathers for their children, must be of that kind.  In this case we are flat up against it.  We have no alternative save to choose which value requires this man’s service:  the community and its war, or the well-being of his children, and not only in their childhood.  The term “compassion” used here is not too strong, and the need for it great.  Still, the needs of dependents, even of children, are not exhaustively dominant.  There is also the stake of the community in the emergency.  What we do, and it is probably the very best we can do, is defer the military service of fathers (and perhaps some others in similar situations; maybe husbands, but not for long), hoping that the emergency can be handled without calling on them for military service.

There are other forms of compassionate exemption which arise from time to time, some of them difficult to describe in general and which require ad hoc decisions.  One form often recognized is that of a sole surviving son of a family which has lost all other sons in military service.  This case might be more clearly seen as recognition of some principle of equality of sacrifice, now taking families rather than individuals as the appropriate units.  In general, however, the feature of compassionate cases which deserves emphasis is that the welfare of others is the chief stake and criterion.  There is little suggestion that the welfare of the person is question is, in itself, the decisive factor justifying exemption or deferment.

One final case.  Members of the clergy may be exempt from military service.  This can be interpreted in either or both of two ways.  Firstly, that they provide a necessary, a vital service to the community in their pastoral role (including as chaplains to the armed forces); and secondly, that the exemption of clergymen is only a variant of the more general case of conscientious objection, (thus not meriting independent treatment).

Certain things stand out from even this brief survey of exemption or deferment from military service.  They are worth listing in summary, assuming that necessary allowance will be made for matters of detail, qualification, difficulty in administration, et cetera.

  1. Granting the legitimacy of the general purpose, the waging of war, and the consequent need for military and other service, the criterion of where a man best serves, provides a necessary and reasonable standard.  We have found that this criterion can be applied in a way that is not partial, prejudiced or narrow.  It is reasonably related to the purpose.
  2. In hardship and compassionate cases, the relevant criterion becomes the welfare of others, judged in light of what the community could itself provide under the circumstances.  There is no suggestion that compassion or hardship has anything at all to do with concern for the individual’s own welfare, his personal state or condition.
  3. In no case can it be discovered that a person’s preferences, beliefs, judgments or principles play any role whatsoever in determining his liability for military service; not even religious grounds, in general, play a role, only those specifically connected to the principle of non-violence.

We too rarely avoid war, it seems, despite our recognition that it is something we should avoid at almost any cost.  For its costs are staggering.  They are beyond reckoning.  Because that is  so, the normal, powerful presumption in favor of the equal sharing of civic burdens and benefits becomes simply overwhelming when it comes to the burdens of war, especially including the burden of risk and evil in combatant service.  The grounds of exemption from that burden must be particularly relevant and compelling.  We have found, presumably, some cases which meet those conditions, to ignore which would only serve to compound the already extreme misery.  Provision for these exemptions fairly well satisfies our sense of equality.

But the case of conscientious object does not fit into any of these recognized grounds for exemption.  That may be seen from another summary list:

  1. As a group, conscientious objectors stand in no special relationship to the exercise of government; they are not governmental officers.
  2. As a group, conscientious objectors possess no special skills or knowledge related to war or war-production, nor to the health, welfare and productivity of the community waging the war.
  3. As a group, conscientious objectors stand in no special relationship to the near or even distant-future welfare of the community, by pursuing formal education, the specific character of which would be vital to the interests of the community.
  4. As a group, conscientious objectors are not handicapped in physical, mental or emotional ways.
  5. As a group, conscientious objectors do not constitute hardship cases, whose dependents would suffer if they were required to serve in military capacities.
  6. As a group, there are no grounds in compassion for exempting conscientious objectors which even vaguely resemble the grounds in other such cases.
  7. As a group, conscientious objectors are not clergymen.

That list seems to me so conclusive as utterly to wreck all attempts to interpret conscientious objection as being in any way an instance or variant of standard cases of exemption.  If I am correct on that score, it would appear that either, one, we must settle for a most extreme instance of inequality or, two, we must find a radically different interpretation of the exemption.

I shall make the latter attempt, because as it stands conscientious objection is just too gross in its apparent injustice.  It begins to raise doubts concerning our sanity.  Yet even if war itself is madness, surely not everything connected with it need be.  I shall proceed on the assumption, therefore, that a different account of conscientious objection is possible somehow.  Whether and in what sense that account can be made to jibe with our demand for equality I’m not sure.  But before attempting that account there are several other matters which should be considered.


It appears that conscientious objectors are unique in one and only one way.  It is the specific content of one moral principle which marks them off –  their conscience. They will never voluntarily inflict injury or death on another human being.

We must be clear about this; it has great significance.  There is nothing unique in having moral principle and being committed to act on it.  Nothing at all.  Most men have at least one of those, and in that are not distinguishable from conscientious objectors.  It is the specific, unique commitment to non-violence which separates conscientious objectors and it is that, presumably, which we take remarkable cognizance of in creating the legal classification.  Nothing else.

No doubt, conscientious objectors fear injury and death.  But on that score they are hardly alone.  It can safely be assumed that we are all mutual, if sometimes secret, sharers there.  Yet such factors are never cited to justify exemption from military service.  They are simply considered not relevant, except where fear takes such possession of a man that he is thereby made emotionally unfit for military service.  Any suggestion that fear motivates conscientious objectors has little merit; even less the suggestion that respect for fear stands behind the legal classification.

Nor can it be claimed that conscientious objectors are distinguished from the rest in their special unwillingness to suffer inconvenience, misery, hardship and risk on behalf of the community when occasion requires.  When it comes to that, few of us are all that willing.  Yet conscientious objectors, in my experience at any rate, seem on the contrary to be among the more exemplary.  They, more than others, indicate willingness to serve the community and humanity in the least selfish ways, in inconvenient, unpopular, difficult and dangerous roles, though they will not serve as combatants or in other roles which further the making of war.  They are often among our finest citizens, steadily rendering intelligent, devoted service, with less than the usual fanfare and ulterior motive.

One might even speculate that in the last analysis the existence of conscientious objection as a legal classification mainly constitutes a concession to the intensity of the objectors’ beliefs.  Unlike others, they simply will not be, cannot be coerced into performing the duty of military service.  Thus faced with their hopeless intransigence, the community wisely resigns itself, making matters easier for everyone by creating the legal exemption.

As historical speculation there may well be something in that line of thought, but for our interests it doesn’t explain enough.  We don’t handle all cases of unwillingness to fight in the same way, even if the intransigence is equal in all cases.

The question could be viewed in this way.  Men may be willing to fight for a variety of reasons.  Whatever their reason, if their refusal is adamant, the lengths one would have to go to make them fight rapidly become so extreme as soon to render the result not worth the effort.  In fact we expend very little energy on that fruitless course.  Nonetheless, a man who refuses to fight for reasons other than those of conscience is subject to punishment, or at least is subject to psychiatric treatment.  Yet legal exemption from military service for conscientious objectors can hardly be viewed in either of those ways.  It just doesn’t look like punishment or treatment.  It so much lacks the necessary painful or therapeutic elements as to appear more in the guise of privilege; surely not penalty.

Moreover, punishment for unwillingness to fight, or even treatment, carry an inescapably pejorative significance; they are directed to something that isn’t what it should be, something culpable or pathological somehow.  Perhaps we err on either or both counts of description there and I would entertain arguments to that end.  But not now, since such arguments would cut no ice here because conscientious objection cannot be viewed as suffering any taint of culpability or pathology.

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  That last statement may be too strong.  There are arguments that conscientious objection is in some way culpable, that it rests on a view of morality that is foolish, limited and private, and that therefore the legal exemption ought not exist.  I have surely not proven it otherwise and, in fact, in the first section of this essay doubts were raised concerning the fundamental equality of the law.  Those doubts have not so far been allayed.

Therefore, I had better rephrase the matter by saying there is at least a presumption that conscientious objection doesn’t suffer any taint of culpability, and certainly none of pathology.  After all, we have seen fit to create a bona fide legal right, an exemption for conscientious objectors.  The existence of the legal right in itself provides presumptive evidence that the community finds something worthwhile in the grounds of their unwillingness to fight.

It is true that the deeply committed conscientious objector could not and would not defend himself in war by any aggressive or violent means.  Failure to be aggressive or violent is equivalent to rendering one defenseless on at least some occasions.  It is plain, also, that neither utility nor justice would condone having defenseless men in battle.  Thus it might be concluded that the existence of conscientious objection as a legal classification rests, after all, on fairly immediate grounds of utility or compassion.

I have heard that argument and must say it is briefly disarming in its neat elegance.  Upon consideration, however, it will be seen to miss the point.  It does so by failing to note the crucial difference between a man unable to fight and a man unwilling to fight.

Now I’m aware that there are some substantial philosophical doubts about the concept of will, and that there are philosophers who think it likely the concept of will can, roughly speaking, be collapsed into that of, say, ability.  That collapse is in turn contingent upon a denial of the distinction between reasons for action and causes of action.  In the present context that denial would carry with it a further denial of there being any important difference between a man who, for example, cannot fight because of unreasoning, uncontrollable fear and a man unwilling to fight for the reason that he believes it morally wrong.

I don’t think we are in a position to deny those distinctions.  I don’t even think we are capable of acting consistently upon any such denial, since among other things it would make a variable shambles of the law and countless other institutions.  Furthermore, there is serious question whether the philosophical task can be carried off in theory.  But however those arguments go and however they turn out, it is clear that this isn’t the place to go into them.  Therefore, I shall note only that if they went in the direction I presently believe they cannot go, that would indeed make an immense difference to the case of conscientious objection.  But that difference would no longer concern us.  It would be as nothing, since the whole of our present framework of social institutions, expectations, and judgments would be in ruins.  We would be quite busily occupied with matters more immediately pressing.

As it stands, therefore, we must and do take serious note of why it is that a conscientious objector would be defenseless in battle.  He would be defenseless because he chooses not to fight, and he chooses not to fight because he believes it wrong to harm others.  He can fight, but will not.  He might be an excellent, a bonny battler, but his conscience will not allow it.

Those facts seem to cut straight through the argument that legal exemption for conscientious objectors might rest after all on fairly immediate grounds of utility or compassion.  A conscientious objector is defenseless in battle, and therefore of no use, simply because he will not fight.  That makes all the difference.  And that is also why he does not merit compassion, not one bit of it.

There may be others who do; others who, though in some sense willing, are yet incapable, who cannot fight, and are for that reason defenseless.  They, too, should not be in battle.  They, too, should be exempt from military service on grounds of compassion and utility.

But if the conscientious objector doesn’t merit compassion – and he most definitely does not – he may merit respect, even admiration.  And that makes a difference.  It may yet make all the difference.  The puzzle lies in the “why?”  Why does conscientious objection command our respect, our admiration, if it does?  What can our respect for it tell us about ourselves?  That is the puzzle.  If we can unravel that we may also be able to unravel some other, even more important puzzles; puzzles concerning the very foundation of our moral and political understandings.


Why is it that, when last comes to last, we see fit on some occasions to require a man to give up little or all, perhaps to suffer injury or death, but would not see fit, on those same occasions, to require him to inflict injury or death on others, if he conscientiously believes it morally wrong to do so?  Why is it that we may order a man to sacrifice everything…except one principle?  Why may we order a man to die but not to kill?

How stark the question is when put in that way.  How profound the ambivalence it reveals in us.  For the ambivalence is real in us, we who are not conscientious objectors but who have seen fit to create and sustain that right for them.

How flat the question runs in the face of any egoistic view of man, any merely self-regarding conception of morality.  For where is our much heralded “law of self-preservation” now?  Where even that small measure of chill moral comfort we usually eke from it?

Just on those occasions when the community as a whole most violently acts out its right of self-preservation, just then some within it are allowed by it calmly to deny the community’s right and to refuse to be party to its acts.  Just on those occasions when the community’s welfare, if not its very existence, is alleged to be at stake, some within it are given the legal right to refuse to participate in the only actions which the remainder have judged necessary for its salvation.

Just on those occasions when moral sense gives way to expediency, when reason becomes most grossly instrumental, when nicety, subtlety, nuance and degree, when sweetness and light, all are put aside, when principles otherwise somehow honored receive short shrift with but varying degrees of regret or remorse….just then we sweetly say “but your moral sense, your principles shall be wholly honored”.

“War is war”.  “All is fair in love and war”.  “None are truly innocent in war”.  “One cannot fight a war with one hand tied behind his back”.  “…..but this is war!”  Such as these pass for wisdom in those times.  They are everywhere heard in justification, and without them, what would we do?  The conflict within us, the struggle of one part of our self with another part of that same self, must be incessant and intense as we bravely utter these to justify what we do, at the same time we make extraordinary provision for them not to do what we do.  That conflict is surely tolerable only by a steady accretion of scar and callus muffling the sounds of strife within.

Nor is that all.  In waging war a whole community is brutalized and degraded.  Necessary evils are still evils, acknowledged or not.  True, war is apt to produce an unusual height of spirit and vigor, an internal health and selfless sense of community which, as William James observed, is close to that quality of common life we do desperately seek other times.  And there’s the irony.  For no heights of spirit and vigor nor heroic deeds of sacrifice, no stirring anthems, can alter or erase the true measure of demoralization which war produces.  The whole community suffers in that; all else is rationalization.  Those in combat who inflict wounds, themselves suffer wounds to the spirit even more directly, but no less surely.

Perhaps I wax too dramatically here, but I think not.  It is against that background precisely that the significance of conscientious objection must be assessed.  War and all that goes with it is its natural habitat.  The galvanized, intemperate energy of the mobilized, fighting community is the only scene in which it has true meaning.  Conscientious objection has little to do with private violence; that, presumably, we have long since prohibited, with one strictly regulated, narrowly defined exception in the form of self-defense.  It has to do, rather, with public violence; violence organized and willfully directed by one community towards another.  That the luxury of exemption for conscientious objection exists then is a paradox indeed.  But that it can exist then, when everything would seem to deny it place, simply must mean that it arises from nothing negligible or transient in the facts of human life.  The nature of the paradox guarantees that.

I suspect we have difficulty seeing things that way, which indicates in its turn that we have become incapable (when were we not?) of any appropriate response to war, that we remain insensitive to the true quality of its violence.  We have been made spiritual prisoners by the ambivalence of our own feelings concerning it.

But there is more to the story than that, and this remainder is, in its way, of a less obvious but not lesser significance.  Conscientious objection seems to challenge the very foundation, the basic tenet of civil organization itself.  It does so because the legal category constitutes an apparent acknowledgement that a citizen’s moral principles are themselves, sometimes, legitimate grounds for specific exemption from the consequences of public policy – inequality and public harm resulting therefrom seemingly being of little account.  That challenge is important.  Consistent recognition of that principle would seem likely and soon to undermine all semblance of authoritative, civil institutions.

With those words one has surely stirred the ghost of Hobbes.  For one need not accept the whole of the Hobbesian account of man and civil society to appreciate the force of his insistence that after no matter how long and open the deliberations, and after no matter how many levels of due process, fair hearing, and exercise of rights, there must finally and necessarily be an authority competent to bind the whole community to its decisions; as much binding on those who disagree as on those who agree.  And that this necessary authority extends not only to matters of middling importance and questions of procedure; it extends to the most vital things, to questions of the deepest public and personal interest:  pleasure and pain, ease and hardship, benefit and sacrifice, wisdom and folly, life and death, piety and blasphemy, war and peace, right and wrong.  For men disagree about these also, more and with greater passion since with greater stakes than they do about middling matters and questions of procedure.  These are the very questions over which men have gone, do now go, and may well continue to go to war.

It has been said often enough that no wars are worse than civil wars, though it should be said with the same breath that all wars are uncivil, uncivilized.  But if we are to avoid civil wars, so Hobbes reasoned, the members of a community must acknowledge decisions binding on all members on all questions, at least in principle, particularly including questions involving moral principles.  Civil society requires the subordination of individual judgment, not merely the subordination of individual interest.  Only thereby is Hobbes’ state of nature eliminated – the condition of “masterless men” consigned to lives that are solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.

That claim sounds harsh and frightening.  Few can hear it with utter equanimity.  It is even sometimes viewed as being downright immoral, thus largely accounting for the bad name which Hobbes has with many.  Yet, ironically, we accept it and act steadily upon it.  We tolerate almost no exceptions to that principle, of which conscientious objection is easily the most notable.

This man finds medical treatment wrong and contrary to his religion.  He would not allow it for himself or for his family.  Yet we do not honor his principles.  We treat his children and would surely treat him if it were a question of public safety.  That man believes that taxation is only a disguised form of theft.  Another views the use of tax revenues for certain purposes as corruption of no minor sort.  Yet we do not honor their principles and they are subject to the full burden of taxation.  Another man finds even minimal public standards of compulsory education abhorrent, evil, corrupting of his and other children.  Yet we have not seen fit to defer to his principles or to create exemption from the policy for him.  Still another (E.M. Forster, for example) believes that the moral claims of friendship are higher than those of civic duty.  His belief has appeal, but we do not accede to it, and the damaging testimony of friends can be legally compelled.  Still another truly believes that the races should be segregated, that compulsory integration in schools, work and elsewhere is unnatural, immoral and unwise.  But day by day we integrate the races, ignoring his principles, making it a punishable violation if he or anyone else refuses to heed that public policy as it affects them.  Mr. Brown believes that freedom of worship means that simply.  Yet we regulate his worship and the rites which he claims are the solemn commandments of his God.  His principles do not exempt him from the policies we have established concerning these things.  Mr. Smith has views about personal relationships, marriage and other matters, which are distinctly at odds with present law governing these.  He forcefully argues that radical change here would be good, moral, and also in keeping with God’s law.  We do not find Mr. Smith’s principles compelling, even though they may be deeply held and cogently argued. We create no category of exemption for him or others who hold similar beliefs.

Do we need more examples?  They could be quickly provided.  The list could be expanded almost indefinitely, touching upon nearly every human concern.  And since human concerns, then also matters about which men have disagreed and may now disagree, deeply, fundamentally, in principle.  These and all the others are just those things which men take most seriously, about which they are prone to become heated and to have recourse to violence.  And it was to avoid violence, to avoid civil war, that Hobbes argued for, and we by our daily policy apparently accept, the basic tenet of government that a citizen’s moral principles cannot, in and of themselves, be legitimate grounds for individual exemption from what may well be viewed as the intolerable burdens brought on by public law and policy.

This is indeed perplexing.  Conscientious objection seems to present us with an important inconsistency; one which calls in question a principle lying at the very foundation of civil life.  And can we honestly have it both ways?  Must we finally resign ourselves to embracing the inconsistency, albeit with a tentative, tender grasp?

Well, there is one way out that is at least transiently tempting.  It is to dismiss the cases, and the kind of cases, described above as cranky, as though we were genuinely satisfied that men who believe those things can’t be quite right somehow.

That temptation must be rejected, however, because it rests on a plain misapprehension concerning who we are talking about.  We are not talking about cranks—who never come labeled.  We are talking about men, citizens, ourselves, such as we are.  We are all of us the cranks and the solid citizens from time to time, depending upon the point of view and the matter at hand.  Besides, if a listing of cranks were seriously undertaken, it would simplify the task enormously if, at the outset and with no further investigation whatsoever, we simply inscribed the names of nearly every great figure in man’s intellectual and moral history. After that we could add the names of such ordinary folk as we discovered really rated in this fast company.

But in any case and more importantly, if this is to be our tack, why have we not added conscientious objectors to our list of cranks?  How is their principle concerning non-violence different, and why is it appropriate to create a legal exemption for that principle, but not for the others?  How are we to answer that question?  If deeply-held convictions about the moral wrong of violence serve here to exempt from what is otherwise a solemn civil obligation, then why are not deeply-held convictions concerning the alleged immorality of other public policies similarly exempt?  How frame an answer which absolves us from a charge either of injustice or of schizophrenia? What justification can be presented here which is so compelling on the one hand, yet so unusual on the other, that no other instances can slide in under its mantle?

In asking for a justification which allows no instances other than conscientious objection to enjoy its warrant, I am not stacking the deck or begging the question.  At this stage I am arguing only from the record, our record, which speaks for itself.  It happens to speak with a forked tongue, but speak it does.  And it says that an exception will be made in the case of those who categorically profess non-violence. An exemption will be created for them, but not for any others, no matter how deeply held their principles.  Having a record of that sort may indicate that a mistake has been made somewhere.  Maybe there should be no exceptions; maybe there should be many.  Of those possibilities more will be made in the course of presenting an argument based upon the record.


Given the record, then, it appears that what we need is an interpretation of conscientious objection which meets the charge of inequality – of arbitrary, preferential treatment – by showing, first that it is a general, a public purpose of the highest kind which is served by the legal category, and second, that we are not thereby undermining the fundamental principle of government by opening the gate of exemption to private moral principles.  That is a complicated task and though I have seemingly separated it into distinct parts here, it is, in fact, one task only.  But it does have aspects which are worth something like separate emphasis just because the job is so complicated.  Performing anything less than that task will not, I think, resolve the problem posed by conscientious objection.

Towards that interpretation, then, suppose we begin now with the thought that in creating an exemption for conscientious objectors, but not for others, we legislated better than we knew or yet know.  And add to that thought another: that the first is true because all war is civil war, when judged from the highest perspective.

I say “suppose…..” for the simple reason that I am not sure.  I freely admit to a measure of diffidence.  Even in a weak sense I cannot prove the case I am presenting.  But proof, if it were available, is probably not what we need here.  What we need really is a choice, a decision as to how we are to interpret what we have done in creating and maintaining this extraordinary legal provision for conscientious objectors.

No doubt the objectors themselves have various understandings of the matter, and those would be interesting and relevant in their own terms.  More interesting and more relevant here, however, is what we might make or understand of ourselves, and thus of them, based upon our formal dealings with them.  That is a task of decision and interpretation, of justification finally, not of proof.

Though our options in interpretation are relatively open, they are not totally free.  We do have a history, a vast set of implicit and explicit moral and political understandings, and immense stakes in the future related to these.  Thus a choice of interpretation cannot be arbitrary.  Of necessity it partially reveals us to ourselves as we are and contributes to the making of what we shall be.

From our history and from that set of moral and political understandings to which we all have access, I am trying to muster reasons which will support the interpretation of conscientious objection which I think may make genuine sense.  The process is in part dialectical, for one cannot neglect appealing, sometimes powerful, alternative interpretations which can also be drawn from that same stock of knowledge and wisdom.  In rejecting them I am not denying their validity somewhere.  I am, rather, trying to show only that they don’t make as good a case here; no more than that.

It is in this sense, then, that I surmise we legislated better that we knew or yet know, when we created an exemption for conscientious objectors, but not for others.  We can interpret our doing so as signifying a commitment on our part as to how we are going to view ourselves and the sources of our civility; a commitment as to how we are going to understand our civic history, past, present, and even future.

I suggest, then, there may be a wisdom here which we now scarcely acknowledge.  Perhaps it is just another case of the heart having reasons which reason knows not of, though I think that here, at least, the heart enjoyed the good offices of that part of reason which is, perhaps, below the level of consciousness, but which is still eminently rational.  In saying this I intend to be understood as denying that this phenomenon should be traced simply to sentiment, to charity, toleration, compassion or to any of the other powers with which the heart has to do.  No doubt this matter of conscientious objection has finally to do with some ultimate sentiment or disposition of a kindly sort.  Nevertheless, I believe it might best be understood in the very terms which, paradoxically, it seems to challenge.

Those terms are political, through and through.  Politics, the STATE if you will, itself has things to say about violence, about right, about the general good, about peace, justice and equality, even about brotherhood and love.  We may discover in fact, after the last stone has been thrown (and that, one fears, will not be only in a manner of speaking), that what the State has to say about these is as profound as any human profundity can get.

The question, therefore, could be put in this way:  how can we, or even—can we?—incorporate the simply awesome integrity of their moral act, which seems to put aside the judgment of the community, insisting on the sovereignty of individual conscience….how can we incorporate the transparent moral simplicity of that act into a set of venerable, tired, even dull, mundane institutions which, at least apparently, flatly requires a different and less exalted moral disposition; which requires an agonizing subordination of individual sovereignty, extending even and especially to conscience?  In short:  is there room in the city for the saint?

History’s answer to that question is clear and disheartening.  There was finally no room in Athens for Socrates, nor elsewhere either.  He was aware of that long before the Athenians were.  There was no room in Jerusalem for Jesus; not even in the vastness of Rome.  Joan was burned at the stake; English and French alike saw the need.  Ghandi and Martin Luther King, though persecuted and prosecuted, were finally destroyed unofficially.  No—there has been little room in the city for saints, and none at all if they were having effect.  Either the city destroyed them or, more rarely, they destroyed it.  It was an ugly business either way and the toll was great—either way.

But we are still in history; what of us?  Is there room in our city for saints?  It would be comforting to conclude that at least there is some, for some.  After all, we have made explicit exemption for conscientious objectors when it comes to the commission of an act contrary to their fundamental principles.  It might even be taken as a good measure of our civility that we have done this much in making provision for them.  In another time and place they either would not have existed at all or they would have been dealt with summarily.

If, however, that conclusion rests ultimately on the notion of toleration then I do not find it so very comforting.  At least not yet.  Because if toleration is to be a genuine virtue, its expression can only be welcome after every effort to make its exercise unnecessary has failed.  Otherwise it looks too much like an oblivious, smug or indulgent form of disrespect which, even as we prize it, proves too dear after all.

Still, one hesitates to attack, to disparage toleration.  We are everywhere rightly reminded of the horrors its absence can produce, and of the time its presence buys for us; time during which suspicion and passion abate, during which we may and sometimes do avoid the grossest horrors.  From infancy we have been counseled of its merit, its necessity, almost to the point where it is taken as the loftiest form of wisdom, even of character, of which man is ultimately capable.  All this, and no doubt more, needs saying on behalf of toleration.  But there are other things which also need saying, things which detract somewhat from its absolute virtue.

In its own way toleration undermines the community, if only by lessening our efforts to create one.  It has a way of ratifying something unalterable in the character of the rift, thus weakening our resolve to bridge or transcend it somehow.  It necessarily slips the blindfold from the eyes of Justice, denying the tolerated and the tolerant the dignity, the respect and recognition which their apparently contrary principles both rightly claim.  One law for one….another for the other.  And it plays fast and loose with the principle of equality, saddling us with a host of agonizing, ad hoc decisions, any one of which is apt to boil over into an impatient, intolerant demand that differences be ignored, that distinctions be erased.

This matter of a kind of disrespect which I find latent in toleration needs further comment, if only because it is so slippery, and so elusive.  Perhaps the idea can be got at if we view the community, the city, not as a place but rather as a state of mind.  This is not a new idea, far from it, but like a number of good, old-fashioned things it needs constant re-discovery.  From this perspective what truly distinguishes one community from another, and distinguishes all communities from mere collections of men, is not their local habitat.    It is the sharing on the part of its members of a set of values, purposes, and procedures.  The community is essentially constituted by those shared rules, goals and expectations in light of which its members know who they are, in light of which they guide their common life, in light of which they criticize their behavior, public and private, inner and outer.

Of course and in the long run a community, a city or state, needs some place, or at least its members do, since each of them has a body and bodies notoriously have needs which can only be satisfied in space and time.  Moreover, men have spiritual needs which also receive expression in space and time.  Perhaps the major expression of the latter kind is seen in the community itself.  But what constitutes it is the shared state of mind; place and time provide a condition, an occasion for it to occur.

Now if the community, the city is essentially characterized by a shared state of mind, then the undermining of it, and the gentle form of disrespect bred by toleration becomes a bit clearer.  For by tolerating, or by merely tolerating some among us, we are in the best position, paradoxically, to ignore them, not to take them seriously.  We are in the best position, ironically, for not dealing with their conceptions and principles, and to deny those the respect, the share in that common state of mind which, one must insist, they merit.

Or putting the matter another way:  that very form of toleration in which we most pride ourselves may often be very little more than our city’s desert, to which we charitably exile our saints.  Cities being states of mind, their deserts are places of mental isolation; of spiritual, not of physical, exile.

To the degree this is true one can never be sure to whom our forbearance is directed, in the last analysis – the saints or ourselves.  For in being tolerant we thereby relieve ourselves of the onerous burden of squarely facing that which they profess and advocate.  In making special, exemptive provision for them we no longer have to deal with their truth, their vision, or even with our own!  And so we are likely to become sloppily tolerant about ourselves.

Thus I would argue, with regard to the case of conscientious objection at least, that neither toleration nor its handmaidens, leniency, charity, compassion, are good enough.  They are good, they are virtues, and infinitely better than the most likely alternatives.  But if exclusively relied on they may serve to deafen us to the message which we might hear if we really listened.  Thus when we ask if there is room in the city, in our city, for saints, we are not asking merely for toleration.  We are asking for integration, for a need which complements if it is not precisely the same as our own, for incorporation and function, for a public place wherein they fit, wherein they serve and contribute as do the others.  We are asking, in short, if conscientious objection cannot be seen as representing some level of shared value or purpose upon which there exists a community, our city, so much of which is, in any case at any time, necessarily invisible?

I suggest that there may be such a level and to make it out we must again look at the nature and theory of the state.


At the risk of choosing a thinker who is too strong finally for the case I want to present, Hobbes nonetheless comes to mind once more.  He, more than others clearly understood the relationship between war and violence and the state.

Hobbes saw the state, society organized politically, as having one over-riding object:  peace.  Its first reason for existence is the creation and maintenance of peace.  It was his argument that civil society is the only lasting substitute for war, force and violence, which it can eliminate only by the creation of tribunals of deliberation and adjudication to whose authority all its members are subordinated.  On this reading, then, that first decision to be political constitutes nothing less than a decision to renounce violence and war as methods by which men deal with each other.  And that can be said even though the state, through its police, may have recourse to authorized force, hopefully on rare occasions, to enforce its decisions on dissident members.

And though it is often overlooked, Hobbes also recognized that the state will come to have other accomplishments to its credit.  Its framework alone encourages the habits of civility, and makes possible though it doesn’t make necessary, commodious living, pursuit of the common good in all its forms, a wider sphere of relevance for morality, the significant seeking of justice and equality, brotherhood and love.  But peace – the substitution of deliberation and authority for violence – is its over-riding purpose.

To utter such words as those at this point in history is sure to be taken as the most fateful kind of irony, if not worse.  Two-thirds of the way through the 20th century, which none of us may live to see the end of, is a cruel time indeed to be re-discovering the state as the true substitute for war, as still offering salvation to man in his halting, ambivalent efforts to eliminate violence from his relationships with others.  The world has in major ways been pretty steadily at war since 1914, and that’s to say nothing about the countless wars and battles which make up so much of the rest of human history.  These modern wars increase in intensity, bitterness and significance.  Their scope from time to time becomes global, risking even now all civilization, perhaps the very possibility of human existence.

The grim story is familiar; and since familiarity does in fact breed indifference if not contempt, the story has by now lost much of its power to affect us deeply.  But the irony is that the villain of the piece is increasingly felt to be the state itself.  The state is the headless monster whose scope and appetites dehumanizes man, in the name of whose interest, pride and right men are led constantly into more horrible acts of violence.  Thus it is claimed by some, at least, that the state’s true name is now discernible, and its name is Moloch.

And so we are again in an age (when were we not?) where men deeply question the state and turn against it.  A time when men desperately place their bets on moral rearmament, on something like individual good will and conscience, on private moral sense and judgment, hoping that these will provide the bulwark against the evil of the state, and against the violence which the state organizes and willfully directs towards other communities, and sometimes, illegitimately against its own members.

If things were only as grim as that….and not worse.  Then all of us might embrace so desperate, yet still as hopeful a sentiment as salvation through the operation of individual good will.  But in truth, things are worse, and we fail to recognize it because we have not deeply understood ourselves or the state.  Our stakes in it are greater by reason of the very facts cited against it.  For consider the following description:  each man (or, as I argue, each state) believing that he is right, firm in the conviction that his principles and judgment are truth inviolate, arms himself (or itself) with a moral sovereignty, inviolate in its legitimacy.

I would guess that many of us see the good man, and the good state, perhaps even the saint, in that description.  Most of us might like to see ourselves in that description; not idly or arbitrarily, but judiciously and courageously committed to what we see as right when it comes to ultimate responsibility.  “I am good, and we are as a shining city upon a hill.”  Anything less, we suspect, would constitute an abdication of our morality.  If earlier echoes have died out, the echoes of Nuremberg still reverberate.

And perhaps we are right to see the description in those terms.  Perhaps.  But if we are, then our condition is inescapably and irrevocably tragic, nothing could be clearer.  Because that description equally characterizes the state of anarchy and war!  And I believe, at least I now still think I believe, that anarchy and the state of war it makes inevitable are the first enemy, domestic and foreign.

Perhaps – stronger even that that – no doubt we would all prefer things to be different.  Yet neither honesty nor history allow much leeway.  Both require the admission that wars are engaged in by men, not by devils, and that most men who wage war, then and now, do so with the conviction that they are right.  Say that that conviction is often mere rationalization; we’re still no better off.  Not, at least, until authoritative tribunals exist to deliberate the one and the other.  Until that is done each side has its conviction or its rationalization and no common issue is joined.  Nor are we talking of those, whoever they were or are, who engage in violence casually.  No doubt, tyrants and people, kings and subjects, have sometimes made war casually, arbitrarily, for reasons of the most passing, perverted, or callous self-assertion.  But we are not speaking of them, nor of those who engage in violence in the heat of a moment which they later regret.  We are talking about men such as ourselves, citizens of modern nation-states, good men then and now, who have found themselves driven to engage in violence against those with whom they disagree, after efforts to avoid the fatal step, after deliberation, counsel and parley, but who, with foreboding and regret, finally conclude that there is no honorable choice but to do what each side believes justice, morality, and interest require.

Suppose we paint the canvas in any other colors we choose, suppose we say that unreason escalates, and it does, and so for Athens and Greece; that selfishness, indulgence, shortsightedness, folly and lack of discipline constantly threaten to overtake man, and they do, and so for Rome; that pride, wealth and aggressive, exploitive power corrupt, and they do, and so perhaps for the United States of America; that cruel ambition and sadism are parts of man which find their outlet in violence and war, which may well be true, and so for the Third Reich; that we are but little men possessed of just sufficient vanity to seek excitement and brief escape from the quiet desperation of our lives in the purposeful energy that war elicits, and that, too, may be correct; say, finally, that men are not naturally deliberative and cooperative animals, that they naturally conflict in interest, passion and conscience.  Paint the canvas as we will, say what we like….it would appear the Hobbesian vise only tightens further.

Since not all tautologies are trivial, it may perhaps be worth repeating that men who engage in war are men.  They are, by and large and on the whole, as good, as true, as honorable, as intelligent and wise as men are, by and large and on the whole.  It is even true that many are men of education, refinement and sophistication, family men, lovers of dogs and children, men of sensitivity and accomplishment, devoted, loyal, capable of grief and remorse, principled to boot, and possessing at least a veneer of true civility.  We would, of course, prefer to believe otherwise when we’re engaged in our war.  We quickly become, in fact, more than half-convinced:  we are right and the enemy is at least temporarily wrong, more likely evil.  But that belief only confirms the original proposition, which seems to hold moreover, with about the same force for any war as it does for any other.

Let me add emphasis through repetition:  our condition is worse than we want to believe.  Even if most wars in the past were not, most wars nowadays are holy wars, either at their inception or very shortly thereafter.  A holy war is no more and no less than one in which each side believes that its principles arm it with the most profound moral legitimacy.  And since, in the last analysis, there aren’t too many to choose from, the principles will be pretty much the same for both sides:  piety, freedom, equality, justice, interest, right.  Rectitude breeds violence and war as surely and more hopelessly than does mere greed.  Man will consummately rationalize violence in terms of rectitude, whatever their true but confused motives.  What’s worse, there will always be more than a mere smidgen of truth in their rationalizations.

So here we are, perplexed, distraught, disheartened; caught up in the web of what we had taken to be our saving institutions; seemingly damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  Those institutions are what they always were:  banal, or anyway not exalted, rarely dramatic or if so then often for the wrong reasons, necessarily impersonal, even bureaucratic, tediously emitting the odor of petty, sometimes grand corruption; requiring education, discipline, subordination and patience, and of course withal, apt to go seriously, dangerously, viciously awry most any time.

But is there any lasting substitute for violence and war other than law, deliberation and adjudication?  In short, is there any way other than that offered by authoritative political tribunals?  Civility is not the same as morality, no doubt.  But civility, civil institutions themselves, uniquely give discipline, direction and general effect to moral sense and humane concern.  Nothing else, in fact, makes morality on any wide scale possible, or even very relevant. (And it is in just that sense that civility, even tired, old “legality”, is higher than morality.)  Thus when we abandon civil institutions, always at the water’s edge and usually much before, we abandon morality as well; not entirely no doubt, but largely and in principle.  When we abandon civility, usually and especially when in the name of morality (indeed, what else?), it hurts to concede, but is more hurtful to deny finally that we abandon both.  Of course, both will have to be re-discovered and instituted anew.  We are constantly having to start all over.  But starting over, instituting anew requires much more than the mere acknowledgement of their existence and desirability.  It requires what it always has: infinite perseverance in the slow, frustrating, and uncertain task of creating those dispositions and habits of mind in men which make them civilized.  In the last analysis, that task is identical with the creation and steady maintenance of civil institutions and civil life, of enlisting trained human spirit and intelligence in the loyal, appropriate use of political order.  In fine, it is the task of making citizens out of men.  That is the challenge.  It has always been.  In the broadest sense, it is a challenge to the prime public character of our education and our educability.

All the evil of which man is capable is surely possible under the guise and with the sanction of civil institutions, that’s only too evident.  What’s more, civil society, the state, can arrange folly and evil on a scale hardly matched by other organizations of men; it can be made near-total.  Nonetheless, final wisdom may consist in this:  the way out is the way forward; to which must be quickly added:  and we may not get out.

Is it too barbaric to suggest that the political cure is the treatment indicated?  More, not less, of the same.  True, the patient may die from it, but there’s lots of evidence that his disease would be fatal without that prescription anyway.  Any other would only have hastened a less dignified end.

There is retreat from politics these days, with all kinds of anathema being pronounced on it over departing shoulders.  For the young this is not really a retreat, since one can only retreat from that in which one has been genuinely engaged.  They are not so much disillusioned as they are both impatient and frantic.  But many older ones are in retreat, sick and disillusioned.  And to be sure, these are times such as to make the cultivation of one’s private garden desperately attractive.  Long before Epicurus, Plato himself came sadly to acknowledge the wisdom, if not necessity, of withdrawing from the obvious forms of political life; times when they are too corrupt and corrupting, too hopeless.  Perhaps we live in such a time.  But even if we do, retreat is much harder to arrange these days.  Even if they are illegitimate and corrupt, heavily recalcitrant to effective use (which I don’t believe they are generally), and dismayingly impervious to internal reform, the forms, actions and effects of political order are notoriously embracing.  Retreat from them, thus, is apt to be bought at a very high price, taking the form of triviality and irrelevance.  The pervasive, invading significance of political order is such that ignoring it necessitates a growing, latently petty self-concern, a regular pre-occupation with essentially minor, private matters; (often given a kind of spurious credit by calling everything a “game”).

Nevertheless, some form of salvation may perhaps be achieved in this way, maybe a kind of sanity preserved.  But that which is achieved or preserved seems much less precious simply because it so quickly becomes tangential and private.  More importantly, there is no game for the mass of men.  Retreat offers no salvation to them, for there are no hopeful private places for them to retreat to.  As never before, they will make it through public authority and intelligence, through politics, or they will not make it at all.

We also hear the claim lately that there is a distinction between the political and the public; that one can ignore or even subvert political order while remaining actively committed to the commonweal.  The claim has its appeal, despite vagueness.  It could mean that nothing less than revolution offers hope of creating a sensible and legitimate ordering of political, economic and social affairs.  Or that the present forms and understandings of political organization do not exhaust the ways in which purposeful public authority can be directed to the common good.  IF those are the claims, they have merit.  We must seek the way, and even the extremity of revolution has sometimes been the way in which a vital polis was created or re-created.  One suspects, however, that the claim is not, or not just, like those.  It seems to have, rather, a quasi-anarchic import, insisting that political authority itself is the major culprit, subordination to which produces and sustains the trouble.

That proposition seems to me specious, misleading and sentimental.  And especially today.  That anything resembling the commonweal, national and international, can be achieved by ad hoc programs, lacking organization and authority, unwilling to engage in coherent deliberations entailing the subordination of judgment and interest which alone makes purposeful effect possible, can only be a bit of pious wishful thinking.  It flies in the face of experience and necessity.  For what alternative do we have, especially at this 20th century moment in history, save to create and maintain civil institutions on an international scale, particularly including the subordination of national interest and sovereignty which global institutions require.  And when I say “we”, I mean we, or have we forgotten Greeks and Turks, Arabs and Jews, Indians and Pakistanis, Americans and Vietnamese, Chinese and Americans, Americans and Russians, Russians and Chinese, Germans and Russians, and so ad infinitum?

Fearful, often seen as morally bankrupt, Thomas Hobbes, writing in 1651, eloquently handed our still-present condition in mere passing.  When designating the state of war he pointed simply to the relations of states to each other, where there were no civil tribunals, no law, no deliberation, no adjudication, where each had recourse only to its own judgment of interest and right.  Little has changed.  The way out seems now as it seemed then, the way forward.  And the same factors prevent it now that prevented it then:  ignorance, selfishness, power, an unwillingness to subordinate one’s own interest and judgment to a common authority directed to the general good.

Clearly I should not have been interpreted here as saying that morality among intimates is not possible without the state, without authoritative civil institutions.  It plainly is.  Nor should I be interpreted to mean that limited, but effective programs are not possible on less than an “official” basis.  They plainly are.  But equally clearly, morality among intimates is not enough.  Nor does it, in our time, seem possible to create it on a lasting, wider scale without the state.  Therefore, to renounce violence and war, truly to be for peace, is not to claim individual moral sovereignty, neither for individuals, groups of intimates, nor states.  It is to embrace civil institutions with even greater devotion, and with even greater understanding.  Their object is, in the first instance, peace.  Without them we are likely increasingly to have the most moral, holy, sentimental, maudlin, bitter and horrible strife, domestic and foreign.  Thus the road to decent relations among men, not just among some men, is like the road to heaven – not direct but roundabout.  A short route would be easier, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to lead to the right place.  Morality in a civil vacuum is, itself, apt to be a monster.  Without institutions, discipline, subordination, deliberation and law it is as fully capable of devouring us as any other monster, nowadays more so….perhaps not tidily but nonetheless surely.


Something like that long story, then, lies behind the remark that all war is civil war, when judged from the final perspective.  And if that is true we are in a position to make political sense of conscientious objection.  For we can interpret the legal exemption created for objectors as our acknowledgement of the true nature and mission of our state, which in refusing to subordinate itself to a common political authority and thus being led to wage war, has also been led away from its own ideals.  We can understand conscientious objection as the paradoxical act which, in receiving our public sanction, appeals to the state’s own sense of integrity, seeking to recall it to its true object.

Even to say “our state” here is a bit misleading since it sounds as though the state in question just happens to be ours, having the nature claimed for it as a matter of provincial accident.  But that cannot be true.  Insofar as the conception of the state rests in the first instance on a commitment to peace and brotherhood made possible by and through authoritative civil institutions, then its logic is implicitly yet inescapably universal.  It implies a universal civility, which would for the first time make a general morality meaningful.  And we have for far too long been guilty of bad faith in refusing to draw and act upon that implication.  We have instead had recourse to a number of stopgaps, partial measures like collective security, balance of power, regional alliances, spheres of influence, and the rest, each of them faithlessly calculated to buy peace.  “Faithlessly” because knowingly unwilling to pay an appreciable cost in terms of subordination of national sovereignty.  Thus we have had at best an occasional semblance of peace, and the true price we have paid for these stopgaps is literally incalculable.

The message which conscientious objection might be bearing,  which we might hear if we listened, is an appeal from us to ourselves.  It has uniquely to do with violence and war, and is thus an appeal to that even greater invisible city, with its constitution and law.  Conscientious objectors can be interpreted as being our own public witnesses, not to the principle of sovereignty of individual moral conscience (which, as individuals, many of them may in fact believe), but to the principle of our commitment to civility, to those institutions which express our common, meaningful denial of violence as appropriate to settle disagreements among men, even moral disagreements.

By means of some such interpretations as this, and by no other sort that I can see, are we in a position to incorporate the transparent moral simplicity of conscientious objection into what we hope is the coherence of that mundane set of institutions we call “civil”.  Only in some such way is this can we claim to have made room, real room in the city for at least these saints.  Only as we interpret them as representing us at our civic best, as bearers of the highest and most embracing public purpose we have entrusted to these lesser political orders—the creation of real peace and fraternity by engaging all in the universal, ideal state directed to a truly common good—only in this way, I believe, can we avoid a serious charge of injustice and inequality, of a special form of duplicity.

Thus when I said, many pages back, that “…..we have seen fit to create and maintain that right for them”, I spoke misleadingly.  For if conscientious objection is only a right we have created for them, in deference to a principle which they hold but which we do not share on any level, then the legal exemption would remain what it was in the beginning:  a still unexplained and unsettling case of special privilege, grossly unequal.  If conscientious objection can not be seen as related to some public purpose or value to which we all subscribe, then it would be less a “right” than a “wrong”, and all would share responsibility:  the objectors in holding to a principle of individual moral sovereignty no matter what evils might in fact be shown to result from it, which would quickly reduce it to the private, cranky and perverse; the non-objectors in supporting legal exemption for a principle they do not themselves believe, and which they cannot show as serving any truly public purpose or value, which would make the exemption a weak and unjust concession.

Moreover, if conscientious objection is viewed in this way, as a public act serving the peaceful purpose and principle of the state itself, then it does not constitute the acknowledgement that a citizen’s moral principles are themselves grounds of exemption from public law and policy.  And thus the serious challenge to the foundation of all civil authority is met.  For on this interpretation, there is no concession to private moral principle, or to an individual’s beliefs, at all.  It is, rather, a general good, a truly public purpose and value which is recognized in creating the legal exemption for conscientious objection, albeit paradoxically.

And thus, finally, the problem with which this essay began, the anomalous character of conscientious objection, is reduced and explained.  Or it would be if an interpretation similar to the one presented here were accepted.  Our finding the exemption welcome, despite its apparent gross conflict with our genuine concern with equality, testifies to our sense that it serves a higher principle to which we are all committed, a political principle we all share.