A Civil War Question: Can One Hate Both Slavery and War Equally?

Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2019

I have long been interested in a quite challenging moral issue: How can we overcome evil without adding to the evil? This issue is central to the philosophy of nonviolence, and I think it should be central to any sense of ethical truthfulness. This is a good way to get at the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy as well as that of Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the big problems idealistic human beings have struggled with is the problem of working for social change or working to resist injustice and finding oneself actually contributing to making things worse.

Of course, our wider culture in North America (and presumably elsewhere) is not all that interested in this question. We Americans tend to take a pretty narrow and superficial view of social dynamics, constantly barraged as we are by American exceptionalism and corporate feel-goodism in our mass media. So, we have to stop and turn away in order to get a sense of what we actually face in terms of systemic brokenness and cycles of injustice.

But when we do pay attention, we realize that warism, racism, economic inequality, sexism, and many other problems remain all too present and each has a long history of intractability. Gandhi sought, with only partial success, to break a spiral that is all too apparent in liberation movements of responding to violence with violence in ways that have only led to more centralized power and continued injustice.

This moral question about evil lays at the heart of my energized interest in the American Civil War. This is how I would characterize the conventional wisdom in our society as I have encountered it: The Civil War was indeed a terrible thing with a lot of death and destruction. But slavery was an unacceptable evil that had to be stopped. It was costly, but ultimately worth the cost, to end that plague in our land. So, one of the lessons to be learned is that war can be a force to defeat evil. It is sad that it is necessary because it certainly is destructive. But sometimes war is our only option. Another lesson, then, that follows is that we have to prepare for such possibilities of a necessary war by maintaining the readiness of our military.

Questioning conventional wisdom

As a pacifist (one who denies the moral validity of war under any circumstances and who also rejects the preparation for war), I question this “wisdom” that accepts the acceptability of the Civil War. But I think anyone who desires to take a morally serious view towards war should also question that “wisdom”—even if they might not be as sure as I am about a negative assessment of the Civil War. The just war tradition at times has made the important claim (not taken nearly seriously enough) that humanity’s benefit of the doubt is against any particular war—in part simply because of the enormous destruction that each war causes. In thinking about any war—past, present, or future—according to this claim we have an obligation to assess its cost and to insist on a clear rationale for why that cost is worthy of being borne. If the costs are not worthy of being borne, almost certainly the war will once again be a matter of a response to evil that only adds to the net moral dynamics of evil. Continue reading “A Civil War Question: Can One Hate Both Slavery and War Equally?”