William James wrote The Moral Equivalent of War partially in response to the Dutch sociologist S. Rudolf Steinmetz’s book Die Philosophie des Krieges. Steinmetz argued that war allowed affluent societies to retain martial virtues like honor and courage and stave off the worst effects of decadence. In Steinmetz’s view, James said, “mankind was nursed in pain and fear,” and “the transition to a ‘pleasure economy’ may be fatal” for a species that had, to that point, known only privation.
James was a pacifist, but he agreed with Steinmetz that war inspires and instills important virtues. He argued, however, that the “martial type of character can be bred without war.” A “moral equivalent of war,” he said, would inculcate the same virtues without the attendant violence and bloodshed.
This “moral” analogue to war would take the form of a civilizational battle against social ills like poverty and disease, involving the “conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature” rather than peer nations.
The prospect of a secular crusade for peace and justice waged with the intensity of military combat has appealed to progressives in the century-plus since The Moral Equivalent of War was published. In 1977, for example, Jimmy Carter called the need to find alternatives to oil “the moral equivalent of war.” Barack Obama compared the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to 9/11 and laid out a “battle plan” that, naturally, included a “transition away from fossil fuels.”
The wartime analogy got a lot of play during the Trump era. Progressives believed they could act outside the boundaries of law and custom because of the singular threat posed by Trump and his agenda. The entire Russia investigation and the indictment of General Flynn, the televised early-morning raid on Roger Stone’s compound, their accusing a staid federal judge of gang rape, shutting down the Twitter account of the nation’s oldest daily newspaper for fear of bolstering Trump’s electoral prospects—many progressives and elected Democrats used the Trump administration as a pretext to act in ways alien not only to the rule of law and basic norms but their own principles held as recently as five years ago.
The leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, if a progressive clerk is responsible, represents an extension of the perpetual-emergency mentality: Abortion—like climate change, voting rights, and opposition to Donald Trump—is more important than civic norms and institutional integrity. This is the moral equivalent of war; did you expect the Marquess of Queensbury rules?
Republicans responded to the leak by lamenting the institutional damage it did to the Supreme Court. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked the press “to concentrate on what the news is today. Not a leaked draft but the fact that the draft was leaked.”
Senator Marsha Blackburn called the leak “an attack on the court.” Ted Cruz said it was “the most egregious breach of trust at the Supreme Court that has ever happened.”
Of course the leak is bad. It undermines the Court’s ability to deliberate in confidence. It will inhibit the Court’s operations and could cause irreparable damage to its public perception.
But Roe v. Wade, the case that the leaked document suggests the Court is poised to overturn, qualifies as a far more “egregious breach of trust” than a Court clerk’s having leaked a draft opinion. And this is where the Republican response fails.
Sometimes, there really is an issue worth waging a sort of moral war about. There really are threats to the social order and its moral legitimacy that demand a singular response. Progressives are wrong that preserving a woman’s legal right to kill the fruit of her womb qualifies as one of those threats, but that does not mean there are not political issues about which civilizations ought to wage the “moral equivalent of war.”
The fight against abortion, the legalized regime of human slaughter that the United States has endorsed and subsidized for nearly 50 years, is, by contrast, the moral equivalent of war. There is no issue in American public life more important than ending abortion, no greater indictment of the American experiment than the millions of babies maimed and mutilated in the name of “liberty” since 1971.
With the impending end of Roe and the apparent failure of the Court to affirm fetal personhood under the 14th Amendment, Republicans will have to win the abortion issue at the state level. To do that, they will have to make clear and unflinching arguments about abortion itself, the humanity of the unborn child, the obligations of parents to their children. They will not, and should not, be able to take refuge in arguments about procedures, norms, or institutional protocol.
For Republicans to win on the abortion issue—for the sake of hundreds of thousands of children yet unborn and the very legitimacy of the United States—they ought, as William James put it, to be “indignant in the mere fact…that men should toil and suffer pain.”