A major goal of this dissertation is to look at an example of an ethically “good” event in which people took a costly stand in the face of strong pressure to do otherwise. I want to seek to understand what happened and why, and to ask what implications such a discussion might have for ethical method and practice.
The experience of conscientious objectors (COs) to World War II in the U. S. is such an event, one which certainly fits the criterion of being a costly stand in the face of strong pressure to do otherwise. I, as a convinced Mennonite, believe that the rejecting of the call to fight was “good,” but I do not intend to attempt to prove (or even argue for) that point. I will simply assert that by faithfully adhering to certain dissenting codes of behavior (i.e., codes based on convictions that it is always wrong to kill other human beings), World War II COs did a good thing.
For faith communities such as Mennonites, Quakers, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the World War II experience has had an immense impact on consequent morality regarding war and peace, as it had for many other individuals and groups outside those communities who also struggled with their rejection of involvement in that war. The World War II experience of COs also had a large impact on subsequent government policy regarding conscientious objection with a major effect on the moral experience of thousands of young men and their communities. And, I will argue in this dissertation, this experience has major moral significance in terms of what anyone interested may be able to learn from it about ethics in general.
Explanation of Method
My method of analyzing the ethics of conscientious objection to World War II will be primarily historical, focusing especially on the communal background of World War II COs and the events relating to conscientious objection during the War. I will be arguing, though this one case study, for an ethical method which is inextricably tied to historical particulars.
The historical discussion will focus, in chapter three, on a brief summary of the background to the World War II experience, especially just prior to World War II, and on a chronological summary of events during World War II. Then, in chapters four through eight, I will describe what happened during the War with regard to conscientious objection, placing special emphasis on the alternative service program (known then as Civilian Public Service [CPS]). I will try to show that conscientious objection had not simply one universal form but at least four distinct tendencies. I call these the servant, transformer, resister, and separatist modes.
The transformer and resister modes share a basic sense of responsibility for reforming or even revolutionizing American society as a whole. Both modes found co-operation with government conscription questionable, especially as manifested in the CPS program. These two modes differ, however, in that while, on the one hand, the transformer-mode CO willingly co-operated with the government program when he received “meaningful” work assignments (e.g., working in mental hospitals), on the other hand, the resister-mode CO refused all co-operation with the government, asserting that conscription in any form intrinsically violated the practice of freedom, democracy, and the expression of individual conscience.
The servant and separatist modes together differ from the other two in their not having any sense of responsibility for the society of the United States as a whole. The sense of social responsibility characterizing these two took the form of responsibility for and to their particular faith communities. They, especially the servant-mode COs, less often resented the perceived meaninglessness of agricultural and forestry work–at least based on a perception on their part that it hindered them in fulfilling their calling to institute social reform in the wider American society. They had no such sense of calling. These two modes, however, also differed in many ways. The servant-mode COs basically experienced contentment with CPS and gratitude for the government’s “leniency” in providing for alternative service. The separatist-mode CO, at least as typified by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, shared with the resister-mode CO (though for vastly different reasons) a rejection of conscription per se and usually ended up in jail. The separatists did not particularly have any impulses for social reform or social service such as the others, at least partly due to their general alienation from that society. They generally stayed to themselves in the CPS camps and prisons, except for evangelistic forays.
These different responses to World War II correspond with different sets of practices and traditions manifested in different kinds of communities. All are morally interesting, and none defines conscientious objection as a whole. However, the servant mode deserves special attention for several reasons. For one, it was by far the most common. To a certain degree, this is the case because CPS was especially tailored to that type of objector. But also, many characteristics of the servants’ experience which enabled them to express and retain their CO commitment when others could not do so. These factors are often overlooked by analyses that focus on individual conscience as the crucial element in conscientious objection.