2. The Standard Account

[Link to chapter one]


An underlying concern in this dissertation is an alternative account of morality. By looking at what actually happened in a particular historical event, I want to model a method which challenges recent ethical methodology. Most forms of contemporary ethics have focused on styles of argumentation and ethical justification, placed (at least implicitly) the locus of human morality in the autonomous individual, and seen “genuine” morality as unencumbered by historical contingencies and community loyalty. I argue, in general, that we best understand morality by looking interpretively at particular historical manifestations of it. And, more specifically, I argue that we best understand these historical manifestations with an approach that considers the historical and communal background and context for the particular events. I see morality as historical, practical and social more than ahistorical, abstract and individualistic.

The standard perspective explains World War II conscientious objection by speaking of rugged individuals whose conscience prohibited them fighting. The “typical” conscientious objector (CO) would be a man who courageously stood as an individual against his community and said “no.” He would be a free-thinker, one who resists any kind of creed or set of rules based on tradition.

I argue that that perspective only accounts for a few COs. The large majority are best defined much more as faithful members of communities of dissent; communities which, in line with long-held traditions of pacifism, held that it was wrong for their members to fight. Thus, the taking of the CO stand became, for most who did so, an act of conforming to the mores of the communities with which they identified most closely much more than an individualistic stand over against any community’s imposition upon them. They faced the crucial issue of whichj community they ended up obeying–their small pacifist community or the larger national community which called upon them to go to war.

In other words, I am not trying to argue that the application of the standard account of morality to World War II conscientious objection is wrong per se. I argue that it is inadequate. It at best only helps us to understand a small fraction of COs.

The way of thinking about conscientious objection I propose as an alternative corresponds with a general theory of morality which posits that for most of us our ethics are decisively influenced by the communities of which we are part. Few of us exist as morally autonomous individuals. We tend to be shaped by our families, our neighborhoods, our churches, and our other comunities. When we find ourselves facing crucial choices in our lives, our wholly personal existential decision is not usually the decisive factor. Rather, our predisposition, our deposit of values, our character–all of which are socially formed–largely determine our choices.

In this chapter I will summarize the standard account of conscientious objection and conscience, paying special attention to the work of ethicist James Childress on the subject. Then, in the next several chapters I will summarize and analyze the historical reality of conscientious objection, in particular with regard to World War II. In the final section, I will critique the standard account more explicitly in light of the history we will have looked at and then discuss why that which the standard account leaves out is ethically important.

James Childress’s Perspective

James Childress perhaps most clearly and concisely outlines many elements of the standard account of conscientious objection in general[1]–though without direct refence to World War II. Childress, though himself a Quaker, writes “objectively,” with no reference to any faith communities or traditions or to his own beliefs.

Definition of Conscientious Objection. For Childress, conscientious objection to war is best seen as an individual’s rejection of direct involvement in warfare based on “claims that the refused act, if undertaken, would violate his or her conscience and would result in a loss of integrity and wholeness in the self, along with heavy guilt and shame.”[2] Thus, the notion of “conscience” is definitive for conscientious objection.[3]

The CO takes his stand primarily due to his fear of the sanctions that will arise should he violate his personal conscience. These sanctions are essentially internal to the individual and not related to any community identity.

“The appeal to conscience asserts a personal sanction rather than an authority….J. Glenn Gray in The Warriors describes what happens when soldiers discover that they cannot continue obeying certain orders. ‘Suddenly the soldier feels himself abandoned and cast off from all security. Conscience has isolated him, and its voice is a warning. If you do this, you will not be at peace with me in the future.’ This threatened ‘ache of guilt,’ as Gray describes it, is a fearful sanction for those with an interest in the self and its welfare.[4]

In Childress’s view, the basic question faced by the CO appears to be the individual against the state. No one can make the CO’s decision for him since conscience is strictly an individual matter wherein an individual’s conscience directs only that individual. “Conscience is personal and subjective; it is a person’s consciousness of and reflection on his own acts in relation to his standards of judgment.”[5] Implicitly, then, the fundamental basis for conscientious objection is the individual’s conscience claiming the probability of being violated by the state’s demands. Other actors (such as church and other faith communities, families, friends) are conspicuously absent as determinants in Childress’s account of conscientious objection.

Characteristics of Conscience. For Childress, conscience is individual and internal. He provides no explanation of its development beyond the notion that it is basically negative (telling the individual what not to do) and that it makes its presence felt when one is faced with a strong demand to do something which violates one’s deepest values and thereby violates one’s true self.

Childress cites Hannah Arendt in asserting the negative function of conscience:

“These are the rules of conscience, and they are–like those Thoreau announced in his essay –entirely negative. They do not say what to do; they say what not to do. They do not spell out certain principles for taking action; they lay down boundaries no act should transgress. They say, Don’t do wrong, for then you will have to live together with a wrongdoer.”[6]

The sense of wrongness which the conscience leads the individual to feel is a conviction that doing certain things would violate one’s sense of selfhood and personal integrity. The key value for a person of conscience (e.g., in the context of this dissertation, a CO) is loyalty to the self.

“In appealing to conscience, I indicate that I am trying to preserve a sense of myself, my wholeness and integrity, my good conscience, and that I cannot preserve these qualities if I submit to certain requirements of the state or society.”[7]

Childress mentions no communal referents which might demand loyalty. Nor does he make any historical referents, thus implying that conscience and conscientious objection can be thought of in a timeless, contextless, and ahistorical manner.

Function of Conscience in Conscientious Objection. The CO’s conscience provides him with the threat of fundamental sanctions which will arise should he violate that conscience. The main sanctions are the fear of loss of integrity and wholeness in the self, along with heavy guilt and shame (the shame being fear that others will condemn the person for violating his conscience).

The person violating one’s conscience faces:

“the sanction of the loss of integrity, or wholeness, which is closely connected with the feelings of guilt and shame. When a person appeals to his conscience, he indicates a liability to certain feelings that he predicts will result from acting in certain ways. The phrase bad conscience especially indicates the feelings of guilt and shame….If an agent feels guilty he invokes a moral concept of right, expects others to feel resentment and indignation, and can relieve his feelings by acts of reparation or by forgiveness. If he feels shame, he invokes an ideal such as self-control or love, expects others to feel contempt for his shortcomings, and can overcome the feeling of shame for his failures only by improving in the future….A person who thinks that a war violates the principles of just war may feel guilty about his involvement in it. But he may also have an image of himself as one who can withstand social pressures, and he may be ashamed that he submitted to family and community pressures to serve in the army.”[8]

Conscience works as an “internal voice” threatening these sanctions if violated. A person who does not stop to listen to that voice will not be bothered by conscience. Conscience, for Childress, “is a voice that is heard only when one is still and quiet, when one, in effect, stops and thinks.”[9] Implicitly, then, since conscientious objection is tied to conscience, only a sensitive, self-aware, introspective person listening to his conscience can be a genuine conscientious objector. Since conscience is ultimately internal and individual, so too are claims for conscientious objection.

COs share with others a sense of a prima facie duty not to kill others. But, with the CO, no other duty can override that duty. This kind of conscientiousness cannot be publicly substantiated.[10] Thus, the CO depends essentially on a subjective appeal to his personal sense of selfhood which would be violated should he be forced to fight.

Mulford Q. Sibley and Gordon Zahn

Childress’s basic assumption that conscientious objection is a matter of individuals refusing to allow their conscientious scruples to be violated is also reflected in the work of Gordon Zahn, a Catholic sociologist, and Mulford Sibley, a Quaker political scientist. Both were COs in World War II and served in Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps during the war. Both eventually concluded ultimately that the camps were an unacceptable compromise with a warring government and that they should not have accepted assignment to CPS camps. Both have written extensively on the experience of COs in World War II and on pacifism in general.[11] Their perspectives overlap a great deal.

For Zahn, conscientious objection is always ultimately an individual choice. Each individual draws one’s own moral lines.[12] Even for members of the historical peace churches (i.e., Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren), whose church position is one of pacifism, being a CO still always entails a personal rejection of war and participation of training in war.[13] Zahn does recognize the importance of communal support for such a stand and asserts that religious community is the only central value-forming institution now in a position where it could promote the necessary dissent it takes to produce COs. But it is still the individual who will have to “stand apart”–the community only supports individual action.[14]

For Zahn, the crucial force at work in creating COs is the individual’s “private conscience.”[15] He does not elaborate on the meaining of “private conscience.” How it is formed is not stated, but the ultimate reality is that each individual has a sense of personhood which is violated by certain acts. These are acts which a person cannot conscientiously perform. To be forced to do so violates one’s conscience; i.e., one’s very sense of selfhood.

By implication, Zahn sees World War II conscientious objection as an assertion by those individuals who had strong conscientious convictions which would have been severly violated were they forced to fight that they could not violate ltheir personal consciences and had to say no. Many were lucky to have communities who supported this stand, especially members of historic peace churches. But even for those, it was ultimately a individual decision. For those without such communities, the individual nature of conscientious objection is more apparent and thus they stand as the most obvious exemplars of what conscientious objection was all about. Certainly Zahn, from his own account,[16] would fit in this latter category. He apparently had no church support or support from any other kind of community. He simply took the stance on his own due to his own conscientious abhorrence of violence.

Sibley shares Zahn’s view of conscience as strictly a private decision and that conscientious objection to World War II was a matter of individuals acting on their private conscientious convictions. The individual alone is the final arbiter as to whether moral stands are taken and where the lines are drawn.[17]

“A conscientious person must recognize that he alone can answer the question of obedience for himself; he alone, if he is to be free and responsible, must decide what to obey and what to disobey.”[18]

Sibley defines conscience as “the voice of the moral imperative which obligates us to act in certain ways.”[19] It is shaped by one’s social environment but is ultimately interpreted by the individual and goes beyond reason, combining rational, empirical, and intuitive elements in application to particular situations.[20]

Sibley isolates conscientious acts from other acts which may look the same. A person who acts “conscientiously” is to be sharply contrasted with those acting merely out of habit, or simply in obedience to the law or an authority figure, or merely for personal gain. Moral growth into a truly conscientious person happens when one goes from being an unreflective, passive person to being one who seeks to be self-governing in every sense of the term.[21]

Here, as in Zahn, the paradigmatic CO is one acting on the basis of his individual conscience freely choosing to say no to the War. Hence, by implication, people who became COs primarily in obedience to church policy or in mere conformity to family and peer pressure were not acting with mature consciences and therefore were not truly conscientious objectors.

In their descriptive works[22] both authors recognize the numerical predominance of COs who do not really fit the individual conscience model. But for both, these COs are not particularly interesting. Both have remained committed peacemakers since the War and both clearly believe that those who do not conform with their CO paradigm have little ethical significance for their peacemaking efforts. Many other writers, like Childress, either ignore those “non-paradigmatic” COs in their discussion of COs in history or in theory or else greatly downplay their significance.[23]

For the standard account ethicists (as reflected in the assumptions of the historians), the paradigmatic CO is a young man who, essentially in a way independent of communal determinants, has a very sensitive personal conscience which refuses to violate. This conscience indicates to him that it is wrong to fight in war and that if he does allow himself to go into the military he will violate something vital and fundamental about his deepest identity. Such a violation would be a fate worse than death.

The emphasis falls on the individual and on the beliefs one has somehow (and it is not particularly important how) developed. For Childress at least, conscientious objection is something which can be discussed in a way unrelated to anyt particular historical situation.

Philosophical Assumptions

We can see several philosophical assumptions operating in the standard account perspective. We will look briefly at three of those here. After considering in detail the actual phenomenon of conscientious objection to World War II, we will return to the standard account in the conclusion and evaluate its explanatory value.

Ethics as Rationalistic. Childress begins his discussion of the nature of conscientious objection by asserting that one of the central aspects to conscientious objection is an appeal to the CO’s conscience. This appeal is said to be an invocation of one’s conscience for the purpose of interpreting and justifying one’s conduct to others.[24] Such a focus on justification indicates an attempt by Childress to frame this discussion in the context of a search for a common elthical language through which people might find a universally acceptable means allowing them successfully to make such a justification.

In this perspective, the realm of ethics is seen to be the realm of Reason, the realm of rational arguments. You deal with conscientious objection on the level of the justification given for acts, justification which is made in terms of a language common to everyone–the language of Reason. It makes sense, then, that for people with this approach to ethics, the paradigmatic CO would be the person highlighted in the accounts of Sibley and Zahn. This CO is able to speak the ethicist’s language. He thinks in terms of rationalistic justification and is able to present his experience in those terms.

Conscience as Individualistic. The standard account sees conscience as a central element to the phenomenon of conscientious objection. The entire locus of the consideration of conscience is on the individual. The realm of conscience is the realm of individual introspection. Little is said about the formation of conscience. The focus is on the function of conscience–which is strictly a matter of the morally autonomous individual. Nothing is said about the role of community identity in the formation and function of conscience, implying that such identity is seen to be unimportant in the workings of conscience.

The sanctions which conscience threatens the potential CO with are strictly individual–the loss of one’s sense of self, the experience of guilt, and a sense of shame. Shame does have a communal referent, but here the potential CO is not threatened with shame for violating a communal ethics as much as shame for being seen as a person who cannot stick to one’s indivdual convictions.

The Individual Against the State. The basic confrontation, according to the standard account, is that of the solitary individual standing against society and the state. The power upon which the individual depends for being able to withstand this pressure is primarily the power of his individual conscience. The CO is a heroic individual who exerts his independence from social ties and champions deviant values with the strength of his will.

With this assumption about the nature of political reality in general and conscientious objection in particular, it is again not surprising that the paradigmatic CO is seen to be the rugged indivdual who stood against the wishes of his family, friends, and political community on the basis of his personal convictions which threatened his very sense of self should he join the military and fight in the War.

Some Questions. This standard account obviously is persuasive. The ethicists and historians who articulate it have evidence for their perspective. Many World War II COs did in fact, to a large degree, conform to this paradigm. However, in the pages to follow, we will see that the standard account leaves much experience unaccounted for.

I argue not that the standard account is wrong is what it explains as much as that it is incomplete. The standard account fails to provide an explanation for the reality of most World War II COs. As we will see, most COs did not base their stand on the rationalistic arguments of individual conscience, nor did they have the experience of being solitary individuals standing alone against society and the state.

The experience of most World War II COs more closely approximates Michael Walzer’s notion of conscientious objection:

“Conscientious objection has and probably ought to have greater weight in the eyes of the larger community when it has as its basis a smaller community, within which some degree of responsibility, mutuality, and social discipline is likely to exist. Conscience is supposed to represent (it is one of the things we mean by the word) an inner alternative to the ego, a motive beyond self-interest. I do not doubt that it can play this role whenever a man discovers a principle for which he is ready to risk his comfort and even his life. But it is most likely to do so, and to do so in some stable and dependable way, when a man first discovers his fellow man, and works out with them (or with some of them) the principles for which he is ready to take risks.”[25]

[Link to chapter three]

[Link to dissertation home page]



[1]James Childress, “Conscientious Objection,” in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. James Childress and John Macquarrie (Westminster, 1986), pp. 118-120; James Childress, Moral Responsibility in Conflicts: Essays on Nonviolence, War, and Conscience (Louisiana State University, 1982).

[2]Childress, “Conscientious,” p. 118.

[3]Etymologically, “conscientious objection” is closely tied with “conscience.” My later attempts to separate the two somewhat would seem to argue for the use of a different term than “conscientious objection.” But in general usage, the term “conscientious objection” can be seen to have only a descriptive sense as used of people who reject military involvement without the necessary implication that their reason for doing so was because of the dictates of personal conscience. In fact, my argument is that personal conscience as understood by recent moral philosophy was not all that important for World War II COs. But I will continue to use “conscientious objection” in strictly a descriptive sense. Childress, of course, ties “personal conscience” and “conscientious objection” inextricably together.

[4]Childress, Moral, p. 172.

[5]Childress, Moral, p. 169.

[6]Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), p. 63; cited in Childress, Moral, p. 173.

[7]Childress, Moral, p. 180.

[8]Childress, Moral, pp. 174-175.

[9]Childress, Moral, p. 176.

[10]Childress, Moral, p. 182.

[11]Gordon Zahn’s writings include: War, Conscience and Dissent (Hawthorne, 1967); Another Part of the War: The Camp Simon Story (University of Massachusetts, 1979); and “A Descriptive Study of the Social Backgrounds of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service During World War II” (Ph.D. dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1953). Mulford Q. Sibley’s writings include: The Obligation to Disobey: Conscience and the Law (Council of Religion and International Affairs, 1970); The Political Theories of Modern Pacifism: An Analysis and Criticism (Pacifist Research Bureau, 1944); The Quiet Revolution: Writings on the Theory and Practice of Nonviolent Resistance (Doubleday, 1963); Conscientious Objectors in Prison, 1940-1945 (Pacifist Research Bureau, 1945); and Conscription of Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940-1947 (Cornell University, 1952).

[12]Zahn, War, p. 141.

[13]Zahn, Another, p. 22.

[14]Zahn, War, p. 280.

[15]Zahn, War, p. 125.

[16]Zahn, Another, passim.

[17]Sibley, Obligation, p. 36.

[18]Sibley, Obligation, p. 116.

[19]Sibley, Obligation, p. 9.

[20]Sibley, Obligation, pp. 13-14.

[21]Sibley, Obligation, pp. 22-23.

[22]Zahn, “Descriptive” and Sibley, Conscription.

[23]See, for example: Peter Brock, Twentieth-Century Pacifism (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970); Charles Chatfield, For Peace and Justice: Pacifism in America, 1914-1941 (Univerity of Tennessee, 1971); Robert Cooney and Helen Michalowski, The Power of the People: Active Non-Violence in the United States (Peace, 1977); Charles De Benedetti, The Peace Reform in American History (Indiana University, 1980); Staughton Lynd, ed., Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966): Lillian D. Schlissel, ed., Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757-1967 (Dutton, 1968); Theodore Wachs, “Conscription, Conscientious Objection, and the Context of American Pacifism, 1940-1945” (Ph. D. dissertation, Univerity of Illinois, 1976); Lawrence S. Wittner, Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1941-1960 (Columbia University, 1969).

[24]Childress, Moral, p. 165.

[25]Michael Walzer, Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship (Harvard University), pp. 131-132.