9. Evaluation of the Standard Account and Ongoing Issues

[Link to chapter eight]

The Standard Account’s Correspondence with the Experiences of World War II Conscientious Objectors

Resisters. Our analysis of World War II COs shows that the standard account corresponds quite closely to the general characteristics of those COs with resister tendencies.

Resisters often spoke of their concern over the possibility of violating their personal consciences as a major motivation in their taking the CO stand. They expressed concern over facing the sanction of loss of personal integrity and sense of selfhood should they violate that conscience. They referred to a strong sense of selfhood that included strong convictions regarding the total evil of taking human life under any circumstances. Many believed that this sense of selfhood would be sacrificed with any kind of compromise with the war system, including submitting to conscription in any way. Hence, even doing alternative service constituted a threat to the self.

The locus of concern for resisters was on freedom of conscience. Their biggest problem with Civilian Public Service (CPS) came over the issue of the lack of freedom in choosing whether and how to do works of service. They emphasized the individual, personal nature of conscience and the need for conscientious acts to be uncoerced. They believed that any kind of conscription not only violated their sense of pacifism as part of their selfhood, but it also violated their sense of freedom to choose when and how to serve others.

The standard account also implies that the conscientious objector stands as an individual facing the state alone and acting independently of communal determinants. To be truly conscientious, the objector rises above any kind of direct influence by outside forces and determines for himself what is the right thing to do. Without question, this description applied to resisters. Resisters almost always acted self-consciously in opposition to community expectation, be it expectations of family, friends, home communities, or the larger national society. They acted due to intensely powerful personal convictions that moved them to risk extreme sanctions for the purpose of remaining free of the evil of the war system.

This individualistic expression continued after the resisters went to prison or CPS. Some resisters cooperated with one another in these contexts (e.g., work slowdowns in CPS, hunger strikes in prison), but most remained alienated from outside communities and faced the hardships of prison and CPS with little if any emotional or material support from those communities. Their ability to maintain their commitments in this context depended largely on the strength of their personal convictions and endurance.

Also, as predicted by the standard account, resisters tended to have well-developed, sophisticated, rationalistic arguments the supported their stand. They appealed to an assumed common store of values and beliefs with a common language that they shared with all people of good will and open minds, even including those who did not share their pacifism. Resisters often engaged in apologetics for their position, arguing that the War was irrational, that American traditions supports the freedom of conscience, and that if American people could only overcome their ignorance they would see things the resisters’ way.

Resisters, it seems, serve as paradigmatic COs for the standard account. As a means of understanding the experience of these COs, the standard account is an accurate reflection of reality. However, as we have seen, resisters made up only about 10% of the total CO population during World War II.

Transformers. The standard account corresponds less successfully to those COs with transformer tendencies, though in many ways it remains accurate.

Transformers, like resisters, placed a high premium upon the centrality of personal conscience in their coming to and maintaining a commitment to being COs. They did not, however, use this language as uniformly as did resisters. Transformers tended more willingly to compromise with the state in its establishment of alternative service as part of the conscription program. This compromise reflects a stronger pragmatic, teleological strain among the transformers in comparison to the more absolutist, deontological orientation of the resisters. Hence, the dictates of personal conscience lessened in importance for transformers in comparison to their goals of social transformation. Compromise for the sake of those goals became a possibility for them, since the goals of social transformation did not exactly correspond with the felt need to keep their personal consciences inviolate.

Transformers, like resisters, often saw themselves as individuals standing against the state, reflecting the fact that few transformers felt strong support from their families and church communities, many of whom strongly supported the War effort. However, again transformers had less of this mentality than did resisters. Transformers did experience some outside support from family and church. A number of transformers had fathers who shared their pacifism and churches that offered material and emotional assistance. At the same time, almost all of the denominations that transformers were part of went on record in support of the War and less than 1% of their young men took the CO route. Consequently, the decision to become COs for transformers generally came as the decision of individuals acting on the basis of their personal convictions.

Like resisters, transformers tended to express themselves in “public language.” That is, they gave rational arguments for their stand and assumed that these arguments would be accessible to anyone who cared to listen. They also believed their biggest hindrance in spreading their message was ignorance and assumed that if they worked hard enough they could conceivably convince just about anyone of the validity of their stance.

The standard account, therefore, helps to some degree in illumining the experience of transformers. However, it leaves some major issues out. The standard account does not predict the positive thrust of most transformers, whose commitment to being COs primarily stemmed from their urge to effect social change and not their fear of violating their personal consciences. In other words, conscientious objection according to the standard account is deontological in that the CO is governed by principles, primarily that one must not violate one’s personal conscience. Transformers’ CO stance, however, was primarily teleological – i.e., governed by their goal of changing the social order. Evidence of this focus can be found in the experience of some transformers who became convinced that their goal could be best served by their leaving CPS and joining the military. Presumably such a switch remained consistent with their goal rather than principle motivation.

The standard account also does not have a place for the role communal determinants played in the experience of many transformers. This issue will be even more central with servant and separatist types, but even here we see that for many transformers the experience of growing up in church and family contexts that valued pacifism and rejection of war played a central role in their taking a CO stand. Numerous transformers cited their experiences in church summer camps, high school and college youth groups, and doing mission work as key factors for them. A few had fathers who had been COs in World War I and had remained active in the peace movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Several also noted the important influence of pacifist pastors. All of these factors shaped transformer commitments in ways ignored by the standard account. As well, though transformers did not always receive material and emotional support from home churches and family, they did receive some and this played a major role in their ability to maintain their commitments.

Transformers made up about 15% of the total CO population. Combined, resisters and transformers constituted about 25% of the total. Thus, the standard account, even partially, fits only about one-quarter of all COs to World War II.

Servants and Separatists. The standard account almost totally fails to predict these two tendencies, which together totaled about 75% of the overall CO population. We have seen above that these two types vary a great deal from one another. However, they do resemble each other in the ways in which they are distinct from the standard account, which is why I will treat them together here.

As a general rule for servants and separatists, the central basis for being COs had much more to do with their communal involvements than with their fear of violating their personal conscience. This can be illustrated by comparing the answers COs gave on the questionnaires they filled out to support their CO claims. Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses tended to give short answers that varied little from CO to CO, reflecting a strong sense of communal norms determining the shape of their commitment. In contrast, COs with resister and transformer tendencies gave long, involved, very personal statements.

Many Mennonite COs said at the time and continue to say that their church membership served as the central basis for their taking a CO stand. They might use the language of individual conscience, and no doubt many if not most had a strong personal commitment to pacifism. However, the formation of their conscience and their personal ownership of their pacifism resulted from their church involvement and were decisively shaped by that involvement.

Unlike the standard account CO, whose greatest fear is that of the internal sanction of a loss of selfhood, servants’ and separatists’ greatest fear had to do with the threat of external sanctions and a loss of communal membership and identity. That these sanctions had some force can be seen in that only about one-third of the Mennonites who joined the military returned to their churches, and many of those only returned after public acts of repentance. Mennonites who wanted to remain in good standing in their churches generally had little choice but to join CPS.

Hence, the key concern for servants and separatists centered on obedience to church teaching and not on the freedom of the individual conscience from coercion. Their sense of selfhood emerged from their church involvement and could not be separated from that. To lose their community connection would be a very fundamental violation of their selfhood. They operated with a much different sense of selfhood than that allowed for by the standard account.

Servants and separatists, especially Mennonites and others from historic peace churches, as a rule grew up as part of traditions with long pacifist commitments that found expression in day to day life, though not always clearly articulated as such. The commitment to take a CO stand emerged from that context and to a large degree reflects internalized habits learned by young people from a very early age. These pre-reflective habits do not lend themselves to rational argumentation. Hence, a focus on such argumentation as tied closely to the meaning of conscientious objection cannot help but miss out on crucial elements of the servant and separatist reality.

Whereas the standard account pictures conscientious objectors as standing alone against the state, servant and separatist COs found themselves as part of communities that together, in some sense, stood against the state. These COs gained much power from the fact that they did not stand alone but shared their commitment with many other COs and had the backing of family, friends, and church communities. Though this support system meant that servants and separatists need not have as much personal strength to maintain their commitment as did the isolated resisters, the support system also meant that many more servants and separatists were able to withstand the pressures that pushed many COs to give up their commitment.

Servants and separatists spent little time with apologetics and attempts to justify their commitment to being COs. They felt little pressure to do so from within their communities because of the acceptance they generally received therein for their stand. They felt little compunction to address people outside those communities, and in any case likely did not assume a common ethical language that would allow them to do that. Another factor, as alluded to above, can be seen in the basis for many of these COs’ commitments. This basis emerged out of their communal practices, not intellectualized arguments and principles. Those practices had coherence from within, but did not always lend themselves to rational explanation to outsiders. For many servants and separatists, being COs simply had to do with their personal identity. They had little choice in the matter and certainly could not justify their commitment to a skeptic.

Philosophical Presuppositions

In chapter two I briefly listed three philosophical assumptions of the standard account that have significant impact on how it represents conscientious objection. In considering the experience of COs in World War II and as pointed out in the above section, we have seen that the standard account does not adequately provide for the majority of World War II COs. These philosophical assumptions are a major reason for that.

Ethics as Rationalistic. The standard account approaches ethics as a search for a common, rationalistic ethical language with which arguments can be justified in a way that is accessible to all rational people.

For most COs, especially the large majority characterized by servant and separatist tendencies, ethics is better seen as an ethos than as rationalistic argumentation. That is, analysis of their morality reveals that it had to do with a way of life much more than with a way of thinking and arguing. This way of life stemmed from these COs’ communities visions and commitments. The commitment to pacifism resulted from young men growing up in these communities where nonresistance was a day to day practice, something people accepted and lived even before they could argue for it rationally.

This situation of ethics as an ethos shows how such ethics are established through practical life, a way of life that presupposes a community and an ongoing tradition. This way of life produces an ethos of moral commitments and practices that have little connection to a rationalistically articulated ethics.

The standard account, by focusing on arguments, justification, and a quest for a common language, misses altogether the reality – witnessed in the experiences of most World War II COs – of the creation of an entire way of life that served as the formative and sustaining context for most conscientious objectors to World War II.

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 personal introspection.

As we saw, for most COs, conscience had definite communal determinants. Few of those with servant or separatist tendencies described their pacifist convictions as based on the dictates of their individual conscience. Their conscientiousness was based on their communal identity.

Michael Walzer’s notion of conscientious objection more closely fits the experience of servants and separatists than does James Childress’s. Walzer sees the existence of pacifism in the practices of smaller communities serving as a better basis for conscientious objection than pacifism merely existing as a matter of the personal consciences of autonomous individuals. The “conscience” in conscientious objection works best when “a man first discovers his fellow men, and works out with them (or with some of them) the principles for which he is ready to take risks.”[1]

The communal nature of their convictions, including the on-going emotional and material support they received, contributed significantly to the success of servant and separatist COs during World War II (success in the sense of their capability of maintaining their commitments and having positive experiences in CPS). The resister stance, which closely corresponds to the standard account’s picture of conscientious objection, demanded heroic capabilities from COs and hence characterized only a small number of men.

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 of the individual depends upon his being able to withstand this pressure and is primarily the power of his individual conscience.

For most World War II COs, the individual’s primary identity came from that individual’s membership in his faith community. He did not stand alone against the state. The state generally dealt with these communities, not isolated individuals. These dealings, while not necessarily confrontive, clearly established that COs’ scruples against being involved in any direct way in the war effort would be tolerated by the government.

COs standing outside such communities and with different concerns more in line with non-cooperating convictions, gained much less satisfaction from the government. Frustration with that situation contributed to COs with resister and, to a lesser degree, transformer tendencies having a much less satisfactory experience during the War than did servants.


We have seen that the standard account of conscientious objection, while somewhat accurate in predicting the characteristics of the small minority of World War II COs with resister tendencies, distorts the overall reality of conscientious objection to World War II. Not only does it show little respect for the commitments and practices of most COs, it does not provide any analytical tools for accurately portraying the experiences of the large majority of COs.

My focus in this dissertation has been on one specific case study of moral practice, the experience of COs during World War II. At this point, I can simply claim that the standard account of ethics does not provide a broad and deep enough focus to help us understand the ethics of people in that one case, World War II conscientious objection. Beyond that case, I would simply assert that we should suspect that the standard account would have similar problems with other cases.

We have seen that the standard account displays an impoverished vocabulary of ethics. It simply does not have the language to consider ways of life that enshrined values and practices determinative of the ethical commitments and behavior of most World War II COs. Many present-day ethical thinkers claim that this is an endemic problem with the standard account in contemporary ethics in general.[2] Nothing I have discovered in my research has led me to doubt that these thinkers are correct.

Ongoing Issues

Many issues for further exploration have emerged from my research and analysis. These are a few:

The Role of Community Sanctions. Clearly a major factor for Mennonites’ relative success in having their young men adhere to church teaching on nonresistance was related to the threat of community sanctions toward those who joined the military. In contrast, the Church of the Brethren also taught pacifism but exercised fewer sanctions and had a much lower percentage of its young men become COs.

On the basis of the research I have done, I do not feel capable of making a judgment on this threat’s role in convincing young Mennonites to be COs. Doing so would require extensive comparative research of the differences between Mennonites joining the military and those joining CPS. What constituted the respective influences that pushed each group toward its choice? My guess now is that generally the sanctions only made official what already in reality existed – that those Mennonites joining the military had already separated themselves in spirit, if not in fact, from the church. If that were not the case, the threat of sanctions might not have played a central role.

Jehovah’s Witnesses. This group presents a very intriguing case of war resistance. In many ways, they resisted the government more than war itself. Material on Witnesses is scarce. Were such questions capable of being answered, it would be worth exploring how much of a consciousness of opposing war Witnesses had. How did the experience of having so many COs affect Witness church communities? How did the overall experience of World War II shape Witness identity? What happened to those Witnesses who went to prison after they were released? Did they remain Witnesses? Did they preach pacifism?

Mennonites since World War II. Being the tradition that produced by far the most legal COs during World War II, the Mennonites are worth investigating with regard to continued developments. Do Mennonites still largely fit into the servant mode? Have resister and transformer tendencies gained more popularity? Did the percentages of Mennonites choosing to be COs in the 1950s and 1960s change from World War II? Why or why not? Have Mennonites lost some of their communalism since the 1940s? If so, how has that affected their pacifism?

A Theoretical Alternative to the Standard Account. The questions of the standard account raised by my research lead to a concern for developing a theoretical approach to ethics that would be more satisfactory and would more closely correspond with the actual practices and commitments people make in real life. The books mentioned above in footnote two provide a large pool of important thinking. More theoretical work is needed, nonetheless, to move beyond critiquing the standard account toward constructing a full-fledged alternative.

[Link to bibliography]

[Link to dissertation home page]


[1] Michael Walzer, Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 131-132.

[2] Recent books that in various ways address this concern include: Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Subjectivism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983); James C. Edwards, Ethics Without Philosophy: Wittgenstein and the Moral Life (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1982); Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Crossroad, 1975); Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983); George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985); Sabina Lovibond, Realism and Imagination in Ethics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983); James W. McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume One (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986); Alasdair MacIntrye, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984); Gilbert C. Meilander, The Theory and Practice of Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984); Joseph O’Leary, Questioning Back: The Overcoming of Metaphysics in Christian Tradition (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985); Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979); James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976); Jeffrey Stout, Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988); Jeffrey Stout, The Flight From Authority (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981); William M. Sullivan, Reconstructing Public Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).