“The Moral Equivalence of War”

Common Core Standards for 11th grade:

Reading Standards for Informational Text

Key Ideas and Details

1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

2. Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis; provide an objective summary of the text.

3. Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.

Assignment steps:

1. Pass out “The Moral Equivalent of War”: http://www.constitution.org/wj/meow.htm

2.  Introduce the assignment by asking students to provide answers to the question:  What do we receive from war?  Possible suggestions to inspire students: romanticism, death, technology/weapons.  They should list the good/bad/and ugly.  Surprisingly, my students mostly listed the “good” things we receive from war (glory, heroes, pride, etc...).  They didn’t realize that most of their responses supported war until I pointed it out (I wrote positive responses in blue marker and negative in red - undecided was black). I asked students to approve or disapprove my choices.  This exercise provided a strong reflective moment in which they realized that they mostly perceive war as “good.”

3. Ask students after they complete their list: What can replace war in the human experience?  Students need to examine the list and brainstorm what else offers similar experiences. Jokingly, I think/hope, some said my class (but they quickly discounted it because students do not suffer actual death in my class), sports (but this was also discounted because pain is not as intense and death is usually not possible), politics (ruled a weak substitute), and ultimately students could not find an equivalent; hence, the motivation to read the hard-to-understand essay in order to understand what is the moral equivalent.

4. Ask students to consider the title to William James’ piece.  What is he suggesting? They will all be able to come to the conclusion that James suggests something equal to war but more moral.

5. Students should read the “The Moral Equivalent of War” (could be homework the night before, which is what I did.  My students read it once; they were confused and needed support): http://www.constitution.org/wj/meow.htm

After reading the whole essay one time through, students should work paragraph by paragraph to annotate and understand - a slow, close read is advisable.  It will probably take several close reads for students to fully understand this piece.  The teacher should work through the first two pages with students to help them understand how to complete a close read of a difficult passage.  Then students should work through the rest of the piece on their own.

6. Students should annotate the piece to discover how James builds his argument to provide a moral equivalent.  Students should answer the question:

Does James’ idea of a moral equivalent provide a plausible alternative?

7. Students may not believe that James’ idea is possible because they will claim that other cultures are not like our culture, so war will always exist because the entire globe will not embrace James’ idea. They may say, or at least some students will, that “international rationality [isn’t] possible,” and therefore, disagree with James by claiming that it is not “our bounden duty to believe in [international rationality].”

Have students watch the TEDTalks video “The Empathic Civilization” by Jeremy Rifkin 

Students should take notes on ideas they agree with, ideas they disagree with, and ideas they want to discuss more.

Students should work in small groups to see if this video challenged their opinion.  Have students reconsider the idea of “international rationality.”  

Ask the following question:

Is it possible that society will one day achieve global “international rationality?”

9. Finally, students should be exposed to two opposing view points:

Gildings believes humans must fight a war, but not between civilizations, but instead, to save civilization.

10. Which view point best matches the student’s opinion after reading “The Moral Equivalent of War?”  The student should justify his or her reasoning.

11. This lesson is designed to encourage students to develop an opinion, question their opinion, and justify their opinion.  Students will work in small groups to verbally develop and defend their opinion.  The small groups will then share their discussion with the larger whole class group.  The teacher will circulate to encourage conversation and critical thinking.  The lesson provides students with skills needed to create an effective argument.  Students will continue to read and develop their opinions about articles related to why we fight wars in order to write an argumentative essay to this prompt:

Develop a position about when and why the American military should be deployed in other countries.  Synthesize sources read in class to create your argument.  Address opposing claims and provide evidence for both the claims and counterclaims.

Lesson created by Tara Seale