Published in Robert Paul Wolff (ed.), Philosophy: A Modern Encounter, 1971.

Four Questions On the Draft


Twenty-three hundred years ago, Callicles accused Socrates of wasting his life "whispering in a corner with a few boys," instead of entering the public arena where the affairs of the polis were being decided. Ever since, critics have charged philosophy with failing to deal with the issues of conscience which confront men in their real lives. For the most part, moral philosophers have responded with either bland assurances that the eternal verities have daily application or else with a modest denial that a lifetime of reflection on the right and the good confers any special wisdom on those who undertake it.

Recently, however, the heat has been on. Changes in the draft laws have lifted the immunity which once protected young men fortunate enough to go to college. The brightest and most morally concerned students have begun to ask hard questions about their political rights and obligations, and not surprisingly, they look to their professors for help in finding defensible answers. It would be easy for us to plead ignorance or to retreat behind the elaborate neutrality of the educational process, but the students would consider this a cop-out, and they would be right.

What I want to do, then, is to formulate some of the questions about the draft which have caused students the greatest concern, and to give reasoned, unequivocal answers to as many of them as possible. There are four questions which frequently arise when the subject of military obligations is debated:

  1. Does a draft-eligible American man have a moral obligation to submit to induction and fight in the armed forces?
  2. Does such a man have a right to resist the draft?
  3. Does he have an obligation to resist the draft?
  4. Does a draft resister have any sort of moral obligation to resist publicly? Does he have an obligation to accept legal punishment for his actions, or at least not to flee from it? Is it cowardly, reprehensible, or immoral to resist the draft clandestinely and to evade rather than challenge the government?

1. Does a draft-eligible American man have a moral obligation to submit to induction and fight in the armed forces?

I have couched this and the subsequent questions in terms of moral obligation because the issue for the students is what they ought to do, not merely what the law says they ought to do. Many persons never seem to take a distinction between legal and moral obligation. So long as the demands of the state do not too sharply conflict with their moral convictions, they go along from day to day assuming that what is legal is right. Nevertheless, the two are quite distinct, as men are reminded when governments become tyrannical or unjust. So we must ask whether there is any reason for a young American to believe that he ought to fight in the armed forces.

There are three arguments which might be offered to prove that Americans should serve when called. First, it might be said that our cause is a just cause, that we are fighting to suppress an evil foe or to defend a good and valiant friend, and therefore that men of all nations should join in the battle.

This is a familiar argument; when its premises are correct, it is a valid argument as well. Exactly such a call was issued by the earliest opponents of Nazism, and it was answered by thousands of brave young Americans even before the official entry of the United States into World War II. But not all wars are just, and no man has a duty to fight in those which are not. The Vietnam war is wicked and immoral; the invasion of the Dominican Republic was an act of naked imperialism; the attempted overthrow of the Castro government was only redeemed by its failure. The time is long past when a young man in the United States can assume that his government will only thrust itself into fights which are morally defensible.

To those who question the right of a young man to choose which wars he will fight and which he will refuse, we must answer that selective conscientious objection is the only sort of conscientious objection that makes any moral sense. If we can agree that all men have a fundamental obligation to fight for what is right and against what is wrong, then it should be obvious that absolute pacifism, like the principle "my country right or wrong," is simply an abdication of one's responsibility to distinguish just from unjust wars. When young draft resisters admit that they would have fought in World War II, it is taken by some as a devastating revelation of the inconsistency of their position.

In fact, it merely shows that they have the good sense to be able to distinguish a valiant defense of liberty from a wicked oppression of a victimized people.

Once we deny the justice of a war, defenders of the draft fall back on a second argument, the appeal to a debt of gratitude. America has nurtured you, the draft resisters are told. It has protected you, offered you the highest standards of living in the world, and conferred upon you all the advantages and benefits that flow from a rich society. Now your nation calls you to fight beneath its colors, to defend its shores and protect its interests. Only the most selfish, ungrateful, self-seeking young man could refuse such a call. Indeed, those of you who come from the wealthy and favored sectors of American society have enjoyed, not merely a fair share, but an overabundance of the good things America has to offer. Surely you owe something in return!

This, too, is an argument with merit, but that merit does not extend to any war whatsoever. Not by the widest stretch of a fevered ideological imagination could it be said that the security of the United States has been threatened in recent years. It is not this country that young men were called upon to defend in the 1960s, but only the immoral policy of the men who ruled its government. Perhaps if America were under attack, even by a foe with justice on his side, Americans might have some obligation, out of gratitude and loyalty, to defend her. But when our country actively pursues evil and aggressive policies, the greatest service any of us can possibly do is to oppose those policies so vigorously that the government is guided back onto a just course.

Finally, when the policy is seen to be immoral, and even the claims of gratitude prove unconvincing, defenders of the draft retreat to their innermost bastion of argument. Just or not, they say, the wars we fight are initiated by a democratically elected government. Say what you will of the policies of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, or their successors, no one denies that they derive their authority from a free and secret ballot of all the people. The people are not always right, but in a true democracy their will is sovereign, right or wrong. The instruments exist for a recall of the administration and the election of a new president with new policies. Wrong as a war may be, no citizen is ever denied his right to speak against it. Those who oppose a war have every right to organize against it. But so long as this nation remains a democracy, minorities must abide by the will of the majority. Resistance is defensible, indeed even heroic, when directed against a tyranny. But resistance to the democratic will of the people is tyranny itself. Would the draft resisters deny the American people the right to determine the policy of the United States? Indeed, the principal resisters to the draft have not been those black youths who might most plausibly claim to have been denied their democratic rights; they are, instead, the sons of wealthy and politically active men and women, whose easy access to the instruments of political activity deprives them of any justification for resisting the democratically enacted laws of the land.

This argument rests on the assumption, that democracy is a legitimate form of political society. That is to say, it assumes that the citizens of a genuinely democratic state have a binding moral obligation to obey even those laws and governmental commands which are immoral, only as long as the laws have really been enacted by a majority of the citizens. This assumption is the foundation of the political ideology by which the United States is governed. So widespread is its acceptance that one can find very few serious political philosophers who even bother to question its truth.

After long reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the theory of democracy is wrong. No one, not even a citizen of a true democracy, has an obligation to obey the law as such, save under conditions so special and difficult of fulfillment as to hardly constitute an exception at all. In short, I have come to believe that the doctrine known as philosophical anarchism is true. There are no circumstances, real or hypothetical, under which a state can validly demand the obedience of its subjects.

This is a strong assertion, and I am well aware that I shall have difficulty persuading you of its truth. I have attempted to set forth my argument more fully in a book entitled In Defense of Anarchism, but even that work is incomplete, and will require further argument to support its conclusions. What I should like to do here is to sketch the outlines of my argument, so that you can form at least a preliminary opinion of its cogency.

The theory of government by consent of the governed was advanced as the solution to a conflict which seems on first examination to be utterly irresoluble. On the one hand, morality demands that each man freely and autonomously determine the guiding principles of his life and take full responsibility for the consequences of his own actions.

On the other hand, standing over and against this principle of autonomy is the authority claimed by the state. If autonomy means anything at all, it means making one's own decisions, being no man's servant. But if authority means anything at all, it means the right to command, which is to say, the right to be obeyed.

The problem faced by the early theorists of democracy was quite simply this: How can free and autonomous men submit to the authority of any state without truly losing their freedom?

The solution was thought to be in the nature of moral autonomy. The word "autonomous" literally means "giving laws to oneself," and so it was argued that the truly moral man was simultaneously a law-giver and a law-obeyer. To obey the laws handed down by another is slavish servility. To obey no law at all is irrational and irresponsible caprice. But to obey laws which one has legislated for oneself is the highest manifestation of human dignity. By the exercise of such autonomy, it was said, men earned the right to be treated, not as mere means or instruments, but as ends in themselves.

The extension of this doctrine to the political sphere is immediately obvious. When men submit to the commands of a ruler, they forfeit their freedom and become heteronomous slaves. When they submit to no laws at all, they sink into the caprice and chaos of anarchy. But when men submit to laws they have themselves made, then they are autonomous. Rule of the people is tyranny; rule for the people is at best benevolent tyranny. But rule by the people is liberty, which is to say, the union of individual autonomy with legitimate state authority.

This is a good argument. Indeed, I think it can be fairly described as the only good argument in the entire history of Western political theory. Unfortunately, although it is the best justification that has ever been offered for the authority claims of any form of political society, it is nonetheless -- in my opinion -- wrong. Save under very special circumstances, rule by the people violates the moral autonomy of the individual, just as rule of and rule for the people do.

Consider the original argument. If freedom requires that each man submit only to laws which he himself has legislated, then obviously unanimous consent must be obtained before any law can be put in force. Under these stringent constraints, it would literally be true that each man would obey only himself and remain as free as before. Unanimous direct democracy -- the system in which every citizen votes on all the laws and a single negative vote defeats any measure -- is thus a theoretical solution to the conflict between individual autonomy and the state's claim to authority.

But how are we to handle those situations in which a unanimous consensus does not miraculously emerge from the debate? The answer springs unbidden to every mind: Take a vote, of course, and let the state be guided by the will of the majority. We are, all of us, so accustomed to majority rule that it is very difficult for us even to notice that it is one distinctive way among many for settling disputes, and not the inevitable, natural, unquestionably obvious way. In the United States particularly, we are raised from the cradle as majoritarians. As soon as little children can count, they are taking votes. First-grade boys and girls in our public schools dutifully elect a class president, vice-president, and secretary-treasurer before they are old enough to write or carry money. I realize, therefore, that it will be difficult for me to get you to question the legitimacy of majority voting. Nevertheless, I must ask your indulgence, for this familiar rule is in fact the Achilles' heel of the defence of democracy. The entire theory of government by consent of the governed rests upon the principle of majority rule, and that principle is utterly without justification.

Let us remember the original purpose for which the theory of democracy was advanced. The problem was to find a form of political association that free men could join without losing their freedom. Government by unanimous consent met that requirement, and majority rule was then put forward to handle the situations in which unanimity could not be obtained. So the crucial question is this: Does majority rule provide a way of making collective decisions which preserves the moral autonomy, or liberty, of each member of the society?

Nobody denies that we can make decisions by majority rule. We can so make decisions by dictatorial rule of one man, or by rule of an elite minority, or even by putting all the alternatives in a fishbowl and pulling one out at random. The question is whether majority rule can preserve the union of individual freedom and state authority which unanimous democracy achieves.

Needless to say, the problem is with those persons who are in the minority. When a vote is taken, the majority are clearly bound by the outcome because they have directly willed the law which has been enacted. But the minority have voted against the law, presumably because they believed it to be unwise, or immoral, or contrary to the interests of the nation. If the theory of democracy is to have any plausibility at all -- and if young men are to be morally obligated to obey laws of which they disapprove -- then a proof must be found for the paradoxical proposition that in a majoritarian democracy the minority have a moral obligation to obey the majority. What is more, we must show that a member of the minority, in submitting to the majority, is not merely forfeiting his freedom and bowing his knee to tyranny.

The traditional answer is that majority rule is built into the original contract. When everyone first agrees to establish the state and submit to its laws, there is a clause in the agreement to the effect that henceforward a majority shall bind or oblige the whole. But this is not really any answer at all to the question we asked. No one denies that a man can bind himself by a promise; and he can quite obviously promise to obey the majority, just as he can promise to obey a king, a priest, or a slave master. The promise is equally binding in every instance. The question is whether a free man can promise to obey the najority without thereby forfeiting his freedom. We have already seen that he can make such a commitment to unanimous decision, because his consent is included in the collective will by which each law is enacted. Is there anything about majority rule which distinguishes it from all the various authoritarian or heteronomous forms of decision making, so that the moral liberty of the minority is preserved even though they, like the majority, have an absolute duty to obey validly enacted laws?

In the book which I mentioned earlier, I have canvassed the most prominent attempts to demonstrate the liberty-preserving character of majority rule. I can neither find nor think of a way of making majority rule compatible with the moral autonomy of the individual. The problem is always the same: Either the minority submit to the majority, thereby conforming to laws which they think are bad and against which they voted; or else the minority reserve to themselves the right to defy those laws which they consider too evil, in which case the fundamental authority of the state is negated.

Now, it goes without saying that a member of the minority may choose to go along with the majority on certain occasions, perhaps because he judges that the bad consequences of his acquiescence in an evil law are less serious than the general harm that would be caused by his defiance. But once he begins to reason in that manner, he has rejected the special claims of the democratic state, and is reduced to making his political decisions on the basis of considerations which would arise in any state, democratic or otherwise.

If all of this is correct, then no young man has any obligation whatsoever to submit to an induction order. Speaking more generally, if a man has not signed his freedom away by a rash promise to obey the commands of the majority, whatever they may be, and if he has not directly voted for the laws which have been enacted, then he does not stand under any moral obligation to obey those laws as such. As a moral agent, he is of course responsible for the consequences of his actions, and he must therefore consider what will result both from his conformity to the law and from his defiance of it. But after he has weighed the goods and evils to the best of his ability, no one can say to him: This is a democracy, and therefore irrespective of consequences you have a duty to obey the laws.

2. Does a young American man have a right to resist the draft?

The answer to this question follows immediately from the answer to the first. If a man has no obligation to fight, then he has a right to refuse to fight. The two are the obverse and reverse of the same coin.

3. Does a young American man have an obligation to resist the draft?

I hesitate to answer this question for two reasons. First, it is unseemly for those who are not in danger to urge hazardous actions on those who are, even in the name of morality. The world might be a better place if presidents agreed not to send young men to war and professors agreed not to send them to jail.

The second problem is that the individual draft resister has so little power in comparison with the state. There is no virtue in martyrdom, and when a young man can perceive no probable good result from his own resistance to the draft, it is difficult to argue that he is morally obligated to jeopardize his freedom and future. I hope I will not seem to be hedging if I say that this question must be left to the decision of the individual. Suffice it to say that he will certainly be doing something morally admirable if he chooses to resist the draft.

4. Does a draft resister have any sort of moral obligation to resist publicly, to accept legal punishment or at least not to flee from it? Does he have a moral right to act clandestinely, to evade rather than to resist the draft?

No question connected with the problem of draft resistance has caused more confusion and conflict than this. Even so solidly conservative a voice as The New York Times praised draft resisters like Dr. Spock, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, and their associates for publicly inviting legal retribution for their acts of resistance to the draft. A willingness to go to jail for one's belief is widely viewed in this country as evidence of moral sincerity, and even as a sort of argument for the position one is defending.

Now, tactically speaking, there is much to be said for legal martyrdom. As tyrannical governments are perpetually discovering, the sight of one's leader nailed to a cross has a marvelously bracing effect on the faithful members of a dissident sect. When the rulers are afflicted by the very principles they are violating, even the threat of self-sacrifice may force a government to its knees. So Gandhi proved.

But leaving tactics aside, no one has any moral obligation whatsoever to resist an unjust government openly rather than clandestinely. Nor has anyone a duty to invite and then to suffer unjust punishment. The choice is simple: if the law is just, obey it. If the law is unjust, evade it.

Indeed, the draft resister owes it to the government not to present himself for punishment. Since it is unjust to jail the opponents of the war, the submissive resister simply tempts the government to commit injustice. And inasmuch as it is morally worse to commit injustice than to suffer it, the resister who surrenders does the government more harm by permitting it to jail him that he suffers by going to jail himself. Simple charity dictates a policy of evasion. Let no one taunt the draft evader with accusations of cowardice. The myth of the hemlock-drinking Socrates is a trap laid by a reactionary Plato to ensnare those who would reject the authority of unjust governments. If we must compare the present-day draft evaders with some figure from history, let it be the runaway slave of ante-bellum days and his helpers along the underground railroad.