War is Immoral

By Elizabeth Shanklin

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, morality refers to “a set of customs and habits that shape how we think about how we should live or about what is a good human life.”[i] Social and biological scientists have now enabled us to begin the 21st Century understanding why we have not realized our evolved human potential to live peacefully, lovingly, with each other, other forms of life, and the Earth. To realize our potential now is our moral challenge. War is an immoral alternative announcing our defeat.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to take a course in “Attachment,” at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. One week, after lecturing, Columbia neurobiologist Frances Champagne handed each student two slides, each from the brain of an infant mouse, telling us to pour solution over the slides and store them until the following week. When we returned, she asked us to examine each slide under a microscope and tell her which mouse had had a mother who licked it a lot. This was a very effective way to insure that we were unforgettably impressed by the neurobiological effects of maternal care, by epigenetics. When I looked at one slide, the cells formed a pattern of connections; when I examined the other, the cells were scattered without apparent relationship. [ii]

Our species lived for almost 200,000 years as small band hunter-gatherers without leaving evidence of wars. Human society had been generated by mothers caring for, bonding with their children. A single mother could not both nurse her infant while protecting herself from predatory animals, at the same time as hunting and gathering food.[iii] Mothers formed reliable supportive relations with others. Contrary to its popular presentation, our extraordinarily successful evolution is attributable to love and cooperation, not survival of the fittest equated with selfishness.[iv] Maternal love generated a cooperative foundation for human society that continuously expressed itself regenerating caring social relations, i.e., maternal love expressing itself in each generation created a form of society which can be meaningfully referred to as “matriarchal,” meaning “the mothers from the beginning.”[v]

The foundation of the Republic of the United States was not maternal care; it reflected some 6000 years of patriarchy, or rule by fathers. Although Benjamin Franklin and others stated that the idea for the Constitution had arisen from awareness of how the Iroquois had successfully established peaceful relationships among tribes through the formation of the Iroquois League, they did not also establish the Haudenosaunee foundation for peace. The Iroquois were and though defeated have continued to be matriarchal. [vi]

The Republic of the United States, however, followed the patriarchal tradition thought to have first appeared about 6,000 years ago, and articulated by Plato in the most influential work of Western political thought. In Plato’s Republic, written following Athens’ defeat by the garrison state Sparta, Socrates imagines an ideal warrior nation. He proposes that each infant at birth be taken from its mother and made the property of the state; by separating the infant from its mother and other with whom it might bond positively, Socrates suggested that the infant could be reared instead to bond with, care for, and be ready to die for the state. To achieve such citizenship, each child was to be socialized to view war positively, as the good life, a moral way of living. (It is only fair to say that Socrates knew better, and at the end of The Republic he acknowledges that the state will be destroyed by its mode of reproduction– making clear that Socrates was not a passionate proponent of patriarchalism, just exploring it.)

But, in the ideal Republic, no child was permitted to bond with a mother or other; each child was to be reared instead to bond with the state, and to develop an appetite for war. Plato’s pupil Aristotle, the author of the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy, renowned for his contribution to logic and revered father of Western science, provided a legitimating ideology for the subjugation of mothers and mothering within patriarchal states that prevailed into the 19th century: according to Aristotle, a child had one parent, the father; the mother was merely the nurse of the seed.[vii] Rule by father, or patriarchy, is thought to have been first institutionalized about 6,000 years ago.

Established in the patriarchal tradition, the new Republic of the United States subjugated women as mothers through patriarchal marriage: no married woman was a legal person, nor could she be the guardian of her child even if she were a widow. On the other hand, as most children lived with their mothers as well as other relatives in an agrarian society, how did the new Republic insure that children wouldn’t nevertheless bond physically, positively, with their mothers instead of being devoted to the Republic? That posed a problem.

Until 1848, the dominant mode of childrearing was Evangelical, Calvinist: as this Christian doctrine held that a child was born “sinful,” the parent was morally responsible to break the will of the sinful child. There was a problem for the Republic’s founding fathers, however: many fathers were no longer going to be at home on their farms to break the will of each child; leaving their agrarian homesteads to work and participate in new towns and cities meant that fathers had to delegate their task and authority to their wives, the mothers. This proved to be problematic: many mothers were sensitive to the suffering breaking the will caused their children, and they resisted. Moral authorities told women that they were immoral, i.e., a mother who did not break the will of her child was sinfully self-indulgent as she was damning the child for eternity.

Women had to be taught and supervised; in 1831, the first president of Brown University, Reverend Francis Wayland, obliged by publishing a step by step account of how he broke the will of his fifteen-month son. At 8 o’clock on a Friday morning when the child began “to cry violently” upon Wayland’s taking him from his nurse, Wayland wrote:

“I determined to hold him in my arms until he ceased. As he had a piece of      bread in his hand, I took it away…. In a few minutes he ceased, but when I   offered him the bread he threw it away, although he was very hungry. He       had, in fact, taken no nourishment except a cup of milk since 5 o’clock on             the preceding afternoon.[viii]

Wayland placed the child in a room by himself, and would not permit anyone else to speak to him or give him food or drink. Every hour or two he visited his son, “and spoke to him in the kindest tones, offering him the bread and putting out my arms to take him.”[ix] The child would not yield his own negative perceptions and feelings toward his father:

“If a crumb was dropped on the floor he would eat it, but if I offered him         the piece of bread, he would push it away from him. When I told him to    come to me, he would turn away and cry bitterly. He went to bed          supperless. It was now twenty-four hours since he had eaten any thing.”[x]

The following day, his son, Wayland wrote,

“was now truly an object of pity. He had fasted thirty-six hours. His eyes           were wan and sunken. His breath hot and feverish, and his voice feeble and           wailing. Yet he remained obstinate. He continued thus, till 10 o’clock A.M.     when hunger overcame him, and he took from me a piece of bread to    which I added a cup of milk, and hoped that the labor was at last             accomplished.”[xi]

However, when Wayland offered his arms to the child, the boy refused. Wayland then left his son in his crib, and again visited him at intervals. In the early afternoon, the child began to weaken, and apparently began to realize that he must choose to reject his own feelings and desires, to reject himself, in order to survive:

“The tones of his voice in weeping were graver and less passionate, and had   more the appearance of one bemoaning himself. Yet when I went to him,   he still remained obstinate. You could clearly see in him the abortive efforts    of the will. Frequently he would raise his hands an inch or two, and then          suddenly put them down again. He would look at me, and then hiding his                     face in the bedclothes weep most sorrowfully…. All I required of him was,        that he should come to me. That he would not do…He could not submit,             and he found that there was no help without it.”[xii]

Finally, the fifteen-month old child learned to renounce himself:

“The agony was over. He was completely subdued. He repeatedly kissed          me, and would do so whenever I commanded. He would kiss any one when I directed him, so full of love was he to all the family. Indeed, so entirely           and instantaneously were his feelings towards me changed, that he             preferred me now to any of the family. As he had never done before, he          moaned after me when he saw that was going away.[xiii]

Like his father, Heman Wayland became a Baptist minister and college president. Breaking the will of children through severe trauma at an early age has been an effective means for perpetuating patriarchy.[xiv] Destroying the wills/identities of children through lack of parental/community nurturance persists in the twenty-first century as the Republic of the United States leads the world in military exploits.

Fortunately, however, the founding fathers of the Republic were also influenced by the Enlightenment. John Locke rejected Calvinist theology, and held that a newborn child was a blank slate, a tabula rasa, and that the first educator of the blank slate was its mother. This led the Founding Fathers to become increasingly anxious about the survival of the Republic they were establishing, and led to the phenomenon known as “Republican Motherhood.” Founding Fathers suddenly told women that the survival of the new Republic depended upon their ability to mother. When first told by the founding fathers that they were responsible for the survival of the Republic even though they were not legal citizens and they had been reared to believe that mothering was inconsequential, 19th Century women were incredulous.

Republican Motherhood, led to the 19th Century Woman Movement. While various moral authorities sought to instruct mothers, women began to explore mothering individually and with each other: they studied children to understand their development; they studied indigenous mothering, and they translated and published works of women in other countries, and as they did so, they became especially indignant that they had been subjugated and denied their potential to end war. Emma Willard and Almira Phelps translated Mme. Necker de Saussure’s Progressive Education, commencing with the infant, in which Mme. De Saussure argued that morality was a consequence of a loving maternal relation. In this way, De Saussure replaced the Calvinist war upon the will of each individual with affectional bonding, with a maternal orientation that demonstrated the mother’s centrality in the development of caring social relations, of a moral society:

It is the mother, or rather it is her love, which excites sweet emotions in        the new-born soul: her looks, her caresses awaken affections which only     require to be brought forth. Without these testimonies of attachment, such   affections would perhaps never be formed. An unfortunate child deprived   of maternal caresses, might not, until very late, admit a ray of love into his             heart. . . . It is not only for the preservation of his frail existence that he has    been confided to the strongest of all instincts, but also because he       possesses a moral life; his body and his young spirit have been placed under     the same safeguard, the most certain and most powerful here below.[xv]

American women’s indignation at their subjugation as both mothers and women fired a 19th Century Woman Movement which ultimately sought to radically transform patriarchal warrior institutions, arguing that mothers through supporting and nurturing the child’s will could generate a child’s self-realization and trust, the foundation for a peaceful, a moral society. At the end of the 19th century, younger women settled for equality within patriarchal institutions; their movement became known as the Feminist Movement. [xvi]

Today, we are facing the consequences of a triumphant patriarchy: we continue to rear many individuals whose human genetic potential for positive bonding has not been expressed/realized: they are not able to enjoy peaceful relations; they relish war. Warrior relations permeate our economic, political, social institutions threatening human survival on Earth. We are fortunate, however, to have the contributions of developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, ethology, neurobiology, epigenetics and anthropology that converge to affirm our human potential for creative, peaceful relations, and the centrality of early experience in generating a moral society.[xvii] A movement for paid parental leave to bond with an infant its first three years could not only help protect future generations from patriarchy, mental illness, pharmaceutical corporations, capitalism, and endless war, but awaken Americans to how our economic, political and social institutions embody warrior relations and values and need to be restructured so that we may survive to express our human potential.


[i] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed January 26, 2016: plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-morality/

[ii] Frances A. Champagne, “Epigenetics of Mammalian Parenting, In Darcia Narvaez, Kristin Valentino, Agustin Fuentes, James J. McKenna, Peter Gray, eds., Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014) pp. 18-37.

[iii] Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[iv] David Loye, Darwin’s Lost Theory of Love: A healing vision for the new century, (San Jose, New York, Lincoln, Shanghai: toExcel, 2000); Melvin Konner, The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, emotion, mind (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2010); Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, “Comes the Child before Man: How cooperative breeding and prolonged postweaning dependence shaped human potential” in Barry S. Hewlett and Michael E. Lamb, eds., Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental & cultural perspectives (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2005, Fourth Printing 2009, pp. 65-91.

[v] Heide Goettner-Abendroth, “The Deep Structure of Matriarchal Society: Findings and political relevance of modern matriarchal societies,” p.17, in Heide Goettner-Abendroth, ed., Societies of Peace: Matriarchies past present and future (Toronto, Canada: Inanna Publications and Education, Inc., 2009), 17-28; Heide Goettner-Abendroth, ed., Matriarchal Societies: Studies on indigenous cultures across the globe (New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Bern, Frankfurt, Berlin, Brussels, Vienna, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012).

[vi] Doug George-Kanentiio, Iroquois Culture & Commentary (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Clear Light Publishers, 2000): “In our society, women are the center of all things. Nature, we believe, has given women the ability to create; therefore it is only natural that women be in positions of power to protect this function.” 54-55.q

[vii] Aristotle, Generation of Animals 1.20.729a; see also Anthony Preus, “Science and philosophy in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals,” Journal of the History of Biology 3 (1970). 1-52; J. Needham, A History of Embryology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959).

[viii] [Wayland, Francis]. A Plain Man. “A Case of Conviction.” The American Baptist Magazine (Oct. 1831). Reprinted in “Evangelical Childrearing in the Age of Jackson: Francis Wayland’s views on when and how to subdue the willfulness of children” by William G. Mc Loughlin. Journal of Social History 9 (1975): 35.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 36.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Like his father, Heman Wayland became a Baptist minister and college president. Psychoanalyst Lewis P. Lipsitt examined Heman’s life, and concluded that as a consequence of his broken will, he became “obsessed” with his father. Lewis P. Lipsitt, “A Case of Conviction: Comments,” Appendix 2 to “Evangelical Childrearing…,” by William G. McLoughlin, Journal of Social History 9 (1975), 40-43.

[xv] Madame Necker de Saussure, Progressive Education, Commencing with the Infant, trans. Mrs. [Emma] Willard and Mrs. [Almira] Phelps, with a Preface by Mrs. Willard (Boston: William D. Ticknor, 1835) 19.

[xvi] Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1987.

[xvii] Darcia Narvaez, Jaak Panksepp, Allan N. Schore, Tracy R. Gleason, eds., Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development, from research to practice and policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Darcia Narvaez, Kristin Valentino, Agustin Fuentes, James J. McKenna, Peter Gray, eds., Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: culture, childrearing and social wellbeing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Darcia Narvaez, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality, (New York: W.W.Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.

Copyright 2016 Elizabeth Shanklin

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