The Power of the Purse: Women and War Tax Resistance

War tax resisters Pam Beziat, Kathy Kelly, Clare Hanrahan, and Judy Scheckel held a panel discussion about “The Power of the Purse: Women and War Tax Resistance” at the Gandhi-King Conference on Peacemaking .

According to a news account of the panel:

Whenever Pam Beziat, Nashville peace activist, thinks about paying federal income taxes, she looks at pictures of children who have been maimed, bruised and broken by war.

“I would look at the pictures and decide I was never going to pay taxes again,” said Beziat, one of four female panelists who discussed war tax resistance at the Gandhi-King Conference on Peacemaking on Saturday.

Conference keynote speaker and panelist Kathy Kelly, who was sentenced to a year in federal prison for planting corn on nuclear missile silo sites in , said she came to the personal conviction that she would not support “bloody” government practices almost 30 years ago.

“There is no way, no how I would give my money to the Mafia, much less the IRS,” she said.

“We face a serious question about whether or not to continue to pour resources and productivity into military projects while we cannot meet human needs,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea to take that question seriously, as a personal question.”

In the second section of the sixth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle again enumerates some of the things in the soul.

Back in book two, we learned that there are three things in the soul — passions, faculties, and characteristics — of which virtues are of the third sort (characteristics).

In the previous section of book six, we found out about the rational and irrational parts of the soul, and the scientific and deliberative parts of the rational part.

Now we’re going to learn about the three things in the soul that “control action and truth” and investigate which of these things is the originator of action. These three things are:

  1. sensation or perception
  2. reason or intellect
  3. desire, appetite, or impulse

By “action” he means “moral action” — not just activity of the sort any animal engages in, but deliberate action of the sort that has potential moral import. For this reason, he discards sensation/perception (which we share with animals) as having any effect worth noticing on originating moral action.

Moral action originates in choice, and choice emerges at the junction of intellect/reason and desire/appetite/impulse. For the choice to be a good one, the reasoning must be sound and the desire right, and the two must be connected so that the reasoning helps in the pursuit of what is desired.

The reasoning in this case is of a practical sort — the calculative/deliberative variety, rather than the scientific sort (see ’s discussion of section one). Practical reasoning is mixed with desire — for it to be good, it must be true and the desire must be a good one; scientific reasoning, on the other hand, is unmixed — in its case truth is the sole criterion of goodness.

Aristotle says that because choice requires a combination of desire and reasoning, it cannot exist in a being that does not have an intellect or in one that does not have a moral state or character from which desire springs. The intellect alone cannot choose; it can only judge the wisdom of various courses of action toward meeting a goal. It takes desire to pick a goal in the first place, and then intellect to pick a course of action that brings that goal closer to realization.

“Choice is either desiderative reason or ratiocinative desire, and such an origin of action is a [hu]man.” That’s a mouthful. Here are how some of the other translators have rendered this:

  • “Moral Choice is either Intellect put in a position of Will-ing, or Appetition subjected to an Intellectual Process. And such a Cause is Man.” (Chase)
  • “deliberate preference is either intellect influenced by appetite, or appetite influenced by intellect; and such a principle is man.” (Browne)
  • “…that moral election or preference, peculiar to man; which may be called either impassioned intelligence, or reflecting appetite…” (Gillies)
  • “purpose may be defined as desiring reason, or as rational desire, and such a principle as this is man.” (Grant)
  • “The Will may consequently be defined either as ‘Intuition exciting an Impulse’ or ‘Impulse fashioned by Reason’; and, having such a Will, man is the mainspring of his own actions and a free agent.” (Hatch)
  • “Purpose, then, may be called either a reason that desires, or a desire that reasons; and this faculty of originating action constitutes a man.” (Peters)
  • “deliberate choice is either orectic intellect, or appetite possessing a discursive energy; and man is a principle of this kind.” (Taylor)
  • “deliberate preference is either intellect influenced by desire, or desire joined with intellect; and such a compound principle is man.” (Vincent)
  • “purpose may be defined either as reasoning resultant upon impulse, or as impulse coupled with reasoning. And in this sense and thus it is, that man’s acts originate in himself.” (Williams)

Judging from these, it seems as though Aristotle is anticipating the question of which comes first in the combination of reason and desire: does reason yoke desire and start to plow, or does desire enlist reason to seek its ends? Aristotle says it’s all a matter of how you look at it; neither is more accurate — does the sperm penetrate the egg, or does the egg absorb the sperm? It’s just a matter of how you choose to describe it.

Neither reason nor desire is capable of initiating action by itself. If you trace any deliberate human action back to the spring it came from, you reach a starting point where reason and desire combine, and you can trace the path no further. How the merger happens is a mystery (or maybe Aristotle will clear it up later on here, or in one of his works on psychology or biology), but it isn’t a matter of choice on the part of desire or of reason, since that choice can only happen after the merger takes place.

In some ethical frameworks, the picture we have is of something like reason & temptation/desire teaming up to set us on a course of action, and then a third faculty — conscience — struggling to interrupt this process and steer us on a better path that is contrary to our desire but nonetheless better according to some standard.

I think Aristotle would call this psychological hogwash. Conscience has no toe hold, no way to influence moral action, except to the extent it is part of reason or desire. We need to train our reason so we know how to behave well, and we need to mold our characters so that we want to behave well, and that’s the end of the story. If we do not actually desire what is good, there is no third-thing inside of us that can step in and contradict the other two.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics