ONE of the most disconcerting phenomena of these times is the disparity between the enormous amount of idealist propaganda that goes on from pulpit, platform and press, and the inconsiderable effect that it seems to produce in the actual conduct of men and of nations. The whole world is humming and roaring with idealism of one kind and another, and if that were all we had to take account of the inference would be that the kingdom of heaven is not far off. But the greater part of this, by far the greater part, goes in at one ear of the world and comes out at the other. It leaves us standing morally pretty much where we were. We listen to it with approval, discuss it for a quarter of an hour, and then go on to the next.

To say that men are not in earnest about these things would be an overstatement. They are immensely in earnest, but their earnestness appears mainly in the discussion which rages fiercely on the surface of society but without disturbing the deep under-currents of its practice. For some years past--to take an obvious example--a multitude of writers and orators have been proclaiming the self-evident truth that the problem of founding an effective League of Nations is insoluble without self renunciation all round in the matter of sovereign rights. Meanwhile the nations of the world, or more strictly speaking their governments, sometimes under the leadership of the very men who have made the aforesaid statement, have shown not the slightest disposition to renounce any portion of their sovereign rights, but have made it clear, whenever that danger-point was approached, that they intended to keep their sovereign rights intact. All the existing governments of the world are there for the avowed purpose of safeguarding the sovereign rights of the nations they rule or serve, and there is no one of them that could make surrender of these without being immediately hurled from power by the political forces behind it.

But just as there could be no morality between individuals if the rule were laid down that self-sacrifice is never to be practised, so, on those terms, there can be no morality between nations save of an elementary or barbaric kind. As things now are the sovereign wrongs of one nation are often involved in the sovereign rights of another. What, then, is the use of discussing the redress of these wrongs if every government is irrevocably determined to stand firm by the sovereign rights of the nation behind it? The bare possibility of an international ethic seems barred from the outset

It might be contended and, in fact, has been, that even between individuals a certain degree of morality is attainable without the principle of self-sacrifice entering into the picture--a morality of the "live and let live" order. That may conceivably be so. But it must be admitted that the best morality attainable on these terms would be a poor affair. It would never reach the level of mutual service but remain fixed at the level of self-protection, furnishing no scope for valor and loving-kindness, nor for any other of the virtues that give dignity and beauty to human life. It would have no heroes and no saints, and its highest achievements would hardly be worth remembering in history and certainly not worth celebrating in poetry or monumentalizing in any art.

And even that modest degree of attainment is not possible unless we think of all the parties to our non-self-sacrificing morality as starting perfectly fair. But if some of them to begin with were handicapped by wrongs out of which the others were reaping advantage--working as slaves, let us say, for idle and cruel masters who lived on the fruits of their labor--it is pretty obvious that the "morality" of live and let live would simply be another name for the perpetuation, under the form of law, of the existing wrong. Without self-sacrifice you and I cannot live in moral relations, even of the most elementary kind, so long as there is something that I value in my pocket which properly belongs to you or in yours that properly belongs to me. We must both start fair, with nothing in our pockets to which the other has a just claim, or we shall never rise even to the level of common decency in our relations to one another.

These considerations should be thoughtfully weighed by all who are interested in international ethics.

Such persons should make up their mind, in the first instance, as to what kind of an ethic would satisfy them. What degree of elevation is it to attain? Is it to be high enough in its ideals and wide enough in its principles to furnish the nations with scope for heroic actions in their dealings with one another? Is it to include mercy, pity, loving-kindness? Is it to be founded on the law of bearing one another's burdens? Is it, in short, to be Christian?

Our preachers talk glibly of "introducing the Christian spirit into international relations." Do they realize what that involves? Do they realize that the introduction of the Christian spirit into international relations is impossible without the willingness of all nations to sacrifice their national interests for the sake of international interests of greater importance? Are they themselves willing that their own nation should "die to live?" Are they prepared to go to their government with that demand, or to fight the next election on that basis? If not, let them talk no more of introducing the Christian spirit into international relations. The reign of cant has still to be overthrown.

Or would they be satisfied with something less than this for a beginning? Would it be enough if our international ethic began with the understanding that each nation should respect the "rights" of every other nation but without any surrender of its own--the principle of "live and let live?" That, they might admit, is not very heroic, but far better than nothing, and a promising basis on which building might begin. But do they see that even so little as this is not possible unless the parties to it start fair? What if nation A has in its pocket something which nation B claims as its own? What if nation C claims as one of its rights, which by hypothesis it will not surrender but expects all others to respect, the right to hold nation D in subjection? What if nation E has grown rich by means of a protective tariff which has impoverished F? Is it not somewhat of a mockery under these unequal conditions for the first nation to say to the second, "I will respect your rights on the understanding that you respect mine, but without surrender of right on my side," and to propose that as the basis of international ethic or as the growing point of its future development? It is the old difficulty about the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you" is applicable only among equals, among those who start fair. Applied to unequals it breaks down at the first experiment and is apt to become, among those who profess it, a cloak for iniquities.

It would appear, then, that to attempt the foundation of an international ethic in which the principle of national self-sacrifice shall have no place is to attempt the impossible. The only effect of trying to solve the problem on these lines is that we give the name of "rights" to the "wrongs" that now exist and so defeat ourselves ab initio. On the other hand we are confronted with the fact that the principle of national self-sacrifice, without which an international ethic is impossible, in one which the existing governments of the world cannot admit. All these governments are, in the last analysis, the organs of nationalism; that is to say, they exist for the purpose, beyond all other purposes, of preventing national interest, as it exists for the time being, from being sacrificed.

The moral would seem to be that if an international ethic is ever to be created and made effective it will be done not by the action of nationalist governments, but by some other agency.

An international ethic, to be worthy of its name, must be acknowledged by the nations, as nations, in the same sense that the law which forbids stealing is acknowledged by individual citizens, or at least by the vast majority of them. We cannot affirm that an international ethic exists merely because a number of enlightened persons in various parts of the world hold exalted views as to the rules which should govern the nations in their dealings with one another. It is not enough, either, that some master mind should produce "the standard book on the subject" setting forth the rules and principles in a manner satisfactory to a committee of experts. The rules and principles in question must already be widely acknowledged and practised by the nations as such, or by the governments which act for them, before we can say that an international ethic exists. When Grotius (who wrote on international law) produced his great work, "De Jure Belli et Pacis," he did not construct or create the jus in question, but merely gathered together and classified the rules and customs already in operation throughout the most civilized parts of the world; the value of such a book being that it helps to steady and establish the practise of the rules and to extend their operation over wider areas. Had not international law of a kind already secured a wide acknowledgment there would have been nothing for Grotius to write about. Or--to put the matter in a different light--if the normal practice of the Israelites had been to steal each other's property whenever they got the chance, without shame incurred or penalty imposed, would it not be absurd to say that the ethics of Israel forbad stealing merely because an eminent leader among them, named Moses, had produced a book, or a table of stone, in which stealing was forbidden? Long before Moses produced the table of stone it was pretty well understood among the Israelites that any man who robbed his neighbor's hen roost was a rascal, and all that Moses did with the table of stone was to put the fear of God on that man and upon his would-be imitators. In the same way the fact that a number of enlightened persons in all nations hold the view that no nation has the right forcibly to deprive another of its territory, economic resources and trading facilities, and write books to that effect, does not entitle us to say that an international ethic exists to define the right and wrong of national practice in this matter. An ethic is not international until it is internationally acknowledged and practised as the rule, exceptions to which are visited with disgrace if not with punishment. In the absence of considerable international practice to give it effect it is doubtful if such a body of enlightened opinion could be called "an ethic" at all, or anything more than the pious opinion of certain individuals.

With this important distinction in mind it will hardly be denied that such an international ethic as can now be fairly said to exist is, at best, of the most elementary and uncertain kind and quite inadequate to give moral direction to the powerful national interests which come into collision and call for reconciliation on the field of foreign policy. No doubt there are multitudes of persons in many lands who are honestly persuaded and constantly proclaim that if the ethic of Jesus Christ ("love thy neighbor") or the ethic of Socrates ("it is better to suffer injustice than to be unjust") or the ethic of Kant ("treat every man as an end and not as a means") were consistently applied to international relations, peace and good-will would cover the earth. So unquestionably they would, and so far as peace and good-will are concerned it matters little whether the ethic of Jesus, the ethic of Socrates, or the ethic of Kant be chosen for the purpose. But the fact remains that the existing governments of the earth, when it comes to the point of adjusting the conflicting interests of nationalism, act on principles which would be pretty much what they are if Jesus, Socrates, and Kant had never been heard of. Each is intent on getting the best out of the bargain for itself and would be immediately hurled from power by its constituents (assuming it to be constitutional) if it showed any disposition to love its enemies, suffer injustice rather than cause it, or treat other nations as "ends in themselves." To be sure there are differences. The ethic of the Washington Conference and of the recent conferences in London was not quite so crude and barbaric as that which drew up the Treaty of Versailles. But what made the difference was not a growing regard in the negotiating parties for the ethic of Jesus, Socrates or Kant, but fear for their own skins, the dread of what might happen to them in the event of another Great War, and reluctance to endure the burdens of preparing for it. There is no great nation today that would not find itself plunged into war by the action of its government if the alternative lay between that and "loving its enemies," "suffering injustice rather than causing it," or treating other nations as "ends in themselves." "Video meliora proboque" is the international ethic of the enlightened citizen when meditating on these things; but it changes into "deteriora sequor" when he follows the action of his government in foreign policy. There is a tragic discrepancy at this point. It is only when we are considering what the best citizens think and feel that we can affirm the existence of an enlightened international ethic. Judging by what is acknowledged and practised by the nations as such, in their official dealings with one another, an international ethic is far from having reached the enlightened stage. It is unenlightened, elementary and barbaric. One may even doubt at times whether it exists at all.

If it be granted that an international ethic does not exist, save in an elementary and inadequate form, the question naturally arises as to what steps, if any, can be taken, what methods adopted with a view to changing so dangerous a state of things for the better.

Probably the first method that would occur to the modern mind is that of calling a conference of experts and wise men to deliberate upon the matter and record their findings. Let them define in the first instance the standard by which the actions of nations, in their dealings with one another, are to be judged right or wrong. Is it the same as, or different from, the standard which governs the actions of individuals?--a question by no means to be decided offhand. In either case, what, precisely, is it? Is it the greatest conceivable happiness of the race, or the largest liberty for self-development, or the utmost degree of organization, or the mere tendency to promote peace? This question answered, let the principles be defined which the application of such a standard involves. Finally, let a code of rules be drawn up, not necessarily a long one, for dealing with the main types or classes of international problems that call for ethical decision--the Ten Commandments, let us call them, of international morality.

I am far from saying that such a conference would be useless. At least it would have the use of revealing the enormous difficulty of the matter in hand, which few people at present seem to realize. I doubt, however, if it would agree, except perhaps on a compromise of little value. Its findings would probably be expressed in what Dean Inge calls "Resolution English, the essence of which is that each word should convey the least meaning that it can." And I greatly fear that our conference would be followed not by action on the lines laid down but by more discussion of the same sort.

In ethics the method of determining the principles on which we are going to act before the occasion arises for acting upon them is never very effective, because the principles are apt to be forgotten or qualified or explained away in the interval that elapses between their formulation and the occasion for applying them; and this danger is all the greater when the work of formulating them has been done by a committee or syndicate. Moreover, ethical principles which are defined in that manner are always felt by those who have to apply them to be fabrications or artifacts. They have no natural authority and the attempt to make them appear authoritative is immediately recognized as forced and disingenuous.

The truth is that in ethical advance the formulation of principles follows rather than precedes the actions to which they refer. It is not until somebody, or, in this case, some nation, without any authority behind it, has had the courage to perform an action which goes beyond the principle hitherto in force that the ethical expert can find a new principle to formulate. It is the heroic actor who suggests the new principle to the expert and not vice versa--an interesting difference between the conditions obtaining in ethics and those proper to the positive sciences. The most remarkable example of this was, of course, afforded by the Founder of Christianity, whose action in going up to Jerusalem, and in the sequel, embodied a principle which his followers were not able to formulate until the action in question revealed it to them. We are in error when we imagine, as many persons are in the habit of doing, that the Ten Commandments--to recur to our former example--announced to the Israelites a morality in which they were entirely unpractised. It is only as addressed to a people already practised, but not practised enough, that the Ten Commandments have any point or meaning. Their object was to steady, establish and extend a form of conduct already widely recognized as right. The attempt to reverse this method invariably leads to disappointing results and goes far to explain the phenomenon noted at an earlier point of this article--the astounding disparity between idealism of the modern world and the small effect it has on the actual conduct of men and nations--a disparity nowhere more conspicuous than on the field of international ethics. Indeed the very ardor with which we discuss what ought to be done often drains off and uses up the energy that might otherwise be used in doing it, and sometimes even leads us into mistaking the discussion for the performance. In this false security nothing decisive gets done.

Dismissing this method, then, as inadequate to the end in view, and useful only when used in conjunction with one far more effective, it remains to inquire whether we can find a better way. On that I have certain suggestions to offer, but before doing so I would call attention to a highly important point.

It is commonly assumed that an international ethic is simply an extension of domestic morality, of the "rules of conduct obtaining between individuals," to the sphere of foreign relations.

Before adopting that view it would be well to ask ourselves what the "rules of conduct obtaining between individuals" really are. Raising this question, we observe at once that the rules which "actually obtain" among individuals are by no means identical with the rules to which lip-service is paid. One of these latter runs "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." It would surely be an exaggeration to treat this, and the body of morality that goes with it, as "actually obtaining among individuals." Were this rule extended to the international field and observed as little as it is by those who profess it as a law of individual conduct, it may be doubted if universal peace and good-will would be any nearer or the world much better off, in any important particular, than it is today. Conceivably, and indeed probably, it would be worse off essentially. For the profession of these lofty precepts in conjunction with a current practice which belies them should not be cited as an instance of the morality obtaining among individuals but of the immorality so obtaining. The extension of that to the international sphere should be avoided at all costs by the would-be founders of an international ethic. It would amount to nothing better than the internationalizing of hypocrisy.

It is by no means easy to give a concrete meaning to so vague a phrase as "the morality obtaining among individuals"; but a glance at the law of the land will furnish a helpful indication of what it really is. "In no circumstances," remarks a recent writer on jurisprudence, "do we recognize a legal duty of self-sacrifice. 'The law,' said Baron Bramwell, 'allows what I may term a reasonable selfishness . . . ; it says, let every one look out for himself and protect his own interests, and he who puts up a barricade against a flood is entitled to say to his neighbor who complains of it, Why did not you do the same?' "

The ethic of "the law" indicated in these statements is by no means coincident at all points with the "rules of conduct obtaining between individuals." At some points it stands above and at others below the current morality of business and of daily life. But I venture to think these words of Baron Bramwell bring us much nearer the concrete meaning we are in search of than we are brought by reference to "love thy neighbor as thyself" or any similar maxim.

Is an international ethic, then, nothing more than the extension of this kind of thing to the dealings of the nations with one another? Will our ethic be adequately founded when the nations have agreed on the principle that every one is "to look out for himself and protect his own interests and he who puts up a barricade against a flood is entitled to say to his neighbor, Why did not you do the same?"

In that case I offer the opinion that international ethic is not worth striving for. It is not worth striving for because, at that level, it is already in existence. To be sure there are, as yet, no law courts to enforce it, and law courts are not to be despised. But if the movement for "federation of the peoples" or "the unity of mankind" aims only at creating legal machinery for protecting the nations in the process of looking after themselves it will be condemned by future historians as having made no contribution whatever to the advance of morality, but rather for having stereotyped morality in a low form to which it had already attained. It may also be doubted whether such an enterprise would have the effect so commonly predicted of it--that of establishing universal peace. The pursuit of self-interest, no matter how artfully it be managed, inevitably leads to war in the long run, and all the more inevitably when the management is artful than when it is crude. By adjusting the war-making tendencies of self-interest among the members of a particular nation, by substituting civil procedure for violence, we do not destroy them; we concentrate them more effectually against the foreigner. From which it may be inferred that the main effect of bottling them all up in a unitary system would be, so far as war is concerned, to change its character from that it now has of strife with foreigners into that of armed rebellion against the decisions of the world court, in short to substitute civil war for foreign. The remark has been made that "where picking pockets is the business in hand three men are less likely to quarrel when they stand under three umbrellas than when they stand under one." If you substitute "the pursuit of a reasonable selfishness" for picking pockets, the remark may be applied without further qualification to a League of Nations constituted on the principle we are discussing.

The point emerging from all this that I am anxious to bring out is, that an international ethic, if it is to have any value at all, must be something other than an extension of the "morality actually obtaining among individuals." It must stand on a higher level. The altruism which the law of the land does not recognize must be its foundation. Or, to say the same thing in other words, unless international ethic means ethic of a higher quality than that now sanctioned by law it either means nothing at all or means something that is not intrinsically worth while. To state the problem thus is no doubt to increase its difficulty. But something is gained if the statement be true.

It is extremely doubtful that the problem before us is susceptible of solution by the method of direct frontal attack on the salient difficulties--the method now most in favor. A farsighted and comprehensive strategy, wide encircling movements on both flanks, combined with steady pressure on the front and rear, and constant attention to cutting off the enemies' supplies, is called for.

Instead therefore of attempting a fully worked out system of international ethics, which, for reasons given, would be premature, I suggest that effort should rather be directed to promoting closer relations between the peoples of the world in every form where common action is possible: the certainty being that in whatever degree or form cooperation takes place the ethic appropriate to coöperation will presently appear and assert itself, not as a code of rules laid down in advance of the performance, but as the flower and fruit naturally growing out of the performance itself. In this way it is that all morality has come into being and I cannot imagine that it will be otherwise with an international ethic.

With this purpose in view it would be well if attention were turned aside for a little from the question of political coöperations--with which the League of Nations is mainly occupied--and consideration given to what can be done on other lines--lines which point not so much to a League of Governments but to that far greater thing, a League of Peoples. The world needs good government--needs it on a cooperative basis--but it has many other interests equally important and equally unattainable without international cooperation. Immense possibilities are waiting to be explored and, if the word may be used, to be exploited, in this direction. Among the interests of mankind that rank on at least an equal footing with good government is good education. Education will never be raised to a level adequate to the demands of the present form of civilization--it is woefully inadequate now--till international ethical action raises it. Beyond this, or perhaps included in it, lie the whole range of interests covered by science, art, philosophy, religion, and, not least, by labor, all of which at the moment participate in the moral anarchy that characterizes the political situation, and are to a very large extent the cause of it. These also will never discover the moral ideal that is to unify them, each with itself and all with one another, until they are internationally pursued. That ideal at present is known to no man; its emergence will not take place till a world-wide coöperation has revealed it; but it will assuredly take place then. When it takes place an international ethic will be on the way.

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  • L. P. JACKS, Principal of Manchester College, Oxford; Editor of The Hibbert Journal
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