Earl Grey Memorial Lecture, No. 13. Delivered March 13, 1931. Printed as a pamphlet in 1931. Reprinted in C. D. Broad, Religion, Philosophy and Psychic Research (London: Routledge, 1953), with the addition of "Afterthoughts in Time of Cold War."
WAR THOUGHTS IN PEACE TIME
C. D. Broad
Statement of the Subject.
If anything about the future of a nation can be inferred with high probability from its past, it is safe to assert that within the next fifty years England will have to decide whether or not to take part in another European war. Some of my readers, or the sons of some of them, will therefore almost certainly be faced with the following question:
'Ought England to enter into this threatened war or not, and ought I to use such influence as I have as a speaker, writer, or voter, for or against participation?'If it should happen that the nation decides to engage in war, each citizen will be confronted with another set of problems:
'Ought I to do all that I can to enable my country to win a complete victory, or ought I to work for a peace by mutual agreement? And, in particular, ought I to fight or to refuse to fight for my country?'These are the questions which I am going to discuss in this lecture. Before doing so, however, I propose to make some general remarks in order to clear the ground and to obviate certain preliminary criticisms.
Preliminary Objections Answered.
At the very outset the following objection might be made:
'No one can foresee at present the circumstances under which England will be threatened with another war, nor can anyone foretell now the probable consequences of engaging in it or abstaining from it. Surely we should need information on both these points before we could rationally determine what our country ought to do. Is it not then idle to discuss the subject at present? Would it not be wiser in the meanwhile to turn our attention to more cheerful or more pressing questions, and to refrain from crossing bridges till we come to them?'This contention is plausible, and it will be worth while to consider how much there is in it.
It is true that each man will have to make his decision for himself when the time comes on the best information that is then available to him. And it is true that we cannot foresee in detail what the relevant factors in the situation will be. But this does not render our present undertaking wholly futile. In the first place, we can here and now outline with considerable accuracy the kind of arguments which will be used on each side of the question, and can estimate their relevance and validity. It is hard enough for anyone to reach a rational decision when those emotions and passions are aroused in himself and in others which inevitably must be excited when his country is on the brink of war or when it has actually made the plunge and he has to decide whether to fight or to refrain. But it will be doubly hard for any man who has never reflected on the subject; who has never sat down in a cool hour to consider what arguments are relevant and what are not; and who has never noted, and armed himself against, those passions and prejudices which are most likely to mislead him when the time for decision comes.
We are often told by superior persons that questions of right and wrong are decided by direct insight, and not by elaborate processes of weighing and estimating; and this is often made an excuse for evading the dull and tiresome task of preliminary analysis and reflexion. The statement is as true and as false as the dictum that no one can learn to play golf or tennis from books or professionals. This is not generally held to dispense with all need for discovering and analysing our characteristic faults and trying to eliminate them by quiet practice before exposing ourselves to the stresses of a championship match. The oft-quoted couplet that
. . . high Heaven rejects the loveis about as helpful in the moral problems of real life as it would be on the putting-green. It is therefore both practicable and profitable to utilize the breathing-space which the temporary exhaustion of Europe allows us in order to form a set of rational convictions on these subjects, and to anchor ourselves so firmly to them that they will continue to hold us when we are exposed to the full blast of private emotion and collective suggestion.
Moreover, the present is rather a specially favourable time for making such reflexions and putting them on record. For we can still remember the emotions which we felt, the arguments that were addressed to us, and the beliefs which we held in the years 1914-18. But the emotions can now be remembered in tranquillity, the arguments can now be assessed dispassionately, and the beliefs can now be confronted with the relevant facts.
Lastly, if there is any practical return which a professional philosopher can make to the community which pays him so handsomely for doing such pleasant work in such agreeable surroundings, it is surely that of clearing up confused ideas and pointing out specious fallacies.
Outline of the Relevant General Principles of Ethics
I have now, I hope, sufficiently explained the general nature of my subject, and adequately answered the preliminary objections to it. Without further delay I will enter upon the details of my task. I must first give a very condensed, and therefore rather dogmatic, account of the general principles as I conceive them. For, unless we are agreed in principle as to what determines the rightness or wrongness of conduct in general, we have no basis for discussing the rightness or wrongness of any specific kind of action, such as intervening or remaining neutral in a war.
The Factors on which the Rightness or Wrongness of an Action Depends.
On my view the Net Value of an act depends jointly on three different factors. These are
Pleasantness and painfulness are the most obvious examples of intrinsic value and disvalue, respectively. It is plain that an act may be pleasant, but unfitting or likely to lead to bad consequences; and an act may be painful, but fitting or likely to lead to good consequences. Again, it is directly unfitting to answer a question with a deliberately false statement, though a lie may have great utility to all parties. It is directly fitting to fulfil a promise when called upon to do so, though the fulfilment may lead to disastrous consequences to everyone concerned. About intrinsic value and disvalue I need say no more; but there are several points to be noticed about fittingness and utility.
Fittingness and Unfittingness.
In the present situation, to which the act is fitting or unfitting, we must include the results of past actions, such as explicit promises, tacit understandings, and so on. Again, the present situation will always be highly complex, and an act which is fitting to some features in it may be unfitting to others. Suppose, e.g., that I tell a lie to B in order to shield C who has made sacrifices for me in the past. My action is unfitting in so far as it is a deliberately misleading answer to B's question, whilst it is fitting in so far as it is a return of kindness to my benefactor C. The Net Fittingness of an action to a situation is determined jointly by its fittingness and its unfittingness to the various factors in that situation.
Utility and Disutility.
The last remark about fittingness applies, mutatis mutandis, to utility. The consequences of an act are always complex; and some of them may be good, some bad, and the rest indifferent. The Net Utility of an act is determined jointly by the goodness and the badness of the various features in its consequences. There are, however, two special points about utility which need some further discussion. These are the distinction between Direct and Indirect utility, and the bearing of uncertainty on utility.
Direct and Indirect Utility.
In considering the utility of an action the following complication has to be taken into account. In a certain situation the direct consequences of performing the action A might be indifferent or possibly good. But in most situations in which an action like A is a possible alternative the consequences of performing it might be definitely bad. Or, again, the mere fact that a number of actions like A were being performed simultaneously might have disastrous consequences, although no such action taken apart from the rest would do so. The assassination of Napoleon would probably have had great net utility, but most political assassinations have predominantly evil consequences. One trespasser in a field may do no assignable damage, but the simultaneous presence of a thousand would ruin any crop.
Now, if people know that a certain action A has been performed on a certain occasion and has then had certain consequences, this knowledge will affect their own decisions when they are placed in situations in which A is a possible alternative. If it is known that A had good results, they will be liable to overlook the special circumstances in which it was performed and to decide on a similar action in situations in which it will turn out badly. If, on the other hand it is known that A had bad results, they will again be liable to overlook the special circumstances and to shun A in situations in which it would turn out well. Again, the knowledge that A has been performed may lead so many people by imitation to perform such actions simultaneously that the collective effect is altogether different in kind from the effect of each such action taken by itself
For these reasons we must always distinguish carefully between the direct effects of performing a certain action in a certain situation, and the indirect effects which the widespread knowledge that this act has been performed and has had such and such consequences will have on the behaviour of other men. Very often it will acquire utility from the one kind of effect and disutility from the other, and these must be carefully weighed against each other in estimating its net utility.
Uncertainty and Utility.
No human being who is called upon to make a decision can possibly know with certainty the whole truth about the situation with which he has to deal. Nor can he possibly foresee with certainty all the consequences of each alternative course of action. It is our first duty to make use of all the available information, to criticize it to the best of our ability, and to base on it the most reasonable judgment that we can make about the present situation and the probable outcome of various alternative lines of conduct. Any mistake about the facts of the present situation may make us think that A is more fitting to it than B, when really B is more fitting than A. Any mistake about the consequences of various alternatives may make us think that A has greater net utility than B, when really it has less. Provided that we have fairly used all the data available to us, and have exercised our intellects to the best of our ability in basing our estimates of the facts on these data, our decisions can be formally right even though they should be materially wrong. We have to aim always at material rightness; and, if we miss it only through unavoidable ignorance or misinformation about matters of fact, or through honestly mistaken inferences as to their consequences, we shall always secure formal rightness. But our actions cannot be even formally right if our ignorance, or misinformation, or false inferences be due to our own laziness or prejudice.
The fact that we can make only more or less probable guesses about the consequences of any action introduces certain further complications which must be noted at this point. The first is this. Suppose that A and B are two alternative courses of action. I may judge that A will most likely have the consequence x, and that B will most likely have the consequence y, and I may be much more confident that x will follow if A be done than that y will follow if B be done. On the other hand, it may be that y would be much more valuable if it did happen than x would be. What is it reasonable to do when I have thus to choose between a smaller probability of securing a more valuable result, and a greater probability of securing a less valuable result? A second, and closely connected, complication is this. Very often, with regard to each proposed course of action, I can say only that it will undoubtedly have one or other of a certain set of alternative possible consequences, and that some of these are much more likely to follow than others. Now it may be that I can see that some of these alternative possible consequences would be very good, others very bad, and the rest moderately good or bad. What degree of net utility or disutility is it reasonable to assign to a proposed course of action in such a case?
To answer both these questions we must introduce something analogous to what is called 'mathematical expectation' in the theory of games of chance. This is defined as the product of the probability of an event happening by the amount which I shall gain or lose if it should happen. Suppose, e.g., that a fair die is to be thrown, and I am to receive a shilling if it gives a 6, and I am to pay sixpence if it gives any other of the five numbers. My expectation of gain is then one sixth of a shilling, i.e. twopence. My expectation of loss is five-sixths of sixpence, i.e. fivepence. Thus my net expectation of loss is threepence, i.e. it would be reasonable for me to expect to be paid threepence to induce me to enter the game. Suppose now that a rival game is going on. Here there is a fair roulette-board, with one red, two white, and three blue divisions, all of equal size. I am to pay sixpence if the pointer stops at a red division, I am to receive two shillings if it stops at a white division and I am to pay one shilling if it stops at a blue division. The red alternative gives an expectation of loss measured by one-sixth of sixpence, i.e. one penny. The white gives an expectation of gain measured by one-third of two shillings, i.e. eightpence. The blue gives an expectation of loss measured by one-half of a shilling, i.e. sixpence. Thus my net expectation of gain is one penny. If then I had to enter one game or the other it would be reasonable for me to choose the second.
Now let us compare the rival games to alternative courses of action in a given situation. Entering one of the games is equivalent to deciding on one, and rejecting the rest, of the alternative courses; and it is a rule of the universe that we have to enter one or other of the games, since 'inaction' is one alternative form of action. The various possibilities in each game correspond to the various possible alternative consequences of each alternative course of action. The sums to be gained or lost by the realization of the various alternatives correspond to the amounts of good or evil which will accrue if various possible consequences of our present action be realized in the future. The general rule is now obvious: 'Calculate the expectation of good or evil for each alternative consequence of any one course of action, counting good as gain and evil as loss. Take the algebraic sum of these expectations, and this will give you the net expectation of good or evil from that course of action. Do likewise in turn for each of the alternative courses of action Then, so far as utility alone is concerned, that course is to be preferred which has the greatest net expectation of good or the least net expectation of evil.'
I am quite well aware that what I have just been saying must have sounded ridiculously artificial and pedantic. In real life we cannot accurately estimate the probabilities of the various possible consequences of our actions. Nor can we assign precise numerical values to the good or evil which would accrue on the realization of each of these alternatives. This is true, but quite trivial. We can and do make rough estimates of the relative probabilities of various alternative possible consequences. We can and do make rough estimates of the relative degrees of goodness or badness of various possible states of affairs. And the artificially simplified case of games of chance does show us the principle in accordance with these two kinds of estimate must be combined if we are to reach rationally grounded judgments of final preference. We are constantly having to make such judgments, and we shall not do so any the worse for recognizing explicitly the rule in accordance with which they ought to be made.
Definition of a 'Right Act'.
We are now in a position to define what is meant by saying that a certain act is 'right' in a certain situation. The Total Net Value of an act done in a given situation is determined jointly by its net intrinsic value, its net fittingness to the situation, and its net utility in the situation. And, in estimating the net utility, both the probability of gaining the results aimed at and the goodness or badness of the results if gained must be allowed for in the way which I have just described. Now an act is Right in a given situation if its total net value is at least as great as that of any other act which the agent could have done in that situation. There may of course happen to be several alternative lines of action open to the agent such that the total net value of each is the same, and such that no other alternative open to him has so great a total net value as these. If so, all these alternatives are right. Should there be one action whose total net value is greater than that of every other alternative open to the agent, we say that this is the right action, and that this and only this ought to be done. For the present purpose I include deliberate abstention from action, i.e. 'letting things take their own course', as one of the alternative modes of action.
It must be noticed that sometimes the total net value of every alternative open to the agent is negative. This is illustrated by the case of a man who has to choose between facing exposure and ruin or paying a sum of money to a blackmailer. In such cases the right action is the one which has the least total net disvalue.
Rival Views of Ethics.
I believe that the brief sketch of the relevant principles of ethics which I have just given accords with the convictions of common sense, though it no doubt has that appearance of paradox and pedantry which always shows itself when we try to make the opinions of plain men precise, consistent, and adequate. It would be criticized for different reasons by moralists of two different kinds. On the one hand, pure Utilitarians would object to my recognizing immediate fittingness and unfittingness as an independent factor, beside utility and disutility, in determining the net total value of an action. On the other hand, extreme Intuitionists would claim that the rightness or wrongness of an act depends only on its fittingness or unfittingness or its intrinsic value or disvalue; or, at any rate, they would assert that certain kinds and degrees of unfittingness or of intrinsic disvalue would suffice to render an act wrong no matter how much greater its utility might be than that of any other alternative open to the agent.
I do not think that either of these extreme positions is tenable though a complete treatise on ethics would be needed to deal with them adequately. Here I must content myself with the following dogmatic assertions:
I do not, however, consider that differences of opinion on these points should render the whole of the subsequent discussion futile for those who disagree with me here. For I think we must grant to the pure Utilitarian that on the whole those types of action which are most strongly condemned as unfitting do generally tend to have very evil consequences when their indirect as well as their direct effects are taken into account. And I think we must grant to the extreme Intuitionist that some types of action are so utterly unfitting to nearly every kind of situation that it is highly unlikely that their utility will be great enough to counterbalance their unfittingness and make them right on the whole.
The Rights and Wrongs of War
Having stated and defended our view of the general principles of ethics, we can now apply it to the particular question of intervention or non-intervention by a nation in a war. We shall naturally consider this in turn under the three headings of intrinsic value or disvalue, fittingness or unfittingness to the contemporary situation, and utility or disutility.
Intrinsic Value of a State of War.
The opinion which is commonly expressed in civilized countries in modern times is that fighting is an intrinsically evil activity, which may, however, rightly be exercised under certain circumstances because it is more fitting to the situation or has greater utility than refusal to fight. This view about the intrinsic disvalue of fighting is not universal; there are people who believe, or who say or think that they believe, that fighting is an intrinsically valuable activity. This opinion has, indeed, most often been expressed by those whose age or sex has unhappily prevented them from enjoying in person the spiritual experience which they so highly recommend. It has also been enunciated by men who have felt that their special talents or professional training made it their duty to serve their country in some non-combatant capacity, and who, with rare self-abnegation, have consented to make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake. In an imperfect world testimonials from such sources will always be viewed with some suspicion. But it is extremely important not to be unfair to an opinion because it has been stated most loudly by knaves and most frequently by fools. Men who have experienced in themselves and have witnessed in others the full horrors of fighting in a modern war have nevertheless expressed in a cool hour their deliberate conviction that there is in it something of supreme value which humanity cannot permanently forgo without grave spiritual loss.
The truth which there is in this contention is as follows. The ability to give up safety, comfort, and prosperity, and all kindly and familiar things, to face again and again the most hateful kinds of mental and physical torment, and to force one's mind and body to go on when nature cries aloud for rest and retreat, is one of the most admirable qualities that a man can have. Nor is it only good in itself; it is probably a necessary condition of most of the higher and more heroic virtues. But a mere capacity which is never exercised is like a jewel that never leaves the mine, what is admirable is a good disposition manifesting itself in noble action. Moreover, it is not unreasonable to suppose that capacities which remain in a state of mere potentiality for generations tend to atrophy, as the eyes of animals who live in perpetual darkness lose the power of seeing. Now it is doubtless true that even in profound peace there are always some people exercising heroic courage and endurance. Miners, sailors, and fishermen are obvious instances in point; and any poor person who struggles to keep himself and his family decent without the help of public or private charity displays as high a degree of the less spectacular forms of heroism as anyone need ask for. But it is quite certain that most people, and particularly most well-to-do people, in any civilized country are not nowadays called upon to exercise this virtue to any appreciable extent in time of peace, and would be hard put to it to find occasions for doing so. War does provide an opportunity, and almost the only opportunity in modern civilized life, for the prolonged and widespread exercise of that self-sacrificing heroism which holds nothing back and endures things past all endurance. This is what there is to be said for the intrinsic value of fighting; and it is quite idle to ignore it, or to minimize it, or to try to hush it up.
All this being granted, much remains to be said on the other side. Even if the experience of fighting were a great and unmixed good for those who take part in it, it might be right to forgo this good. For its consequences, when conducted on the scale and with the weapons of modern war, might be so bad for non-combatants, for neutrals, and for future generations, that the evil in the results would far outweigh the good in the process itself. The utmost heroism can be displayed in shipwrecks, railway accidents, and mine explosions; but we should hesitate to admit that ships should be scuttled, sleepers be put in the way of express trains, and safety-lamps be forbidden by law, in order to keep this virtue from rusting.
At present, however, I defer the question of the utility or disutility of war, and content myself with pointing out that the intrinsic value of fighting, however great it may be, is inextricably mixed with very great intrinsic disvalues. In the first place, a very large proportion of the population of any country will necessarily consist of women, children, and men too old to fight in person. They are indeed called upon to suffer and make sacrifices, and they will probably have to do this more and more in each succeeding war. But it may well be doubted whether the passive endurance of those sordid daily and nightly hardships which are imposed willy-nilly on helpless non-combatants in time of war has any great spiritual value. I do not wish to deny that a few rare souls may be able to distil a sweet essence from standing in bread-queues by day and spending sleepless nights in cellars with their children while incendiary bombs are being dropped from hostile aircraft. But I suspect that they are in a very small minority. In most non-combatants the fruits of war-suffering are hardness of heart, an insane suspicion of their neighbours which makes them an easy prey to every kind of rumour, and a morbid hatred of the enemy which applauds and clamours for reprisals and atrocities Those of us who can carry our minds back to London in the last year of the late war, and can focus them on such events as the Pemberton-Billing trial, will recall with horror the impression that one had of living in a criminal lunatic asylum which was being conducted by the inmates.
So much for the non-combatants. The fighting forces are no doubt largely immune from some of these moral poisons; but, even for them, the experiences of war are not an unmixed spiritual blessing. Some men are adventurous by nature, and not very sensitive to noise, bad smells, and filth. For such men a spell of fighting, if not too prolonged, is perhaps a valuable and not unpleasant experience, which contrasts favourably with the lives which they have to lead in civilized countries in time of peace. Even they begin to degenerate if the experience be too lengthy, and if they be sent too often into the front line. But the majority of modern town-dwellers are not particularly adventurous and are rather highly sensitive. We all know that an important part of their military training consists in removing the civilized inhibitions against physical violence, cruelty, and the sight of blood and filth, which have been carefully fostered in them in peace. This deliberate eradication of sentiments of kindliness, decency, and fairness, which have been laboriously built up before the outbreak of war and which will be needed again as soon as it is over, is a very high price to pay for exercising the virtues of courage and endurance, admirable as these are.
We are often told with easy confidence that man is a 'fighting animal', and that his 'fighting instincts' must be exercised if he is to keep in mental health. To this we may answer that an 'instinct' which needs such prolonged and violent stimulation to set it in action must be present in a highly modified and sublimated form in civilized men, and that there is much to be said for letting sleeping primitive instincts lie. Moreover, when this instinct is aroused, it awakes some very undesirable bedfellows which were sleeping with it, as the orgies of sexual lust and drunkenness which always accompany war bear witness. Lastly, it cannot work itself out in modern war in what is presumably its natural and primitive way. The modern soldier has not as a rule to fight hand-to-hand with other men and to pit his cunning and skill against theirs. His main business is to use and to endure the artificial products of the chemical laboratory and the engineering workshop. The effects of these are of an overwhelming intensity and violence to which nothing has approached in the past history of the race except an occasional earthquake or tornado or thunderbolt. The human mind and the human body are thus quite unadapted to these extreme stimuli, and it is ridiculous to pretend that continuous exposure to them is the natural and healthy exercise of a primitive 'fighting instinct', if such there be. Playing in a hard game of Rugby football or hockey, or riding a motor-bicycle to one's own and the public danger, are much nearer to the natural expression of this instinct in civilized men under modern conditions.
Fittingness of War.
The upshot of the above discussion seems to be that the intrinsic good of fighting, under the conditions which prevail in a modern war, is inextricably mixed with great intrinsic evils, which largely outweigh it even among the military forces and still more so among the civilian population. We can now turn to the next topic, viz. the immediate fittingness or unfittingness of the act of waging war. Here, of course, we are bound to confine ourselves to generalities. What we can do is to consider certain types of situation in which it is commonly held to be fitting to go to war. It will be remembered that we are still deferring the question of utility or disutility.
There is one general remark to be made at the outset. It is quite certain that one's knowledge of the facts of the situation will be very inadequate. And it will be liable to certain systematic sources of error, which we ought to bear in mind and allow for. No ordinary citizen is in a position to know the inner history of the diplomatic proceedings which have led up to the crisis. These will not be revealed till years later, and experience shows that they are generally widely different from what they were supposed to be at the time by the public in the various countries concerned. Each government will be trying to make itself out to be the innocent victim of aggression in order to put itself right in the eyes of its own citizens and of neutral states. In the general tension which will exist certain small frontier 'incidents' will very likely take place, many more will be imagined, and some may be deliberately organized. No attention should be paid to such stories. The childish game of 'You began it' which governments play at such times may be ignored by every sensible man. In the vast majority of past wars the dishonours were easy between all parties, and there is not the least reason to suppose that future wars will be different in this respect. But there will be the strongest temptation to believe that the war about which we have to decide is a miraculous exception to all other wars, and that our side is wholly white and the other wholly black. The first rule for keeping one's head is to remember how unlikely this is, and to call to mind all that can be said for the other side and against one's own.
We may be confident that, at the beginning of any new war, all the old springs would be pressed and all the old puppets would start to perform their familiar antics. We should again meet the sturdy pillar of Noncomformity, who had never shrunk from ingeminating peace when there was no prospect of war, and who now realizes that the cause for which his country is proposing to fight is so sacred that Christ would have broken off His Sermon on the Mount and marched at the head of His Apostles to the nearest recruiting office. The scholarly Anglican divine would once more remind us of the danger of placing a crudely literal interpretation on the fine flowers of Oriental rhetoric, and would explain that the command to turn the other cheek to the smiter was never intended to forbid starving his wife and children or dropping bombs on his home by way of reprisals. The professors of history and political theory would, as usual, discover that, whilst in all previous wars the rights and wrongs were fairly equally divided between all the disputants, in this particular war their own country and its allies are wholly right and its opponents wholly wrong. The scientists would again divide their time between asserting that the enemy has never made a single original contribution to science and ransacking the files of his scientific publications for hints towards more diabolical methods of wholesale destruction. And, if we ventured respectfully to turn our eyes to higher things, we might again be privileged to witness the Royal Family changing its surname, like those of its subjects in whom 'new Montague is but old Moss writ large'. Bearing all this in mind, we shall not allow ourselves to believe that the contemporary situation is unique, and we shall neither absorb nor emit claptrap about 'a war to end war' or 'making the world safe for democracy'.
There seem to be two main types of situation in which it is prima facie fitting for a country to go to war. The first is where it is threatened with completely wanton and unprovoked aggression by another country. The second is where it has undertaken by treaty to fight in certain contingencies and those contingencies have clearly arisen. On both these scores it was fitting for Belgium to resist the Germans in 1914; though it does not follow that the action was right, since the factor of utility or disutility is relevant as well as the factor of fittingness or unfittingness. I will now say something about each of these two prima facie grounds for going to war.
As regards the first ground I have only to remark that what, in strict law, is wanton and unprovoked aggression may, in equity, deserve a much milder name. Suppose, e.g., that a nation happens to have picked up in the course of its history territories containing almost the whole stock of certain raw materials which scientific and industrial developments have made very important to the entire civilized world. Suppose that it either refuses to let them be worked, or exploits its position to charge a fantastic price for them to all foreigners. Then an attempt by another power to seize some of these territories would certainly be represented as wanton and unprovoked aggression. And in point of law it would be so. But in point of equity it would not; for the country in question would have offended against international comity by grossly abusing the advantages which the chances of history and geography had given it. If one's country seems to be threatened with unprovoked aggression it is always proper to begin by considering whether it may not in one way or another be using its legal rights to create an intolerable hardship for others. If so, the prima facie fittingness of going to war in self-defence is much lessened, and there is a strong case for reducing the hardship by receding from one's extreme legal rights.
A more subtle and difficult case is the following. Nations wax and wane in power, wealth, enterprise, and population. A certain nation A may have secured very extensive territories and a great weight in international affairs when it was at its prime, whilst another nation B was in infancy or temporary abeyance. This state of affairs is crystallized by explicit treaties and tacit understandings; and it continues when A's power, wealth, enterprise, and population have begun to decline, whilst B's have greatly increased. An extremely dangerous and unstable situation thus arises. A tends to insist much on the sanctity of treaties, whilst B feels itself to be everywhere hemmed in by legal restrictions which no longer correspond to the realities of power. B accuses A of hypocrisy, and A accuses B of turbulent ambition and cynical disrespect for international law. This was the situation of England with respect to Germany before the late war, and it will be more and more the situation of England with respect to the United States as time goes on. Germany had a very poor case in law, and a very fair case in equity; and it threw away its cards by bad manners and stupid diplomacy.
Now England is likely, for the next century at least, to be a declining power, whose legal claims and traditional status are much higher than its real position in the fellowship of nations warrants. It is therefore peculiarly liable to be placed in situations in which it will be threatened with what will seem to be gross acts of aggression and insolence. One of the hardest and most unpleasant duties of Englishmen in the immediate future will be to pocket their pride, to try to realize the growing disparity between the legal or traditional and the equitable position of their country in the world, and to adjust their actions to the latter rather than to the former. In this we need not expect to be helped by any excessive display of good manners or delicate consideration on the part of foreign nations; we must be prepared in the future for a continuance of that mixture of cant, truculence, and sharp practice, which is the traditional note of the United States in its diplomatic relations with the world in general and England in particular. Happily it has so far been the great political virtue of the English to know when they are beaten, though not to acknowledge it; and we have been masters at the art of erecting dignified fictions to cover our retreat from untenable positions. We are likely to need all our skill in this art if we are to avoid disaster during the difficult period of international readjustment which lies ahead of us. In future, when we are lectured by Mrs. Hominy, denounced by Mr Jefferson Brick, bullied by Colonel Chollop, and used as stepping stones in the political career of the Honourable Elijah Pogrom, it may be wholesome for us to recollect how we used to admonish continental nations for their own good in those Palmerstonian days when we were rich and they were poor. Forsan et haes olim meminisse juvabit.
It remains to say something about treaties binding us to fight under certain contingencies. If such a treaty has been made public and has never been protested against by any appreciable section of the population, and if the contingencies contemplated in it have quite clearly arisen, the unfittingness of refusing to fight reaches a maximum. Such a refusal could be right only if the disutility of fighting were quite overwhelming. If the treaty has been kept secret and is revealed only at the last moment, the claim is enormously weakened. Again, the recency of the treaty certainly has some bearing on the strength of the obligation. A treaty which has been made under entirely different circumstances by our remote ancestors, and which has never come up for discussion in the meanwhile, does no doubt impose some claim on the present generation. So does the will of a testator who left property for some assigned purpose in the Middle Ages. But it is plain that such obligations diminish with lapse of time and change of circumstances if they be never formally and explicitly renewed.
On the other hand, it is possible for a nation to incur, without any explicit treaty, such obligations as make a refusal to fight highly unfitting. It seems to me that England had, through the folly of successive governments and the negligence of the electorate, placed itself in this position with respect to France by 1914. We had raised legitimate expectations in the minds of the French by our actions; and we had accepted favours from France, which had relieved us of an appreciable share of the burden of keeping up adequate naval forces in the Mediterranean and had thus enabled us to increase at less expense our concentration of first-class warships in the North Sea. I should be inclined to consider this tacitly incurred obligation to France considerably more important than our explicit treaty-obligations concerning the independence of Belgium in determining the fittingness or unfittingness of our intervention in 1914. The equitable claim was more recent and more direct than the legal one.
The lesson to be learnt from this is the extreme need for constant vigilance on the part of the electorate and its representatives in Parliament. Without this we may again walk in our sleep into a situation in which we wake to find ourselves under a moral obligation to fight on one side when it would be to the best interests of humanity that we should remain neutral or support the other side. I think it is arguable that the heaviest immediate responsibility for England's intervention in 1914 lies at the door of the pacifist section of the Liberal Party. The government of the day, in order to placate these men and to avoid the naval expenditure which they opposed, put the nation under obligations to France which it dared not acknowledge. When the crisis came we had all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of an explicit and publicly recognized alliance. We were too deeply committed in honour to France to be free agents and to consider the interests of ourselves and of Europe; and yet our obligations were so vague, and the extent to which we should fulfil them was therefore so uncertain, that they were no effective deterrent to Germany.
Utility of War.
We can now turn to the third factor on which the rightness or wrongness of going to war depends, viz. its utility or disutility.
Relative Importance of Utility as Compared with the Other Factors.
It must be clearly understood that, in considering the utility or disutility of an action, every kind of good or evil, from the highest to the lowest, which it may produce in any person or community must be taken into account. To anyone who suggests that considerations of utility and disutility are sordid and selfish, and should be as dust in the balance in comparison with intrinsic value and immediate fittingness, there are two answers to be made. The first is that he is quite unjustifiably assuming that utility and disutility refer only to the lower kinds of good and evil, such as economic prosperity or physical want, and further that only the welfare of the agent is to be considered. The second is that, although a sufficiency of food, clothing, shelter, and safety may not themselves be goods of a very elevated kind, they are an indispensable condition without which any widespread development of the higher gifts and graces of the human spirit is quite impossible. I do not deny that a life of asceticism may be an excellent thing for those who feel a call to it and deliberately choose it; nor do I doubt that there are certain virtues which flourish best in some rare souls amidst squalor, disease, and danger. But freedom of thought and speech, humour, and toleration, without which science, art, and literature die or become barren or engender monsters, are possible only when there is enough wealth and security to free large numbers of men from an incessant and involuntary struggle for mere existence. There is therefore no a priori reason to underrate the bearing of utility or disutility on the rightness or wrongness of actions.
The next fact to be noted is that utility and disutility are of much greater relative importance in determining the rightness or wrongness of collective actions, such as going to war, than of predominantly private actions, such as exacting or remitting the payment of a debt from another man. There are two reasons for this.
In the first place our notions of what is fitting or unfitting in the relations of communities to each other are much less clear than our notions of what is fitting or unfitting in the relations of individuals to each other. We know quite well, within fairly narrow limits, what kind of conduct is unfitting for a child to its parents, for a master to his servants, for a recipient of kindness to his benefactor, and so on. In the case of the mutual relations of communities we first vaguely personify them, and then try to apply to them the criteria of fittingness and unfittingness which we use in connexion with individual members of a single community.
A moment's reflexion will show that this procedure must be highly misleading. Nations are not persons; the relations between nations are not those of fellow citizens within a nation; and it is to the last degree unlikely that these profound dissimilarities of nature and relationship make no difference between the rights and duties of nations and those of persons. The fact is that nations are spiritual entities of a perfectly unique kind, which stand in perfectly unique relations to each other. We have yet to elicit and define the ethical concepts which are applicable to them; and, until this has been done, our judgments as to what is fitting and what is unfitting in their relations must remain vague and unsatisfactory. At the one extreme we have the Gladstonian Liberal, who proposes to treat peoples exactly as if they were persons, and who sentimentalises over small nations as if they were delightful, though sometimes amusingly naughty, little children. Under stress of circumstances he very easily joins hands with his Tory opponent, who is passionately anxious to fix the 'responsibility' for a war on a certain nation and to exact 'punishment' for it, naively believing that these notions of'responsibility' and 'punishment' must apply to communities because they apply to citizens within a community. At the other extreme stands the cynical supporter of Realpolitik, who, seeing that the rights and duties of nations cannot be the same as those of persons, denies that they have any rights or duties at all and tries to reduce international politics to the level of a thieves' kitchen or a Chicago gang-fight. So long as our concepts and judgments of fittingness and unfittingness in international affairs remain at their present level of vagueness and uncertainty our estimates of utility and disutility must predominate over them in determining the rightness or wrongness of such acts as entering or avoiding war.
There is a second reason which reinforces the same conclusion. Nations last for an indefinitely long time as compared with persons, and the effects for good or evil of their collective actions tend to be far more extensive and enduring than those of the private actions of persons. The decision of a nation to go to war may profoundly affect the welfare of millions of men, both within and without it, for many centuries. It is no doubt true that the most trivial personal decision that an individual can take will have some bearing on the welfare of himself for the rest of his life and on the welfare of others throughout all future ages. But any such decision is so small a cause-factor among so many others which are quite independent of it that its contribution to the total good or ill of the world soon becomes infinitesimal. For this reason intrinsic value and immediate fittingness are relatively important factors in determining the rightness or wrongness of most of our private actions, but utility must altogether predominate over them in determining the rightness or wrongness of a collective decision.
The Direct Disutility of Modern War.
There are two things which are absolutely certain about war. The first is that it would even now produce enormous evils. The second is that every year that elapses enormously increases the evils which it would produce. I am inclined to think that we hardly realize as yet the destructive power of the bombing aeroplane, and the utter impossibility of defending large towns against aerial attack by an enemy who is willing to sacrifice men and machines. Even those aeroplanes which the defenders succeed in bringing down will do fearful damage when they fall with their load of high explosives. The only reply to air-raids is to make counter-attacks on enemy towns. Such attacks and reprisals are likely to lead to a crescendo of blind hatred and mutual destruction in which the artistic productions of the past and the social organization of the present will perish. It is hard to think of any one human achievement which has been such a curse to humanity as the conquest of the air is likely to be. But we must expect that this and other means of destruction will be developed, and that others yet unthought of will be discovered.
Modern industrialised society is in a position of great and increasing danger. It, and it alone, is able to produce destructive agents of colossal power in unlimited quantities; and yet it is utterly dependent on a most complex system of transport, drainage, and instruments for the production and distribution of gas, water, and electricity, which can be completely wrecked in a short time by these agents. It is constantly devising more and more powerful means of attack, and it becomes every year more and more dependent on the integrity of those material devices and social organizations which it is less and less able to defend.
I must insist that we have here a situation to which there is no precedent in the recorded history of mankind. In previous wars between European nations there was little real danger of a wholesale destruction of the material and spiritual inheritance from past ages and of the whole basis of civilized life. But in future wars there is a risk, amounting almost to certainty, of civilized populations being reduced to something worse than savagery. Savages can hunt and spin and weave and cook. But the average inhabitant of a modern industrialised country can do none of these things for himself. Destroy the organizations on which he has been wont to rely for food, clothing, heat, water, and light, and he is reduced to a much more hopeless condition than any savage. In that state everything that gives dignity to human life would perish for centuries. Pestilence would breed in the corpses of those whom famine had destroyed, and in the end a small and embittered remnant would painfully relearn the arts of the primitive savage among the wreckage of a dead civilisation. Flourishing civilisations have perished from time to time, and I suppose that each felt secure up to the end and said to itself:
'Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years. Take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.'But God said to them:
'Thou fool, this night shall thy life be required of thee';and there is no certainty that he will not pass the same sentence on us.
Duration and its Bearing on Disutility.
The greatness of the evils to be anticipated from a war, and the certainty of their being produced, depend largely on its duration, and this in turn depends on whether the belligerents are of nearly equal or of very unequal strength and resources. If certain goods could be secured, or certain ills be avoided, by a short enough war, it might be worth while to embark on it in spite of the evils which it would inevitably entail. But the disutility of a war increases very rapidly with its duration, and there soon comes a point beyond which no good to be gained or ill to be avoided by it can balance the evils involved in its continuance. It is therefore important to insist that there is a natural tendency to underrate the probable duration of a war, and that as soon as any war is started certain causes begin to operate which tend to prolong it unduly.
In the first place, as a war goes on, the civilian populations in each of the belligerent countries become more and more enraged with each other. Each is suffering great and increasing hardships which it ascribes to the malice and wickedness of the other. Each sees the other only in the distorting mirror of newspaper articles and public speeches, in which everything to the credit of the enemy is suppressed, everything to his discredit is paraded, and the most fatuous outbursts of his fire-eating professors and blood-drinking maiden ladies are quoted as if they were the considered opinions of his normal citizens. It becomes increasingly hard to bear steadily in mind that the enemy population really consists in the main of decent, foolish, frightened donkeys like ourselves, shying at shadows and pursuing ever-retreating carrots, and not of the tigers and apes which they seem to us and we seem to them. Very soon there arise on each side stories of atrocities committed by the other. Some of these stories are likely to be true, since war gives opportunities for cruelty and lust and removes some of men's usual inhibitions. Most of them will be false, some will be deliberate lies and hardly any will rest on the kind of evidence which a rational man should demand in such matters. All the atrocities committed by our own side will be suppressed or represented as legitimate reprisals, or the reports of them will be rejected by us with contempt if they should happen to reach us. The same will be true mutatis mutandis of the enemy. Lastly, those who have lost friends or relatives in a war tend to become the most violent advocates of its continuance. Their ostensible reason is that, unless a complete victory be won, those whom they have loved and lost will have given their lives in vain. Such people are not, of course, in a rational frame of mind, and it is neither profitable nor decent to attempt to argue with them. If it were, one might point out that the continuance of the war is certain to involve further bereavements to themselves or to others and is quite uncertain to lead to victory for their side, and that bereaved persons in the enemy country are using precisely the same arguments in favour of continuing the war till we are completely beaten
Into this witch's cauldron of fear, hatred, misunderstanding, and unreason each government proceeds to pour the poison of deliberate propaganda, and all the arts of commercial advertising are invoked to stimulate these evil passions to the utmost. There are few more discreditable incidents in recent English history than the invention and propagation of the lying story about German corpse factories, on which an English officer (and therefore a gentleman, at least by profession) publicly plumed himself after the war. The result of all these violent stimuli, natural and artificial, is to produce a state of mind which makes it increasingly difficult to initiate proposals for peace, and impossible to negotiate a reasonable treaty when the war does end. To carry on the war with the fullest intensity the statesmen of each country have to raise devils which they cannot lay, and these turn and rend them when they eventually try to make a peace which shall bear some relation to the facts of real life.
One highly characteristic fallacy which tends to the prolongation of war and prevents the negotiation of a reasonable peace is the belief that what would answer to the demands of abstract justice must for that reason be attainable and worth struggling for at any cost. Thus, in the late war, most people in the allied countries were convinced that Germany was wholly responsible and that abstract justice demanded that the German people should be punished and should make reparation for the damages of the struggle. I am not concerned here and now to consider whether the notions of responsibility and reparation have any clear meaning as applied to nations, or whether, if they have, the allied Judgment about German war-guilt was in fact correct. The important point to notice is that the widespread superstition that what is abstractly just must for that reason be practicable and expedient needlessly prolonged the war and led to the economic absurdities of the peace treaty with its aftermath of misery and embitterment.
Quite apart from the special causes which I have been mentioning there are general reasons which tend to make a war continue when once it has started. If A has on the whole been more successful than B up to date, A's people will expect to go on being successful and to win a complete victory. It is hardly in human nature to be content with a reasonable compromise when a solution dictated by oneself seems to be within one's reach. Even those whose religion assures them that the meek will inherit the earth are often strangely reluctant to make any substantial offer for the reversion. Any statesman in A who suggests making peace will either have to propose such ridiculously severe terms to B that there is very little hope of B accepting them, or he will be accused by his fellow countrymen of throwing away the advantages which the genius of the commanders, the heroism of the troops, and the sacrifices of the civil population have won. On the other hand, any statesman in B who suggests making peace will be accused at home of disheartening his own side when just a little more effort would have turned the scale, and of encouraging the enemy who would otherwise have begun to slacken. The situation is like that of a busy tutor who has been entertaining a party of shy undergraduates to lunch. They are longing to be gone and he is longing to be rid of them, but neither party sees how to make a move. This social knot is generally cut by the tutor being rung up on the telephone, or by someone calling to take him for a walk. This is remotely analogous to the case of a neutral offering his good offices to the belligerents. But unfortunately the analogy cannot be pressed very far. Each belligerent will feel that there are much the same objections to being the first to accept the offer of a neutral as there are to being the first to propose negotiations direct to the enemy. In the meanwhile the war drags on, and those who are striving to bring it to an end by negotiation have to disguise their activities as though they were criminals instead of public benefactors.
We can now sum up the results of this discussion on the disutility of war under modern conditions. Once a war has broken out it tends for several reasons to perpetuate itself. Thus any war between opponents of nearly equal strength is almost certain to last too long. Now the material damage done by a protracted war, waged under modern conditions between highly industrialized nations, is certain to be so great as to render the survival of civilized life in them highly doubtful. And the psychological and moral consequence of a long-continued war is a state of mind in which it is impossible to make a reasonable peace or to get it accepted if it could be made. What good thing can possibly come of people who have been encouraged to believe fantastic fictions and to entertain preposterous hopes until they can no longer recognize or face facts, who have been worked into a state of exasperated self-righteousness, and whose nerves have been shattered by anxiety, bereavement, privation, and aerial bombardment? Now I do not know of any positive good which is at once very great, almost certain to be obtained by war, and most unlikely to be obtained without war, which could be set against the enormous and certain evils which war would entail. Thus I cannot believe that war under modern conditions between nations of fairly equal strength could ever have positive net utility. I think we may safely assume that it would always have very great net disutility. This, however, is not by itself sufficient to condemn war on the score of utility. Might there not be situations in which every alternative open to a nation had a net balance of disutility, but the alternative of going to war had less net disutility than any of the others? This would mean that there are some evils so great and so certain to ensue without war, so surely to be avoided by war, and so unlikely to be avoided by any other means, that it would be reasonable to incur the immence and certain evils of war in the hope of avoiding them. Are these conditions ever fulfilled?
Relative Disutility of War Compared with Other Alternatives.
It is alleged that, from the point of utility, war is sometimes to be preferred to any other available alternative. For this three main grounds are given, and I will now consider them in turn.
The first is that a certain Nation X is growing stronger and stronger and more and more ambitious, and that unless it be checked now it will destroy the balance of power and dominate the world. This has been the ground on which England has most often taken part in continental wars in modern times. The argument assumes that the hegemony of one power would be so great an evil that almost any sacrifice would be worth while in order to avoid it; that it almost certainly will ensue and will continue indefinitely unless it be forcibly prevented; and that there is a very good chance of preventing it by going to war at once. Every one of these assumptions is highly questionable. We have no experience to tell us what the hegemony of one power would be like; but it is obvious that, under modern conditions, the force of boycott, of passive resistance, and of propaganda is so great that continuous severe oppression of large civilized communities by foreigners is impracticable.If Great Britain cannot impose its will beyond very restricted limits on Ireland or on India, it seems out of the question that any nation, however great its military strength, could seriously oppress the population of Europe.
Again, a hegemony maintained by force against the will of a majority or even of a large minority would almost certainly fall of its own weight in a few generations. The governing class in the dominant power would develop vices, weaknesses, and internal dissensions; whilst their own people, exposed to ceaseless propaganda from the rest of Europe, uneasy in their own consciences, and tired with the strain of empire, would become a weapon which could be used against others only with the greatest caution.
Lastly, a war to prevent X from upsetting the balance of power hardly ever has the designed effect. In the first place, it is almost impossible to stop just when the balance is reached. The war goes on of its own momentum, and ends with Y dangerously powerful and X unduly weakened. Secondly, if the war lasts for long, all the belligerents will be so weakened that the balance is utterly destroyed in favour of some neutral power Z. Both these things happened in the late war. The two main results of the sacrifices made by England for the balance of power were that France was enabled to replace Germany as the military bully of Europe, and that the United States became enormously rich and powerful as compared with each of the belligerents. How much it is worth while to do and to suffer in order to substitute Tweedledum for Tweedledee and to fatten the 'monstrous Crow, as black as a tar-barrel' I leave my readers to estimate.
The second common argument is that a war with X is inevitable sooner or later, and could never take place under such favourable conditions to ourselves as now. This is a valid argument, provided the premisses were certain. But they never are. Everything in politics is at the mercy of so many unforeseeable contingencies that it is never reasonable to hold that a political event is inevitable or that future political conditions will inevitably be less favourable than present ones. Against these future possibilities we must put the complete certainty of incurring great and increasing evils at once if we embark on war. I should say that, in view of these considerations, it is nearly always reasonable to stave off war and trust to the chapter of accidents.
The third argument is commonly used during a war in order to prevent a country from considering proposals for peace without victory. We are told that, unless X be utterly defeated now, we shall never be secure and the war will only break out again in a short time. This is a particularly silly argument. In the first place, it could at most be no more than highly probable that war would break out again in future if we negotiate a peace now, whilst it is quite certain that war will go on if we do not do so. Secondly, it assumes that, if the war be carried on, X will be utterly defeated, and that, if X be utterly defeated, war in future will be highly unlikely. Both these assumptions are extremely doubtful. The time when negotiations are first mooted is sure to be a time when neither party is in so favourable a position that he is certain to win if the war goes on. Again, the utter defeat of X may indeed make it impossible for him to renew the war in the near future. But it will certainly lead to X being so disgracefully misused in the final treaty that he will continually intrigue with other powers to get it altered in his favour. And the general economic distress and inflammation of national feeling due to a prolonged war increases the likelihood of breaches of the peace between other nations, even if X be as chastened as he is impotent. All this is perfectly illustrated by the present state of Europe. France clamoured for the war to be continued until she could gain complete security by crushing Germany. Having got her desire, she dictated terms so fantastically Unjust that Europe has been in a turmoil ever since. And France, instead of waking to security, has merely turned in her sleep and fallen into another nightmare.
The fact is that no intelligent man would be persuaded by such weak arguments as these unless they were addressed to him when his intellect is clouded by emotion and influenced by mass-suggestion. It is therefore important that Philip sober should convince himself that they are fallacious and should stamp this conviction so deeply into his mind that it may keep him from the grosser forms of folly when he becomes Philip drunk.
To sum up. I am not of course prepared to say that there have not been or could not be situations in which, from the standpoint of direct utility, war is the least undesirable alternative open to a nation. But I am quite sure that such situations have been much rarer in the past than they have been thought to be. And, since the evil consequences of war are certain to increase continually with the development of more potent and wholesale methods of destruction, situations in which war is the least undesirable alternative open to a nation will become rarer and rarer.
Indirect Utility of War.
I have so far confined the discussion to the direct utility and disutility of war. Has it any indirect utility to be set against its very great direct disutility? Undoubtedly it has. It is plainly useful that there should be a widespread belief that nations will go to war rather than submit to wanton aggression, since the existence of this belief must tend to check such aggression. Now this belief is not likely to survive very long unless nations from time to time actually do go to war in self-defence. It will be noticed that the wars which thus have indirect utility are also the wars which, as we saw earlier, have the highest degree of fittingness. In such wars, and in such only, fittingness and indirect utility point unambiguously in one direction, whilst direct utility points in almost every case in the opposite direction. These then are the cases in which there is the greatest likelihood that fittingness and indirect utility may counterbalance direct inutility and make war on the whole the right alternative to choose.
There are, however, ways of meeting aggression by passive resistance which, if practised on a large enough scale and with anything like the heroic determination which men display in war, would act as a very strong deterrent. They would thus have much of the indirect utility of a war in self-defence. And, although they cannot be practised without entailing much loss, suffering and embitterment, their direct disutility is not to be compared with that of war. Moreover, they become more and more effective as national life becomes complex and industrialized. It seems to me therefore that, even from the standpoint of indirect utility, war is to be condemned as compared with these subtler and no less heroic methods of resistance which are so much better adapted to the present state of human society in civilized countries. If the meek would only combine intelligence, organisation, and unflinching courage and endurance with their meekness, it is difficult to see what could prevent them from inheriting the earth.
It remains for me to say a few words in conclusion on a much more difficult topic. If I am right, it is the clear duty of each of us to do what he can to prevent his country from engaging in war under almost any conceivable circumstance, however provoking, and on almost any pretext, however respectable. And it is our clear duty, if it should become involved, to make every effort to bring the war to an end at the earliest possible moment by a negotiated peace in which neither side can claim a victory or impose its will on the other. On these two points I feel about as little doubt as I do on any proposition outside pure mathematics. But this does not give any clear indication towards answering the question which will face all males of military age if their country should become involved in war, viz.: 'Ought I to join the forces, or to refuse to do so?' This option, of course, remains a real one even if service be made compulsory by law, and no legal exemption be granted for so-called 'conscientious' objections. F or no one can be forced to do what he believes to be wrong if he is prepared to take the extreme consequences of refusal. What little I can say about the ethical principles involved in this question may be divided under the two heads of fittingness or unfittingness and utility or disutility.
Fittingness of Military Service.
As regards fittingness there are two extreme views. Some people hold that it is always fitting to fight for one's country when it is involved in war, regardless of present circumstances and probable future consequences, and that this imposes an obligation which overrides all other considerations. Others hold that it is always unfitting to use violence to a fellow man, no matter what may be the provocation and no matter what may be the consequences, direct and indirect, of non-resistance and that the obligation thus imposed is paramount over all rival claims. Both these extreme views seem to me quite plainly ridiculous, though each has been held by men whom one cannot but respect. The second appears to have been what the English law, or the tribunals which administered it, meant by a 'conscientious objection'. As this definition, if strictly interpreted, would make it logically impossible for anyone but a fool or a fanatic to be conscientious, it seems highly desirable to amend it. I shall therefore insert at this point what I take to be the correct definition of 'conscientious action'.
An action is 'conscientious' if and only if the following conditions are fulfilled.
Two explanatory comments must be made on this definition.
It should be obvious enough from the above definition and the comments on it that no human being can possibly be certain that he is acting conscientiously. A fortiori no earthly tribunal can reasonably be expected to pronounce on whether a man's action is conscientious or not. It would therefore seem desirable that in future wars 'conscientious objection' should cease to be a legal ground for exemption from military service.
As regards fittingness and unfittingness, I think that most men in their saner moments would be inclined to accept the following propositions. It is highly fitting to fight for the defence of one's country, and there is a strong obligation to offer to do so if there be no law imposing military service. Again, it is fitting to obey the laws of one's country, and there is therefore a strong obligation to obey a conscription act if it is in force. Hence anyone who refuses to fight for his country, when it is at war and has adopted conscription, is going against two strong obligations which his position as a citizen imposes on him. Lastly, if a man refuses to fight, no matter how exalted his motives may be, he inevitably makes himself dependent for food, shelter, and comparative safety and comfort on the sacrifices of those of his fellow citizens whose consciences permit or direct them to fight. Now there seems to be something grossly unfitting in this relation of one-sided dependence. So much must certainly be said against refusing to fight.
Yet I think we should all admit that there are counter-claims, and that they might conceivably make military service unfitting on the whole for certain persons. Every man is a member of other communities beside his country, e.g. his family, his church, his trade union, Europe, and so on. His relations to each of these communities make certain things fitting and others unfitting for him to do. These various obligations may conflict, and there is no a priori reason why the claims of one's country should always outweigh the opposed claims which arise from one's membership of other communities. Whatever decision we may make we shall act fittingly towards some factors in the total situation and unfittingly towards others, and we cannot say off-hand what course of action will have the greatest net fittingness or the least net unfittingness.
Utility of Military Service.
Let us now turn to the question of utility or disutility. The governing considerations here are that when a nation is involved in war it is undesirable that it should either win a complete victory or suffer a complete defeat, and it is undesirable that the war should drag on for long. These considerations may sometimes point in different directions. If one's refusal to join the forces were an example likely to be widely followed, such an act might at certain stages of the war have great utility or disutility. But it is fairly safe to assume that one would be in a very small minority, and that one's refusal would have no appreciable effect either directly or by example on the duration or the final outcome of the war. We must therefore consider more remote consequences.
It is on the whole most desirable that laws should be obeyed, especially when they impose unpleasant duties. Anyone who publicly breaks any law, good or bad, to some extent weakens respect for law in general. There are plainly strong unworthy motives, such as fear and love of comfort, which act on nearly everyone and tend to make men shirk military service though fittingness and utility should combine to make it a duty. If even a few men refuse to serve on even the highest motives, their example will tempt men whose motives are not high at all to break this and other laws. It seems to follow that the State is justified in punishing with the utmost severity those who refuse to serve. It is true that this will have no effect on the action of the genuinely conscientious objector, and that, in his case, it amounts to persecution. But there seems to be no other way of separating the few conscientious sheep from the many unconscientious goats. And I am inclined to think that the genuine conscientious objector will rather welcome severe treatment and even the death-penalty, since it tends to neutralize the unfittingness of his one-sided dependence on the risks and sufferings of those who fight.
On the other hand, it is well that some few individuals should refuse to obey the State and should deliberately take the consequences. There is no community on earth whose claims on its members are always and everywhere paramount to all other claims; there is no community which is so liable to forget this fact as the modern nation-state; and there is no time at which it is so likely to be forgotten as when a nation is involved in war. It is therefore most important that nations should be forcibly reminded at such times that 'patriotism is not enough', and that their governments should be told plainly, in the words of Horace, Dis te minorem quod geris imperas. For this reason it may be very useful that a certain number of men should believe it to be wrong to fight for their country, should act on their convictions, and should pay the penalty. It is expedient that the law should be broken, and it is expedient that the law-breakers should suffer; and, if this seem a paradox, the whole of applied ethics is so full of such paradoxes that one more need not greatly disturb us.
There is no call to be sentimental about conscientious objectors to military service. Like the early Christians, a few were knaves, most were fools, and all were intensely irritating to their neighbours. But, when this is admitted, it is well to remember that the best of them were intellectually and morally the salt of the earth, and that the only people with whom they can fittingly be compared and by whom they could fittingly be criticized were the best of their contemporaries who deliberately joined the army in the early days of the war. The fact is that these two classes of men could quite well appreciate each other's position, and differed, not in principle, but in their final decision on a most difficult moral question. They did not, in the main, pass harsh judgments on each other. It was reserved for those whose sex, age, or occupation made it easy to avoid danger without reproach to ascribe the actions of all who refused military service to the lowest motives, to incite the passions of the mob against them, to try to deprive them of such rights as the law allowed, and to hunt from public life the men who protested in the name of legality and decency. It is not pleasant to recall such vileness; but it is salutary to do so, lest, when similar temptations recur, 'the dog should return to his own vomit, and the sow that has been washed to her wallowing in the mire'.
AFTERTHOUGHTS IN TIME OF COLD WAR