But there is just one angle form which it may be possible to discern some method in this madness. We must learn to regard war, not as an isolated phenomenon, but as merely the most aggravated and the most impressive instance of the universal moral situation. This fundamental predicament of life, which gives rise to all moral perplexities, is the conflict of interests. When war is viewed in this light, we may then see in justifiable war a special application of the most general of all ethical principles, namely, the principle of discipline or provident restraint. Given the natural conflict of interests, this principle defines the only alternative to waste and mutual destruction. It means simply that under actual conditions the greatest abundance of life on the whole is to be secured only by a confining, pruning, or uprooting of those special interests which imperil the stability and harmony of the whole. When such restraint is not self-imposed, it must be imposed externally. The first lessons in restraint are doubtless learned from rivals and enemies who are governed by selfish purposes of their own. But the moral principle proper appears only when restraint is exercised with a provident purpose, that is, for the sake of the greater good that will result; as when a man refrains from excess for the sake of long life, or respects his neighbor’s property for the sake of a general security and prosperity. Similarly a teacher or parent may restrain a willful child, and a ruler a lawless subject, in the interest of all, including the individual so restrained. It is customary to question such motives, but the hypocrite would have no success, nor the cynic any claim to critical penetration, were these motives not so common as to establish the rule. As a matter of fact they are as solidly psychological as any fact regarding human nature.
Restraint, however exercised, is in its first effect negative and destructive. To set limits to an appetite, to bar the way to childish caprice, to forbid an act and call it crime, is in some degree to inflict pain and death, to destroy some living impulse. But it is none the less morally necessary. And it matters not whether the act of restraint be simple and unpremeditated or complex and calculated, involving hosts of men and all the complex mechanism of modern war. It is still possible, on the larger scale as on the smaller, that the act of restraint should be required by a larger purpose which is constructive and humane.
It is sometimes argued that an act of violence or coercion can have such a moral motive only when it is performed by a ‘neutral authority’ who has nothing to gain or lose by the transaction. It is further argued that, since in the case of international disputes no such disinterested party exists, no use of violence or coercion can be justified. Persons who reason in this way must be supposed to believe in the miraculous origin of all kings and policeman. The forcible prevention of robbery must to their mind have become just when and only when there suddenly appeared on the scene a special heaven-sent race of beings wearing blue coats and billies, and have no passions or property of their own. As a matter of fact, however, robbers were first put down by the robbed. Their suppression was justified not because those who suppressed them gaining nothing by it (for they certainly did gain), but because that suppression was enacted in behalf of a general community good in which the interests of the robber and his kind were also counted. And whatever be the historical genesis of the state, whether paternity or plunder, this much is certain: that the functions of the state were at first, and have been in a measure ever since, exercised by men who have derived personal profit therefrom. The function of the state, its purpose of collective order, power, and welfare, came into existence long ages before constitutions and charters of liberty made public office a public trust. Before men could learn to be governed well, they had to learn their first lessons of social restraint from whatever rude authorities were at hand.