Have Nations Any Morals?

by W. T. STAGE


INTERNATIONAL, morality may seem a figment of the imagination. It is bad enough to talk morals to the individual man in connection with his individual affairs. Tell the businessman that he ought to behave with Christian unselfishness towards his competitors and you are likely to appear intolerably smug or perhaps merely irrelevant and absurd. There is a story — perhaps it is quite apocryphal—that Carl Frederick Taeusch, Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard, was introduced to Samuel Alexander, the English philosopher, who was very deaf. The introducer said, “This is Professor Taeusch, Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard.” Alexander said, “What?” The introducer shouted, “Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard.” “It’s no use,” said Alexander. “I can’t hear. It sounds to me just like ‘Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard.’” Alexander thought, evidently, that “business ethics” is a contradiction in terms.

Well, if talking morals at the private individual often seems irrelevant or smug, how much more would this seem to be true if one were to talk morals at the nations. Would there be any sense in saying to the nations: “You ought to behave to one another like Christian saints”? How childishly unrealistic that sounds. Is it not an axiom that nations, in their dealings with one another, are guided and must be guided solely by considerations of national self-interest ? And if so, what room is there here for talk about moral principles?

Now it has always struck me that there is a curious contradiction at this point in our international thinking. On the one hand, we keep repeating glibly this saying that states in their international actions are and must be governed exclusively by national selfinterest. This idea is not only popular: it reaches the highest circles of our government. Some time ago a British Minister, Oliver Lyttelton, actually had the effrontery to accuse America of entering the war not wholly out of self-interest, but partly out of a generous feeling of sympathy for those nations, including the British, who had been attacked by the Nazis! He suggested that this American attitude and the actions which resulted from it had been partly responsible for Japan’s decision to attack America. Secretary Cordell Hull was furious. He thundered from Washington that America had no such motives. American action and the American attitude had been entirely correct; that is, America had been motivated exclusively by considerations of self-defense — which is to say, self-interest. The British government, pursuing its policy of appeasing America, thereupon compelled Oliver Lyttelton abjectly to apologize. Thus this slogan about national self-interest is a fixed part of our international thinking.

But, on the other hand, we also talk loudly about morals in international affairs. Did we not say that there were moral issues involved in the war? Did we not claim that we were fighting for justice? Do we not say that Nazism is the repudiation of international justice, of international morals? Do we not say that we want to establish an international order based on law and justice, and not, as our enemies would have it, on the law of the jungle?

Also we high-mindedly disapprove of imperialism, and we lecture the British about keeping their promises to the Indians in India or to the Jews in Palestine. But why in the world should we disapprove of imperialism? And why in the world should the British keep their promises? There is implied in these attitudes a belief that moral principles ought to have some place in national actions.

Again, there actually exists a body of rules and principles called “international law,” and some nations sometimes observe some of its provisions. But this international law is hardly law at all in the sense in which Acts of Congress are laws. For Acts of Congress are enforceable by sanctions. Congress does not merely exhort you to pay your income tax. It tells you that if you don’t, something extremely unpleasant will happen to you. The existence of a sanction, of some way of enforcing a law, is part of the essence of law. But there is no way of enforcing international law except the crude way of reprisals. Therefore, international law is not in the full sense law, although it is true that courts adjudicate on it. What is it, then? It is mainly moral exhortation. It is a body of moral principles which civilized nations have agreed that they ought to follow, and which some of them do follow in some respects.

The theory that nations must act exclusively from national self-interest is identical with the theory that in international affairs the law of the jungle should prevail. It was, incidentally, Hitler’s theory. That does not necessarily make it wrong, but what I am pointing out is the utter muddle-headedness of our American thinking, which believes two flatly contradictory principles.


THE atomic bomb, besides exploding Japanese cities, may possibly explode some of our incredibly foolish notions. We think that nations ought not to be moral — for this is the plain meaning of our chatter about self-interest as the only proper motive of nations. Well, we had better change our opinion and change it fast. Otherwise there may be no nations left to have any self-interest. I propose to show that this opinion is false — that not only ought nations to be moved by moral forces, but in point of fact they are moved by them already.

Let us take first what would seem to be the hardest case, that of the Germans. Moral forces, we might say, have not operated in their international actions in any way. But I think this is a mistaken view.

Hitler in Mein Kampf says repeatedly that force of arms will succeed only if it is inspired by some ideal. People will not fight, he says, — or at least will not fight successfully, — unless they believe that they are fighting for some great idea, for some ideal, for some just cause. They will not fight for merely selfish and material ends. Hitler was a much better psychologist than some of our statesmen. He knew that he could not make the German people fight simply out of self-interest. If he had said to them simply, “By means of a vast spilling of our blood we can conquer the earth and make everyone on earth slave for us. And then we shall all be twice as rich as we are now. We shall all eat twice as much. And those who now can drink only beer will all be able to drink champagne,” not a German would have followed him. He had, on the contrary, to impregnate the German mind with a moral, ideal, and even mystical creed. He had to invent something like a new Weltanschauung, even a new religion. He had to persuade the German people that they were called on to sacrifice their blood for a noble cause.

You will say, of course, that Hitler’s ideas were in fact not moral but diabolical, that his Weltanschauung was false, that the ideals he fostered were in fact profoundly immoral. But I do not think this is correct. It may have been a false morality that animated the German people, but it was a morality. It was certainly not mere self-interest. It contains the ideas of nobility and heroism — and these, however distorted their application, are moral ideas. The point is that Hitler had to make the Germans believe they were struggling towards a higher world morality — however hideously false that morality may in fact have been.

Now let us take another case, that of England during the First World War. In 1914 when the Germans invaded Belgium, British national self-interest was involved. It was contrary to British interests that the powerful German nation should control the Channel ports and the Continental shores opposite Britain. Also it would destroy the balance of power. But Sir Edward Grey put the matter to the British nation mainly (though not exclusively) as a moral issue. Germany was breaking her solemn promises and was oppressing a little nation whose neutrality Britain as well as Germany was pledged to defend. Why did Sir Edward Grey put it thus? Because he knew, as Hitler knew later, that a nation will not be moved to the supreme effort of war by mere material self-interest, but only when the people feel themselves inspired by a moral purpose.

At this point the cynic, who knows all the answers, will say, “It is evident that the real cause of Britain’s going to war in 1914 was self-interest, and Sir Edward Grey knew this, but had to delude the British into believing they had a moral cause, just as later Hitler had to delude the Germans.” I think this is cheap cynicism for two reasons.

In the first place it is an open question how far the leaders of a self-respecting nation ever deliberately delude the nation and invent moral issues in which they do not believe. I should say that Sir Edward Grey probably himself believed both that it was Britain’s self-interest to go to war and that it was her moral duty to do so, but that he was a good enough psychologist to know that he must play up the moral issue rather than the self-interest. I think he believed in the moral justice of the British cause as much as anyone else and that he was perfectly sincere in his insistence upon this. And even Hitler, I should say, at the time he wrote Mein Kampf, believed in his so-called higher German morality.

In the second place, even if I am wrong about this, even if we represent the leaders of nations, including Sir Edward Grey, and Hitler, and perhaps Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a pack of cynical hypocrites who in their hearts believed in nothing but selfishness between nations, but deluded their people with talk of moral ideas — even if we believe this, I say, it does not in any way lessen the force of my argument Rather, it strengthens it. For it is an admission that the nations, the peoples of the world, are moved by moral ideas and moral forces, that moral ideals do enter into the motivation of their actions in regard to each other. It is therefore utterly false to say that the motives of international action are purely those of self-interest. And this assertion will remain true even if we hold that the moral forces acting in these peoples are merely used by their leaders to steer the nations into those courses which the leaders think they should, from their national self-interest, follow. Moral ideas are not only relevant to the international scene but are profoundly powerful in it.


THERE used to be, among economists, an absurd abstraction called “the economic man.” The economic man was governed solely by considerations of profit and loss — that is, by self-interest. His mind was nothing but a calculating machine. It added up the probable profits and losses of a proposed action, and if the calculation showed a balance of profit to himself, he acted. If not, not. And no consideration other than profit and loss moved him in the slightest degree.

Economists have now given up the idea of the economic man. It involved a fantastic oversimplification of human nature. Human beings are simply not like that. No businessman, even the most hardheaded, is a mere calculating machine of profit and loss. All sorts of other motives, some generous, some ungenerous, some indifferent, irrelevant, or merely whimsical, enter in. Even if he allows his liking for a friend to deflect his action by a hair’s breadth — to make him contented, for example, with a profit of only a thousand dollars where he might have made a thousand dollars and fifty cents by ruining his friend — even this trivial deflection of his action by a slight feeling of generosity to a friend takes him out of the class of purely economic men, since it means that his action is in some degree motivated by moral impulses — for generosity and friendship are moral impulses.

Now this absurd abstraction of the economic man, long out of date in economics, pops up again in our international thinking in the form of the doctrine that foreign policy is and ought to be governed only by national self-interest. This is just as much an oversimplification of the psychology of nations as the economic man was of the psychology of individuals, and it is the same oversimplification. The motives of nations, as of individual men, are extraordinarily mixed and complicated, and somewhere in the mixture you will always find moral ideas working.

The element of truth in the current belief that nations have no morals seems to me to be this: the level of morals as practiced by individual human beings between themselves is relatively high; the level of morals as practiced by nations between themselves is deplorably low. There is such a thing as international morality. That is to say, moral forces do operate on the international plane. But the standard of morals as between nations is much lower than the standard of morals practiced by decent people towards each other in the sphere of individual action.

It is this fact which gives rise to statements that moral ideas do not apply to nations at all, and that nations act purely from self-interest. These statements are to be explained simply as exaggerations. We see the deplorably low level of international morality, and then we make wild statements denying altogether its existence or even its possibility.

Why is there this vast difference between the ethical standards of individuals and the ethical standards of states? There are several reasons. One is the mere fact that other nations are at a distance from us. We cannot easily wrong a person on our doorstep, where we see the results of what we do, but we can more easily act with indifference, or even brutality, when the victims are thousands of miles away and we do not see the results of our actions.

But the reason which is more relevant to my topic is the following: Individuals act within a community of individuals, the state. But nations do not act within a community of nations. There is no world state or super-state. The morality of individuals is embodied in institutions, of which the chief is the state, but which also include all sorts of other institutions, such as the family, the churches, the universities, schools, unions, societies of all kinds, even social clubs. The morality of the individual is at every point created for him, upheld, inspired, supported by the whole social organism of which he forms a part. His morality is objectified in these institutions. But there is no nation of nations, no state of states, no institution in which international morality can organize and objectify itself. Therefore, international morality inevitably remains at a low level, because it lacks the necessary organs and instruments by which to realize itself.

Several consequences follow. First, the low level of international morals is not due to any inherent nonmoral character of the nation or the state as such. It is not because in the nature of things the state is super-moral or sub-moral or outside morality, or that morality does not apply to it. Men collected into a nation have the same moral feelings and moral natures as do the individuals who compose the collection. But as nations they lack the institutions, especially the institution of a great overall state, in which their moral natures can express and objectify themselves.

Second, you cannot have a very high level of international morality until you do have a world state. And in the peace after this war it is foolish to expect ideal solutions. Some people are shocked by what they consider the unjust treatment of Poland or by some other feature of the proposed peace settlement. But the general problem of the control and government of human beings everywhere, even within an organized community, is to leaven the vast inert bulk of human indifference and even wickedness with that bare modicum of morality and justice which it will stand. That is why the law of a country always lags behind the moral sense of its best citizens. It cannot enforce the highest standards of its best citizens, but only the much lower standards which practically all its citizens, even those who are most undeveloped morally, will support. If it tries to aim higher than that, the law is flouted and breaks down.

How much more true will this be in the international sphere, where there is no government to enforce any law. To be more specific, if you try to force on a country like Russia some law or principle which that country is not ready to accept, then that country will flout your law and your principle. And the result will be, not merely that law breaks down in that instance, but that all respect for law is gone, and that it breaks down everywhere all over the world. And then your entire peace breaks down.


AS TO the world state, without which I say you can never get a high level of international morality, I have no doubt that it will some day come. It is in the direct line of human evolution. Smaller wholes coalesce into larger wholes. There are unicellular organisms. Then single cells coalesce into multicellular organisms. Individual multicellular organisms coalesce into families, families into tribes, tribes into nations. The evolutionary process would not naturally stop till it ends in the organization of all men into a single society.

But that is a long way off. Perhaps in five hundred years, perhaps even in a hundred years, we might have a world state. Possibly the atomic bomb will quicken this slow rate of development. At any rate it is no use writing of what may happen in a remote future. Let us consider merely the decade or so which lies directly in front of us.

The problem of the immediate future is: Admitting that we cannot yet have a world state, and that a very high level of international morals is impossible without it, how, in these circumstances, can we gradually raise the level of international morals? I think that there are just three principles we should try to apply. And I will say a few words about each of them.

The first principle is that we should, as a nation, place ourselves always on the side of justice, in every dispute, and endeavor by our example to influence others to do the same. In general, the American people already instinctively do this. The practical difficulty, of course, is to know which is the side of justice. And here we are often likely, through ignorance of complicated sets of facts about remote countries, to go astray. But even if in the particular case we may be partly ignorant or even mistaken about a situation, the fact that we stand for just solutions in general will exercise a great weight.

For instance, in the matter of India. We place ourselves on the side of freedom for the Indians. The British reply that they are as anxious for Indian freedom as we are, but that we do not understand the complexity of the problem. This charge is in general true. We are most of us woefully ignorant of even the most elementary facts of the extraordinarily complex Indian situation. But even though we underestimate the immense problem which India presents to the British, and thereby in our words and thoughts often do some injustice to our British friends, yet the fact that we do stand for Indian freedom puts the pressure in the right direction. It tends to force the British to solve those problems which otherwise they, even if we grant their good intentions, might well give up as insoluble. If we keep up this pressure, even though it be sometimes in rather an ignorant way, these problems will in the end be solved.

The second principle is that we should try to persuade nations that national self-interest is in the long run best served by international justice and morality rather than by the law of the jungle. Perhaps we need to preach this more to ourselves than to other people, certainly as much. It is the failure to understand this principle which produces isolationism.

I do not mean to suggest that one can attain the highest standard of morals by basing morality on selfinterest. It is not true that they always coincide. The world’s moral giants and teachers, the saints, the martyrs, the moral heroes, to whom we look up as the best of our kind, were never made merely by taking a long view of their own interests. The cynical opinion that the good man is merely more clever at advancing his own interests than the bad man, but that they both aim exclusively at their own interests, is psychologically false. But then, we are not hoping at present to produce a world of heroically moral nations. We are trying to inject a bare minimum of morality into the international chaos. And at that low level of morals at which we are compelled to operate, it is roughly true that intelligent self-interest and decent behavior coincide. For example, you do produce a relatively decent level of business ethics by getting businessmen to see that honesty is the best policy. The same will be true in the international sphere.

The third principle is that we should support all international organizations which tend toward common action and the submergence of individual national interests in a larger whole. But here we find ourselves involved in a difficulty which is something like a vicious circle. The reason we cannot attain a high level of international morality is that there is no world state. But then, the reason we cannot, at present, get a world state is that our level of international morals is so low.

I have already exhibited the first half of this circle. I will say a word about the second. Why can we not get a world state now?

The League of Nations was not a world state, but it was a move in that direction. The reason why the League of Nations broke down was not that its instrument or its machinery was faulty. It was a very good instrument; it was very good machinery. It broke down partly because it was not supported by all the great powers, and partly because even those powers which did join it were not willing to back it to the extent of risking what they believed to be their individual national interests for the sake of the interests of the community of nations. To be specific, they would not enforce the necessary sanctions in the cases of Manchuria and Ethiopia because they did not see that their own interests were immediately involved. But morality, if it means anything, means the merging of your individual interests in the interests of the community. So it comes to this: the League broke down because the level of international morals was so low.

What, then, are we to do to get out of this circle? We can’t have a high level of morals until we get a world state. And we can’t have a world state till we get a higher level of morals. There is nothing we can do in these circumstances except try to get rid of old habits of thought. We are still, all of us, everywhere in the world, in the grip of old habits of thought, carried over from the day when the nations were relatively independent or self-dependent,into an age in which they have become, whether they like it or not, interdependent. Our habit is to think in national terms only, whereas we have to learn to think in international terms.

The practical problem is, not to explain this idea — any child can understand it; it is not even to get people to believe the idea — most of us believe it now; it is to get our own people, and the peoples of the world, so soaked with this idea that they naturally and instinctively act from it — that acting from it goes with the grain of their minds, not against the grain. The achievement of this result almost involves implanting a new instinct, and is a problem of education, of conditioning.

In the early days of August, immediately after the first use of the atomic bomb, President Truman warned the Japanese that they had still time to save themselves, but that the time was short. He might as well have addressed these words to the American, or any other, nation. How long have we been living in a fool’s paradise, imagining that we can shape our world policy by nothing save our own narrow interests conceived as independent of the interests of other nations? In the next war, if we allow one to come, we may be “vaporized” en masse by uranium rockets fired from a distance of thousands of miles, almost before we know that we are at war.

There is only one way out. We have to learn the lesson that nations, deserting their petty ideas of sovereignty, prestige, national self-interest, must combine to act together for the common good of humanity — which is the meaning of acting morally. There is still time to learn this lesson. But the time is short.