IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Hume: The Three Fundamental Rules of Justice

The following passages by David Hume, from his Treatise on Human Nature, address the origins of the rules of justice that underlie the laws of nations. He finds those origins in a mutual interest in peace and safety. The rules that justice enjoins—the stability of possession, its transference by consent, and the performance of promises—are the foundation of peace, commerce, and mutual succor, both within and among nations. The obligation to obey them, Hume says, arises from interest (or from reflection on the awful consequences incident to their violation), an account of morality very nearly the opposite of that set forth by Kant. [Article length: 2300 words]

Hume argues that these rules of justice have the same extent for individuals and nations, but that they lack the same force. States may violate them for a more trivial motive. Though he bends thus far in the direction of realism or reason of state, he also insists that no political writer or statesman would deny the binding character of treaties in normal circumstances. Interestingly, he is skeptical of the value of what we today might term academic philosophy. In the ways of sovereigns, “The practice of the world goes further in teaching us the degrees of our duty, than the most subtle philosophy which was ever yet invented.”

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When civil government has been established over the greatest part of mankind, and different societies have been formed contiguous to each other, there arises a new set of duties among the neighbouring states, suitable to the nature of that commerce, which they carry on with each other. Political writers tell us, that in every kind of intercourse, a body politic is to be considered as one person; and indeed this assertion is so far just, that different nations, as well as private persons, require mutual assistance; at the same time that their selfishness and ambition are perpetual sources of war and discord. But though nations in this particular resemble individuals, yet as they are very different in other respects, no wonder they regulate themselves by different maxims, and give rise to a new set of rules, which we call the laws of nations. Under this head we may comprise the sacredness of the persons of ambassadors, the declaration of war, the abstaining from poisoned arms, with other duties of that kind, which are evidently calculated for the commerce that is peculiar to different societies.

But though these rules be superadded to the laws of nature, the former do not entirely abolish the latter; and one may safely affirm, that the three fundamental rules of justice, the stability of possession, its transference by consent, and the performance of promises, are duties of princes as well as of subjects. The same interest produces the same effect in both cases. Where possession has no stability, there must be perpetual war. Where property is not transferred by consent, there can be no commerce. Where promises are not observed, there can be no leagues nor alliances. The advantages, therefore, of peace, commerce, and mutual succour, make us extend to different kingdoms the same notions of justice, which take place among individuals.

There is a maxim very current in the world, which few politicians are willing to avow, but which has been authorized by the practice of all ages, that there is a system of morals calculated for princes, much more free than that which ought to govern private persons. It is evident this is not to be understood of the lesser extent of public duties and obligations; nor will anyone be so extravagant as to assert, that the most solemn treaties ought to have no force among princes. For as princes do actually form treaties among themselves, they must propose some advantage from the execution of them; and the prospect of such advantage must engage them to perform their part, and must establish that law of nature. The meaning, therefore, of this political maxim is, that though the morality of princes has the same extent, yet it has not the same force as that of private persons, and may lawfully be transgressed from a more trivial motive. However shocking such a proposition may appear to certain philosophers, it will be easy to defend it upon those principles, by which we have accounted for the origin of justice and equity.

When men have found by experience, that it is impossible to subsist without society, and that it is impossible to maintain society, while they give free course to their appetites; so urgent an interest quickly restrains their actions, and imposes an obligation to observe those rules which we call the laws of justice. This obligation of interest rests not here; but by the necessary course of the passions and sentiments, gives rise to the moral obligation of duty; while we approve of such actions as tend to the peace of society, and disapprove of such as tend to its disturbance. The same natural obligation of interest takes place among independent kingdoms, and gives rise to the same morality; so that no one of ever so corrupt morals will approve of a prince, who voluntarily, and of his own accord, breaks his word, or violates any treaty. But here we may observe, that though the intercourse of different states be advantageous, and even sometimes necessary, yet it is not so necessary nor advantageous as that among individuals, without which it is utterly impossible for human nature ever to subsist. Since, therefore, the natural obligation to justice, among different states, is not so strong as among individuals, the moral obligation, which arises from it, must partake of its weakness; and we must necessarily give a greater indulgence to a prince or minister, who deceives another; than to a private gentleman, who breaks his word of honour.

Should it be asked, what proportion these two species of morality bear to each other? I would answer, that this is a question, to which we can never have any precise answer; nor is it possible to reduce to numbers the proportion, which we ought to fix betwixt them. One may safely affirm, that this proportion finds itself, without any art or study of men; as we may observe on many other occasions. The practice of the world goes further in teaching us the degrees of our duty, than the most subtle philosophy which was ever yet invented. And this may serve as a convincing proof, that all men have an implicit notion of the foundation of those moral rules concerning natural and civil justice, and are sensible, that they arise merely from human conventions, and from the interest, which we have in the preservation of peace and order.

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Hume’s conception of the society of states is further developed in his essay “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and  Sciences.” Hume insists that it is impossible for the arts and sciences to arise unless a people enjoys the blessings of free government. That the arts and sciences should “take their first rise in a monarchy, is to expect a contradiction.” He also insists that “nothing is more favourable to the rise of politeness and learning, than a number of neighbouring and independent states, connected together by commerce and policy.” His defense of plurality and particularly as a barrier to the progress of power and authority emphasizes that the mutual jealousy of neighboring states keeps them from “receiving too lightly the law from each other.”

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The emulation, which naturally arises among . . . neighbouring states, is an obvious source of improvement: But what I would chiefly insist on is the stop, which such limited territories give both to power and to authority.

Extended governments, where a single person has great influence, soon become absolute; but small ones change naturally into commonwealths. A large government is accustomed by degrees to tyranny; because each act of violence is at first performed upon a part, which, being distant from the majority, is not taken notice of, nor excites any violent ferment. Besides, a large government, though the whole be discontented, may, by a little art, be kept in obedience; while each part, ignorant of the resolutions of the rest, is afraid to begin any commotion or insurrection. Not to mention, that there is a superstitious reverence for princes, which mankind naturally contract when they do not often see the sovereign, and when many of them become not acquainted with him so as to perceive his weaknesses. And as large states can afford a great expence, in order to support the pomp of majesty; this is a kind of fascination on men, and naturally contributes to the enslaving of them. . . .

But the divisions into small states are favourable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power. Reputation is often as great a fascination upon men as sovereignty, and is equally destructive to the freedom of thought and examination. But where a number of neighbouring states have a great intercourse of arts and commerce, their mutual jealousy keeps them from receiving too lightly the law from each other, in matters of taste and of reasoning, and makes them examine every work of art with the greatest care and accuracy. The contagion of popular opinion spreads not so easily from one place to another. It readily receives a check in some state or other, where it concurs not with the prevailing prejudices. And nothing but nature and reason, or, at least, what bears them a strong resemblance, can force its way through all obstacles, and unite the most rival nations into an esteem and admiration of it.

GREECE was a cluster of little principalities, which soon became republics; and being united both by their near neighbourhood, and by the ties of the same language and interest, they entered into the closest intercourse of commerce and learning. There concurred a happy climate, a soil not unfertile, and a most harmonious and comprehensive language; so that every circumstance among that people seemed to favour the rise of the arts and sciences. Each city produced its several artists and philosophers, who refused to yield the preference to those of the neighbouring republics: Their contention and debates sharpened the wits of men: A variety of objects was presented to the judgment, while each challenged the preference to the rest: and the sciences, not being dwarfed by the restraint of authority, were enabled to make such considerable shoots, as are, even at this time, the objects of our admiration. After the ROMAN christian, or catholic church had spread itself over the civilized world, and had engrossed all the learning of the times; being really one large state within itself, and united under one head; this variety of sects immediately disappeared, and the PERIPATETIC philosophy was alone admitted into all the schools, to the utter depravation of every kind of learning. But mankind, having at length thrown off this yoke, affairs are now returned nearly to the same situation as before, and EUROPE is at present a copy at large, of what GREECE was formerly a pattern in miniature. We have seen the advantage of this situation in several instances. What checked the progress of the CARTESIAN philosophy, to which the FRENCH nation shewed such a strong propensity towards the end of the last century, but the opposition made to it by the other nations of EUROPE, who soon discovered the weak sides of that philosophy? The severest scrutiny, which NEWTON’S theory has undergone, proceeded not from his own countrymen, but from foreigners; and if it can overcome the obstacles, which it meets with at present in all parts of EUROPE, it will probably go down triumphant to the latest posterity. The ENGLISH are become sensible of the scandalous licentiousness of their stage, from the example of the FRENCH decency and morals. The FRENCH are convinced, that their theatre has become somewhat effeminate, by too much love and gallantry; and begin to approve of the more masculine taste of some neighbouring nations.

In CHINA, there seems to be a pretty considerable stock of politeness and science, which, in the course of so many centuries, might naturally he expected to ripen into something more perfect and finished, than what has yet arisen from them. But CHINA is one vast empire, speaking one language, governed by one law, and sympathizing in the same manners. The authority of any teacher, such as CONFUCIUS, was propagated easily from one corner of the empire to the other. None had courage to resist the torrent of popular opinion. And posterity was not bold enough to dispute what had been universally received by their ancestors. This seems to be one natural reason, why the sciences have made so slow a progress in that mighty empire.

If we consider the face of the globe, EUROPE, of all the four parts of the world, is the most broken by seas, rivers, and mountains; and GREECE of all countries of EUROPE. Hence these regions were naturally divided into several distinct governments. And hence the sciences arose in GREECE; and EUROPE has been hitherto the most constant habitation of them.

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David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature (1739), excerpted in the fine study of Arnold Wolfers and Laurence Martin, The Anglo American Tradition in Foreign Affairs: Readings from Thomas More to Woodrow Wilson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956); Hume, “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” (1742),  Essays Moral Political and Literary, Eugene Miller, ed. (Liberty Fund, 1985)

Much is notable in these passages, but especially Hume's declaration that "EUROPE is at present a copy at large, of what GREECE was formerly a pattern in miniature"--that is, a system of distinct governments. Hume's idea that these independent governments were formed by nature is grist for Daniel Deudney's mill (with Deudney, in his Bounding Power, stressing a similar insight by Rousseau). But however important "natural" or "material" factors are in prompting this fractured union, may we not say that the WORLD is at present a copy at large, of what EUROPE was formerly a pattern in miniature? Of course, there are profound differences in the eighteenth century European system and the twenty-first century global system, but Europe's experience of a plurality of independent units makes it different from the imperial configurations that appeared elsewhere in the world--in Russia, China, India, and the Ottoman Empire--as the European system was developing. The international thought that this system generated has much relevance for the contemporary world, for the 21st century world does indeed stand to eighteenth century Europe, as eighteenth century Europe once stood to Greece.