by Jonathan Dymond

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Chapter 2 Part 5

Chapter 2 Part 6►

The magistrate “beareth not the sword in vain, for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”  From this acknowledgment of the lawfulness of coercion on the part of the civil magistrate, an argument has been advanced in favor of war.  It is said that by parity of reasoning, coercion is also lawful in the suppression of the violence which one nation uses towards another.

Some men talk as if the principles that we maintain were subversive of all order and government.  They ask us, “Is the civil magistrate to stand still and see lawless violence ravaging the land?  Is the whole fabric of human society to be dissolved?”

We answer: No.  From wherever these men may have derived their terrors, they are not chargeable upon us or upon our principles.  To deduce even a plausible argument in favor of war from the permission “to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil,” it is obviously necessary to show that we are permitted to take his life.  And the right to put an offender to death, must be proved, if it can be proved at all, either from an express permission of the Christian Scriptures, or, supposing Christianity to have given no decisions, either directly or indirectly from a necessity which knows no alternative.  Now everyone knows that this express permission to inflict death is not to be found; and upon the question of its necessity, we ask for that evidence which alone can determine it: the evidence of experience.  And this evidence the advocate of war has never brought, and cannot bring.  And we shall probably not be contradicted when we say that that degree of evidence which experience has afforded is evidence in our favor rather than against us.

But some persons entertain an opinion, that in the case of murder, at least, there is a sort of immutable necessity for taking the offender’s life.  “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”  If anyone urges this rule against us, we reply, that it is not a rule of Christianity; and if the necessity of demanding blood for blood is an everlasting principle of retributive justice, how happens it that in the first case in which murder was committed, the murderer was not put to death?

The philosopher however would prove what the Christian cannot; and Mably accordingly says, “In the state of nature, I have a right to take the life of him who lifts his arm against mine.  This right, upon entering into society, I surrender to the magistrate.”  If we conceded the truth of the first position, which we do not, the conclusion from it is a sophism too idle for notice.  Having, however, been thus told that the state has a right to kill, we are next informed by Filangieri that the criminal has no right to live.  He says, “If I have a right to kill another man, he has lost his right to life.” [62]  Rousseau goes a little farther.  He tells us that in consequence of the “social contract” which we make with the sovereign on entering into society, “Life is a conditional grant of the state,” [63] so that we hold our lives, it seems, only as “tenants at will,” and must give them up whenever their owner, the state, requires them.  The reader has probably hitherto thought that he retained his head by some other tenure.

The right of taking an offender’s life being thus proved, Mably shows us how its exercise becomes expedient.  “A murderer,” says he, “ in taking away his enemy’s life, believes he does him the greatest possible evil.  Death, then, in the murderer’s estimation, is the greatest of evils.  By the fear of death, therefore, the excesses of hatred and revenge must be restrained.”  If language wilder than this can be held, Rousseau, I think, holds it.  He says, “The preservation of both sides (the criminal and the state) is incompatible; one of the two must perish.”  How it happens that a nation “must perish” if a convict is not hanged, the reader, I suppose, will not know.

I have referred to these speculations for the purpose of showing that the right of putting offenders to death is not easily made out.  Philosophers would scarcely have had recourse to these metaphysical abstractions if they knew an easier method of establishing the right.  Even philosophy, however, concedes us much: “Absolute necessity alone,” says Pastoret, “can justify the punishment of death;” and Rousseau himself acknowledges that, “we have no right to put to death, even for the sake of example, any but those who cannot be permitted to live without danger.”  Beccaria limits the right to two specific cases in which, “if an individual, though deprived of his liberty, has still such credit and connections as may endanger the security of the nation, or by his existence is likely to produce a dangerous revolution in the established form of government – he must undoubtedly die.” [64]  It is not, perhaps, necessary for us to point out why, in these suppositious cases, a prisoner may not be put to death, since I believe that philosophy will find it difficult, on some of her own principles, to justify his destruction.  For Dr. Paley decides that whenever a man thinks there are great grievances in the existing government, and that, by heading a revolt, he can redress them without occasioning greater evil by the rebellion than benefit by its success, it is his duty to rebel[65]  The prisoner whom Beccaria supposes may be presumed to have thought this; and with reason too, for the extent of his credit, his connections, and his success is the plea for putting him to death.  We must therefore leave it to those who indulge in such speculations to consider how it can be right for one man to take the lead in a revolution, while it is right for another to hang him for taking it.

What then does the lawfulness of coercion on the part of the magistrate prove upon the question of the lawfulness of war?  If capital punishments had never been inflicted,what would it have proved?  Obviously nothing.  If capital punishments cannot be shown to be defensible,what does it prove?  Obviously nothing, for an unauthorized destruction of human life on the gallows cannot justify another unauthorized destruction of it on the field.

Perhaps some of those who may have been hitherto willing to give me a patient attention will be disposed to withdraw it, when they hear the unlawfulness of defensive war unequivocally maintained.  But it matters not.  My business is with what appears to me to be truth.  If truth surprises us, I cannot help it – it is still truth.

Upon the question of defensive war, I would beg the reader to bear in his recollection that every feeling of his nature is enlisted against us; and I would beg him, knowing this, to attain as complete an abstraction from the influence of those feelings as shall be in his power.  This he will do, if he is honest in the inquiry for truth.  It is not necessary to conceal that the principles that we maintain may sometimes demand the sacrifice of our apparent interests.  Such sacrifices Christianity has been wont to require.  They are the tests of our fidelity; and of those whom I address, I believe there are some who, if they can be assured that we speak the language of Christianity, will require no other inducements to obedience.

The lawfulness of defensive war is commonly simplified to The Right of Self-Defense.  This is one of the strongholds of the defender of war, the almost final fastness to which he retires.  “The instinct of self-preservation,” it is said, “is an instinct of nature; and since this instinct is implanted by God, whatever is necessary to self-preservation is accordant with his will.  This is specious, but like many other specious arguments, it is sound in its premises, but, as I think, fallacious in its conclusions.  That the instinct of self-preservation is an instinct of nature is clear.  That, because it is an instinct of nature, we have a right to kill other men is not clear.

The fallacy of the whole argument appears to consist in this: that it assumes that an instinct of nature is a law of paramount authority.  God has implanted in the human system various propensities or instincts, of which the purposes are wise.  These propensities tend in their own nature to abuse; and when gratified or followed to excess, they become subversive of the purposes of the wisdom which implanted them, and destructive of the welfare of mankind.  He has therefore instituted a superior law, sanctioned by his immediate authority.  By this law, we are required to regulate these propensities.  The question, therefore, is not whether the instinct of self-preservation is implanted by nature but whether Christianity has restricted its operation.  By this, and by this only, the question is to be determined.  Now, he who will be at the trouble of making the inquiry will find that a regulation of the instincts of nature, and a restriction of their exercise, is a prominent object of the Christian morality; and I think it is plain that this regulation and restriction apply to the instinct before us.  That some of these propensities are to be restrained is certain.  One of the most powerful instincts of our nature is an affection to which the regulating precepts of Christianity are peculiarly directed.  I do not maintain that any natural instinct is to be eradicated, but that all of them are to be regulated and restrained; and I maintain this of the instinct of self-preservation.

The establishment of this position is, indeed, the great object of the present inquiry.  What are the dispositions and actions to which the instinct of self-preservation prompts, but actions and dispositions that Christianity forbids?  They are non-forbearance, resistance, and retaliation of injuries.  The truth is, that it is to defense that the peaceable precepts of Christianity are directed.  Offence appears not to have even suggested itself.  It is “Resist not evil”; it is “Overcome evil with good”; it is “Do good to them that hate you”; it is “Love your enemies”; it is “Render not evil for evil”; it is “Whoso smiteth thee on one cheek.”  All this supposes previous offence, injury, or violence; and it is then that forbearance is enjoined.

“The chief aim,” says a judicious author, “of those who argue in behalf of defensive war is directed at the passions,” [66] and accordingly, the case of an assassin will doubtless be brought against me.  I shall be asked, “Suppose a ruffian breaks into your house, and rushes into your room with his arm lifted to murder you.  Do you not believe that Christianity allows you to kill him?”  This is the last refuge of those who support war.  My answer to it is explicit – I do not believe it.

I have referred to this utmost possible extremity because I am willing to meet objections of whatever nature, and because, by stating this, which is enforced by all our prejudices and all our instincts, I shall at least show that I give to those who differ from me a fair, open, and candid recognition of all the consequences of my principles.  I would, however, beg the same candor of the reader, and remind him, that were they unable to abide this test, the case of the ruffian has little practical reference to war.  I remind him of this, not because I doubt whether our principles can be supported, but because, if he should think that in this case I do not support them, he will yet recollect that very few wars are proved to be lawful.  Of the wars that are prosecuted, some are simply wars of aggression; some are for the maintenance of a balance of power; some are in assertion of technical rights; and some, undoubtedly to repel invasion.  The last are perhaps the fewest, and of these only it can be said that they bear any analogy whatever to the case which is supposed; and even in these, the analogy is seldom complete.  It has rarely indeed happened that wars have been undertaken simply for the preservation of life, and that no other alternative has remained to a people than to kill or to be kilted.  And let it be remembered, that unless only this alternative remains, the case of the ruffian is irrelevant; it does not apply practically to the subject.

I do not know what those persons mean, who say that we are authorized to kill an assassin by the law of nature.  Principles like this, heedlessly assumed as self-evident truth are, I believe, often the starting point of our errors, the point of divergence from rectitude from which our subsequent obliquities proceed.  Some men seem to talk of the laws of nature as if nature were a legislatress who had sat and framed laws for the government of mankind.  Nature makes no laws.  A law implies a legislator, and there is no legislator upon the principles of human duty but God.  If, by the “law of nature” is meant anything of which the sanctions or obligations are different from those of revelation, it is obvious that we have set up a moral system of our own, and in opposition to that which has been established by Heaven.  If we mean by the “law of nature” nothing but that which is accordant with revelation, to what purpose do we refer to it at all?  I do not suppose that any sober moralist will statedly advance the laws of nature in opposition to the laws of God; but I think that to advance them at all – that to refer to any principle or law in determination of our duty, irrespectively of the simple will of God, is always dangerous; for there will be many who, when they are referred for direction to such law or principle, will regard it, in their practice, as a final standard of truth.  I believe that a reference to the laws of nature has seldom illustrated our duties and never induced us to perform them, and that it has hitherto answered little other purpose than that of amusing the lovers of philosophical morality.

The mode of proving, or of stating, the right to kill an assassin is this: “There is one case in which all extremities are justifiable, namely, when our life is assaulted and it becomes necessary for our preservation to kill the assailant.  This is evident in a state of nature, unless it can be shown that we are bound to prefer the aggressor’s life to our own; that is to say, to love our enemy better than ourselves, which can never be a debt of justice, nor anywhere appears to be a duty of charity.” [67]  If I were disposed to hold argumentation like this, I would say that although we may not be required to love our enemies better than ourselves, we are required to love them as ourselves; and that in the supposed case, it still would be a question equally balanced, which life ought to be sacrificed; for it is quite clear that if we kill the assailant, we love him less than ourselves, which may, perhaps, militate a little against “a duty of charity.”  But the truth is, that the question is not whether we should love our enemy better than ourselves, but whether we should sacrifice the laws of Christianity in order to preserve our lives – whether we should prefer the interests of religion to our own – whether we should be willing to “lose our life, for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s.”

This system of counter-crime is of very loose tendency.  The assailant violates his duties by attempting to kill me, and I, therefore, am to violate mine by actually killing him.  Is his meditated crime, then, a justification of my perpetrated crime?  In the case of a condemned Christian martyr who was about to be led to the stake, it is supposable that, by having contrived an explosive, he may preserve his life by suddenly firing it and blowing his persecutors into the air.  Would Christianity justify the act?  Or what should we say of him if he committed it?  We should say that whatever his faith might be, his practice was very unsound; that he might believe the gospel, but that he certainly did not fulfill its duties.  Now I contend that for all the purposes of the argument, the cases of the martyr and the assaulted person are precisely similar.  He who was about to be led to the stake and he who was about to lose his life by the assassin are both required to regulate their conduct by the same laws, and are both to be prepared to offer up their lives in testimony of their allegiance to Christianity: the one in allegiance to her, in opposition to the violation of her moral principles and her moral spirit; and the other in opposition to errors in belief or to ecclesiastical corruptions.  It is therefore in vain to tell me that the victim of persecution would have suffered for religion’s sake, for so also would the victim of the ruffian.  There is nothing in the sanctions of Christianity which implies that obedience to her moral law is of less consequence than an adherence to her faith; nor, as it respects the welfare of the world, does the consequence appear to be less, for he who, by his fidelity to Christianity, promotes the diffusion of Christian dispositions and of peace, contributes, perhaps, as much to the happiness of mankind as he who by the same fidelity recommends the acceptance of an accurate creed.

A great deal hangs upon this question, and it is therefore necessary to pursue it farther.  We say, first, that Christianity has not declared that we are ever at liberty to kill other men, secondly, that she virtually prohibits it because her principles and the practice of our Savior are not compatible with it, and, thirdly, that if Christianity allowed it, she would in effect and in practice allow war, without restriction to defense of life.

The first of these positions will probably not be disputed.  Upon the second, that Christianity virtually prohibits the destruction of human life, it has been the principal object of this essay to insist.  I would, therefore, only observe, that the conduct of the Founder of Christianity, when his enemies approached him “with swords and staves,” appears to apply strictly to self-defense.  These armed men came with the final purpose of murdering him; but although he knew this purpose, he would not suffer the assailants to be killed or even to be wounded.  Christ, therefore, would not preserve his own life by sacrificing another’s.

But we say, thirdly, that if Christianity allows us to kill one another in self-defense, she allows war, without restriction to self-defense.  Let us try what would have been the result if the Christian Scriptures had thus placed human life at our disposal.  Suppose they had said, “You may kill a ruffian in your own defense, but you may not enter into a defensive war.”  The prohibition would admit more than a few exceptions to its application – the exceptions would be so many that no prohibition would be left, because there is no practical limit to the right of self-defense until we arrive at defensive war.  If one man may kill one, two may kill two, ten may kill ten, an army may kill an army, and this is defensive war.  Supposing, again, the Christian Scriptures had said, “An army may fight in its own defense, but not for any other purpose.”  We do not say that the exceptions to this rule would be so many as wholly to nullify the rule itself, but we say that whoever will attempt to apply it in practice will find that he has a very wide range of justifiable warfare – a range that will embrace many more wars than moralists, laxer than we shall suppose them to be, are willing to defend.  If those in an army may fight in defense of their own lives, they may and they must fight in defense of the lives of others.  If they may fight in defense of the lives of others, they will fight in defense of their property.  If in defense of property, they will fight in defense of political rights.  If in defense of rights, they will fight in promotion of interests.  If in promotion of interests, they will fight in promotion of their glory and their crimes.  Now let any man of honesty look over the gradations by which we arrive at this climax, and I believe he will find that, in practice, no curb can be placed upon the conduct of an army until they reach it.  There is, indeed, a wide distance between fighting in defense of life and fighting in furtherance of our crimes; but the steps which lead from one to the other will follow in inevitable succession.  I know that the letter of our rule excludes it, but I know the rule will be a letter only.  It is very easy for us to sit in our studies and point to the commas, semicolons, and periods of the soldier’s career; it is very easy for us to say he shall stop at defense of life, or at protection of property, or at the support of rights; but armies will never listen to us.  We shall be only the Xerxes of morality throwing our idle chains into the tempestuous ocean of slaughter.

What is the testimony of experience?  When nations are mutually exasperated, armies are levied, and battles are fought, does not everyone know that with whatever motives of defense one party may have begun the contest, both, in turn become aggressors?  In the fury of slaughter, soldiers do not attend, they cannot attend, to questions of aggression.  Their business is destruction, and their business they will perform.  If the army of defense obtains success, it soon becomes an army of aggression.  Having repelled the invader, it begins to punish him.  If a war is once begun, it is vain to think of distinctions of aggression and defense.  Moralists may talk of distinctions, but soldiers will make none.  And none can be made; it is outside the limits of possibility.

But, indeed, what is defensive war?  A celebrated moralist defines it to be war undertaken in consequence of “an injury perpetrated, attempted, or feared;” which shows with sufficient clarity how little the assassin concerns the question, for fear respecting life does not enter into the calculation of “injuries.”  So then, if we fear some injury to our purses, or to our “honor,” we are allowed to send an army to the country that gives us fear and to slaughter its inhabitants; and this, we are told, is defensive war.  By this system of reasoning, which has been happily called “martial logic,” there will be little difficulty in proving any war to be defensive.  Now we say that if Christianity allows defensive war, she allows all war – except indeed that of simple aggression; and by the rules of this morality, the aggressor is difficult to discover; for he whom we choose to “fear” may say that he had previous “fear” of us, and that his “fear” prompted the hostile symptoms which made us “fear” again.  The truth is, that to attempt to make any distinctions upon the subject is vain.  War must be wholly forbidden, or allowed without restriction to defense; for no definitions of lawful or unlawful war will be, or can be, attended to.  If the principles of Christianity, in any case, or for any purpose, allow armies to meet and to slaughter one another, her principles will never conduct us to the period which prophecy has assured us they shall produce.  There is no hope of an eradication of war but by an absolute and total abandonment of it. [68]

What then is the principle for which we contend?  An unquestioning reliance upon Providence for defense in all those cases in which we should violate His laws by defending ourselves.  The principle can claim a species of merit that must at least be denied to some systems of morality: that of simplicity, of easiness of apprehension, of adaptation to every understanding, and of applicability to every circumstance of life.

If a wisdom that we acknowledge to be unerring has determined and declared that any given conduct is right, and that it is good for man, it appears preposterous and irreverent to argue that another can be better.  The Almighty certainly knows our interests, and if he has not directed us in the path that promotes them, the conclusion is inevitable that he has voluntarily directed us amiss.  Will the advocate of war abide this conclusion?  And if he will not, how will he avoid the opposite conclusion: that the path of forbearance is the path of expediency?

It would seem to be a position of very simple truth, that it becomes an erring being to regulate his actions by an acquiescent reference to an unerring will.  That it is necessary for one of these erring beings formally to insist upon this truth, and systematically to prove it to his fellows, may reasonably be a subject of grief and of shame.  But the audacity of guilt denies the truth, and the speculative nature of philosophy practically supersedes it, so the necessity therefore remains.

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Chapter 2 Part 6►

[62] Montagu on Punishment of Death.

[63] Contr. Soc. ii. 5 Montagu.

[64] Del Delitti e delia Penes, xvi.  Montagu.

[65] Moral and Political Philosophy.

[66] The Lawfulness of Defensive War Impartially Considered by a Member of the Church of England.

[67] Moral and Political Philosophy.

[68] It forms no part of a Christian’s business to inquire why his religion forbids any given actions, although I know not that the inquiry is reprehensible.  In the case of personal attack, Christianity may possibly decide that if one of two men must be hurried from the world, of whom the first is so profligate as to assault the life of his fellow, and the other is so virtuous as to prefer the loss of life to the abandonment of Christian principles, it is more consistent with her will that the good should be transferred to his hoped felicity, than that the bad should be consigned to punishment.