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Adler, Philip A. (ed.) / The Wisconsin literary magazine
Volume XVI, Number 8 (May 1917)

Otto, M. C.
War and moral progress,   pp. 233-235


Page 234

WISCONSIN LITERARY MAGAZINE
or with a contemporary view in the creative impulse of
mah, the fact is that the primitive circumscription of
moral area has gradually given place to a wider and
wider concept of rights and duties. Both with respect
to relations inside the group and with respect to the
relation of one group to another, the social conscience
has grown in vision and sensitiveness. Witness the
growth of what is called social justice, of which the
gradual change in the status of woman and the slow
but far-reaching recognition of the rights of the laborer,
are two examples out of a hundred. Witness the
growth of cosmopolitanism, as reflected in commerce,
in travel, in spontaneous benevolence in time of nation-
al calamity, and in a large variety of international ven-
tures of an educational and social character. Indeed,
the state has come to be regarded as an instrument for
the realization of the ends of the individuals who con-
stitute it. and it is openly contended that the only just
relation between states is one which promises most for
mankind rather than one which satisfies the wants and
the pride of an individual group. Devious and halting
as the advance has been, discouraging as conditions
may appear when viewed at some particular point, a
retrospect of the centuries shows a marvelous change
both in the capacity and in the tendency of human be-
ings to place themselves imaginatively in the position of
others. The fortunes of the tribe which once bounded
the imagination and exhausted the vital interests of even
the most enlightened savage, have been transcended.
Moreover, wider ideas of obligation have arisen. Not
only the family, the community, the state, the nation,
but mankind, is now recognized to have claims upon
our devotion.
Nor has the change been one of ideal only. The de-
velopment of social and international consciousness has
been paralleled by the invention of instrumentalities
through which the new ideals have found expression.
The two phenomena are inseparable manifestations of
man's creative genius, the one no less remarkable than
the other, and each, from the primitive man's point of
view, or that of early civilization, equally inconceiv-
able. Private revenge, duelling and blood-feud suc-
cessfully outlawed, appeals to force replaced by elec-
tions in the political field, arbitration largely substi-
tuted for force in quarrels between powerful collective
bodies within the group, a complex institution achieved
and maintained at community expense for adjudicating
disputes growing out of conflicting interests of all sorts,
an elaborate system of investigation and agitation in-
augurated for the purpose of arriving at more just con-
cepts of the most important social relationships,-these
are a few of the practical accomplishments within the
group. Likewise, human inventiveness has not been un-
successful in dealing with conflicts of national interests,
as is shown by various international conventions, by the
repeated settlement of irritating questions through courts
of arbitration, by arrangements to settle outstanding or
future controversies without an appeal to arms, and by
the creation of standing machinery for equitable adjust-
ment of difficulties between nations. Conventions have
not always stood the strain, the machinery has periodi-
cally broken down, but a survey of the history of inter-
national relations shows much to have been accom-
plished in the attempt to devise ways and means for the
settlement of disputes less blind and uncertain than the
appeal to force. In a word, then, advance in civiliza-
tion has actually meant the progressive achievement of
a concept of things in which a richer total of human
values might be realized, and the progressive creation
of instrumentalities through which this expanding ideal
has found expression.
The outstanding paradox in this process has of course
been the periodic lapse into war. War is a return to
group morality. Conceived in the disregard of a wider
obligation for narrower interests, it is born as a delib-
erate purpose utterly to destroy the interests originally
ignored. The aims of the enemy are painted in devilish
colors that the virtue of thwarting them may the more
readily be perceived, while every known art of per-
suasion is employed to arouse and unify public senti-
ment in the interest of blind devotion to a group ideal.
In the heat of the conflict, cultural ideals, religious sen-
timents, humanitarian impulses all tend to boil down to
a sediment of anti-enemy hatred. And the restriction
of moral vision outward from the group is duplicated
by a similar restriction inward. Safeguards of human
individuality which the group has grudgingly yielded
after the struggle of centuries, are snatched back where
possible, as a war necessity. Nor is there any escape
for the objector from being suspected of the vilest char-
acter describable in the group tongue. For war is a re-
turn to the spirit of the tribe, when to be moved by a
desire to enlarge the area of interests to be considered
so as to include the interests of the individual as indi-
vidual, or extraneous interests opposed to those of the
group as a group, is to sound the deeps of moral de-
pravity. There are Liebknecht, Roland, and Russell
for a testimony, and in our own country the ready ref-
erence, upon the slightest occasion, to treason and the
rewards of treason.
War is a return to the spirit of the tribe, and as such
a moral about face. The point needs emphasis. Few
people deny the barbarity of war in the abstract, but
few admit it in the concrete. War in the abstract is
hell; war in the concrete is holy. So we conceal from
ourselves the enormity of our failure, and, finding solace
in a compensating good, accept existing conditions as
inevitable.
May, 1917
234


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