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It is now some 45 years since I read Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society”*, first published in the US in 1932 on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. The book’s sub-title, “A study in ethics and politics” denotes an area of thought where clarity of understanding is essential for CND, if the drive to nuclear war is to be undermined and subverted. Further reading in student days led me to the conviction that ethical perceptions were ever emerging from human actions (existential ethics) rather than from any external moral code promoted by social institutions or the state. These ideas underpin what follows. It is a mistake to regard Homo sapiens as absolutely different from other animals. Like other beasts, human populations compete for their ecological niche, act collectively for the security of their own tribe and care for their young and. Our species has had such unique success in the struggle for the survival as now to dominate and populate almost all terrestrial environments.

The Evolutionary Imperative - Competitionand Collective Security

Since the dawn of recorded history human beings have organised collectively to protect the security of their tribe from other human beings. In its genesis this is part of all evolutionary history and the fittest tribe survives. However, the amazing growth of technology and the competition for living space have completely changed the parameters of these intraspecific struggles that lead to war.

I note:

  • The human economy has become global and human populations occupy every corner of the globe.
  • The conflict to protect and seize resources is also global. . The conflict is also internalised within governing structures on a class basis.
  • The nuclear weapons used to promote the dominance of the most successful powers now threaten their destruction and the end of human (and other) life on earth.
We are faced with a paradox: At the zenith of human dominance, epitomised by US global dominance, we face global catastrophe at the hands of our own species. Here the fittest tribe with the fittest perspective (unfettered competition and the global free market, backed by military force) can suddenly become the most unfit of all. We know how to give good gifts to our children. It seems that reflection on this instinct and its expansion and extension lie at the root of human ethical behaviour. Put more simply the underlying principle that leads to ethical judgement is that we love one and other.

The Evolutionary Imperative - Obligation of care

In common with our animal cousins we acknowledge a personal imperative to care forour young. We know how to give good gifts to our children. It seems that reflection on this instinct and its expansion and extension lie at the root of human ethical behaviour. Put more simply the underlying principle that leads to ethical judgement is that we love one and other.

Solidarity in struggle

The analysis above leads to the conclusion that while persons are inevitably involved with social and political structures, as moral persons their agenda is not necessarily served by these structures. The human moral instinct “that men the world o’er, shall brothers be for a’ that.” conflicts with a social and political order, characterised by a drive to compete, control and dominate and which is now massively turned inward upon the human population itself.

This is the milieu in which we live out our lives, and, within which, with all our brothers and sisters, we strive collectively for space to enjoy our being.

The Deal

The conflict between moral man and the social/political order has characterised the whole of history. As Hegel observed, it is a dynamic oscillating process. Synthesis (a settlement tolerable to all elements) leads to antithesis which ends in crisis through which a new synthesis arises. In this understanding of human progress none of the fundamental elements in the emerging in the crisis are destroyed. If they were, the end would be either total anarchy or total tyranny. The new deal is cemented by new law. The rule of law is crucial. The fact that the rule of law is currently being undermined, e.g. detention without trial, illegal invasion of Iraq, illegal occupation of Palestine, failure to recognise the legitimate government of Palestine, failure to observe the provisions of the Nuclear Non - Proliferation treaty etc., point to a looming historical crisis. The looming Crisis today Human “progress” in the last 500 years or so has, to an extent, made it easier to trace the elements at work. The Industrial revolution brought a fresh understanding of the class basis of society. Exploited human labour has striven to build trade union and labour movements; organised co-operatively, internationally and on a moral base. Today, ranged against it, are the G8 powers supported by the international Arms Industry and the corporations of global free market capitalism. Those organising these enterprises seem have their moral senses thoroughly cauterised. Lying in the heart of these powers that order the world economy, are 20,000 nuclear bombs. There are judgements to be made and sides to be taken. We cannot precisely predict the course of events. However, it is clear that both Russia (? in cahoots with China) and the US (aided and abetted by Britain and NATO) intend to dominate the resources, material and human, of the Middle East and southern Asia.

The US, Britain, NATO, Russia, China, Israel, Pakistan and India all have nuclear arsenals. If even a modest proportion of these weapons were to be detonated, human life on earth would be at an end. If you want to know the way it would come about you could do no better than to read Nevil Shute’s novel “On the Beach”. As Kate Hudson wrote; “CND Now, More than Ever”, Or as Daniel Jenkins (University of Sussex) writes in the forward to the first British edition of Niebuhr’s book (1963) “in particular, in relation the threat of nuclear warfare, this book should be required reading for the many (Christian) members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.”

Jim Taggart

* Reinhold Niebuhr: Moral Man and

Immoral Society, SCM Press 1963

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