Contribution on Duty 12 in The CARTA of HUMAN DUTIES

Freeman J. Dyson

I am talking about duty number twelve of the Carta of Human Duties. Duty number twelve says, “It is the duty of every human being to work for maintenance of world peace, condemn war, terrorism and all other hostile activities by calling for decreased military spending in all countries and restriction of the proliferation and dissemination of arms, in particular, weapons of mass destruction”. It makes a number of demands, not all of them consistent with one another. It demands unconditionally that we condemn war and all other hostile activities. It demands that we call for decreased military spending in all countries. And it demands that we work for maintenance of world peace. Unfortunately, the maintenance of world peace sometimes requires increased rather than decreased military spending. And it has happened many times that the maintenance of peace required a willingness to go to war. When this happens, we are faced with an agonizing moral dilemma. We all agree that war is evil. But a refusal to intervene with military force is also evil, when peace is threatened and a military intervention could prevent a more destructive war. We are forced to make a choice between two evils. Either we condemn war unconditionally, or we are prepared to use military force for the maintenance of world peace. We cannot do both at the same time.

We have recently seen a tragic example of this moral dilemma. The dilemma confronted us during the months before the war in Bosnia began. When the old federation of Yugoslavia broke up and Croatia became an independent country, there was a high probability that war would break out in Bosnia. We were forced then to decide, either to intervene or not to intervene. The only way to prevent the Bosnian disaster would have been a prompt military intervention by the armies of NATO, with or without the help of Russia. It was essential for the intervening powers to act quickly, before the peaceful life of Bosnia was disrupted by the fury of civil war. It was essential for the intervening powers to move with overwhelming strength, and to be willing to use force to disarm the local war-lords. We cannot be sure that an early intervention would have been successful in preserving peace. All that we know for sure is that the policy of non-intervention was unsuccessful. By the time the NATO powers finally intervened with peace-keeping forces, after the worst of the fighting was over, Bosnia was torn apart and real peace was further away than ever.

The policy of delayed and half-hearted intervention did not solve the moral dilemma.

The same moral dilemma arose in even sharper form in the nineteen thirties,when the peace of Europe was threatened by Hitler. I was then fifteen years old, living in England and trying to find a way out of the dilemma. We were forced to choose either to wage a brutal war against Hitler, or to refuse to fight while Hitler invadedand ravaged the countries around his borders. At that time in England, there was a strong pacifist movement known as the Peace Pledge Union. When you joined the Peace Pledge Union, you signed a pledge that you would refuse unconditionally to bear arms. You promised that you would not kill anybody, even in self-defense. The idea was that people in all countries would sign the pledge, and so war would become impossible. In theory, this was a noble idea. Unfortunately it was not so good in practice. The Peace Pledge Union was strong only in England. Not many young people in Germany signed the pledge. In Germany, to sign the pledge meant to stand in open opposition to Hitler. But in England, conscientious objectors who refused to bear arms on moral grounds were legally tolerated. In England we still believed that moral principles could prevail if we held to them firmly enough. So I joined the Peace Pledge Union and signed the pledge. Many of my friends also signed. The fact that many young people in England signed the pledge was reported in the newspapers. Hitler certainly heard about it. It confirmed Hitler’s belief that the English were a degenerate race, lacking the courage to fight. By signing the Peace Pledge, we undoubtedly encouraged Hitler to go ahead with his plans to invade Poland and overrun Europe. We believed that we were helping the world to abolish war, but in fact we were helping Hitler to bring war to the world.

As soon as Hitler invaded Poland and England declared war on Hitler in 1939, most of the people who had signed the Peace Pledge understood that it had been a mistake.

Most of them abandoned the Peace Pledge Union and fought bravely against Hitler when they were called for military service. They understood that the only way they could work for the maintenance of world peace was to fight for it. When my turn came, I went to work for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command as a civilian, collecting information about the operations of the bombers in our campaign to destroy German cities. In this unheroic fashion I abandoned the pacifist dream and contributed to the defeat of Hitler. In the end, when the fighting was over and Hitler was defeated, peace came to Europe. Except in Bosnia, the peace has lasted. But the moral dilemma remains. To establish the peace, we fought a brutal war for six years. destroyed many cities, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, learned to hate our enemies and to kill without mercy. Must this always be so? Must we always be forced to choose between evils? Those are questions that our point twelve does not answer.

The last phrase of our point twelve says that we should call for the restriction of the proliferation and dissemination of weapons of mass destruction. This is a duty that we can all accept. It is a very weak statement, demanding very little. It does not demand that we oppose policies of our governments. Neither the politicians nor the generals, nor the scientists in weapons laboratories, support the proliferation and dissemination of weapons of mass destruction, we are preaching to the converted. I wish that we had made a stronger statement about weapons of mass destruction. Two stronger statements might have been made. The strongest statement, which I would personally support, would have been to say that we have a duty to work for the abolition of weapons of mass destruction. Many influential voices have already called for abolition, including the voice of General Butler, who was until recently the commander of the United States Strategic Air Command. General Butler lived with the knowledge that his job might at any moment require him to wipe out a large fraction of the populations of Europe and Asia. Now that he is free to express his opinions, he tells us clearly that the weapons he commanded make no sense and ought to be abolished. The abolition of weapons of mass destruction could become a primary objective for humanity in the twenty-first century, as the abolition of slavery was in the nineteenth.

If we cannot yet agree to call for abolition, we could at least agree to call for an unconditional pledge of non-use of weapons of mass destruction. The principle of non-use occupies the middle ground, stronger than non-proliferation and weaker than abolition. Weapons of mass destruction come in two varieties, biological and nuclear. So far as biological weapons are concerned, all the governments that have signed the Biological Weapons Convention are already pledged to non-use. The tradition of non-use of biological weapons is almost everywhere accepted. The main objective of a pledge of non-use would be to extend, the tradition of non-use to include nuclear weapons. I would be happy if our point twelve could say that we have a duty to oppose any policies that rely on use of weapons of mass destruction under any circumstances. This would be a useful first step on the road to abolition.

There are two separate traditions that we are trying to strengthen, the tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons that has now lasted for fifty years, and the tradition of non-violence that many of us consider to be the best hope of a happier future for mankind. Non-use and non-violence are not the same thing. You do not need to believe in non-violence to believe in non-use. Non-use is an ethical imperative for here and now. Non-violence is an ethical ideal for the long-range future. Non-use is minimum program to help us survive. Non-violence is a maximum program for us to strive for. Still there is a connection. If you think deeply about non-use, you cannot help thinking about non-violence. One of the connections between non-use and non-violence is Tolstoj. After Jesus of Nazareth, Lev Tolstoj was the greatest prophet of non-violence. He became the prophet of non-violence after he had fought bravely as a soldier to defend his country from invasion, and after he had devoted many years of his life as a writer to his masterpiece, “War and Peace”.

The great blossoming of non-violence as a mass political movement was the work of Gandhi in India. Gandhi was a disciple of Tolstoj and corresponded with Tolstoj while he was fighting for the rights of the Indian minority in South Africa. After Gandhi returned to India to organize the campaign for Indian independence, he held his followers for thirty years to a Tolstojan code of behavior. He proved that Satyagraha[i], soul force, can be an effective substitute for bombs and bullets in the liberation of a people. Satyagraha was an effective weapon in Gandhi’s hands because he was, unlike Tolstoj, an astute politician. Gandhi’s magic failed at the end of his life, when the campaign against British rule was won and he was trying to bring India to independence as a united country. He had then to deal with quarrels between Hindu and Moslem, deeper and more bitter than the quarrel between British and Indian. Five months after the violent birth of independent India and Pakistan, Gandhi was shot by a Hindu nationalist who considered him insufficiently patriotic. The subsequent history of India proved that the ethic of non-violence was not strong enough to survive the death of its leader and to withstand the temptations of power. Nevertheless, history is full of surprises, and it is possible that the history of the twenty-first century has a big surprise in store for us. It is possible that the monstrous excesses of violence to be seen today all over the world, the senseless murders in the streets of America, the massacres in Bosnia and in Rwanda, the hundred million uncleared land-mines killing children daily in Asia, the absurd accumulations nuclear weapons that we cannot use and are unable to destroy, all are parts of a pattern that will lead to a radical change in human perceptions. Perhaps it will happen as the biologist Haldane wrote in 1923: “The tendency of applied science is to magnify injustices until they become too intolerable to be borne, and then the average man whom all the prophets and poets could not move turns at last and extinguishes the evil at its source”. Perhaps the twenty-first century will see a conscious turning of mankind toward the ethic of non-violence as the only way we can survive. Non-violence as Tolstoj preached it, non-violence as Gandhi practiced it, non-violence at all levels, domestic, national, international. A radical turning away from violence in the twenty-first century, like the radical turning away from slavery in nineteenth. The turning away from violence will not happen in a year or in a decade, but it might happen in a century.

The history of our failures in England in 1939 and in Bosnia in 1994 has taught that non-violence is not always an effective response to evil. To be effective, violence requires long preparation, training, discipline and courage. It will be a long time before a majority of the people of the world will be believers in non-violence. And yet, the statement of our point twelve says that it is our duty to condemn war and all other hostile activities. It appears to say that only the believers in non-violence are fulfilling the duties of a human being. Our statement ought to allow a distinction between just and unjust wars, and between defensive and offensive weapons. We should not try to define these distinctions. It is better to leave it to individual conscience to define them. We can agree that world peace and the abolition of weapons of mass destruction are our goals, while recognizing that is no agreed best way to reach them. In all our activities, we should remember Szilard’s second commandment[ii], “Let your acts be directed towards a worthy but do not ask if they will reach it; they are to be models and examples, not to an end”.

Freeman J. Dyson, in: The CARTA of HUMAN DUTIES, International Council of Human Duties Ed., Trieste University Press (1998), 149-152
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