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Basics of a personal common good and peace ethics

On Rudolf Weiler’s standard work “Internationale Ethik”

by Joachim Hoefele, Urs Knoblauch, Elisabeth Nussbaumer*

Current global political tensions make it clear that a universal ethical basis is necessary for a life of freedom, justice, and peace. Ethics cannot be arbitrary and must not be abused. The ethics based on natural law which are presented here are grounded on the personal social nature of man. The universal validity of the freedom and dignity of each person and the reverence for life are closely connected to this. Morality and ethics must once again be given central orientation and validity in the coexistence of the world community. The crucial core concern of natural law ethics, universal human rights, and the UN Charter is the preservation of peace and justice for all people.

The valuable standard work “International Ethics” (IE) by Professor Rudolf Weiler, published in 1986/1989 (Duncker & Humblot, Berlin), focuses on the common good and peace ethics which are founded on natural law. Some basic ideas on that point will be presented here. The eminent Catholic social ethicist Weiler was appointed to the chair of Social Ethics at the University of Vienna Faculty of Catholic Theology at the request of Johannes Messner. To this also belonged an interdisciplinary peace institute founded by him, because he saw the possibility of developing sustainable solutions to questions of freedom, justice and peace only in interdisciplinary cooperation.
After his teacher’s death he became the co-founder of the Johannes-Messner-Gesellschaft (Johannes Messner Society) and was responsible for Messner’s work in his estate. The project of an “International Ethic” was necessary in the 1960s, because during these years ideological conflicts and increasing social pluralism and relativism were strongly promoted. To date, the topic of an “International Ethic” has lost nothing of its validity. In this context, it is particularly valuable that the author represents a natural law position of ethics.

Overview of the basic ethical problems in international relations

In his comprehensive overview of the fundamental ethical problems of international relations, Rudolf Weiler starts out from a personal view of man and the social nature of human beings and introduces the basis for a scientifically sound international ethic. He builds on scientific-anthropological and psychological foundations concerning the nature of man. This creates the basis that can give a secure orientation in times of increasing arbitrariness, ethical relativism, and nihilism.
Weiler stresses the fact that an exclusive emphasis on the empirical – quantitative – social sciences for the founding of an international ethic leads to a “scientistic narrowing” (“szientistische Verengung”) (IE, p. 21), if this ethic is not based on the personal image of man, on the orientation towards human nature, on moral-ethical foundations and on a realistic analysis of the political situation.
According to Weiler, international ethics are to be understood as “the science of the moral order of interpersonal relations that transcends nations,” and notably “belong to the international community. [...] It is a special field of social ethics, related to the international dimension of social behaviour of man starting with the individual, via the social group, and on to all humankind, and refers to the economic as well as the political moral orders.” (IE, p. 20)

From antiquity to the modern declarations of human rights

In this context, Rudolf Weiler, like Johannes Messner, points out the development of international ethics from Greek antiquity to the Christian philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the International Law School of Salamanca in Spain and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of (general) international law. The Jesuit Francisco Suārez (1548-1617) was one of the many co-founders of the Spanish school of international law of late scholasticism. “According to Spanish international law, the community of states is a universal community rooted in natural law, into which the individual states are integrated. Just as the individual is by nature a social being, so states also have a social nature and like humans, they require a legal system governing their mutual relations. This is essentially already inherent in natural law and is shaped and organised life by international agreement and contract law with a view to expediency and according to the way in which interpersonal develops.” (IE, p. 6)
The representatives of the Spanish school of international law strove to “develop arbitration tribunals and prevent wars between states. The war to spread religion was expressly rejected” (IE, p. 7). In this sense, Suarez “for the first time explicitly speaks of the bonum commune generis humani.” (IE, p. 84) Securing peace as the “bonum commune” of humanity is understood as a task in which every single person in his ethical basic orientation should participate.

Rule of law for all states

With this development towards the “rule of law in the sense of supreme laws for all states, whether Christian or non-Christian” (IE, p. 35), “written law arose, and in this sense founded ‘una res publica’ of humanity” (IE, p. 35).
“The universal community of the human race constitutes, through the unity of the nations organised in states, a single political entity, which in turn is not simply a product of the will of man, but is ‘founded in a reality according to the nature of man.’” (IE, pp. 35) This paved the way for international law, for human rights and a natural law ethics for the entire human and national family. Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), Samuel Pufendorf (1632–1694) and other pioneers, as well as numerous papal doctrinal writings (encyclicals) contributed significantly to this development.
Based on natural law, on the human image of mankind, and on the social nature of man, as on the insights won by the human sciences which connect all these, the founding of the United Nations Organisation, the UN Charter of 1945, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and other valuable international documents and treaties, paved the way to a universal ethics in the sense of the bonum commune.  The UN Declaration of Human Rights states in its preamble: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world [...] the general assembly proclaims this universal declaration of human rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations [...]”. According to Weiler, the declaration of human rights was able to “settle warlike conflicts” and “defuse others in time” (IE, p. 223).

Man as individual and social being in the centre of peace ethics

Man as the “unity of body and soul as well as the individual and social being” (IE, p. 67) is the pivotal figute in ethics and in the question of peace. “The social purpose of man is therefore an insight into the same nature of all human beings and at the same time the task of making this insight effective in a system of human relations, so that no human being is actually excluded from human dignity.” (IE, pp. 68) The realisation of the common good of humanity is closely connected to this purpose.
During its development, humanity has increasingly recognised the dignity and equal rights which are due to every human being. “A volatile dynamic of the legal consciousness of humanity” has arisen in “the development of knowledge of the general human dignity and the associated human rights […].“ This forces pure arbitrariness of political nature before the tribunal of this same humanity. Man has at least developed the awareness for judging political power when it becomes a totalitarian force.” (IE, p. 28)

The longing for peace belongs to the social essence of man

“Peace is a term reserved for the composition of human social life [...]” (IE, p. 67). Therefore, “the threat to peace has its roots in the fallibility of man” (IE, p. 7). Nevertheless, the longing for peace (as a basic human disposition) belongs to the social essence of man. “In essence the expectation of peace is a testimony to man’s moral-creative hope of making peace possible (contrary to existing conditions).” (IE, p. 67) The longing for peace finds its expression in the international order and is at the same time an objective of human aspiration. “The question of peace and of what will lead to peace is thus inseparable from man. But if peace is recognised as a universal human value, then it is also an integral part and an essential feature of the fully human educational ideal.” (IE, p. 67)

Education and training in the spirit of human sympathy

Education and training must therefore promote the spirit of humanity, justice and peace. In the field of education, no community should abandon what humankind has been acquiring for centuries, for the lack of education, especially the lack of ethics, conscience, and civic consciousness, will have serious consequences. Education must cause the legal equality of citizens, which should be guaranteed by the constitution of a liberal state, to become equality respectively equivalence in interpersonal relationships in their daily lives, in order for them to be able to perform their duties as citizens.
Essential tasks of the elementary school are therefore, just to name a few: the development and promotion of elementary skills or virtues such as

  • meaningful reading, writing, arithmetic, comprehension of contexts and complex problems, objectivity, scientific and historical thinking,
  • willingness to perform, perseverance, a courageous and honest lifestyle, the willingness to take responsibility for oneself and others, to develop non-violently democratic solutions and live accordingly, as well as
  • a conscience, sense of justice, empathy, inner connectedness with people, with one’s homeland, culture, nation and history.

State and the community of states in the context of natural law

“The starting point and basic value of international ethics is the common essential nature of man and of all human beings. Man, as a social being, also forms the state as the supreme social foundation, which in turn is integrated into a universal community of states.” (IE, p. 94)
The ethics of natural law forms the basis of mutual solidarity: “Therefore, we shall not only define the ethos of this our humanity today, but also examine it and explain its reasons, as it is the key to awakening and promoting the moral forces of mankind for worldwide peace. As we understand it, man’s conscience, as a gift of reason, is fundamentally oriented towards the good and thus to the treasure of peace.” (IE, pp. X)
With all this, personal dignity, equal interpersonal cooperation, and the force of law, hold as the basis of national and international life.
“Just as, by virtue of their essentially identical nature, individuals are awarded a minimum of equal rights despite individual inequalities in community-building, so also a community of states is only possible if all states have the same minimum of rights, despite their inequality in territory, population, natural resources, political and economic organisational forms and social systems.” (IE, p. 94)

Legal system, international law and bonum commune

The “moral order of peaceful coexistence of the peoples” also demands “an effective international legal order in statute international law, to which the concrete main task of juridification belongs, for the maintenance of world peace and global public common good, according to the principles of international ethics.” (IE, p. X)
Weiler emphasises the crucial importance of the bonum commune, “of a worldwide common good thus derived from natural law and [...] including any further development of international law according to the requirements of natural law. Also the modern development of international organisations and worldwide associations [...]” (IE, p. 36), is committed to the basics of international ethics and international law.
The natural social connectedness as well as “the equivalence of all members of the human family”, which “excludes no one for reasons of class or caste spirit, racism or nationalism”, is way and aim of international ethics. (IE, p. 61)
Today this notably includes justice, in the sense of human rights, for all people living on earth. In common with “the traditions of thought at national level, the natural behaviour of sympathising with others and sharing with other cultures and peoples are important”. (IE, p. 60) International ethics is therefore essentially “the search for social connection instead of destruction.” (IE, p. 60)

Military protection of populations and nations

However, given the current world situation, military protection of populations and nations is necessary. The author says: “It is only a sort of military education that also takes into consideration the normative justification of military intervention that can be seen as part of peace education. It is also to be referred back to the ethics of peace.” (IE, p. 72) Weiler emphasises that “peace education” will “not be able to merely advocate absolute pacifism, but it will clear the way for a conscientious decision in the choice between the different kinds of peace service, with or without arms. It will also give priority to peaceful over any military conflict resolution”. (IE, p. 72) Thus, Weiler justified the fundamental right of the states to self-defence, if they are attacked. The principle of proportionality must however be respected.

Peace ethics should promote peace

“Peace ethics as the core of international ethics can help to identify developments, to promote peace, to strengthen the moral mental faculties. It can tie back developments to basic moral insights and at the same time critically accompany the conceptions for a solidary humanity in peace, freedom and justice.” Our time “also poses a special challenge for ethics concerned with international issues.” (IE, p. 225)    •

* Professor Dr Hoefele, FH Winterthur; Urs Knoblauch, cultural publicist; Dr phil Elisabeth Nussbaumer, psychologist and teacher, Switzerland.