What Shall We Defend?


By ROBERT M. HUTCHINS, President, The University of Chicago

Convocation Address, June 11, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 547-549.

I SHOULD like to talk this morning about preparedness. What I have to say comes down to this: if you are going to prepare for war, you must know what you are willing to fight for. If you are going to defend territory, you must know what territory you are going to defend. If you are going to defend principles, you must know what your principles are and why you hold them. America's preparations for war, like the arguments of those who want the country to enter this one, seem directed to territorial problems, such as the imminent danger to the United States from an attack on the Dutch East Indies or Brazil. Though these issues are important, they are not as important as the issues of principle involved. We may be faint-hearted, even in defense of our native land, if we believe that the enemy is just as right as we are or that we are just as wrong as he. The attention now being lavished on territorial questions and the general indifference to questions of principle suggest that those who talk of preparation for war either have no principles, or none they can communicate to others, or no such understanding of their principles as a life-and-death struggle for them would demand.

We do not seem to get very far by talking about democracy. We know that Germany is not one. She says so. We know that Russia is not one, though Stalin says she is one. We are not sure about some elements in the government of England and France. We are not altogether sure about this country. The reason is, of course, that we do not know what a democracy is or grasp the fundamental notions on which it rests. We set out in the last war to make the world safe for democracy. We had, I think, no very definite idea of what we meant. We seemed then to favor a parliamentary system. No matter what the system concealed, if the system was there, it was democracy, and we were for it. Though Hitler is infinitely worse than the Kaiser, though the danger to the kind of government we think we believe in is infinitely greater than in 1917, we have less real, defensible conviction about democracy now than we had then. Too many so-called democracies have perished under the onslaught of an invader whose technical and organizing ability commandsthe admiration of a people brought up to admire technical and organizing skill. With our vague feeling that democracy is just a way of life, a way of living pleasantly in comparative peace with the world and one another, we may soon begin to wonder whether it can stand the strain of modern times, which, as our prophets never tire of telling us, are much more complicated than any other times whatever.

Is democracy a good form of government? Is it worth dying for? Is the United States a democracy? If we are to prepare to defend democracy we must be able to answer these questions. I repeat that our ability to answer them is much more important than the quantity or quality of aeroplanes, bombs, tanks, flame-throwers, and miscellaneous munitions that we can hurl at the enemy. You may take it from Hitler himself. He said to Rauschnigg: "Mental confusion, contradiction of feeling, indecisiveness, panic: these are our weapons." In view of the huge resources of this country, all that we have to fear is that the moral and intellectual stamina of the defenders will not be equal to an attack upon it.

Now democracy is not merely a good form of government; it is the best. As such it is worth dying for. Though the democratic ideal has long been cherished in this country, it has never been attained. Nevertheless, it can be attained if we have the intelligence to understand it and the will to achieve it. We must achieve it if we would defend democracy. J. Middleton Murry, an Englishman, said of England a month ago, "This country, as it is, is incapable of winning a Christian victory, because it simply is not Christian." Without passing on the specific application of this general principle, we can at least agree that the principle is sound and that no country can win a democratic victory unless it is democratic.

The reasons why democracy is the best form of government are absurdly simple. It is the only form of government that can combine three characteristics: law, equality, and justice. A totalitarian state has none of these, and hence, if it is a state at all, it is the worst of all possible states.

I do not have to tell you at your age that men are not angels. They have reason, but they do not always use it. They are swayed by emotions and desires that must be held in check. Law is an expression of their collective rationality, by which they hope to educate and control themselves. Law is law only if it is an ordinance of reason directed to the good of the community. It is not law if it is an expression of passion or designed for the benefit of pressure groups. We have a government of men and not of laws when the cause of legislative enactments is anything but reason and its object anything but the common good.

The equality of all men in the political organization results inexorably from the eminent dignity of every individual. Every man is an end; no man is a means. No man can be deprived of his participation in the political society. He cannot be exploited or slaughtered to serve the ends of others. We have no compunctions about refusing animals the ballot. We have few about exploiting or slaughtering them in our own interest. But the human animal is bound to recognize the human quality of every other human animal. Since human beings, to achieve their fullest humanity, require political organization and participation therein, other human beings cannot deny them those political rights which human nature inevitably carries with it.

These same considerations help us to understand that the state is not an end in itself, as the Nazis think, or a mere referee, as the Liberty Leaguers used to say. Political organization is a means to the good of the community. And the common good itself is a means to the happiness and well-being of the citizens. The common good is peace, order, and justice, justice in all political, social, and economic relations. Justice is the good of the community. But what is the community? It is certainly something more than an aggregation of people living in the same area. A community implies that people are working together, and people cannot work together unless they have common principles and purposes. If half a crew of men are tearing down a house as the other half are building it, we do not say they are working together. If half a group of people are engaged in robbing, cheating, oppressing, and killing the other half, we should not say the group is a community. Common principles and purposes create a community; justice, by which we mean a fair allocation of functions, rewards, and punishments, in terms of the rights of man and the principles and purposes of the community, holds it together.

The state, then, is not merely conventional, representing a compromise of warring interests who have finally decided that mutual sacrifices by subordination to a central authority are preferable to mutual extermination. The state is necessary to achieve justice in the community. And a just society is necessary to achieve the terrestrial ends of human life.

With this background we can detect the error in the extreme pacifist position. Since the individual cannot exist without the community and the community cannot exist without the adherence of its members, the individual must respond to the call of the community and be prepared to surrender his goods, his temporal interests, and even his life to defend the community and the principles for which and through which it stands. These principles are the essence of the community.

We see, then, that we are back where we started. We began with the importance of principles in defense. We must now add that without principles and common principles clearly understood and deeply felt there can be no political community at all. There can be only a conglomeration of individuals wrestling with one another in the same geographical region.

Let us inquire, then, into what is needed if we are tounderstand clearly and feel deeply the principles on which democracy rests. What is the basis of these principles of law, equality, and justice? In the first place, in order to believe in these principles at all we must believe that there is such a thing as truth and that in these matters we can discover it. We are generally ready to concede that there is truth, at least of a provisional variety, in the natural sciences. But the re can be no experimental verification of the proposition that law, equality, and justice are the essentials of a good state. If there is nothing true unless experiment makes it so, then what I have been saying is not true, for I have not relied on any experimental evidence. But principles which are not true are certainly not worth fighting for. We must then agree that truth worth fighting for can be found outside the laboratory. Valuable as the truths are that may be found in it, truths about the ends of life and the aims of society are not susceptible of laboratory investigation.

Now truth is of two kinds, theoretical and practical. Theoretical truths tells us what is the case: Practical truth tells us what should be done. The test of theoretical truth is conformity to reality. A statement about the nature of man, for example, is true if it describes man as he actually is. The test of practical truth is the goodness of the end in view. The first principle in the practical order is that men should do good and avoid evil. The statement, for example, that men should lay down their lives in a just war is true, if the war is just. The statement that they should wage war to gain power or wealth or to display their virility is false.

In order to believe in democracy, then, we must believe that there is a difference between truth and falsity, good and bad, right and wrong, and that truth, goodness, and right are objective standards even though they cannot be experimentally verified. They are not whims, prejudices, rationalizations, or Sunday school tags. We must believe that man can discover truth, goodness, and right by the exercise of his reason, and that he may do so even as to those problems which, in the nature of the case, science can never solve.

It follows, of course, that in order to believe these things we must believe that man has reason, that he does not act from instinct alone, and that all his conduct cannot be explained in terms of his visceral reactions or his emotional inheritance. As Gilbert Murray once put it, not all human activities are the efflorescence of man's despair at finding that by the law of his religion he may not marry his grandmother. But in order to believe in democracy we must believe something more. We must see that the moral and intellectual powers of men are the powers which make them men and that their end on earth is the fullest development of these powers. This involves the assumption, once again, that there is a difference between good and bad and that man is a rational animal. There is no use talking about moral powers if there is no such thing as morals, and none in talking about intellectual powers if men do not possess them.

Man's will is free to range over the good and the bad. What determines the will is habit. A man who is enslaved by bad habits is not free. The drunkard, the thief, and the ignoramus are not free. The moral and intellectual development of free men takes the form of bringing them through the family, through law, and through education to good moral and intellectual habits. This is true freedom; there is no other.

Since this freedom is the end of human life, everything else in life should be a means to it and should be subordinate to it as means must be to ends. This is true of material goods, which are a means, and a very necessary one, but not an end. It is true of the state, which is an indispensablemeans, but not an end. It is true of all human activities and all human desires: they are all ordered to and must be judged by the end of moral and intellectual development.

The political organization must be tested by its conformity to these ideals. Its basis is moral. Its end is the good for man. Only democracy has this basis. Only democracy has this end. If we do not believe in this basis or this end, we do not believe in democracy. These are the principles which we must defend if we are to defend democracy.

Are we prepared to defend these principles? Of course not. For forty years and more our intellectual leaders have been telling us they are not true. They have been telling us in fact that nothing is true which cannot be subjected to experimental verification. In the whole realm of social thought there can therefore be nothing but opinion. Since there is nothing but opinion, everybody is entitled to his own opinion. There is no difference between good and bad; there is only the difference between expediency and inexpediency. We cannot even talk about good and bad states or good and bad men. There are no morals; there are only the folkways. The test of action is its success, and even success is a matter of opinion. Man is no different from the other animals; human societies are no different from animal societies. The aim of animals and animal societies, if there is one, is subsistence. The aim of human beings and human societies, if there is one, is material comfort. Freedom is simply doing what you please. The only common principle that we are urged to have is that there are no principles at all.

All this results in a colossal confusion of means and ends. Wealth and power becomes the ends of life. Men become merely means. Justice is the interest of the stronger. This, of course, splits the community in two. How can there be a community between exploited and exploiters, between those who work and do not own and those who own and do not work, between our Negro fellow-citizens and those who have disfranchised them, between those who are weak and those who are strong? Moral and intellectual and artistic and spiritual development are not with us the aim of life; they receive the fag ends of our attention and our superfluous funds. We no longer attempt to justify education by its contribution to moral, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual growth. The only argument that really tells is that college graduates have a statistical probability of making more money and becoming more prominent than those who never had their educational advantages.

Thus we come much closer to Hitler than we may care to admit. If everything is a matter of opinion, and if everybody is entitled to his own opinion, force becomes the only way of settling differences of opinion. And of course if success is the test of rightness, right is on the side of the heavier battalions. In law school I learned that law was not concerned with reason or justice. Law was what the courts would do. Law, says Hitler, is what I do. There is little to choose between the doctrine I learned in an American law school and that which Hitler proclaims.

Precisely here lies our unpreparedness against the only enemy we may have to face. Such principles as we have are not different enough from Hitler's to make us very rugged in defending ours in preference to his. Moreover, we are not united and clear about such principles as we have. We are losing our moral principles. But the vestiges of them remain to bother us and to interfere with a thoroughgoing commitment to moral principles. Hence we are like confused, divided, ineffective Hitlers. In a contest between Hitler and people who are wondering why they shouldn't be Hitlers the finished product is bound to win.

To say we are democrats is not enough. To say we are humanitarians will not do, for the basis of any real humanitarianism is a belief in the dignity of man and the moral and spiritual values that follow from it. Democracy as a righting faith can be only as strong as the convictions which support it. If these are gone, democracy becomes simply one of many ways of organizing society, and must be tested by its efficiency. To date democracy looks less efficient than dictatorship. Why should we fight for it? We must have a better answer than that it is a form of government we are used to or one that we irrationally enjoy.

Democracy is the best form of government. It is worth dying for. We can realize it in this country if we will grasp the principles on which it rests and recognize that unless we are devoted to them with our whole hearts democracy cannot prevail at home or abroad. In the great struggle that may lie ahead, truth, justice, and freedom will conquer only if we know what they are and pay them the homage they deserve. This is the kind of preparedness most worth having, a kind without which all other preparation is worthless. This kind of preparedness has escaped us so far. It is your duty to your country to do your part to recapture and revitalize those principles which alone make life worth living or death on the field of battle worth facing.