Freedom and Ethics


By EDWIN G. CONKLIN, Professor Emeritus of Biology in Princeton University and Executive Vice-president of the American Philosophical Society

WCAU, Philadelphia, Tuesday, January 27, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 284-285.

IN the few minutes at my disposal I can touch on only a few aspects of the all important subject of Freedom, which is claimed by all nations now at war to be one of their chief objectives. The subject has been ably discussed by more than forty authors in a recent book entitled Freedom: Its Meaning, in which eight Scientists, six Literary men, eleven Historians and Publicists, fourteen Philosophers and three Theologians have discussed freedom from many aspects.

All these authors agree that without freedom to choose between alternatives there can be no ethics, no responsibility for acts. All agree that freedom is relative and not absolute. We all know that we are partly free and partly bound. We know that we are not responsible for our heredity, race, color or stature, nor for the homes, food and training of our infancy and childhood. But most of us realize that with increasing knowledge, experience, memory we become able to choose between alternatives that are open to us and thus we become responsible for such choices. In this way ethics is born. It is pointless to say that we are not absolutely free. Of course we are not. Neither custom, law nor religion holds us responsible for anything we cannot do, but wherever intelligent choice is possible society holds us responsible for choosing to do things which are not harmful to others. Thanks to our inherited instincts and social training we know that lying, cheating, stealing, injustice, aggression, murder, are unethical because they injure others, and if generally practiced would injure ourselves as well, and would make peaceful society impossible.

All this is plainly recognized in relations between individuals and small groups but is not so evident as between different classes or nations, least of all when they are engaged in war. But the whole world is now so small, owing to rapid transportation and communication, that all groups and nations are intimately related. Social and ethical isolation is impossible and nothing short of a system of worldwide social and ethical organization will suffice for the future.

In all human relations the golden rule of reciprocity is the highest form of ethics. In the words of Jesus: "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you do ye even so to them." But this does not mean that we should not resistinjustice, aggression or tyranny. Until all men practice the golden rule it will be necessary to resist evil, to meet aggression and war with force, force to the uttermost, if freedom and justice are to prevail. In the present world war the highest ethics demands that we resist with all our might the forces that are trying to enslave the world, but it also demands that we avoid the very evils which we condemn in others. We need no "hymn of hate" to inspire us, but rather the vision of our goal as a world at peace with men of good will. Scarcely one year ago Mussolini called upon the Italian nation to "Hate England with a consuming hatred, thus with hate in our hearts we shall conquer." He has said that the Axis nations do not wish to be loved but to be feared. Hitler's whole program is one of hate, aggression, slavery for all whom he opposes. The United Nations will not adopt his aims or methods. Some persons are now objecting to calling our efforts by the term "defense," such as defense arms, bonds, industriesóbut what else are they? We did not begin this war. We are defending ourselves against the forces of aggressive war which have been loosed against us. And we are defending those peoples and nations who have been attacked, invaded and enslaved. In so doing we are practicing the highest form of ethics, i. e. the Golden Rule.

It is useless now to point out that we have not always lived up to this rule in our dealings with others and that the present world-war might have been avoided if our wisdom and ethics had been larger and more generous. For example, we might have avoided giving needless offense to Japan by our Japanese Exclusion Act, which virtually classed them as an inferior race. At a Lincoln's Birthday celebration in Tokyo in 1926 Prince Tokagawa, presiding officer of the House of Peers, said to me, "Japan does not object to your limitation of immigration. You ought to have begun it twenty-five years ago. We do object to being put on a different basis from the quota nations. And as a result of your exclusion act and the abolition of the 'Gentlemen's Agreement' Between our nations the United States is now receiving illegally more Japanese than under that agreement." We might have shown more wisdom and ethics at the close of the last war in following the inspired leadership of Woodrow Wilson and thus have made that a "war to end wars." We might have avoided arming Japan for this conflict by supplying herwith materials which we knew were going into armaments. We are not blameless in these matters and we must suffer in consequence.

But now world wide ethics as well as national patriotism demand that we defend our nation, our civilization, our freedom and the ethics of the Golden Rule against the aggression and savagery that are launched against us.

Never is freedom so precious as when it is endangered or lost. When our nation was fighting to be free or later to maintain its freedom liberty was glorified in song and story. Then our people sang with spirit and understanding: "America, sweet land of liberty, from every mountain side let freedom ring." But in piping times of peace and prosperity we grew selfish and thought more of our personal freedom than of our duties, forgetting that freedom must always be balanced with responsibility, rights with duties. Irresponsible freedom and rights without obligations are curses rather than blessings.

On December 15, 1941, the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the first ten Amendments, or the Bill of Rights, of our Constitution was celebrated by a dramatic and rather melodramatic, radio program from Hollywood and President Roosevelt has summed up the four freedoms

which in part correspond to the Bill of Rights as (1) freedom for thought and expression, (2) freedom for religion, (3) freedom from want and (4) freedom from fear. Another freedom emphasized in the Bill of Rights is that of equal justice under law, i. e. freedom from injustice and tyranny. Every right carries its corresponding duty, every freedom its obligation. These freedoms are no gifts of nature. They have been won with human sweat and tears and blood and they can be maintained only by eternal vigilance. In the crisis through which the world is now passing may there be a new birth of liberty and responsibility, of freedom and ethics not only here but throughout the world. We need to demonstrate again to all the nations that we are not fighting for selfish interests but for ethical ideals. We can now say truly as Woodrow Wilson said on April 2, 1917: "The right is more precious than peace and we shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our heartsófor democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free."