The Ethic of Nations: Balancing the National with the Universal


Many of us find it difficult to understand how various nation states arrive at the ethical standards which they then apply in making decisions. In one way, there is an attitude that a nation may, in the interest of its citizens, act in any manner possible, regardless of the effect on others. In another way, though, we also find an attitude which maintains that countries, in determining their actions, should consider the effect on all humanity almost without any special consideration for its citizens. These are two diametrically opposed outlooks and, yet, nations seem to easily slide between them. I find this to be a most troubling problem which also gravely affects Israel.

The fact is that modern day ethics generally grew out of a system that focused on the ethics of the individual without a consideration of the value in sub-groupings within humanity – groupings such as nations or even families. The result is an unclear ethical vision of how to balance the needs of these sub-groupings with universal and individual concerns. Decisions, of course, must still be rendered notwithstanding this difficulty in how to balance group or national rights with universal and individual rights. The result is that the appropriate contemplation of the ethical component is often sorely lacking.

At one extreme exists the view that countries, indeed, need only be concerned with their own citizens and no others. Former French President Charles De Gaulle’s famous words — that nations do not have friends, only interests — reflect this outlook. As friendship flows from the consideration for another — which is a cornerstone of the ethical perspective — what this assertion would seem to further imply is that nations need not be concerned with the ethical as simply defined within this modern perspective.

Flags in Tel Aviv (Photo Motti Kimchi)

They can act solely in their own best interest. As the very idea of a sub-grouping within humanity, itself, would seem to challenge the very basis of such ethics as many understand it, ethical considerations are inherently deemed irrelevant within this context. The implication would seem to be that sub-groups of humanity — such as nations — as sub-groups, really do only have to be concerned with the needs of the members of their own sub-grouping as they are outside the realm of the ethical.

To further clarify, this view perhaps developed because basic Western ethics emerged from the perspective of early Christianity with its blind focus on the equality of all individuals. While the equality of all humanity is indeed a fundamental principle of ethics, an issue emerges in that human relationships – and, as such, society — would seem to be built on the formation of special bonds connecting certain individuals.

Such bonds inherently do lead to distinctions between these individuals and others. An example is the grouping of family which is predicated on the concept that one will be more concerned about a member of one’s family than another. Family, as a human grouping, challenges a full acceptance of an equality of all individuals.

While Christianity accepted the reality of these human groupings, and their practical place within human society, it still did not truly integrate this idea into its ethical maxims. This may be because Christianity considered the formation of human sub-groups to, perhaps, be necessary in the development of this world but, ultimately, it did not believe the development of this world to really have theological value.

Protest in Islamabad

Only the next world was deemed significant. ‘Giving unto Caesar what was Caesar’s’ – a recognition of this world and the interests of nations — was, thus, necessarily tolerated but the true ethical individual, concerned solely with the next world, would not recognize such sub-groupings in any event. An ethic that balanced a greater concern for the members of one’s sub-group – such as nation and/or family – was, as such, inherently paradoxical and irrelevant. The sub-grouping only had temporal value and, as such, need not be a factor in the determination of an ideal ethic.

This is, of course, not to say that there were no differences between human beings noted in the early Christian world. In both Christianity, and Islam, a distinction was clearly iterated in how one should treat a co-religionist and, by extension, a heretic. People were indeed distinguished into sub-groupings by these two dominant religions of the Western World, through belief, and as such these distinctions did have ‘ethical’ consequences. Not all people were to be treated equally if there was a distinction in belief between them.

Other distinctions, such as national identity, though, still had no ethical basis although they were tolerated in the temporal realm. The very concern for the national grouping was already outside the realm of ethics. That nations only have interests, as General De Gaulle maintained, flowed from and was built upon this perspective.
At the other extreme are those, though, who maintain that ethics, as generally understood, should, of course, still apply to nations.

As this base Western ethical structure is tied to a universal equality of all individuals, this ethical motivation would still also, of course, have to sidestep the tension of the sub-group. Within this perspective, forging a balance necessary to weigh the needs within the group with the needs of those outside the group would also have to similarly be ignored.

As the base ethical standard still declared all individuals equal regardless of group identity, this resultant call upon nations, however, would inherently demand a challenge to the very identity and rights of nations. The value that the nature of human sub-groups must inherently give precedence to members of the sub-group over others could still not be integrated into this ethical structure. The call to be ethical voiced to nations from this perspective thus simply meant to ignore nationhood.

The yardstick that would be applied to nations thus swayed between national interest — without an ethical balance between the national and the universal — and universal concern, with the ethic defined solely in universal terms — again without an ethical balance between the national and the universal. Is it any wonder that the world has such difficulties dealing with the human sub-grouping of nations in consideration of a recognition of the value and ethic of nationhood? People intuitively seem to know that a true and honest ethical perspective must give value to the legitimate sub-groupings within humanity, such as family and nationhood, alongside a recognition of a value in an equality of universal humanity. The problem is that they were never given the cognitive methodology by which to achieve an ethical understanding and system reflecting this perspective.


It should be obvious that this problem really explains why many nations including Israel have such a difficult challenge on the world stage. The concern for nationalism is deemed by segments of the world to be inherently unethical even as nationalism is recognized as necessary. The challenge to the world from Israel, though, is that it has maintained an ethical standard within its nationalism. The world can’t relate. It doesn’t understand this ethic That the Israeli army stands out for its ethical standards – meaning it considers the universal even as it upholds the national – is simply not comprehensible by the world for the ethic of the world doesn’t even contemplate the need for balancing between the universal and the national.

Promoters of national interest can’t understand because why be ethical at all for it is not a place for consideration of the universal. Those who promote the simple Western ethic also can’t understand because this ethic has no real place for national interest. Yet Israel strives to balance the national and the universal – for it believes in an ethic for nations, for it believes in a value of human sub-groups within the universal.
This, of course, emerges from traditional Judaism. Torah sees value in this world and, as sub-groups within humanity are necessary for the development of this world, it must be God’s Will that such sub-groups exist.

Balancing particular interests within the group with universal concerns, as such, must be part of the true Divine system of ethics. This is indicated within Judaism by the very recognition of a value in placing a priority in family connections. Charity should, indeed, begin with family members – but it still must go beyond this priority. This is also indicated in the fact that universal humanity is referred to, within Torah thought, as the ‘Seventy Nations”. The universal is seen as a collection of the sub-groups of nations for nations have value. The recognition of the need to balance the value of the universal and the value of the national is also a significant Torah lesson connected to the holidays of Succot and Shemini Atzeret.

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A human being is meant to exist as a member of a sub-group and this must be integrated within the ethic of humanity. Ethics, as such, is not just about the universal but must also recognize the sub-group – such as nation and/or family – and integrate the balancing of these variant concerns into the human ethic. This is what Israel, following the heritage of Judaism, does – and must continue to do. We cannot allow, what we may term, a De Gaullist national perspective to drive us to adopt a rigid and dogmatic nationalistic outlook.

We also cannot allow the universal perspective of Western ethics to drive us to adopt a rigid and dogmatic universalistic outlook. We must continue to be a Jewish state that reflects the uniqueness of Jewish values. This may also be why much of the world, with its limited ethical perspectives, has difficulty understanding the ways of the Jewish nation. We must still, though, be a Jewish nation.

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