Front Page Titles (by Subject) I.: Ideas involved in the term Law.—These ideas how modified in the term Law of Nations.—The only sanction applicable to the Law of Nations is the popular sanction.—What dependence may be placed upon the popular sanction. - Law of Nations
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I.: Ideas involved in the term Law.—These ideas how modified in the term Law of Nations.—The only sanction applicable to the Law of Nations is the popular sanction.—What dependence may be placed upon the popular sanction. - James Mill, Law of Nations 
Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (London: J. Innes, 1825).
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Ideas involved in the term Law.—These ideas how modified in the term Law of Nations.—The only sanction applicable to the Law of Nations is the popular sanction.—What dependence may be placed upon the popular sanction.
IN the meaning of the word Law, three principal ideas are involved; that of a Command, that of a Sanction, and that of the Authority from which the command proceeds.
Every law imports, that something is to be done; or to be left undone.
But a Command is impotent, unless there is the power of enforcing it. The power of enforcing a command, is the power of inflicting penalties, if the command is not obeyed. And the applicability of the penalties constitutes the Sanction.
There is more difficulty in conveying an exact conception of the Authority which is necessary to give existence to a law. It is evident, that it is not every command, enforced by penalties, to which we should extend such a title. A law is not confined to a single act; it embraces a class of acts; it is not confined to the acts of one man; it embraces those of a community of men. And the authority from which it emanates must be an authority which that community are in the habit of obeying. An authority to which only a temporary obedience is paid, does not come up to the notion of that authority which is requisite to give existence to laws; for thus, the commands of a hostile army, committing plunder, would be laws.
The conditions, which we have thus described, may all be visibly traced, in the laws which governments lay down for the communities to which they belong. There we observe the command; there the punishment prescribed for its violation; and there the commanding authority to which obedience is habitually paid.
Of these conditions how many can be said to belong to any thing included under the term Law of Nations?
By that term is understood, something which either does, or which, it is supposed, ought to bind the conduct of one nation towards another.
But it is not understood, that one nation has a right to command another. When one nation can be commanded by another, it is dependent upon that other; and the laws of dependence are different from those which we are at present considering. An independent nation would resent, instead of obeying, a command delivered to it by another. Neither can it properly be said, that nations, taken aggregately, prescribe those laws to one another severally; for when did they ever combine in any such prescription? When did they ever combine to vindicate the violations of them? It is therefore clear, that the term Command cannot be applied, at least in the ordinary sense, to the laws of nations.
In the next place, it would not seem, that any thing, deserving the name of Sanction, belongs to them. Sanction, we have already seen, is punishment. Suppose nations to threaten one another with punishment, for the violation of any thing understood to be a law of nations. To punish implies superiority of strength. For the strong, therefore, the law of nations, may perhaps have a sanction, as against the weak. But what can it have as against the strong? Is it the strong, however, or is it the weak, by whom it is most liable to be violated? The answer is obvious and undeniable.—As against those from whom almost solely any violation of the laws of nations need be apprehended, there appears, therefore, to be no sanction at all.
If it be said, that several nations may combine to give it a sanction in favour of the weak, we might, for a practical answer, appeal to experience. Has it been done? Have nations, in reality, combined, so constantly and steadily, in favour of the law of nations, as to create, by the certainty of punishment, an overpowering motive, to unjust powers, to abstain from its violation? For, as the laws against murder would have no efficacy, if the punishment prescribed were not applied once in fifty, or a hundred times, so the penalty against the violations of the law of nations can have no efficacy, if it is applied unsteadily and rarely.
On the mode in which it has been applied, we may appeal to a great authority. Montesquieu says—“Le droit public est plus connu en Europe qu’en Asie: cependant on peut dire que les passions des princes—la patience des peuples—la flatterie des ecrivains, en ont corrompu tous les principes. Ce droit, tel qu’il est aujourd’hui, est une science qui apprend aux princes jusqu’à quel point ils peuvent violer la justice, sans choquer leurs intérêts.”—(Lett. Persanes, XCIV.)
To go a little deeper, we may consider, whether the interest of nations, that which, in the long run, governs them all, can ever produce combinations, from which an effectual sanction, of the nature in question, can be expected to proceed. That they would derive some advantage from the general observation of those maxims which have been called laws of nations, frivolous as are the points upon which the greater part of them turn, cannot be denied. These advantages, however, are seen at a distance, and with the mind’s eye; they are speculative, rather than sensible. The inconveniencies, on the other hand, which must result from any movement to lend effect to the law of nations, are immediate and formidable; the whole train of the evils of war are almost sure to arise from them. The latter class of impressions must, in general, be far more powerful than the former; and thus the interposition, in favour of the law of nations, will generally be shunned. A nation is often but too easily stimulated to make war in resentment of injuries done to itself. But it looks with too much coolness upon the injuries done to other nations, to incur the chance of any great inconvenience for the redress of them.
Besides, the object is to be gained by the means of combination. But the combinations of nations are very difficult things. Nations hardly ever combine without quarrelling.
Again, all nations ought to combine for an object common to all. But for all nations to combine in any one enterprise is impossible. Suppose a prince to have violated the law of nations, it would be absurd to suppose that all the countries on earth should conspire to punish him. But if not all, what is to be the selection? Who shall come forward; who stand excused? By those who are condemned to the sacrifice, in what proportion are the contributions to be made? Who is to afford the greatest, and who may come with the least?
It is unnecessary to pursue any farther the analysis of this extraordinary hypothesis. It is evident from what has been said, that it is full of impracticabilities.
Are we, then, obliged to consider the maxims or rules, which pass under the name of Laws of Nations, as utterly without force and influence; and the discourse which is made about them, as mere affectation and impertinence?
Not wholly so. It is of use, that the ordinary intercourse of nations should be conducted according to certain forms, generally known and approved; because they will be observed on all occasions, when there is no particular motive to violate them, and will often prevent disputes which might arise on frivolous occasions. They resemble, in this respect, the ceremonial of a court, or the established forms of polished society.
The objects, however, which are understood to be embraced by the law of nations, are of two sorts. The first are those minor objects, which partake more of form than of substance. The other are objects which deeply affect humanity. That there are certain interests of nations, which it were good to have considered as their rights, and of which it is infinitely to be desired that the violation could be prevented, is most true. But if national law has no penalty annexed to it; if the weaker party, who is wronged, has no means of redress; where, it may be said, is the advantage of such a law? Or where the propriety of calling that a law, which is only a declaration respecting rights; violated by the more powerful party with impunity, as often, and to as great an extent, as he pleases?
There is still, however, a power, which, though it be not the physical force, either of one state, or of a combination of states, applied to vindicate a violation of the law of nations, is not without a great sway in human affairs; and which, as it is very nearly the whole of the power which can be applied to secure the observation of that law, deserves to be carefully considered, that, by duly appreciating its efficacy in this important affair, we may neither trust to it where it will disappoint our expectation, nor neglect the use of it where it may be turned to advantage.
That the human mind is powerfully acted upon by the approbation or disapprobation, by the praise or blame, the contempt and hatred, or the love and admiration, of the rest of mankind, is a matter of fact, which, however it may be accounted for, is beyond the limits of dispute. Over the whole field of morality, with the exception of that narrow part which is protected by penal laws, it is the only power which binds men to good conduct, and renders man agreeable and useful to man. It is evident, also, that where there is not great inequality, it is a power, the binding force of which must be necessarily great. Because every individual, considered in himself, is weak and helpless as compared with the rest of the community. Unless, therefore, he can prevail upon them to abstain from injuring him, he must be exposed to unlimited suffering. And if, on the other hand, he can prevail upon them to combine in doing, or in desiring to do him good, he is put in the way of receiving perpetually the greatest advantages. His motive, therefore, to obtain the favourable, and to avoid the unfavourable regards of the members of the society in which he lives, is of the highest order. But he can obtain their favourable, and avoid their unfavourable sentiments, only by abstaining with scrupulous anxiety from doing any injury to them, and observing all such modes of conduct as are calculated to be useful and agreeable to them.
The value which men set upon these favourable regards of the persons among whom they live, is strikingly manifested by some of the most ordinary forms of their discourse and behaviour. What is more esteemed than character? What injury reckoned more deep and unpardonable than that of the man who exerts himself to take away unworthily any part of the reputation of his neighbours? But what is character, if not the title to the favourable sentiments of other men? And what is the loss of character, but the opinion of other men, that we do not deserve those favourable sentiments, with which they have been accustomed to regard us?
Honour and shame, those emotions, the intensity of which is proved by so many phenomena of human life, are but the feelings which attend upon those different situations. When a man finds himself in possession of the love, the esteem, and admiration of those by whom he is surrounded, he is filled with that delight which the belief of the secure possession of a great source of benefit, cannot fail to inspire: he is fearless, elated, and confident; the principal characteristics of that state of mind which we denominate pride. When he is conscious, on the other hand, of having forfeited in any degree the favourable sentiments of those among whom he lives, he suffers that depression which the loss of a highly valued possession is calculated to create; he ceases, in some degree, to look forward to his fellow men for good, and feels more or less the apprehension of evil at their hands; he fears to prove how far their disapprobation of him reaches, or to excite them to define it too accurately for themselves; he hangs down his head, and dares not so much as look them in the face.
When men are favourably situated for having those impressions deeply struck; or, more correctly speaking, when those combinations of ideas have consistently and habitually been presented to their minds, the association becomes at last so indissoluble and strong, as to operate, even where the connection among the things themselves may not exist.
When persons, who have been educated in a virtuous society, have, from their infancy, associated the idea of certain actions with the favourable sentiments, and with all the advantages which flow from the favourable sentiments of mankind; and, on the other hand, have associated the idea of certain other actions with the unfavourable sentiments, and all the disadvantages which flow from the unfavourable sentiments of mankind; so painful a feeling comes in time to be raised in them at the very thought of any such action, that they recoil from the perpetration of it, even in cases in which they may be perfectly secure against any unfavourable sentiments, which it might be calculated to inspire.
It will, we apprehend, upon the most accurate investigation, be found, that this is the only power to which we can look for any considerable sanction to the laws of nations;—for almost the only species of punishment to which the violation of them can ever become amenable: it is the only security, therefore, which mankind can ever enjoy for the benefit which laws, well contrived for this purpose, might be calculated to yield.
It is in the next place incumbent upon us to inquire, what dependence can be placed upon this security, in the set of cases now under consideration; and in what circumstances it is calculated to act with the greatest, in what with the least efficacy, toward this important end.
A power, which is wholly derived, from the good which may follow the favourable, the evil which may follow the unfavourable sentiments of mankind, will act most efficaciously upon him who is the most, least efficaciously upon him who is the least exposed to receive good and evil from the immediate inclination of his fellow men.
It seems to be evident, that he who is most weak, as compared with the rest of the community, is the most exposed to receive good or evil in consequence of their favourable or unfavourable sentiments; and that he, on the other hand, who is the most powerful, as compared with them, is the least exposed to receive good or evil in consequence of those sentiments.
When men are nearly upon equality, no one has any chance of inducing other people to abstain from hurting him, but by his abstaining from doing hurt in any way to them. He has no means of inducing them to do him any acts of service, but by their expectation of receiving similar acts of service from him. He is, therefore, intensely interested in its being generally believed of him, that he is a man who is careful to abstain from injuring, and ever ready to exert himself to do services to others.
The case is exceedingly different, where one man is lifted high above others. In that case he has powerful means of protection against their hurtful acts, powerful means of obtaining their services, altogether independent of his conduct, altogether independent of his disposition either to abstain from injuring them, or to render them service.
So far, therefore, as good conduct arises from a man’s dependence upon the sentiments of others; and from this is derived the moral power, to which alone the term moral sanction or obligation can properly belong; the security for good conduct is apt to be lessened, in exact proportion as any one is raised above the level of those composing the mass of the community. If any man possesses absolute power over the rest of the community, he is set free from all dependence upon their sentiments. In this, or nearly in this situation is every despot, having a well established authority. So far as a man is educated as a despot, he can therefore have but few of those associations, on which a conduct, beneficent to others, depends. He is not accustomed to look—for the services which he needs, or the evils which he apprehends, from others—to the opinion which they may entertain of the goodness or badness of his conduct; he cannot, therefore, have that salutary train of transitions from the idea of an evil act to that of the condemnatory sentiments of mankind, and from the condemnatory sentiments of mankind to the forfeiture of all those delights and advantages which spring to him from the operation of their favourable regards;—associations which in men favourably situated become at last habitual, and govern the conduct, as it were, mechanically, without any distinct recurrence to the consequences, upon the thought of which, nevertheless, this salutary and ennobling sentiment ultimately depends, and from which it has been originally derived.
If such is the situation of the despot with regard to these important associations, it is in a proportional degree the situation of all those who partake of that species of elevation. In an Aristocratical country, for example, a country in which there is great inequality of wealth, those who possess the large fortunes, are raised to a great degree above any chance of receiving evil, or of standing deprived of any good, because the great mass, the lower orders, of their countrymen, think unfavourably of them. They are, no doubt, to a considerable degree dependent upon what the people of their own class may think of them; and it is accordingly found, that those qualities and acts, which are useful to that class, are formed into a particular, an Aristocratical code of morality, which is very effectually sanctioned by the favourable and unfavourable sentiments of the Aristocratical body, at the same time that it is exceedingly different from that more enlarged and all-comprehensive code, on which the happiness of the greatest number depends, and to which alone the epithet moral in propriety belongs.
Such being the state of the facts connected with this important case, it remains to see what are the inferences, bearing upon it, which we are entitled to draw from them. We have already ascertained, that the only power which can operate to sanction the laws of nations; in other words, to reward or punish any nation, according as it obeys, or as it disobeys them, is the approbation and disapprobation of mankind. It follows, that the restraining force is, in this case, determined by the associations which they who govern it may have formed with the approbation and disapprobation of mankind. If they have formed strong associations of a pleasurable kind, with the approbation, strong associations, of the painful kind, with the disapprobation of mankind, the restraining force will be great; if they have not formed such associations, it will be feeble and insignificant. It has, however, appeared, immediately above, that the rulers of a country, of which the government is either monarchical, or aristocratical, can have these associations in but a very low degree; as those alone, who are placed on a level with the great body of other men, are placed in circumstances calculated to produce them. It is only then in countries, the rulers of which are drawn from the mass of the people, in other words, in democratical countries, that the sanction of the laws of nations can be expected to operate with any considerable effect.