Just as the relationships between people can follow certain patterns, and be structured in certain characteristic ways, so too can the relationships between groups of people, or societies. In fact the two are in many ways analogous, as each society can be thought of as an individual with certain interests and abilities, and thus their interactions can be characterized in exactly the same way that we would characterize the interactions between two people. For example, if they display a willingness to make sacrifices for the overall wellbeing of the both of them then we would describe these societies as acting ethically with respect for each other. But if they are in a state of constant struggle, each trying to get the better of the other either militarily or economically, then we would describe them as acting selfishly, and hence unethically. I would maintain that, despite the logical possibility of two societies interacting in a way that seems ethical, such interactions are discouraged by the nature of societies, and so that for the most part societies will interact in a selfish manner.
But, before we turn to societies, let us first take a brief look at the factors that both motivate individuals to act ethically with respect to other people in the same society and the capabilities that allow them to actually act in this way. There are three such factors. The first is that there must be a real possibility of mutually beneficial relationships between the two individuals. If it is only possible for one to benefit and the other to suffer obviously it would be irrational to try to strive for an impossible compromise. Secondly, the individuals must be able to communicate in some way. Without the ability to communicate the individuals involved cannot determine whether the other is open to the possibility of this mutually advantageous relationship, and without the ability to communicate it is impossible to decide on the specifics and so make the relationship actually work. And, finally, the individuals must both have the ability to exercise rational restraint over their desires. To have this ability is to be able to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term advantages. For example, it is usually possible for one individual to “cheat” in such relationships and achieve a substantial advantage over the other by exploiting the other’s expectation that they will abide by the terms of the relationship. However, to give into this desire is to sacrifice all the long-term benefits, which is irrational. In practice this capacity often boils down to the ability to decide to act in a certain way and to stick by that decision even in situations where going against that decision seems advantageous.
Societies, I claim, have the first two capabilities, but almost every society (every society that I am aware of) lacks the third. And thus, without it, such societies will generally be unable to engage in truly ethical behavior simply because they lack the ability to stick by any agreements that they make, and will almost always seek the short-term advantage over the long-term gain. The reason that this is the case stems from how societies work internally. Every society is composed of a number of people, and each of those people wants things. It is society’s job to try to satisfy those desires to the extent that it is able (societies will be created to act in this way, with societal structures that don’t perform as desired being abandoned for those that do in the long run). This gives society, as a whole, analogues to individual desires, as it acts to satisfy the aggregate desires of its constituents. But, while societies have desires, they lack any faculty of reason, any way to control these desires, almost by necessity. Because any society that commonly frustrated the desires of its members would soon find itself without many members.
Of course this is not to say that societies don’t have analogues to human reasoning, structures that provide some central direction for society as a whole (political structures), it’s just that these structures are never of the sort that can provide the necessary rational restraint. Allow me to illustrate this point by discussing how a few of the typical ways of providing this direction fail to bring with them the necessary rational restraint. At one end of the spectrum we have tyranny, where an individual or individuals have the power to direct society as they see fit. Obviously the tyrant has the ability to rationally restrain themselves, and so we might assume that the tyrants of different societies would get together and decide to act ethically. But, unfortunately for society, tyrants lack the first factor that leads to ethical behavior, the ability to enter into mutually advantageous relationships. The tyrant is moved by their own desires, and does not care directly about what is best for the society they rule, in most cases. And if a tyrant can’t get what they want from their own society it is unlikely that leading their society to act ethically towards another society will. Of course we may encounter societies with tyrants that are genuinely kind people, and who do rule with the best interests of their societies in mind, and thus lead their societies to interact ethically. But such tyrants are few and far between, and so rarely is there a situation where they can actually enter into such agreements with each other. And, on the opposite side of the spectrum we have direct democracies, either those that vote on issues, or those who elect representatives in such a way that they are bound to do the bidding of the people without any deviation from those demands. The problem with such societies is simply that they have no way to actually bind themselves to following a certain course of action. Even if the society as a whole is led to believe that some agreement will be beneficial for them in the long run there is nothing stopping them from revising that agreement (effectively breaking it) at the next vote, and probably will if some immediate advantage results from doing so. Many real governments are, naturally, a mixture of the two with elected representatives who are free to act as tyrants in some ways. But such mixes do not bring society any closer to being able to exercise rational restraint; as you give people the ability to go against the wishes of the majority, which is nearly always for short-term gains, that ability is used according to their individual desires, not what is best for society as a whole.
But of course I don’t want to indicate that societies never act ethically, there are times when societies can overcome these dispositions. (Although foreign aid is not an example of overcoming such dispositions, since it is almost always to the advantage of the country providing it or groups within that country.) For example, if the members of the two societies know each other then the members of these societies will often have ethical obligations towards each other as a result of these interactions, and because of these obligations at the foundations of both they will be led to act ethically as wholes toward each other. Unfortunately this occurs regularly only on the smallest scales, with societies consisting of groupings of people within some larger society (such as two teams made from people who know each other). And it is not impossible that the majority of a people in a society will simply have such a strong sense of ethical obligation that they will be willing to give up the occasional advantage for the benefit of complete strangers, although I have never come across an example of this.
And, naturally, there may be circumstances that essentially force societies to act ethically, whether they like it or not. For example, modern technology has made it almost impossible for two prosperous nations to come into military conflict with each other. The costs usually far outweigh any possible gains, such that only a fit of national irrationality will motivate such a conflict. And given the existence of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction that would have to be quite a fit of irrationality. So although societies with nuclear weapons might like to come to blows with each other they simply can’t, there is no way to fight and win. Unfortunately, while this effectively is the end of military conflicts, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of economic conflicts, with one society using differences in the availability and cost of resources to diminish the economic infrastructure of the other, thus depleting the wealth of one society to some extent for the benefit of the other. I don’t know exactly how such conflicts can be ended, because there doesn’t seem to be an analogue of mutually assured destruction in economics. It is possible, however, that multinational corporations will resist such economic struggles and thus diminish them, or possibly eliminate them completely. If a multinational corporation is extended over societal boundaries the policies that nations use to compete on an economic level are usually harmful to it. And if multinational corporations become a large enough part of society, or simply are able to whisper in the right ears, this could lead to the end of such policies.
But of course inter-societal conflict isn’t the only negative consequence of the lack of rational restraint in societies. For example, most societies seem unwilling or unable to effectively respond to the limited nature of some resources or the possibility of long-term damage to the environment because of human activity. It is rational restraint that allows us as individuals to take the future into account and put aside some of today’s desires because of it, and societies, lacking this faculty, are thus unable to do so.