Ethical Encounters – The Special Ambiguity of Humanity

This is the second post in a series reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam Fotou’s original post can be accessed here, Elke’s is here, and Jillian’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.

Encountering Humanity

Humanity is special. This sounds like a very conventional claim. We are used to hearing appeals to our common humanity. The appeal works on the presumption that there is something in human beings that we not only share as humans but which also calls us to respond in particular ways when we encounter each other. We are said to have human rights that exceed any of our particular belongings to states, faiths or ethnicities. We intervene to protect human beings beset by violence and catastrophe, disregarding the norms of sovereignty that prevent outside interference. We appeal to our common humanity to solicit resources for distant strangers, often depicted in their suffering as vulnerable human bodies to shake us from our everyday disregard. Humanity is appealed to as a matter of routine, but what does our humanity consist in?

Reflection on the meaning of humanity is less common than our appeals to it, yet this deeper rumination also comes with practiced ease. Knowing what our humanity is has long been a matter of divining what is distinctive about human beings and then moving to grant our distinctively human capacities an exalted status, claiming it as our essential nature. Humanity, as something to which we appeal, is conventionally a judgment on what is prized in human nature, marking out what is elevated amongst all the contradictions of our all too human nature.

Huge Manatee

Humanity then works not only as an appeal – “for the love of humanity!” – but also as a standard to which we should be held. Knowing what is properly human provides a guide to our interactions. What do we owe each other? To be treated in accordance with our essential nature. In a typically modern and Western formulation: to be treated as rational beings, to have our individual freedom respected. These sorts of claims have long echoes and many sources. They also have dissonant reverberations because the standard of humanity not only marks off the human from the animal or the divine, but also differences between those human beings recognised as fully and properly human and those denied recognition, and in their denial degraded as sub-human, primitive and savage. This exclusion from full humanity of the non-human negates the appeal and standard of humanity, opening up the non-human to forms of violence, degradation and abuse. Women, savages, barbarians, Jews, Muslims, Asians, Africans, queers, lunatics, cripples; a brutal list of exceptions to the defining standard, such that even its partial enumeration raises questions about humanity as a standard. Nearly as insidious is the way the self-appointed arbiters of humanity use such distinctions to exculpate themselves. Those who fight for humanity against savagery are always noble in their own eyes.

Contemporary defenders of humanity want to suggest, with great sincerity and sophistication, that these dynamics of exclusions have been overcome, as artefacts of bias and falsehoods about human nature, tragically realised in violent social institutions but progressively improving. Seyla Benhabib’s work is exemplary in this regard, as her reconfiguration of Kantian moral universalism strives to include all human beings in the exalted category of full humanity, defined by our capacity for individual freedom and obligation to extend equal regard for each other. Despite these sorts of reformulations a gap remains, as the politics of claiming humanity are not sufficiently acknowledged. What if we do not find our highest fulfilment in the ideal of free and equal individuality? What becomes of our humanity?

Many critics have attacked the sort of regulatory universalism that Benhabib strives for, arguing that we must instead focus on how humanity is a used a category that excludes and degrades. Franz Fanon’s critique of European white supremacy highlights the corrosive effect of an equality that can only be validated by the oppressor, by forming oneself to external and oppressive norms. In its place it seems we need a more universal universalism – but what form might that take? There are alternatives focusing on care over justice, seeking political rather than philosophical consensus, valuing our common vulnerability as connected beings rather than our freedom as individuals. Judith Butler’s (relatively) recent turn to vulnerability, for example, is grounded in a critical attitude toward humanity as a moral ideal. She has traced the way our ideas of humanity make some lives unlivable – both through a lack of recognition for those whose ways of living challenge convention, and by devaluing those ways of being that are improperly human in light of dominant standards. This insight, however, also motivates her focus on our common vulnerability as a way trying to give status to those lives that are ungrievable because they are not recognised as properly human.

Here, again the politics of humanity return. To argue for the need for the oppressed to express their own humanity or to suggest our humanity is found in our shared vulnerability to injury and death, is still to mobilise humanity as a kind of standard that marks out what is acceptable/unacceptable and who is human/inhuman. While the political response in the critical humanistic thinking of Fanon and Butler demands greater equality and inclusion, which is a better and more critical politics, I want to push the question of the ambiguity of humanity further. Following Bonnie Honig’s insight that our appeals to humanity can be read as political interventions into an ongoing process of collective living, I want to consider more deeply how appeals in the name of humanity work.

Humanity is a strange standard as it suggests that we are the grounding for the standard that binds us (the well-known dictum that “man is the measure of all things”) even as we seem to be capable of infinite inhumanity and stubbornly resistant to extending truly universal recognition. So, what value is there in humanity as an ethical concept? Does it have any potential left?

Humanity is special. It has the power to carry forward our noblest hopes and most violent prejudices, to write them on to every human body as its natural essence. The question, perhaps, is: what should we do with our appeals, our claims and enactments, voiced in the langue of humanity?

Excavating Humanity

Many thinkers have suggested that their is little of value left in humanity, provoking an anti-humanist sensibility and paving the way for explorations of a posthuman ethics. This dramatic step, however, obscures a little observed continuity between the champion of humanity and the herald of its usurpation, as both focus on the continuity and singularity of humanity as an ideal rather than its fractured, contested and ambiguous nature as an ethical category. This hidden continuity is deep, a root problem for thinking about who and what we are, and how we should treat each other – a more adequate politics of humanity requires a diagnosis of this metaphysical disorder.

We need to go back to go forward in this instance. How is it that our thinking about humanity, as an all inclusive ethical identity, has come to be dominated by a dualistic metaphysics – the human versus the inhuman, humanity versus savagery? Paying careful attention to this also helps us to understand why critics of humanity take this metaphysical dualism as a given, even as they reject it. If we reject humanity as an inherently oppressive and singular ideal then we are abandoning the ideal to those who have articulated and enacted it so violently. We also take all of the practical appeals to humanity, acts of humane concern, and extensions of human feeling across profound differences and devalue them by equating them to humanity as a metaphysical claim.

Holding on to a singular and essential human nature that can ground our judgments of what is valuable in our humanity requires a wider and deeper account of the world. Human nature ceases to be an ontological or ethical question (what kind of thing are we? How should we treat each other?) and becomes a metaphysical one: what is humanity in relation to truth and goodness as such?

It was this logic that required a metaphysical justification of the highest values of humanity in the work of both Plato and Aristotle, perhaps the first to think systematically about human beings (in particular, privileged men who could best embody humanity) as distinctly rational animals, as beings that had a special place in the order of things, between the rational sphere of truth and divinity and the natural sphere of contingency and change. Yet what is all to often lost here is that Plato and Aristotle turned down this metaphysical path for reasons that were particular to their time and place, in response to particular conflict in thought and action in ancient Greece. Should we carry forward the logic of their answer without being critical of the questions that generated it?

School of Athens

John Dewey argues that the development of Greek philosophy arises out of a need to make sense of two different elements of human experience, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the expected and unexpected, the everyday and the transcendent. While Dewey suggests this may be a driver of all philosophical reflection, as we reconstruct and deconstruct our everyday beliefs about the world into something more reflexive and critical, he points out that Greek philosophy approaches this problem in a particular way, and its answer is quite radical and unique to the cultural context in which it developed.

[T]hey were philosophers in virtue of the fact that they extracted from the mass of detailed legends, myths, and traditional tales a precious essence – belief in a single, all-encompassing, and all-rulling principle, the divine: a rational distillation even though it bears the marks of its origin in…the uncharted, the extraordinary, and uncanny. (page 21)

As Greek culture tried to make sense of the world, to understand what could be controlled and predicted versus what was uncontrollable and unpredictable, a value distinction was made, exalting what was regular, steady, reasonable (part of the order of nature) and degrading what was temporary, changing, disordered. Hence giving birth to the idea of a world cleft into higher and lower realms: ordered and precarious, rational and uncertain. It is against this backdrop that the ancient Greeks articulate the question of what is valuable in humanity – and in this light, the answer – that the rational, reflective, unchanging is what is best in us – is hardly surprising. Add to this that such activities were the purview of the privileged and the solution is more conventional still.

The Roman inheritance of this logic marks the first explicit articulation of humanism as a kind of ideology, perhaps occasioned by the imperative to think on an imperial scale in which diverse peoples from across the empire needed to be thought as belonging to a single world. Homo humanus referred to an ideal of Roman virtú that took the Hellenistic ideal of cultivation and learning as the highest activities of humanity and transformed it in order to articulate a standard to differentiate between Roman and Barbarian, civilised and uncivilised. In doing so, homo humanus provided an ideal of human nature that all those living under the Roman Empire might aspire to – even if it might elude many as a matter of their inferior nature. The metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle was transformed into a political and social ideal, though the dualism that marks off the human from the inhuman was not transformed. Humanism in its inception speaks in a singular voice.

It was this same ideal of  humanism as the pursuit of the virtue and excellence that most befits human beings that remerged in the Renaissance, in opposition to the Christian notion of original sin, which suggested that human beings might not have control or knowledge of their goodness or righteousness. This concern to think the world through the human, by asking after the value of humanity as such, takes a distinctive form in the modern era as the common metaphysical world that was necessary to antiquity’s singular notion of humanity was increasingly fragile (which is not to suggest that such singularity was not questioned in antiquity, only that in Europe during the modern era it was an explicit and widely held concern).

With the fracturing of religious belief, morality in the modern period was seen to be in need of grounding, of new justification. There were a number of attempts to do this and what marks out this Enlightenment project is the desire to find this grounding in human nature itself, though with the loss of the common metaphysical understanding of antiquity this appeal to human nature was speculative and contested. This is why grounding our moral and social beliefs is the fundamental problem of this period.

No formation of the problem has been more influential than Kant’s and his answer set the agenda for modern thinking on the value of humanity. In the face of doubts raised by both rationalist and empiricist philosophy, it seemed that the belief in moral rules was merely conventional, especially as the physical sciences seemed to suggest the universe was mechanical and purposeless. Kant sought not only to ground morality, but to do so in a way that maintained human dignity and guaranteed the universal scope of moral principle in a realm apart from encroaching physical materialism and disunity in personal and social beliefs.

His categorical imperative placed the rational subject at centre of the world, inexorably part of the phenomenal world but also a noumenal being expressing the rational freedom that is as much a part of the universe as extension and time. The imperative, was originally expressed as a test of universalisation for our maxims, but as he restates it he phrases it in terms of humanity. We are impelled to respect the humanity in ourselves and others, refusing to treat humanity as a means rather than an end, as all rational beings are endowed with freedom and, therefore, autonomy of humanity must be respected. Kant’s transcendental deduction is intended to preserve the power of humanity without recourse to unsustainable metaphysical claims.

Kant, however, fails to solve the problem, despite engendering a shift from grounding value in the nature of the world to grounding it in the nature of the subject – namely a rational and autonomous subject. His failure structures both future attempts to defend humanity as well as criticisms of such essentialist thinking. Moving the focus to the human subject simply changes the terms in which we articulate a dualist metaphysics rather than escaping it. The human subject is still caught between two worlds – one free and rational (noumenal) and the other determined and unfree (phenomenal) – as he was in antiquity, between a perfect rational divine realm and a changing material one. Further, the value of humanity is still found in our capacity to partake in and access the elevated realm.

We have carried over the solution from ancient Greece, carried along their understanding of the value of humanity through history and across great cultural gaps, only to be left with a seemingly irresolvable problem. Does humanity have an essential and universal moral value? And if not, are we left with relativistic moral confusion?

Ambiguous Humanity

This is an admittedly potted history and leaves out a great deal of nuance, but I hope it gets us close to the nub of the issue. The way in which we think humanity as a concept lodges us in a contradiction, as humanity as an ideal suggests there should be one right way of being properly human, while human experience and diversity makes a mockery of such a claim. It seems the ideal or the actual existing culture must give way. It is this impasse that has led thinkers to both reject humanity/humanism and try to think beyond such categories. Rosi Braidotti, for example, rejects humanism in total as an ideology premised on human mastery of nature and the primacy of individual rational autonomy, which makes human beings the measure of all things. She argues we need to see humans as just another animal, sharing the world with numerous life forms, not in control of nature but obliged to find a more fulsome relationship to life itself.

Her criticism, however, maintains the metaphysical dualism by presuming that our appeals to humanity are necessarily phrased in the modern dialectic of transcendent justification. This is a useful confusion, although it blunts Braidotti’s criticism of humanism as such, as it helps us draw out the central concern in anti-humanist thinking, which is a rejection of the metaphysical deduction of the meaning and value of humanity as both impossible and pernicious. What anti-humanism does not necessarily reject is humanity as an inclusive ethical category, an identity of maximal scope through which we can express standards for how we treat one another. The difficulty then is knowing what to hold on to and what to let go in humanity.

The import of this clarification is that we can see that to think about humanity today, when its invocation comes so easily to our lips, requires a different understanding of how human nature is articulated and the ethical ideals drawn from our presumed commonality. This is where Honig’s insight becomes truly useful – if we do not presume that our humanity has ever been singular and absolute, we can see that its use is always specific and political, it is a particular articulation for concrete purposes, rather than markers of human belonging in exalted metaphysical categories. Dewey allows us to take this line of thinking farther, by encouraging us to consider the deep philosophical reasons why our ideals, like humanity, take the problematic form that they do. This consideration, however, does not lead to a need to reject, overcome or transform humanism, but rather to reconsider the relationship between our philosophical beliefs (largely inherited from another time and place) and our practical activity (informed by a much wider set of cultural forces).

La Colomba

In his work Quest for Certainty, Dewey claimed that Kant’s philosophical revolution was Ptolemaic rather than Copernican in character, as what Kant did was place the human subject at the centre of the rational universe rather than questioning the rational universe as such. Dewey argues that the true revolutionary move is to understand that knowledge is not only dependent on the human subject but that knowledge is experimental and is a result of actively working in the world. Knowledge does not reveal or correspond to what is real but rather knowledge reveals the consequences of particular acts. Further, the acts we can have knowledge of are our own. So, an ideal of humanity that leads to distinctions between the human and the inhuman do not reflect a truth about the world but rather a truth about our relationship to each other. Rejecting such notions seems obvious given the consequence. Yet, where the human ideal seems bound to fail for the anti-humanist and post humanist thinker, this is because they remain to wedded to a metaphysical understanding, such that as metaphysical truth seems impossible, we are pushed to give up on truth. A move to an Deweyan approach focuses on the “truth” of any ideal as an experimental proposition, a claim to be tested and overcome. Humanity, then, can only be an experimental and provisional ideal, a hypothesis tested in action and in response to particular problems in concrete contexts.

Our critique of humanism should focus on its illegitimacy as an ideal intended to secure ethical and political certainty – for my purposes this is a much more productive position to start thinking about humanity, as it forces us to confront established uses as habitual and customary, and therefore specific, to understand why humanity is problematic, while also allowing us to consider the diverse ways humanity is challenged and either reconstructed or rejected – it forces us to be more empirical and also democratic in understanding the many things that humanity has and might yet mean

One way of understanding this is that claiming our humanity is an excessive claim, which surpasses all that we already are conventionally, not in terms of an essence that is regulatory, but in terms of an openness, a space of possibility and a space of maximal inclusion. This excessive claim is also a claim made in a particular situation, in response to a particular problem, so it is a claim that our humanity should have some specific consequence. For example, a human right to housing, is a claim that our need to have a home is central to human being, and should be extended beyond whatever existing distribution of home/ housing exists – a way of challenging the linkage of housing and ownership to our ability to pay in favour of a claim that our humanity entitles us to a home. The special ambiguity of humanity is that it encompasses both a history of claim making, existing standards and exclusions, as well as space to make new claims that exceed our given identities and standards.

A critical humanism grounded in both agonistic and pragmatist thinking suggests that we do not need an anti-human or post-human but rather that we need to attend to the diverse and contradictory experience of being human in terms that our less philosophically indebted. This allows for both critical deconstructions of philosophical humanism as well as new reconstructions of humanity as a potentially useful ethical identity and standard.


8 thoughts on “Ethical Encounters – The Special Ambiguity of Humanity

  1. Pingback: Ethical Encounters – Border Ethics: Autoimmunity as Ethics of Hospitality | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Humanity is not special; it just is. My interests are aligned with those of humanity simply because I am human. If I were a turtle, I suppose I should think turtles were special. My drives promote the perpetuation of the species, so that is fulfillment.


    • History speaks against any simple claim like this – our interests, as individuals or communities, do not simply align with humanity, even understanding ourselves as relevantly similar is a social construction and carries with it some political account of what our humanity is and what it means. You seem to suggest that all you think we should make of humanity is that we are all human and share a kind of species wide connection and concern, but even this is constructed rather than natural.


      • I don’t care whether it’s a proper instinct resulting from natural selection or a social construction; either one counts as a “drive” developed as an adaptation. Philosophy tends to indicate some version of this, so I believe it to be somehow fundamental and universal – humanity’s favorite thing about itself. When historical behavior diverges from this understanding, I consider it a dysfunction arising from improperly aligned drives.


  3. Pingback: The Special Ambiguity of Humanity | Public Philosophy Journal

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