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. Continue reading