Excursus: Humanity—history of an idea

If there is a common element between the concept of human rights—understood as rights that belong to every human being—and that of humanitarian intervention, it is the idea of humanity they both implicitly appeal to. This idea is meant to be universal in its scope, and should serve as the basis for the claim that all individuals and peoples ought necessarily to be recognized as having basic rights worthy of protection (Teitcl 2011, 20). But, as noted, the same idea can be used to legitimize unilateral intervention and power politics. Let us therefore attempt a genealogical reconstruction of the idea of humanity, tracing its historical transformations so as to arrive at an understanding of the origins of humanitarian intervention and the foundation of human rights.

Humanity and dignity

In this genealogy, we will start out with the concept of humanitas romana, whose fullest statement comes to us from the Scipionic Circle of the second century BC.

As conceived by Cicero, humanitas was the complex of the highest moral and intellectual powers we put to use when moved by an awareness of moral duty. This view rested on the idea of man as endowed with reason, which in turn equipped him with a knowledge of duty and placed him above all other living beings.[1]

In Stoic philosophy, the concept of humanitas was expanded so as to encompass universal fellow feeling among human beings. Seneca underscored the common foundation of humankind, from which came the sense of sociability among all humans.

With the rise of Christianity the idea of humanity came to be understood in light of its contrast to that of divinity.

Only with the humanists did the idea come to be re-evaluated in its own terms. Which is to say that it was used to describe humans as beings endowed with reason and so as capable of self-determination. This newfound sense of the human condition comes through clearly in the words of Pico della Mirándola, who in De Hominis Dipnitatc (written in 1486 and published posthumously in 1496) wrote that “man is an animal of diverse, multiform, and destructible nature. But why all this? In order for us to understand that, after having been born in this state [...] [,] we may be what we will to be” (Pico della Mirándola 1998, 6-7).

As noted in Chapter 1.2, Hugo Grotius, working within the Stoie tradition, invoked the “right of human society” (Jus humanae societatis} as the foundation on which the sovereign was authorized to intervene against another sovereign who should oppress his own people. As he reasoned in De Jure Belli ae Pads:

It is another Question, Whether we have a just Cause for War with another Prince, in order to relieve his Subjects from their Oppression under him. True it is, that since the Institution of Civil Societies, the Governors of every State have acquired some peculiar Right over their respective Subjects [...].

But if the Injustice be visible [...], as no good Man living can approve of, the Right of human Society shall not be therefore excluded. [...]

And indeed tho’ it were granted that Subjects ought not, even in the most pressing Necessity, to take up Arms against their Prince [...] we should not yet be able to conclude from thence, that others might not do it for them. (Grotius [1720] 2005, bk. II, chap. XXV, § VIII.1-3, pp. 1159-62; italics in the original)

In Grotius’s conception, Hersch Lauterpacht (1946, 46) sees “the first authoritative statement of the principle of humanitarian intervention—the principle that the exclusiveness of domestic jurisdiction stops where outrage upon humanity begins.” Indeed, Grotius held that sovereigns were accountable not only to their own people but also to the whole of humanity. However, in laying out this vision, on which the idea of humanity encompasses the whole of humankind, Grotius strikes an ambiguous balance between the sovereignty of the state and the natural rights of individuals, this by failing to clarify what status individuals enjoy in relation to the state (Vincent 1992, 246).

It was Kant’s philosophy that would introduce the primacy of the rights of man relative to political power, pointing to the idea of humanity as the locus of the dignity of man. As Kant wrote in the Metaphysics of Morals:

Humanity itself is a dignity [Würde]; for a man cannot be used merely as a means by any man (either by others or even by himself) but must always be used at the same time as an end. It is just in this that his dignity (personality) consists [...]. But just as he cannot give himself away for any price [...], so neither can he act contrary to the equally necessary self-esteem of others, as men, that is, he is under obligation to acknowledge, in a practical way, the dignity of humanity in every other man. Hence there rests on him a duty regarding the respect that must be shown to every other man. (Kant [1797] 1991, “Doctrine of the Elements of Ethics,” § 38, p. 255 [AA 6:462])


Grotius wrote “that kings who measure up to the rule of wisdom make account not only of the nation which has been committed to them, but of the whole human race [totius humani generis], and that they are [...] not ‘friends of the Macedonians’ alone, or ‘friends of the Romans,’ but ‘friends of mankind’” (Grotius [1646] 1925, Prolegomena, § 24, p. 18).

Earlier in the same work Kant asserts that man is endowed with an original right to freedom in virtue of his humanity. The dignity of humanity, recognizing the objective value inherent in every human being, means that certain rights to freedom need to be guaranteed so that that dignity can be realized. And indeed The Metaphysics of Morals, conceived in the late eighteenth century, can be understood as a work that celebrates the rights of man and the universal value of the humanity that is to be recognized for every human being. This is a universalistic vision that leads Kant to condemn any denial of rights, along with all the abuses and violence of colonialism.

But the ensuing nineteenth century instead marked the triumph of colonialism, on the part ofWestern powers that rejected any universalistic conception of humanity and established the superiority of a distinctly “European humanity.” This hierarchical conception positing a superior humanity was clearly recognized by Carl Schmitt, who pointed out that international law between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was “a specific European international law” (Schmitt 2006, pt. IV, chap. 2, A, p. 228; italics in the original). As he went on to observe:

This was also true of such worldwide, universalist concepts as humanity, civilization, and progress, which determined the general concepts of the theory and vocabulary of diplomats. However, the whole picture thereby was understood to be Eurocentric to the core, since by “humanity” one understood, above all, European humanity. “Civilization” was self-evidently only European civilization, and “progress” was the linear development of European civilization. (Ibid.)

This ideology became the basis for legitimizing the conquest, occupation, and domination of the colonial period. The “laws of humanity” and the “reason of humanity” in whose name the Ottoman Empire was progressively carved up were in reality the laws and reason of “European humanity.” Accompanying this assertion of a superior humanity was a manifest violence driven by a resolve to subdue populations regarded as belonging to an inferior humanity stuck in a backward civilization. But this violence could only beget more violence, in a vortex where only violence could quell the violence. The colonizer denied the humanity of the colonized. As Frantz Fanon (2004,7-8) observes, the colonized

is reduced to the state of an animal. And consequently, when the colonist speaks of the colonized he uses zoological terms. [...] In his endeavours at description and finding the right word, the colonist refers constantly to the bestiary. [...] The colonized know all that and roar with laughter every time they hear themselves called an animal by the other. For they know they are not animals.


“There is only one innate right,” he argues: “Freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law, is the only original right belonging to every man by virtue of his humanity” (ibid., “Division of the Doctrine of Right,” B, p. 63 [AA 6:238]; italics in the original).

Fanon further comments that the “violence” and “aggressiveness” with which the colonizers seek to impose the “supremacy of white values” results in an outcome that is contrary to its design. For it elicits in the colonized an awareness of their own humanity. “And at the very moment when they discover their humanity,” he comments, “they begin to sharpen their weapons to secure its victory” (ibid., 8).

At this point, when the colonized alight on their own humanity, the colonizer’s humanity faces the full force of its opposition, and an irresistible emancipation process is thereby set in motion. The crisis and end of colonialism can thus be said to have originated out of the discovery the colonized made that in them was a humanity that had been denied to them. They accordingly proclaimed a free humanity that pridefully rejoiced in its cultural identity, capable of forging its own destiny, and in this way they pushed back the imperious violence of “European humanity.” The humanity of the colonized finally wrested itself from the chokehold of the colonizer’s inhumanity.

  • [1] Writes Cicero (De Officiis 1.107): “We must realize also that we are invested by Nature with two characters, as it were: one of these is universal, arising from the fact of our being all alike endowed with reason and with that superiority which lifts us above the brute. From this all morality and propriety are derived, and upon it depends the rational method of ascertaining our duty. The other character is the one that is assigned to individuals in particular” (quoted from Cicero 1913, bk. I, par. 107, p. 109). The Latin original: “Intellegendum etiam est duabus quasi nos a natura indutos esse personis; quarum una communis est ex eo, quod omnes participes sumus rationis praestantiaeque eius, qua ante-cellimus bestiis, a qua omne honestum decorumque trahitur et ex qua ratio inveniendi officii exquiritur; altera autem, quae proprie singulis est tributa.” On Cicero’s thought, see Heinemann 1931, 300ft’.. 2 Writes Seneca (Letter 5.4): “The very first thing philosophy promises is fellow feeling, a sense of togetherness among human beings. By becoming different, we will be cut off from this” (quoted from Seneca 2015, 31-32). The Latin original: “Hoc primum philosophia promittit, sensum communem, humanitatem et congregationem, a qua professione dissimilitude nos separabit.” Cf. Nybakken 1939,412. 3 Compare the text in its fuller context as rendered in Pico della Mirandola 2012, 133-35: “Hence that saying of the Chaldeans [...], ‘Man is by nature diverse, multiform and inconstant.’ Yet, why go on about this? So that we may understand that we (having been born into this condition; that is, born with the possibility to become what we wish to be) must take the greatest care, lest people say of us that we [...] that we had turned ourselves into brutes and mindless beasts of burden” (italics added). The Latin original: “Hine illud Chaldeorum [...], idest ‘homo variae ac multiformis et desultoriae naturae animal.’ Sed quorsum haec? Ut intelligamus (postquam hac nati sumus conditione, ut id simus quod esse volumus) curare hoc potissimum debere nos, ut illud quidem in nos non dicatur, cum in honore essemus non cognovisse similes factos brutis et iumentis insipientibus” (ibid., 132-34).
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