Seven Theses on Human Rights: (1) The Idea of Humanity

Thesis 1: The idea of ‘hu­manity’ has no fixed meaning and cannot act as the source of moral or legal rules. Historically, the idea has been used to clas­sify people into the fully human, the lesser human, and the inhuman.


If ‘hu­manity’ is the norm­ative source of moral and legal rules, do we know what ‘hu­manity’ is? Important philo­soph­ical and on­to­lo­gical ques­tions are in­volved here. Let me have a brief look at its history.

Pre-​modern so­ci­eties did not de­velop a com­pre­hensive idea of the human spe­cies. Free men were Athenians or Spartans, Romans or Carthaginians, but not mem­bers of hu­manity; they were Greeks or bar­bar­ians, but not hu­mans. According to clas­sical philo­sophy, a tele­olo­gic­ally de­term­ined human nature dis­trib­utes people across so­cial hier­archies and roles and en­dows them with dif­fer­en­ti­ated char­ac­ter­istics. The word hu­man­itas ap­peared for the first time in the Roman Republic as a trans­la­tion of the Greek word paideia. It was defined as eru­ditio et in­sti­tutio in bonas artes (the closest modern equi­valent is the German Bildung). The Romans in­her­ited the concept from Stoicism and used it to dis­tin­guish between the homo hu­manus, the edu­cated Roman who was con­versant with Greek cul­ture and philo­sophy and was sub­jected to the jus civile, and the hom­ines bar­bari, who in­cluded the ma­jority of the un­educated non-​Roman in­hab­it­ants of the Empire. Humanity enters the western lex­icon as an at­tribute and pre­dicate of homo, as a term of sep­ar­a­tion and dis­tinc­tion. For Cicero as well as the younger Scipio, hu­man­itas im­plies gen­er­osity, po­lite­ness, civil­iz­a­tion, and cul­ture and is op­posed to bar­barism and an­im­ality.1 “Only those who con­form to cer­tain stand­ards are really men in the full sense, and fully merit the ad­jective ‘human’ or the at­tribute ‘hu­manity.’”2 Hannah Arendt puts it sar­castic­ally: ‘a human being or homo in the ori­ginal meaning of the word in­dic­ates someone out­side the range of law and the body politic of the cit­izens, as for in­stance a slave – but cer­tainly a polit­ic­ally ir­rel­evant being.’3

If we now turn to the polit­ical and legal uses of hu­man­itas, a sim­ilar his­tory emerges. The concept ‘hu­manity’ has been con­sist­ently used to sep­arate, dis­tribute, and clas­sify people into rulers, ruled, and ex­cluded. ‘Humanity’ acts as a norm­ative source for politics and law against a back­ground of vari­able in­hu­manity. This strategy of polit­ical sep­ar­a­tion curi­ously entered the his­tor­ical stage at the pre­cise point when the first proper uni­ver­salist con­cep­tion of hu­man­itas emerged in Christian theo­logy, cap­tured in the St Paul’s state­ment, that there is no Greek or Jew, man or woman, free man or slave (Epistle to the Galatians 3:28). All people are equally part of hu­manity be­cause they can be saved in God’s plan of sal­va­tion and, secondly, be­cause they share the at­trib­utes of hu­manity now sharply dif­fer­en­ti­ated from a tran­scended di­vinity and a sub­human an­im­ality. For clas­sical hu­manism, reason de­term­ines the human: man is a zoon logon echon or an­i­male ra­tionale. For Christian meta­physics, on the other hand, the im­mortal soul, both car­ried and im­prisoned by the body, is the mark of hu­manity. The new idea of uni­versal equality, un­known to the Greeks, entered the western world as a com­bin­a­tion of clas­sical and Christian metaphysics.

The di­visive ac­tion of ‘hu­manity’ sur­vived the in­ven­tion of its spir­itual equality. Pope, Emperor, Prince, and King, these rep­res­ent­at­ives and dis­ciples of God on earth were ab­so­lute rulers. Their sub­jects, the sub-​jecti or sub-​diti, take the law and their com­mands from their polit­ical su­per­iors. More im­port­antly, people will be saved in Christ only if they ac­cept the faith, since non-​Christians have no place in the provid­en­tial plan. This rad­ical di­vide and ex­clu­sion founded the ecu­men­ical mis­sion and pros­elyt­izing drive of Church and Empire. Christ’s spir­itual law of love turned into a battle cry: let us bring the pa­gans to the grace of God, let us make the sin­gular event of Christ uni­versal, let us im­pose the mes­sage of truth and love upon the whole world. The clas­sical sep­ar­a­tion between Greek (or human) and bar­barian was based on clearly de­marc­ated ter­rit­orial and lin­guistic fron­tiers. In the Christian em­pire, the fron­tier was in­tern­al­ized and split the known globe di­ag­on­ally between the faithful and the hea­then. The bar­bar­ians were no longer beyond the city as the city ex­panded to in­clude the known world. They be­came ‘en­emies within’ to be ap­pro­pri­ately cor­rected or elim­in­ated if they stub­bornly re­fused spir­itual or sec­ular salvation.

The meaning of hu­manity after the con­quest of the ‘New World’ was vig­or­ously con­tested in one of the most im­portant public de­bates in his­tory. In April 1550, Charles V of Spain called a council of state in Valladolid to dis­cuss the Spanish at­ti­tude to­wards the van­quished Indians of Mexico. The philo­sopher Ginés de Sepulveda and the Bishop Bartholomé de las Casas, two major fig­ures of the Spanish Enlightenment, de­bated on op­posite sides. Sepulveda, who had just trans­lated Aristotle’s Politics into Spanish, ar­gued that “the Spaniards rule with per­fect right over the bar­bar­ians who, in prudence, talent, virtue, hu­manity are as in­ferior to the Spaniards as chil­dren to adults, women to men, the savage and cruel to the mild and gentle, I might say as monkey to men.”4 The Spanish crown should feel no qualms in dealing with Indian evil. The Indians could be en­slaved and treated as bar­barian and savage slaves in order to be civ­il­ized and proselytized.

Las Casas dis­agreed. The Indians have well-​established cus­toms and settled ways of life, he ar­gued, they value prudence and have the ability to govern and or­ganize fam­ilies and cities. They have the Christian vir­tues of gen­tle­ness, peace­ful­ness, sim­pli­city, hu­mility, gen­er­osity, and pa­tience, and are waiting to be con­verted. They look like our father Adam be­fore the Fall, wrote las Casas in his Apologia, they are ‘un­wit­ting’ Christians. In an early defin­i­tion of hu­manism, las Casas ar­gued that “all the people of the world are hu­mans under the only one defin­i­tion of all hu­mans and of each one, that is that they are ra­tional … Thus all races of hu­man­kind are one.”5 His ar­gu­ments com­bined Christian theo­logy and polit­ical utility. Respecting local cus­toms is good mor­ality but also good politics: the Indians would con­vert to Christianity (las Casas’ main con­cern) but also ac­cept the au­thority of the Crown and re­plenish its cof­fers, if they were made to feel that their tra­di­tions, laws, and cul­tures are re­spected. But las Casas’ Christian uni­ver­salism was, like all uni­ver­sal­isms, ex­clusive. He re­peatedly con­demned “Turks and Moors, the ver­it­able bar­barian out­casts of the na­tions” since they cannot be seen as “un­wit­ting” Christians. An “em­pir­ical” uni­ver­salism of su­peri­ority and hier­archy (Sepulveda) and a norm­ative one of truth and love (las Casas) end up being not very dif­ferent. As Tzvetan Todorov pithily re­marks, there is “vi­ol­ence in the con­vic­tion that one pos­sesses the truth one­self, whereas this is not the case for others, and that one must fur­ther­more im­pose that truth on those others.”6

The con­flicting in­ter­pret­a­tions of hu­manity by Sepulveda and las Casas cap­ture the dom­inant ideo­lo­gies of Western em­pires, im­per­i­al­isms, and co­lo­ni­al­isms. At one end, the (ra­cial) other is in­human or sub­human. This jus­ti­fies en­slave­ment, at­ro­cities, and even an­ni­hil­a­tion as strategies of the civil­izing mis­sion. At the other end, con­quest, oc­cu­pa­tion, and forceful con­ver­sion are strategies of spir­itual or ma­terial de­vel­op­ment, of pro­gress and in­teg­ra­tion of the in­no­cent, naïve, un­developed others into the main body of humanity.

These two defin­i­tions and strategies to­wards oth­er­ness act as sup­ports of western sub­jectivity. The help­less­ness, passivity, and in­feri­ority of the “un­developed” others turns them into our nar­ciss­istic mirror-​image and po­ten­tial double. These un­for­tu­nates are the in­fants of hu­manity. They are vic­tim­ized and sac­ri­ficed by their own rad­ical evil­doers; they are res­cued by the West who helps them grow, de­velop and be­come our like­ness. Because the victim is our mirror image, we know what his in­terest is and im­pose it “for his own good.” At the other end, the ir­ra­tional, cruel, vic­tim­izing others are pro­jec­tions of the Other of our un­con­scious. As Slavoj Žižek puts it, “there is a kind of passive ex­posure to an over­whelming Otherness, which is the very basis of being human … [the in­human] is marked by a ter­ri­fying ex­cess which, al­though it neg­ates what we un­der­stand as ‘hu­manity’ is in­herent to being human.”7 We have called this abysmal other lurking in the psyche and un­set­tling the ego various names: God or Satan, bar­barian or for­eigner, in psy­cho­ana­lysis the death drive or the Real. Today they have be­come the “axis of evil,” the “rogue state,” the “bogus refugee,” or the “il­legal” mi­grant. They are con­tem­porary heirs to Sepulveda’s “mon­keys,” epochal rep­res­ent­at­ives of inhumanity.

A com­par­ison of the cog­nitive strategies as­so­ci­ated with the Latinate hu­man­itas and the Greek an­thropos is in­structive. The hu­manity of hu­manism (and of the aca­demic Humanities)8 unites knowing sub­ject and known ob­ject fol­lowing the pro­to­cols of self-​reflection. The an­thropos of phys­ical and so­cial an­thro­po­logy, on the other hand, is the ob­ject only of cog­ni­tion. Physical an­thro­po­logy ex­am­ines bodies, senses, and emo­tions, the ma­terial sup­ports of life. Social an­thro­po­logy studies di­verse non-​western peoples, so­ci­eties, and cul­tures, but not the human spe­cies in its es­sence or to­tality. These peoples emerged out of and be­came the ob­ject of ob­ser­va­tion and study through dis­covery, con­quest, and col­on­iz­a­tion in the new world, Africa, Asia, or in the peri­pheries of Europe. As Nishitani Osamu puts it, hu­manity and an­thropos sig­nify two asym­met­rical re­gimes of know­ledge. Humanity is civil­iz­a­tion, an­thropos is out­side or be­fore civil­iz­a­tion. In our glob­al­ized world, the minor lit­er­at­ures of an­thropos are ex­amined by com­par­ative lit­er­ature, which com­pares “civil­iz­a­tion” with lesser cultures.

The gradual de­cline of Western dom­in­ance is chan­ging these hier­archies. Similarly, the dis­quiet with a norm­ative uni­ver­salism, based on a false con­cep­tion of hu­manity, in­dic­ates the rise of local, con­crete, and context-​bound normativities.

In con­clu­sion, be­cause ‘hu­manity’ has no fixed meaning, it cannot act as a source of norms. Its meaning and scope keeps chan­ging ac­cording to polit­ical and ideo­lo­gical pri­or­ities. The con­tinu­ously chan­ging con­cep­tions of hu­manity are the best mani­fest­a­tions of the meta­physics of an age. Perhaps the time has come for an­thropos to re­place the human. Perhaps the rights to come will be an­thropic (to coin a term) rather than human, ex­pressing and pro­moting sin­gu­lar­ities and dif­fer­ences in­stead of the same­ness and equi­val­ences of hitherto dom­inant identities.

Cos­tas Douz­i­nas is Pro­fessor of Law and Dir­ector of the Birk­beck Insti­tute for the Human­it­ies, Uni­ver­sity of London.

Show 8 foot­notes

  1. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1965), 107.
  2. B.L. Ullman, “What are the Humanities?” Journal of Higher Education 17/​6 (1946), at 302.
  3. H.C. Baldry, The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1965), 201.
  4. Ginés de Sepulveda, Democrates Segundo of De las Justas Causa de la Guerra contra los Indios (Madrid: Institute Fransisco de Vitoria, 1951), 33 quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America trans. Richard Howard (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 153.
  5. Bartholomé de las Casas, Obras Completas, Vol. 7 (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1922), 536 – 7.
  6. Todorov, The Conquest of America 166, 168.
  7. Slavoj Žižek, “Against Human Rights 56,” New Left Review (July – August 2005), 34.
  8. Costas Douzinas, “For a Humanities of Resistance,” Critical Legal Thinking, December 7, 2010, http://​www​.crit​ic​al​leg​al​thinking​.com/​2​0​1​0​/​1​2​/​0​7​/​f​o​r​-​a​-​h​u​m​a​n​i​t​i​e​s​-​o​f​-​r​e​s​i​s​t​a​n​ce/

  15 comments for “Seven Theses on Human Rights: (1) The Idea of Humanity

  1. 16 May 2013 at 11:14 am

    Good morning Costas! Does the problem lie, as you write, with “the idea of hu­manity”? Or does it in­stead lie with isol­ating and ex­amining the his­tory of ANY so­cial or eth­ical concept in this step-​by-​step way? Is there any mean­ingful norm­ative concept for which we can NOT per­form the same kind of his­tory, only to find that it, too, rests on mil­lennia of ma­nip­u­la­tion, hier­archy and op­pres­sion? Suppose I do the same kind of geneo­logy of the concept of “lib­er­a­tion”, or “tol­er­ance”, or “cos­mo­pol­it­anism”, or “open-​mindedness”, or “love”, or “al­truism”, or “em­pathy”, or “non-​discrimination”, or “re­cept­ive­ness”, or in­deed even “re­volu­tion”. Won’t I ob­vi­ously get the same kind of result? Does the his­tory of a concept equate with some a priori meaning and ne­ces­sary des­tiny? Are we no longer active agents over the con­cepts we use? Are we no longer able to in­ter­vene in his­tory? Perhaps the concept of “human rights” col­lapses be­cause ANY ax­io­mat­ised eth­ical system col­lapses. Any ethics is al­ways ma­nip­ulable. Can we, or rather should we try, to ima­gine some “purer” one that isn’t? Isn’t “purity” the most ma­nip­ulable no­tion of all? After Wittgenstein and Heidegger, can any ana­lysis of such a deeply polit­ical concept as “hu­manity” really be plucked out and placed under a his­tor­ical mi­cro­scope in such a straight­for­ward way? Is the problem, then, that any isol­a­tion of such a concept will in­ev­it­ably de­liver the same result, namely, a ne­ces­sarily con­tin­gent his­tory, which is then presented as a priori and un­al­ter­able? Doesn’t this style of ana­lysis fall into the bin­arist trap it seeks to over­come, namely, of op­posing a faulty concept to some un-​stated as­sump­tion of an im­pec­cable one, a “pure” one? I might even stray so far as to argue that in­justice is not, as this ana­lysis sug­gests, the op­posite of justice, but rather its con­stant product. Hugs from Eric.

  2. 16 May 2013 at 11:50 am

    PS: As to the con­clu­sion, “Per­haps the rights to come will be an­thropic (to coin a term) rather than human, express­ing and pro­mot­ing sin­gu­lar­it­ies and dif­fer­ences in­stead of the same­ness and equi­val­ences of hitherto dom­in­ant iden­tities.” But don’t count­less philo­sophies promise to “express­ and pro­mot­e sin­gu­lar­it­ies and dif­fer­ences in­stead of the same­ness and equi­val­ences.” (Some might call it the stock for­mula of run-​of-​the-​mill lib­er­alism!) How, then, will the “an­thropic” avoid the fate of the “human” as nar­rated here? E

  3. Alessandra Asteriti
    16 May 2013 at 3:39 pm

    A small his­tor­ical aside; in a le­gend re­corded in Mesopotamian lit­er­ature, the Akkadian king Naram Sin is en­gaged in a battle with the ‘Umman Manda’, in­cred­ibly powerful creatures of dis­tinct physiognomy. Wondering if they are hu­mans, he or­ders one of his of­fi­cials to try and hit them to see if they bleed and are hu­mans. Indeed, one of the pro­posed ety­mo­lo­gies for their name is ‘hu­mans? maybe’. I guess this shows how an­cient is our pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ‘hu­manity’ and ‘human nature.’

    • syed asim
      22 March 2014 at 4:38 am


  4. dingus
    16 May 2013 at 8:02 pm

    And what of the an­cient Greek word ἄνθρωπος?

  5. dingus
    16 May 2013 at 8:12 pm

    “Human­ity is civil­iz­a­tion, anthro­pos is out­side or be­fore civilization.”

    I don’t think that is how the Greeks used ἄνθρωπος at all. And what about the Greek concept of ‘mor­tals’ (βροτῶν), which in­cludes men both in­side and out­side civil­iz­a­tion. See Book 6 of the Odyssey (for ex­ample):
    ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω;
    ἦ ῥ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,
    ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής;

    Plato uses ἄνθρωπος a lot, but he cer­tainly does NOT use it to mean ‘out­side or be­fore civilization’.

    Can you give ex­amples of where the Greeks used the word this way?

    • 16 May 2013 at 8:37 pm

      Dingus: Brilliant, and pro­bative, point about Plato. I would argue that Plato has no real concept of “civil­isa­tion” at all, and cer­tainly not in the way Aristotle does, or in the way early European mod­ernity would later de­velop. Aristotle tells what we would today call an “Enlightenment nar­rative”, clearly re­fer­ring to “prim­itive” and “ad­vanced” stages of human so­ciety (with Greeks at the summit), and he re­peats that point con­stantly. Plato, by con­trast, tends to nar­rate his­tory far more scep­tic­ally (or, as in Τίμαιος, cyclically).

      Plato cer­tainly (per­haps self-​parodically) con­structs no­tions of su­perior and in­ferior hu­mans (in­fam­ously in Πολιτεία), but mostly in his oddly mer­ito­cratic scheme. He dis­cusses dif­fer­ences between Greeks and non-​Greeks, but never in Aristotle’s strin­gent, em­phatic terms, nor does he really share Aristotle’s cat­egor­ical no­tions of nat­ural slaves. (Nor of women’s in­feri­ority. After all, a woman can in theory be­come a philo­sopher ruler.)

      And re­member the “mere slave” who per­forms an ex­tended dia­lect­ical op­er­a­tion in Μένων), of the type Plato thought ap­pro­priate only to philo­sophers. Curiously, then, Plato (even if he does poin­tedly ask whether that slave “speaks Greek”) does not so ri­gidly con­struct no­tions of hu­manity or civil­isa­tion in ethnic terms.

      Thanks very much for your ob­ser­va­tion. Eric

      • dingus
        16 May 2013 at 9:01 pm


        I was thinking about the slave in Meno the other day. It’s a really re­mark­able and beau­tiful pas­sage. I don’t think I un­der­stand the dia­logue — or how that scene in par­tic­ular fits into the whole corpus — but it would be a rich topic of re­search re: nat­ural equality. It’s al­ways un­clear what Plato is ac­tu­ally saying and how much is ironic or eristic.

        Really, the concept “Greek” is not really clear in a lot of an­cient sources. It’s def­in­itely non-​existent in Homer. When Odysseus shows up some­where, he doesn’t wonder ‘are they Greeks or not?’, he won­ders if they are good to strangers and re­spect the gods (that is, civil­iz­a­tion is defined eth­ic­ally, not ethnically).

        • 16 May 2013 at 9:15 pm

          Hello again. I think there’s no doubt that Plato has a strong no­tion of dia­lectic as non-​eristic (al­though we could cer­tainly doubt its plaus­ib­ility!), as emerges, for ex­ample, in the con­trast with speech-​making in Πρωταγόρας. Arguably the cri­ti­cism of Plato in those “pure” dia­lect­ical pas­sages is not against its dia­lect­ical ar­ti­fice per se, but against its dia­lo­gical ar­ti­fice — Socrates makes every point, and the in­ter­locutor mostly just agrees (al­though I think that pat­tern does be­come a bit more com­plex in some pas­sages in the other dia­logues). So many have ar­gued that Plato lacks any real no­tion of a par­ti­cip­atory dia­lectic, i.e., that his dia­lectic is really just a mono­logue. That cri­ti­cism will later come back to haunt fig­ures as dif­ferent as Aquinas, Hegel, and, I think, at least some of Marx.

          Part of the sig­ni­fic­ance of the slave in Μένων might have to do with Plato’s con­stant sar­casm about Athenian demo­cracy, and its “free” cit­izens, having sac­ri­ficed any in­terest in truth-​seeking (and there­fore in justice), by throwing it open to a “mob” who, within that pop­u­list and market-​driven con­text, merely end up seeking in­di­vidual gain, and end up, so to speak, “lost to truth”, and “lost” to its primary tool, i.e., dialectic.


          • dingus
            16 May 2013 at 11:00 pm

            The char­acter Socrates cer­tainly has a strong no­tion of dia­lectic as non-​eristic in some dia­logues, but I’m hes­itant to say what Plato’s po­s­i­tion was. The way the dia­logues are written seems to un­der­mine the seem­ingly pro­treptic nature of the speeches. What do you make of the Euthydemus? Or the hor­ribly un­re­li­able nar­rator of the Symposium? It’s very un­clear to me what Plato was doing.

            In any case, the ori­ginal blog post over­states its case against the Greeks and doesn’t provide evid­ence for its strong claims. I think it’s clear from Homer (to give one ex­ample) that there was an an­cient con­cep­tion of hu­manity that was not con­nected to eth­ni­city or ‘cul­tural su­peri­ority’. The split was between mor­tals and gods or man and beast. Even the Phaeacians, who are totally cut off from other people and com­pared to the Cyclops and Giants, are con­sidered part of humanity.

          • dingus
            17 May 2013 at 12:15 am

            Another (re­lated) ques­tion is: how “Platonic” or “Aristotelian” was an­cient Athens? How ac­cepted were their ideas? There prob­ably isn’t enough evid­ence to say.

            What I do think is clear is that the an­cient world — in­deed, even Aristotle him­self — was not “Aristotelian” in the same way as his Medieval fol­lowers (either Christian or Islamic).

          • 17 May 2013 at 7:18 am

            G’morning again. Many 5th cen­tury Athenians cer­tainly be­come chau­vinist after the Persian wars. But with im­portant dis­senters. Plato, and prob­ably Socrates, pokes fun at Athenian su­premi­cism. They ironise it and parody it. And Plato, like Thucydides, cer­tainly warns against its dangers, even seeing in it a cru­cial cause of Athens’s de­mise. Plato’s re­fusal to qualify Athenians, or even Greeks, as su­perior, in the cat­egor­ical way that Aristotle does, is cer­tainly no oversight.

            (PS — I cer­tainly agree that Plato and Aristotle do not play the role in Athens that they would later play in the Middle Ages, either in in­flu­ence or in sub­stance. The staunch demo­cratic fac­tion of Anytus and Meletus would have fallen dumb­struck reading Augustine and Aquinas!).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *