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The Principle of Humanity

The notion of humanity is the ethical and linguistic root of humanitarian action. It expresses a fundamental value that is the goal of all humanitarian action—why such action exists and the end it seeks to achieve. Humanity is traditionally described in Jean Pictet’s famous 1965 formulation of the goal of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement:

To prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being.11

Pictet’s powerful twentieth-century elaboration produced this core phrasing which continues to define the principle of humanity in humanitarian ethics today. But Pictet’s formulation is largely one of objective not value. It states what humanitarian action wants to do, but does not explain why it is good to do it. Pictet’s principle of action is obviously deduced from some more fundamental value that precedes it. He assumes this value but never fully spells it out in his commentary. Why would we want to prevent and alleviate people’s suffering in war or disaster, especially when some of those suffering are our enemies? Here, on the question of its most profound moral goal, humanitarian ethics has remained strangely quiet and undeveloped.

In his commentary on the principles, Pictet describes humanity as “the sentiment or attitude of someone who shows himself to be human” and so expresses “active goodwill towards mankind”.12 For Pictet, humanity is a kindness and fellow feeling in the helper that relates naturally and universally to any other human in need. It is Hume’s sympathy or Aquinas’ compassion. Humanity is someone being humane. This affective aspect of humanity is certainly a vital part of the importance of humanity: something we all share and which we can all express. Pictet rightly finds this moral feeling to be close to love—a word that he does not use himself directly but quotes in others—or as the Latin word for love, caritas, and its modern version charity. This loving and affectionate aspect of humanity in the helper might best be called the caring virtue arising from the principle of humanity, and we shall return to it as the second aspect of humanity. But there is something deeper than this responsive sentiment. The sentiment itself is prompted by recognition of a deep good in the suffering other. Humane sentiment arises because we feel that life itself is intrinsically valuable. I do not want to ease your suffering and save your life because I am kind. I am kind because I know that human life is beautiful and precious. It is a good in itself. We might call this the essential value of humanity rather than its accompanying virtue. It is the enormous value of a human life and a human person that makes us humanitarian. So, the most fundamental of humanitarian principles, humanity itself, has two aspects to it: a value and a virtue. We value human life and we can be humane.

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