Home Sociology Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster
Humanity as Value
The goal of humanitarian ethics springs from this appreciation of the preciousness of every human person, an appreciation that each of us shares because we ourselves are human and know that our life is valuable. It is this value of life itself that then naturally becomes the humanitarian telos. Each person is an end in herself or himself.13 It is good that she is. And it is good that she becomes herself as fully and uniquely as possible in life. A person’s life is a natural good that he should desire and that others should desire for him.
The goal of humanitarian ethics is, therefore, very immediate and intimate. It is pressing rather than prospective. When human life is threatened amidst violence and disaster, the person is the humanitarian goal rather than some grand vision of political society. Humanitarian action is a teleology of person, not politics. There is no greater goal beyond the person in humanitarian action: not peace; not democracy; not religious conversion; not socialism; not political Islam; and not military victory. Humanitarian action is an urgent and limited ethics of protection and assistance in extremis. It may have interests in peace and the wider political, economic and social flourishing of human beings, but these interests function more like hopes than goals. In the same way that a boat, if it could hope, might hope for good weather rather than bad; so humanitarians hope for peace and good government, but the actual goal of their work is to protect the human person. The defining goal of humanitarian action is to save and protect individual lives so that they have the opportunity to flourish. It is not to determine how they should flourish and organize this flourishing. The goal is not the good society and some specifically elaborated political project. The goal is life. The humanitarian telos is the breath of human life and the dignity of being alive and well, by being imbued with self-esteem and surrounded by other people’s love and respect for your humanity.
It is this basic good of a human life that the principle of humanity, as it is currently formulated, suggests but does not articulate in depth.14 In many ways, the modern UN tradition of human rights expresses humanity more fully than the clipped and urgent humanitarian formulation. The Preamble to the UN Charter is very explicit in its recognition of the essential value of human life, and the human person that this life creates. On its first page, the UN Charter of 1945 affirms “the dignity and worth of the human person” as the ground of its ethics and the primary goal of politics.15 Like humanitarian ethics, the political ethics of the UN finds its first good in life itself, in humanity as essence. The Humanitarian Charter, more than the Red Cross principles, digs down into the UN tradition of dignity and rights to understand humanity. It makes clear that the humanitarian goal is “the fundamental moral principle of humanity: that all human beings are born free in dignity and rights”.16 This affirms the moral foundations and the ethical goal of humanitarian action: that human life is a fundamental good that must be protected and respected.
But what is a human life? And why is it good? How should we understand this basic good that commands our most fundamental morality and requires humanitarian action?
Life is all we have as human beings. It is because of life—its pulsing, breathing consciousness—that we know joy and pain, others and ourselves. With life we exist and face outwards to create meaning, relationships and love. Most importantly, human life is a unity of body and mind. There is no dualism between the life of the body and the life of the mind. Instead, human life is to be understood biographically as personhood and individuality, as well as biologically as flesh and blood. Our person is nothing without our body and our body is nothing without our person. We live embodied. Our life is body, mind and feeling lived in a single experience as a human person. As human beings we meet each other as a unity, not in parts. Our face, our voice, our movements, our aura, our scent, our bodily warmth and the touch of bone and muscle through our skin express who we are as a person. The combination of body and person are precious together and impossible apart. Together, they are who we are. Because we live in our bodies we can feel others living, even when they are only barely living. This is why a corpse seems empty, incomplete; a precious reminder but no longer the person we knew. A human life is always a person, not just a body. Living is being somebody and uniquely someone.
The term humanity rather than human life is the first principle of humanitarian action, precisely because humanitarians have always wanted to capture this personal depth to a human life and to talk of persons not bodies. The idea of humanity linguistically captures this unity of breath and personality in an individual life and the knowledge that we all share this life collectively as a species. Our humanity is more than just a body and more than just a mind. It is created by the unity of both and by our association with others. Our life is lived; it does not just exist. A book exists; a human being lives.17 And living involves this richness as a unique individual full of a personal life of her own: a me and an I. Each human life has what Ricoeur calls its own "singularity”.
In humanitarian ethics, the notion of "dignity” tries to supply this particular sense of the me and the I of every single person. This strange word, with its roots in European feudalism and the dignity and social status of Lords and Ladies, is the word that humanitarian and human rights discourse deploys to try to encapsulate the depth of personhood in human life. The moment we say I or me, each one of us affirms our human life in its uniquely personified fullness with identity, loves, social ties, memories, cares, traits, failures and achievements. Our dignity, therefore, is our beauty as persons living a conscious life experienced in the first person, rather than as a simple organic existence. Dignity is the grace that comes from an honest self-knowledge of our delicate and temporary place in the world. It is our sense of I, and our conviction that this I can be lived well before it dies. If I suffer torture, hunger or carelessness, it is not my body that hurts but me. It is my own personal pain. My humanity, therefore, is my consciousness of life lived as me in struggles and affection with others, with my own personal goals, flaws and hopes in a future. This is the personal richness of human life conveyed in the moral idea of humanity. All of this richness is then of ethical concern to humanitarian action which must seek to assist and protect people’s health, relationships, dignity and individual futures as integral to a personalized human life—their humanity.18 Humanity as value asks that humanitarian action take account of the human person, all of her or him.
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