Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

7 comments on “Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

  1. It seems to me that dehumanisation occurs at all levels and in many ways – it can be as subtle as the way intellectuals put down rivals intruding into their territories – often by defining them in ways that ‘deintellectualise’ them – or as blatant as the way organised states identify a group and paint them as inhuman. The process is innate, I think, to human nature: we define ‘us’ (whatever ‘us’ may be) as human and ‘them’ as not. It’s behaviour that likely offered an advantage in hunter-gatherer days, possibly as a device for group cohesion: but it’s not appropriate, especially not in the age of organised states.

  2. landzek says:

    And yet I think there’s a further dimention to your situation here.

    For what your student has said is exactly the situation of what we could loosely call ‘enlightenment’, which coincidentally Kant is supposed to supply the bases of discussion for the Weat, but and ironically what Buddhists and Vedics know. For strangely enough within these parameters (of three corners) we find that compassion and a morality of duty arises from removing what we understand as a ‘common humanity’.

    If we can follow this, then we might understand Laruelle more than Badiou, but at least the necessity for clearifying philosophical imprecision through a divergence in method.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Are you saying that the abstraction demanded by ‘classical’ theories of ethics ends up dehumanizing fellow moral subjects?

      • landzek says:

        Hmm. I might be saying that the dehumanization suggests a bifurcation of what can be real of morality.

        For, what is Kants significance against Hume? Surely not merely that he was able to come to some ‘new’ manner of thinking. For we should ask then how novel thought might arise, what that can possibly mean as human subjects, and then re-address what the significance of Kiekegaard is.

        A couple of things:
        -When we look at humanity is ther really a ‘common ethics’? Is it immoral to have ‘tough love’, to donthe good that someone might see as ‘bad’?


        -Enlightened sages.

        Maybe one could say its the difference between retaining a morality for oneself-group and dehumanizing an other. And, dehumanizing oneself while retaining humanity for those who value it, which is to say, remain within its morality.

      • landzek says:

        I think the significant question is whether or not there is indeed a ‘common’ humsnity. Hume was a marker of a kind of ‘colonial end’ . I think that to take ethics or even morality as a sort of umbrella that encompasses some sort of totality of thinking subjects is kind of an anachronism In a way. 😬 but I realize that you’re a teacher and it being a teacher you have to start somewhere with students as in your post. 😁.

        But I am have learned over the past few years is that I can’t approach every thinker upon the same plane.

        I tend to approach everyone as n equal; and I found out that it is a mistake if either of us wants to get anywhere in our conversation.

      • landzek says:

        … but perhaps I’m saying that the insight such as your student had should not be shut down, which is to say re-introduced into the stratified common morality and ethical human situation, as just one opinion among many . Perhaps he or she has a unique aptitude that in other cultures or times would be viewed with the significance that we don’t give it, that with such insights I usurp its power and bring it back down into my moralistic projections for the sake of my own insecurity.


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