It has seemed to me worth while to show from the history of civilization just what war has done and has not done for the welfare of mankind. In the eighteenth century it was assumed that the primitive state of mankind was one of Arcadian peace, joy, and contentment. In the nineteenth century the assumption went over to the other extreme — that the primitive state was one of universal warfare.
Reflections on Violence, Law, and Humanitarianism Talal Asad Charles Taylor, one of the most influential living philosophers in the English-speaking world, has inspired many social scientists, including anthropologists.
In his remarkable work Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity he traces the sensibilities that are central to the modern individual and argues that they have Christian especially Protestant roots. Prominent among them is the virtue of universal benevolence that is closely connected with a new concern with psychological interiority: This is not just a sensitivity to suffering, a greater squeamishness about inflicting it or witnessing it.
It is true that this undoubtedly has occurred, as we can see it in a host of ways, especially in the softening of penal codes which the Enlightenment helped bring about, partly under the influence of Beccaria and Bentham.
But beyond this, we feel called upon to relieve suffering, to put an end to it. But this very critique supposes certain standards of universal concern. It is these that are deeply anchored in our moral culture.
The assumption in narratives about the elimination of human suffering is that moral progress is advanced when the violence of military conflict and dictatorial repression gives way to the nonviolence of international diplomacy and democratic politics, when harsh physical punishment of convicts gives way to humane confinement, when war gives way to peace.
They are diverse in the sense that they may evince horror at what they see or remorse at what they have done; they may express a feeling of inadequacy at the thought that they are unable to prevent some terrible suffering or of complacency at supporting a virtuous cause from a position of security.
They are complicated because they may articulate pleasure or gratification at Reflection domestic violence essay cruel punishment of people they have learnt to fear and hate and despise, or several emotions may contend in the same person.
I simply stress the need to enquire into how people react to that standard, how they employ it, and what emotions help constitute it. But before I try to do this I want to bring out briefly some contradictions in our understanding and practice of benevolence.
Thus the modern state is seen not only as the crowning achievement of liberal democracy but also as the basis of a wealthy civilization founded on capitalism in which general concern for human well-being can flourish. This is consistent with a widespread belief that, since the end of the eighteenth century, peoples in Euro-America have become increasingly free and humane because freedom and humanity naturally reinforce each other.
But the conditions of benevolence are more complicated than this story would suggest. Take the modern US prison system, for instance. What are we to make of the fact that US correctional system, with all its cruelty, contains a far higher proportion of prisoners to the total US population than it ever did before?
The legal historian James Whitman has, however, a provocatively different view: It is precisely the political culture of liberal democracy, he declares, by which this modern statist form of violence is to be explained. The answer, perhaps, is that the major objects of punitive violence in that period were slaves and Indians, two classes of people who were regarded not only as a danger to settler freedom but also as an obstacle to the growth and flourishing of civilization itself.
So my point here is not the banal one that Enlightenment thinkers did not overlook emotion in favor of reason we know that many of them wrote at length about the centrality of emotion to social life ; it is that many of them had a more subtle view of sympathy than some modern humanitarians have.
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In what follows, I want to explore humanitarianism that uses violence to subdue violence and some of the paradoxical ways it is played out emotionally and conceptualized in modern law and morality. Why is modern morality most evident in expressions of aversion rather than approval?
How, precisely, do benevolence and empathy that moderns should cultivate combine with cruelty and violence that moderns should avoid? What accounts for the modern expressions of horror at crimes against humanity—distinct, that is, from the crime of murder?
This is what I want to explore in what follows.
Humanism, Humanity, Humanitarianism Much has been written on concepts of the human as the active subject of modernity, on humanism, humanitarianism, and the humanities. But of the innumerable books dealing in one way or another with humanity, virtually all take its sense for granted—a large, all-embracing category whose members have a single essence.
And yet it is in the name of humanity that the modern project of humanitarianism intervenes in the lives of other beings to protect, help, or improve them; it is in the name of humanity that progressivist doctrines of freedom are expressed.
In other words, it is humanity that is said to suffer, humanity that calls for compassion, defense, and solidarity. So I try to think briefly about the network of words and concepts within which humanitarianism rests.
It was then, apparently, that Renaissance humanism ushered in the beginning of a secular vision of universal order in which man was the sole agent and humanity the central idea.
But, as Richard Tuck has pointed out, humanist lawyers were interested only in man-made law and therefore had no interest in natural law. For them civilized life was urban. Despite the discursive connections between humanism, humanity, and humanitarianism since the European Renaissance, their significance has differed greatly over time.
We know that one of the sources of the concept of humanism in the nineteenth century was the growth of German philological and archeological studies. Humanismus humanism was the new word that referred to the new educational system based not simply on Greek and Latin but more generally on a romantic vision of Hellenism as the project of a rational European future.
In mid-nineteenth century England, on the other hand, humanism became part of a discourse of secular rationalism and scientific positivism, indicating freedom from superstition and blind tradition on the one side and a perceived threat to the authority of the Church on the other.Why We Fight: The Psychology of Institutionalized Violence.
Mural at St. Peter's Church, Mission District, San Francisco, by Isaís Mata. Presentation, War and Peace Lecture Series.
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