Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Science, humanity and humanitarian action

This blog analyses what the word “humanity” means and proposes that a new definition and a modern way of speaking of humanity could improve “humanitarian dialogue” with respect to weapons, their use and public health. It suggests that those who use the term “humanity”, especially the International Red Cross Movement, should replace relatively vague references with a dialogue based on scientific insights and current knowledge of what this notion means.

“Humanity” is used in different ways. It can mean human beings collectively (“humanity as all humans”), but at the same time it carries notions of philanthropy and altruism (“humanity as moral sentiment.”). Within the latter meaning the “laws of humanity” and “crimes against humanity” are referred to in international treaties and humanity is cited as a source of international law. Humanity implies a moral force. But how this constrains inhumanity - that invariably involves use of force or acts of armed violence - is unclear.

People who use the words “humanity” and “humanitarian” are often perceived as - or really are – trying to place themselves on a moral high ground. It is unclear whether “humanity as moral sentiment” has been replaced by or integrated into contemporary concepts such as human rights, development, humanitarian intervention and human security. If we look for what is meant by “humanity” which is presented as the first, overarching principle of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, we find an explanation of what is done in the spirit of humanity but not what it is. This impoverishes our interventions and often makes our pleadings appear sentimental, ill-informed and “unrealistic”. We therefore need to take a new look at humanity, what we mean by it, how we talk about it and how it can be used more effectively in dialogue about restraining or prohibiting certain weapons and acts of armed violence and in promoting human well being.

A knowledge-based approach to humanity

The last few hundred years have seen a massive increase in the population of the planet and the organization of “humanity-as-all-humans” into a system of nation-States. In parallel, we have seen remarkable advances in things that shape our existence such as manufacturing technology, commerce, communications, politics, health-care and weapons, to name but a few. In broad terms, the populations of States where there is access to these advances enjoy longer and better lives; the major reason for this is that they enjoy collective security. This security relies on having a legitimate capacity for armed violence either to defend the State (armed forces) or maintain law and order within the State (police) whilst, at the same time, placing great restraints on this capacity. Furthermore situations in which the capacity for armed violence is unrestrained (whether this be use of explosive weapons, displacement of whole populations or torture) is universally considered to be abhorrent (“humanity as moral sentiment”).

In brief it is increasingly recognized, and can be demonstrated by an important body of research, that people’s security is a prerequisite for their health and this applies to all of humanity “humanity as all humans”. This is not an original observation. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote, in effect, that without security, “… there is no place for industry... no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

“Humanity as moral sentiment” really does exist! It has been made objective in the work of multiple academic disciplines. An innate resistance to killing other humans is well documented (as are different means to overcome this resistance.) Studies of "primitive warfare" reveal that cruelty is not the norm, that fatalities may be few and that the violence is accompanied by much ritual and, importantly, restraint. It has been shown that altruism is a biological phenomenon observable throughout the animal world. Children who are educated to think about the plight of others who suffer some misfortune or cruelty are, in later life, less likely to resolve disputes by resorting to violence. On the negative side, studies have shown how ordinary people can be brought to inflict great pain and suffering on inoffensive strangers. The emotional distance brought by the use of explosive weapons that separate their user and victim in time and space has been explained. In the same vein, there is ample evidence that "dehumanization" of an enemy is an important element in the committing of war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity; some even argue it's a prerequisite. In brief, “humanity as moral sentiment” and acts of inhumanity by humans are largely explicable in scientific terms and even in terms of our modern insights into evolved biology. An innate morality equips us for living in large groups. (It is shown that chimpanzees express moral sentiments too! Chimpanity!).

A new approach to “humanity” also has implications at the operational level. For example, in the world of global health, a new wind is blowing. This takes the form of rapidly advancing knowledge of the social determinants of health. Understanding the impact on health of education, housing, poverty, lifestyles and, above all, security moves the concern (and responsibility for) people’s health out of a traditional public health domain. This opens the door to tangible evidence-based interventions to improve people’s health without the need for formal health programmes. For example, in many parts of the world, the single most important factor determining whether a child dies in its first few months of life is the level of education of the mother. In a country torn by conflict, the education of girls may be severely repressed. A new approach to “humanity” –with weighty implications for people’s security and health - would bring authority to a claim that a programme targeting female illiteracy is both urgent and pertinent. Such a programme would find its correct place among the competing priorities for “humanitarian action.” Incorporating the social determinants of health into the activities of all components of the Movement is now an imperative.  Without doing so, it is difficult to claim we are well informed or driven by a serious notion of humanity.


The dual notions of humanity constantly interact.  The fulcrum of this interaction is the capacity of human beings and human society for armed violence and their capacity to restrain it. “Humanity as moral sentiment” limits, to the greatest extent possible, the effects of armed violence or threat of it on people’s security and health. It restrains the capacity for armed violence so that “humanity as all humans” can live in peaceful, constructive societies in which, for instance, family life, education, commerce and, most importantly, people’s health can flourish.

A definition of humanity combining both notions could read as follows: “With the goal of ensuring peaceful, collective and constructive human existence, humanity requires  the restraint of any capacity for armed violence and limits the effects of armed violence on people’s security and health.”

In light of the above, a new approach to speaking of “humanity” is needed that is in keeping with multiple insights drawn from contemporary knowledge. It should be objective, comprehensible, universal and communicable. It should reveal the common denominator of concern of all “humanitarian actors.” It should reinforce the six other fundamental principles of the Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement. Such an approach would help demonstrate that the Movement (and any other actor invoking a notion of “humanity”) is open and listening to the world (including the world of science and inquiry) and not lofty, sentimental or simply “do-gooders”. This in turn could help engage those from other sectors and help motivate these circles and our own volunteer base, particularly among youth.

How does this new approach to talking about “humanity” help us in real terms? Promoting a well informed dialogue about weapons, violence, health and human well-being based on an objective understanding of humanity could force greater consideration of the vulnerabilities to armed violence of and its impact on people, groups, and communities. It would serve to raise the moral stakes in the humanitarian dialogue and increase the burden of responsibility on the users or potential users of weapons. This would occur because their actions would be discussed and analyzed in terms of what these actions mean for people’s lives and not only whether or not they are illegal. It would underscore the true universality of humanitarian law and human rights law and maintain a focus on the object and purpose of these bodies of law. Most importantly it would help generate a “facts-based” agenda for humanitarian action and assist the Movement in setting priorities.

Time taken for a new look at how we understand and communicate about “humanity” would be time well spent. It could change the international dialogue on the means to constrain armed violence and build healthy, sustainable societies. It permits an action-orientated view of the security and health of people who lack both and for whom life is still … “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

This is a guest blog contributed by Robin Coupland and Peter Herby.

Previous published thoughts on humanity, health and security by Dr Coupland are:
- “Humanity: what is it and how does it influence international law” International Review of the Red Cross 2001, Vol. 83, No. 844, p.969
- “The Humanity of Humans: Philosophy, Science, Health, or Rights?”
Health and Human Rights 2003, Vol. 7, p.159.
- “Exploring the humanity of humans” The Red Cross / Red Crescent Magazine 2004, Vol. 1, p.26.
- “Security, insecurity and health” Bulletin of the World Health Organisation 2007, Vol. 85, p.181.

Archimedes, one of the leading scientists and inventors in classical antiquity, is said to have remarked of the lever: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth”. (The image above is an engraving from Mechanics Magazine published in London in 1824.)