On the very idea of a “Reason of Humanity”

25 December 2008

It is not unusual among those from a Christian cultural background but without strong devotional views that the occasion of the Christmas season becomes an inspiration to meditate on the nature of the human condition, and to be filled with a vaguely uplifting sentiment in regard to humanity in general. There is something about the character of the season that, over and above its specific devotional meaning, inspires feelings of generosity and goodwill toward one’s fellow man. Whether the nearly universal custom of giving presents is fostered by this generosity, or whether a spirit of generosity fosters the giving of presents it is difficult to say. Perhaps each reinforces the other.

Another expression of the generous spirit of the season is to acknowledge indebtedness (by which I mean indebtedness of a moral character) and to express gratitude to those who have benefited us. So I wish to here express my gratitude to an institution peculiar to the Age of Electronic Communication, i.e., to listservs, and to a particular listserv to which I subscribe.

One of the listservs to which I have been subscribed the longest (since 1996) and among which I enjoy the most is russell-l, a listserv devoted to the life and writings of Bertrand Russell (the list has become defunct since I wrote this). The list has been an education. Diverse opinions are aired. Astonishing minutiae are discussed. Some members of the list affect to abhor “off topic” posts, but I have perhaps learned the most from these. It is as though one has taken the conversation of ordinary life and ratcheted up the intellectual level several notches.

Recently on Russell-l there was a discussion of war crimes. The thread had only a tenuous connection to the thought of Bertrand Russell, and in that sense might be termed “off topic”, but like many off topic threads it had its attractions, and thus generated many posts. As the “war crimes” thread developed I began to realize the connection between some of the arguments being made (both for and against) to traditional “reason of state” justifications, that is to say, a kind of Machiavellian ends-justify-the-means reasoning in regard to the actions of a nation-state.

The idea of a “reason of state” is better known to many in its French (raison d’etat) and German (Staatsraison) forms. The online Politics Professor defines the reason of state as, “Justification of overriding state power. There are circumstances when the need to ensure the security or well-being of the state or the nation justifies governments ignoring the normal considerations of law or morality.” (1)

It is easy to imagine that an individual of liberal sentiments and catholic disposition might transfer those sentiments typically embodied in the “reason of state” to humanity on the whole. Anyone who looks with distaste upon the pettiness and corruption of ordinary politics and feels the attraction of greater and higher things will look upon himself less as the citizen of a particular nation-state and more as a “citizen of the world” and will identify less with his particular people and more with the whole of humanity. One of the ideas one finds frequently in Russell is the (philosophical) need to generalize our ideas to the utmost. A generalization of the “reason of state” could well lead one to a “reason of humanity”, and I think that something like this was present in Russell’s thought (though I will not argue for this in the present context). Certainly Russell was just such as man as I have described above.

This remarkable "Map of Humanity" by James Turner must be seen in its full dimensions to be appreciated.

This remarkable "Map of Humanity" by James Turner must be seen in its full dimensions to be appreciated.

If the kind of sentiment embodied in the “reason of state” can be transferred to a “reason of humanity” (and a person might make this transference of sentiment as a matter of “generalization to the utmost”), one might come to value humanity over the particular population of humanity in a particular state. This sounds very elevated, humane, and civilized, but it is not without its problems.

The “reason of state” is not without its critics. Anyone hearing the “reason of state” invoked to justify or excuse atrocities will immediately feel skeptical, even if one cannot immediately identify a formal fallacy in the moral reasoning of such an invocation. Might one not also transfer the skepticism one feels toward the “reason to state” to the now-generalized “reason of humanity”? Or is the feeling for humanity so distinct from the feeling of skepticism that the one generalization doesn’t follow from the other?

These are interesting questions, but other, more compelling questions are also suggested by the very idea of a “reason of humanity”. But this phrase, “reason of humanity” is so awkward that, despite its immediate analogy with “reason of state”, it might be better to call it the “human interest”, as the “reason of state” is sometimes called the “national interest”, so that one may refer to “acting (or presuming to act upon) on behalf of humanity”.

An individual can take responsibility for acting on one’s own interests, and this of course is the basis of the much-maligned conception of homo economicus. (2) But can any individual personally (and legitimately) take responsibility for a community, for a civilization, or for humanity? (3) And would not a “reason of humanity”, or the idea of acting in the “human interest” license crimes of a greater magnitude than those presumably licensed by a “reason of state”?

Would a rigorously observed reason of humanity justify certain crimes against humanity provided that these crimes demonstrably facilitate the survival of humanity? Certainly some advocates of the reason of state see certain war crimes as being “excused” or “justified” by the necessity of state preservation. Might not a generalized “reason of humanity” be conducive to the justification of generalized war crimes, i.e., crimes against humanity?

It seems to me that once we claim to be acting on the part of humanity, we open up the possibility of grotesque monstrosities committed in the name of humanity. If we imagine the sorts of actions that might be excused in the defense of individual, or the defense of a state, what might we excuse in the defense of humanity? And this was precisely the sort of reasoning invoked by communists in the twentieth century to justify the crimes and excesses of those claiming to act on behalf of the proletariat and even on behalf of the inevitable outcome of world history. One is immediately reminded of Goya’s famous etching, inspired by the French Revolution and the French occupation of Spain, titled “The sleep of reason produces monsters”. (4)

‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings: ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

A class of what might be called “justifications by interest” can be ordered hierarchically, and each represents a form of self-defense for a (presumably) threatened entity. A list of the hierarchy, from smallest scope to greatest scope, might read as follows:

Reason of Individual, i.e., the individual interest
Reason of Community, i.e., the community interest
Reason of State, i.e., the national interest
Reason of Civilization, i.e., the civilized interest
Reason of Humanity, i.e., the human interest
Reason of the Biological Kingdom, i.e., the biological interest

I attach no particular importance to the entities I have singled out to list on this hierarchy. (For example, I might have put the Kantian Kingdom of Ends on this list.) The point is that the reason of state is a principle of self-defense for the state, different in magnitude though not in kind, from the right of an individual to self-defense.

If we extrapolate this hierarchy (again, in the interest of generalizing our ideas to the utmost) we ultimately come to the “reason of totality” or “reason of the universe”, i.e., the universal interest. Here the concept of acting “in the interest” of some entity –- whatever that entity is – becomes incoherent if one claims to be acting on behalf of the whole of existence, for in this case there is no one interest to favor over any other interest. But this is an interesting philosophical thought experiment, as we are here posed with the question of not “Why is there something rather than nothing at all”, but “Why should there be something rather than nothing at all?” or “Why should we prefer that something exists rather than that nothing at all exists?” (5)

Certainly the majority of us who are part of the totality of existence would favor the continued existence of the universe, but even this assertion, when subjected to scrutiny, admits of exceptions. Individuals who commit suicide, for example, might well wish that the entire world would be destroyed along with them. In so far as “He who saves a single life, saves the world entire” (as the saying goes), it also follows that “He who ends a single life, ends the world entire”. The suicide, in willing the end of his own existence, also wills the end of his world. In committing suicide, such an individual, in a sense, ends a world entire – the world of that individual.

One can also easily imagine an individual so possessed either of nihilism or of misanthropy that such an individual would wish the destruction of the world entire, thus embodying a counter-example to the universal interest, simply out of spite. Dostoevsky, in his famous short story, Notes from Underground, presents to us the spectacle of just such a nihilistic and spiteful man. One can easily imagine that such an underground man might will, were it within his power, the destruction of the world, even if it meant his own destruction also followed from that act of will.


So many interesting philosophical (and thoroughly practical) questions are opened up by the above considerations, I can’t even begin to list them all. This is not properly the subject for one day’s post on a blog, but rather for an extended explication. If I have the intellectual energy for it, I will return to the topic at some point in time.

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A Very Merry Christmas to All!

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(1) The source of this definition is David Robertson, The Penguin Dictionary of Politics (London, 1986)

(2) The critics of classical economic theory love nothing better than to lampoon the idea of self-interest as the basis of an economic system, and ridicule the abstraction of homo economicus, but in so ridiculing they miss they point entirely. A theory is by nature abstract. It does not attempt to capture the whole of life in all its complexity and subtlety, but only so much of the essential structure of life as is needed to grasp the broad outlines of life. And this classical economic theory does, and quite competently to my mind. A man is much more than his self-interest, but ultimately he is self-interest and these other things. A man without self-interest could scarcely be recognized as a man; no one would know what to make of such a prodigy.

(3) There are formal political mechanisms for an individual to take responsibility for the welfare of a community or a nation-state, though the fact that such formal mechanisms exist should not stop us from questioning their philosophical legitimacy. Indeed, if parallel formulations of taking responsibility are problematic, we are obligated to call other instances into question. Contrariwise, the structure of formal political responsibility could be transferred to other forms of taking responsibility for entities other than oneself.

(4) Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings is the famous ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’ Many commentators have expressed puzzlement over the meaning of this great etching, but it is difficult to understand how anyone could miss the point of this work, completed not long after the French Revolution, the great social engineering project of the Enlightenment that had given way to the Reign of Terror. The dream of reason had indeed produced a monster. The text on the print reads: “El Sueño de la Razon Produce Monstruos.” The longer text from the Prado version reads: “La fantasia abandonada de la razon, produce monstruos imposibles: unida con ella, es madre de las artes y origen de sus marabillas.” We can roughly translate this as, “Imagination deprived of reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is mother of the arts and origin of its wonders.” We note the significant differences between these versions.

(5) I have partially addressed this question in the appendix to my Political Economy of Globalization, in which I have formulated what I call an axiological argument. However, I realize in the light of the above that my reflection on value of what exists was insufficiently radical, and that my axiological argument must be reformulated on a more radical (i.e., total) basis.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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