Less Than Human? The Ethics of Our Treatment of Others

September 30, 2013|David Livingstone Smith

Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan el-Bashir, canceled his plans to attend the 2013 United Nations General Assembly. The announcement that he intended to come to New York produced a huge protest.

Sixty-five noted holocaust and genocide scholars sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to hand the Sudanese president over to the International Criminal Court to be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including: “Intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, Sudan, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing, and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property.”

Unfortunately, neither the crimes of Omar el-Bashir nor our collective indifference to the horrors unfolding in Sudan is all that exceptional. We humans have a long history of doing violence to one another.  And those of us who do not have blood on our hands have a remarkable knack for averting our gaze. Humans also have a long history of doing violence to other species.  Further south on the great continent of Africa human encroachment and hunting are relentlessly pushing chimpanzees and bonobos—our closest non-human relatives—towards the brink of extinction.

It turns out that there is a profound connection between our mistreatment of human others and our mistreatment of nonhuman animals.  The bond between them lies in the strange phenomenon of dehumanization.

When we dehumanize others, we conceive of them as subhuman creatures instead of as truly human beings.  Although these others may look and behave like us, deep down they are really less than human.

Nazis considered Jews subhuman, and often compared them to rats, lice, and maggots.  European colonists thought of Africans as creatures akin to apes, and characterized Native Americans as vermin or wolves in human form.  More recently, Rwandan Hutus referred to their Tutsi neighbors as cockroaches. However, dehumanization is not just a relic of the past.  It reaps its grim harvest wherever mass violence and bigotry are found—not just in war-torn nations like Sudan and Syria, but even here in the United States, as exemplified by attitudes towards illegal immigrants, sexual minorities, and the racism that continues to infect the American psyche.

In Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, I argue that dehumanization is driven by a deeply-rooted horror of violence that inhibits most of us from harming others. We need to disable or override this inhibition in order to inflict atrocities on others. We often do this by convincing ourselves that those whom we set out to harm are vile subhuman creatures fit to be exploited or exterminated.

Dehumanization is rooted in human psychology.  We have the cognitive horsepower to make a distinction between how things seem and how they truly are, and it’s this that enables us to think of others as merely appearing to be human without really being so.  Also, we tend to think of the universe as a hierarchy with humans near the top and non-human organisms lower down. The higher on the cosmic ladder something is, the more deserving it is of moral consideration, and the lower it is, the less so.

This ancient, scientifically discredited notion of a Great Chain of Being persists in the background of our thoughts, and powerfully affects our values, beliefs, and behaviors.  The idea that non-human creatures are morally beneath us and consequently that we are free to treat them in any way that we wish is what enables us to perpetrate atrocities on humans whom we regard as less than human.

Of course, none of this should be taken to imply that the life of a mosquito (or a chimpanzee, for that matter) has the same moral significance as the life of a human being. Understanding the psychology of the dehumanizing impulse doesn’t tell us what our moral priorities should be.

However, it does give us reason to think that we humans are not condemned to endlessly repeat the cycle of gratuitous violence.  We can break free of it, and liberate the better angels of our nature, but only if we take the trouble to understand its wellsprings in the human mind.

Coming to grips with the dynamics of dehumanization may help us make the world a more hospitable place for human and nonhuman animals alike.

David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D. is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England.  His most recent book, ‘Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others’ received the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for non-fiction.  David is a public philosopher whose work has been widely featured in the national and international media including the New York Times, the Times of London, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Public Radio, and several primetime television documentaries.