On the Inhumanity of Humanity

By Anjum Altaf

I had been intending to explore why, throughout history, man has been the perpetrator of so much inhuman behavior and what, if anything, could be done about it. My plan was to substantiate the claim of inhumanity with some examples before moving on to a discussion of the possible remedies.

It is a coincidence that between the intention and the execution, I chanced upon a poem by Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982), a poet held in high regard in Urdu poetry. This poem written in 1928 (Fitrat-e Aqvaam – The Character of Nations) makes a much better case than I could have and I offer it here (with a rough translation by myself) in lieu of the first part of the intended article.

zulm-e la intihaa se tang aa kar
aadmii chaahtaa hai aazaadi

ho ke azaad phuunk deta hai
doosre bhaai’oN kii aabaadi

pehle banta hai dushman-e jalaad
khud hii phir seekhta hai aazaarii

khud ko aabaad kar ke, yeh haiwaan
Daal deta hai tarh-e barbaadi

paa ke apne huquuq, auroN ke
chiinta hai huquuq-e bunyaadii

pehle to zaalimoN se Darta hai
aur phir khud hii zulm karta hai

Tiring of endless injustice
Man desires freedom

On becoming free, reduces to ashes
the abodes of fellow beings

First, becomes the enemy of the oppressor
then, himself learns to oppress

Making himself safe and secure, this Being
Initiates the ways of destruction

Gaining his own rights, from others
Snatches even their most basic rights

First, he is afraid of oppressors
then, he himself begins to oppress

This process has been repeated so often throughout history that there is little need to provide concrete illustrations. Josh makes the point in a powerful manner although he provides no explanation for why this is the dominant characteristic of human beings. I don’t intend to do so either. Rather, taking this to be a given, my interest is to discuss what could be done to minimize the damage that man feels compelled to do to fellow men.

There seem to be two clear perspectives on this dilemma. The first is to use suasion, appeals to a higher calling, and character building to improve the moral nature of man. This includes the invention of religion, the promulgation of moral codes, the propagation of sermons, the practice of rituals, and the like. On objective evidence, it seems it must be admitted that all these have had virtually no impact on the propensity of human beings to inflict pain and injustice on others. Even the prospect of divine retribution appears to have failed to have much effect. And, in fact, has the inhumanity inflicted in the name of religion and ideology itself not been appalling?

The other perspective favors the approach of restraining the worst impulses of human beings by means of temporal laws and the effective threat of punishment on earth. While this has by no means been a panacea, it has had limited success. The variations across countries in the extent to which one person can do something inhuman to another suggest that some amelioration is indeed possible.

However, this limited success remains confined within well-defined boundaries. For example, existing laws would not tolerate one state within the US to lay waste to another state for any reason, justified or not. There are other means specified to deal with such situations. But the very same citizens of the US who would not tolerate such behavior inside its boundaries have little compunctions about the acts of the US in visiting destruction on people outside its borders or in discriminating against those inside not considered part of the majority. Not only do they not voice disapproval, there are many quite vociferous in their support for nuking this or that group outside or limiting the freedoms of those inside they take a dislike to.

This suggests a very long and hard struggle to extend across countries and nations the laws that exist to restrain the worst impulses of man within countries and nations. Is such an outcome possible?

As to why human beings behave like this, it is hard to fathom. See the puzzlement of Dick Cavett here.


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9 Responses to “On the Inhumanity of Humanity”

  1. Arun Pillai Says:

    I think one might be able to distinguish between two different causes for the pain man inflicts on his fellow man.

    One is when two or more people want something in the world, and for some reason that thing is scarce so that only one of them can have it. Then there is a struggle between the two to get that thing and this results in one person causing another pain.

    The other cause is when man directly derives pleasure from inflicting pain.

    I think it is possible to organize society to minimize the first type of pain. For the second, a lot depends on a community policing itself.

    I think Hegel had a lot to say about this through his making the concept of recognition central.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: It seems to me that something like the trafficking of women and children does not fall neatly in either of these categories. Or giving short shrift to the poor to make way for mega events. How does one explain these and why can’t an end be put to them?

      Also, it would be good to have some elaboration of the concept of recognition.

  2. Anil Kala Says:

    What is so surprising in this? (American attitude vis a vis within America vs. outside) This is merely extension of a family trait. Members of family will vociferously protest injustice by the head of family to a fellow member but will look the other way if it is applied to an outsider.

    All the liberalism evaporates when our own cozy life style is under threat or just the perception of it being under threat. Great civilizations at their pinnacle become very liberal so much so that this becomes one reason for their downfall. Most dramatic and macabre scenario is of a puny enemy systematically slaughtering a mighty war machine bogged in its own bureaucratic inertia.

    We have seen this enough times in history.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil: But what is the implication of this assertion? That religion is without impact or influence? What happened to “love thy neighbor as thyself”?

  3. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    One could put the two examples you have given – human trafficking and evicting the poor – into the first category. In the first case, the traffickers want money from the use of women and children and the victims do not want that. It is a kind of zero sum game. In the second case, both parties want the land occupied by the poor. An additional reason both might be said to fall into the first category is that the kinds of measures one might adopt to prevent them are similar. There may be an element of the second category in human trafficking as well.

    The measures one might adopt to solve problems in the first category are use of legal methods, and a combination of Rawls and Sen. Essentially, society should be made two-tier. In the first tier, everyone’s basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, education, and healthcare – should be guaranteed by the state. Beyond these basic needs, society would be organized around the lines advocated by Sen and Rawls.

    This immediately makes one realize that countries today are still too poor to provide this to its members. This is why economic growth becomes vitally important. Etc.

    Regarding the concept of recognition, I would recommend a book by Williams “Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition”. I have yet to read it. Roughly, the concept of recognition entails that between two parties there be full recognition of each other’s humanity. If this is present, a lot of the problems go away. Marx built on this to do away with classes in society. In modern times, we may accept that such a utopian solution may be difficult to achieve but something along the lines sketched above may still be possible once there is sufficient wealth in society.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I feel this is really stretching the scarce resources and zero-sum arguments. I can’t see traffickers and women and children being in competition for money. The more so when you say that the latter do not want to participate in such a competition. This is a straightforward case of exploitation that cannot be treated as competition for scarce resources. If you define competition so broadly it would lose meaning. Say I am living in my house and someone has an eye on it. Does that put me in competition with that person? That is not how I see the situation at the moment.

      I am also not convinced that countries today are too poor to meet the basic needs of their citizens. They could do a lot more with the available resources. Take a country like Brazil; many have labelled it a rich country with poor people. Nor do I believe the solution to recognizing the other’s humanity lies in sufficient wealth. The US is amongst the wealthiest societies but exploitation of the weak both inside and outside the country has not disappeared.

      Regarding the concept of recognition, I find it makes sense, but, if I understand Anil right, its realization would never be possible. And if some society did try to live by it, it would invite its own downfall.

  4. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    Fair enough: we could posit a third category of exploitation if it fits the cases better. Marx certainly did and classified all labor under capitalism as exploited.

    I do not know how to bring about the satisfaction of basic needs in society. Perhaps you are right that there is already enough wealth. Perhaps you are wrong. This would need a planner to work out the costs of these things. One also has to keep in mind that countries are locked in competition so it may be foolhardy to try and change course radically. A country like the US could do a lot more.

    I have been searching for something that can restore humanity to life. Hegel’s concept which Marx sought to realize by overcoming class divisions is one such concept. But I have no idea how it could be realized now and perhaps it cannot. Does that mean people are doomed? I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that liberalism is a necessary but not sufficient part of the solution. I don’t yet know what that missing element might be.

  5. SouthAsian Says:

    This story tells us how callous and heartless are those in power. They have absolutely no feeling for human beings:


  6. SouthAsian Says:

    What did India gain by keeping a Chinese soldier for 53 years?

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