Human Rights and the ethics of thick relations real or imagined

July 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.                                                            

These words, attributed to the Pastor Martin Niemoller, and often repeated in their numerous variations, offer a powerful insight into the nature of moral indifference.We speak out (or act) in defence of victims of oppression, Niemoller suggests, only when we include them within our community – whether that be social, religious, ethnic or political. Modern human catastrophe, it has been argued, has at least in part been a product of the individualism and exclusion that characterises the institutional, economical and ideological structures of modern society. Modern civilisation, so preciously guarded, may not only be unable to prevent atrocity but might even provide the conditions required for its occurrence.  In Zygmunt Bauman’s words: ‘We suspect (even if we refuse to admit it) that the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar face, we so admire’ (Bauman 1989: 7).  In her famous study The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt makes a similar point when she notes an essential paradox of human rights: supposedly anterior to all political arrangement and independent of citizenship or nationality, stemming as they do from man’s natural or innate qualities and status, they are nonetheless denied to those human beings that are not members of a (political) community: “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” (Arendt 1986: 299) To be a human being is not enough to be the Subject of human rights. In Arendt’s words, “it seems that a man who is no more than a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man” (Arendt 1986: 300). Arendt illustrates this point with reference to the apatrides of post-war Europe: denaturalised and stateless, the apatrides were effectively right-less and thus pose a challenge to the universalist theory of human rights, as do present-day ‘stateless’ human beings.[1] Denied legal status and nationality, the stateless person is in a position similar to that of Agamben’s homo sacer – an exile to the law. Yet if the life of the homo sacer is considered politically worthless (zoë), it is by no means inconsequential in ethical terms. On the contrary, the very existence of the apatride exposes a fault line in the theory of human rights, namely the fictional nature of a sacred humanity that precedes and exceeds collective society. In other words, their condition exposes the precariousness of a moral system based on ‘thin’ relations. Michael Ignatieff’s insightful reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear in The Needs of Strangers takes up this same point, exposing the gap between the social and the natural human as crucial in determining our response to human need and, by association, human suffering. For Ignatieff, “the possibility of human solidarity rests on this idea of natural human identity” and the claim that “human beings actually feel a common and shared identity in the basic fraternity of hunger, thirst, cold, exhaustion, loneliness or sexual passion” (Ignatieff 1985: 28). In reality, however, natural human identity is rarely enough to guarantee the solidarity of human beings; it is community in difference that assumes this luxury: “For who has ever met a pure and natural human being? We are always social beings, clothed in our skin, our class, income, our history, and as such, our obligations to each other are always based on difference […] The role of natural duty seems obscure. It is difference that seems to rule my duties, not identity.” (Ignatieff 1985: 28) Modern morality, then, is based on a fantasy of abstraction that fails to account for the particularities of situated (embodied) human life. What Ignatieff seems to suggest here is that in order for me to act altruistically towards another person, I must (in general) have some sense of differentiated identity with that person, some tangible, ‘lived’ connection; in other words, the strongest and most reliable sense of ‘moral’ responsibility we can hold is ethical in the terms described by Margalit. Paradoxically, the emphasis on universal humanity – the cornerstone of modern morality and human rights – threatens to make way for what Margalit calls ‘moral Don Juanism’. Don Juan, Margalit observes, ‘is a romantic who cares deeply for the ideal woman but not for the flesh and blood women he encounters’ (Margalit 2002: 28). Is there a risk that the moral marketing of the abstract ideal of humanity merely offers an alibi for avoiding the obligation to care for the flesh and blood human beings we see suffering on our street corners and TV screens; that in some sense it permits the objectification, the othering of those who are presented as being in excess of the abstract model of the human? Conspicuously absent in the traditional moral theory of human rights is any obligation of care or personal mutual responsibility; it is a person’s rights that are violated, rather than the person herself or our relationship with her. Indeed, the structure of rights is intended on a certain level to make up for this lack of relationality. This type of non-caring morality, it is argued, corresponds to the needs of a modern society in which the individual reigns and communities of mutual responsibility shrink to circles of the closest proximity. In this sense, morality is designed to mitigate the impact of mutual foreignness in modern society. As Margalit writes: “[…] we need morality precisely because we do not care. That is, we usually lack an attentive concern for the well-being of most members of the human race. We care about our parents, children, spouses, lovers, friends, and by extension some significant groups to which we belong, but by no means do we care about everyone […] Most people most of the time carry on by not caring for most other people.” (Margalit 2002: 32-3 While morality may be necessary to mitigate non-caring relationships between strangers, it will always lack the solidity and solidarity of the ethical. As Margalit notes, ‘morality walks on a thin rope, with very little emotion among mere human beings to keep it tight’ (Margalit 2002: 143). The question is thus whether it is ever possible to ‘care’ in the ethical sense for strangers, our knowledge of whom is essentially distant or mediated. In the ethical realm, Margalit contends, it is the thick relation itself that provides the grounds for ethical action, rather than the properties or characteristics of those individuals involved in the relation. The scope of ethics is thus determined by our thick relations; it is within these relations that we carry with us a sense of responsibility and care towards others, and it is within these relations that we are most likely to act altruistically, to come to the aid of someone in need. But how do we determine which relations count or could count as thick? Is the scope of ethics determined by ‘the actual [thick relations] we happen to have, or the ones we are assumed to have or ought to have’ (Margalit 2002: 45)? In the latter case, Margalit suggests, the thick relations we ought to have might, in their most extensive scope, encompass all of humankind. ‘Thus’, he writes, ‘morality turns into ethics’ (Margalit 2002: 45). The remaining question then, is how to extend the imagined boundaries of our ‘thick’ relations? If ethical bonds are in part formed through shared narratives and memories – as Margalit suggests they are – then could cultural representation and historical memory have a role to play in encouraging us to relate to distant others in ways that approximate our ‘thicker’ responsibilities, allowing us to imagine an ethical relationship of care to those we have never met? If the stories of the suffering of distant others were to become part of our so-called collective memory, does this mean we would come to see these others in ethical terms?

[1] The challenge that statelessness poses for international law has been highlighted in a number of reports and campaigns recently, for example in this one by the Open Society Institute: (accessed 18/12/2009). See also a report on Statelessness by Refugees International, available online at: (accessed 18/12/2009).

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