PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogThe words “human” and “inhuman” are often used as moral judgments. For example: reasoning is (brilliantly) human; violence is (terribly) inhuman.

Such forms of speech are perfectly in order. Yet, we easily go astray if we use the same forms of speech in attempts to diagnose war and conflict, or the path to peace. (Which is extremely tempting, especially for sensible people.)

The human is purified as rational being. Violence and conflict are understood as results of inhuman interference with human reason. Can such idealized analysis illuminate real problems?

What occasions these thoughts is a review in the Guardian, which in terms of blogging was published ages ago. Stuff worth thinking about was written already in 2006. The British philosopher John N. Gray then reviewed Amartya Sen’s book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.

Sen explains violence between groups as caused by inhuman interference with what is properly human. A proper human makes rational choices in a plurality of group belongings. But ill-disposed propagandists make gullible people think that their human identity already is fixed through a singular group belonging. This short-circuits reason and causes them to blast car bombs and commit genocide against people with other narrowly defined identities.

Without denying the reality of identity-driven violence or the danger of propaganda, Gray questions the innocent intellectualism of Sen’s diagnosis. Sen makes it sound as if people resort to violence because a false theory of human nature was drummed into them. He presents violence as if it were caused by inhuman factors disturbing human nature.

But people hardly lynch each other because of “erroneous beliefs.” And the fear, despair and cruelty of their actions are only too deep-rooted human traits, Gray observes grimly.

It is difficult to think clearly about the human. Perhaps even Gray, in spite of his clear-sightedness, occasionally starts out from a moral delimitation of the human: a more disillusioned one that prefers blaming rather than exalting the human.

(Gray’s own new book, The Silence of Animals, was reviewed last summer by Thomas Nagel.)

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog