Explanatory Note -
Why 'The Humanitarian Movement?'
personal note on how these essays came about and why they refer to
the 'humanitarian movement' .The essays were written between 1998 and
2001 whilst I was living in Canberra or in the country nearby. I had
long wondered why, within a few centuries, a large number of momentous
social actions had taken place in Europe which depended upon a profound change in social values
and which were often undertaken in the face of fierce vested interests and established institutions.
What I had in mind were the achievements identified below in the
Introductory Outline and described and analysed in the succeeding
essays such as the ending of religious persecution and gradual introduction
toleration; the cessation of witch burning ; abolition of torture; abolition of slavery and the slave trade;
humanising of criminal punishments; prevention of cruelty of children;
prevention of cruelty to animals; the humane treatment of the insane;
establishing minimum and tolerable working conditions and ending child labour;
ending -- or at least the beginning of the ending -- of the historical subjection
of women and finally, in the international field, the formation of the Red Cross.
changes which had been brought about were profound. Only a century
before Europe had been racked by
religious persecution; medieval criminal punishments were barbarous;
was endemic; the insane were regarded as objects of mockery and animals
treated brutally. Moreover, with, it is true, some differences in
emphasis here and there, this had been the situation in Europe
throughout the preceding
What explained this change in ethical feeling? Philanthropy alone seemed quite inadequate.
question needed inquiry. Although these social actions were more or less
contemporaneous that would not justify an assumption they were inspired by a
common set of ideas and justify their description as a single movement.
My view, as elaborated upon in the essays, is that the social actions which I have mentioned were not disparate and that there was a unifying set of ideas underpinning them. Hence I have described them collectively as a' movement' and, for the reasons set out below, as the ‘humanitarian movement’.
The activating element in each of the social actions described, resulted from a coalescence of the
Enlightenment idea of reform – the new idea that humanity could be improved by
changed social structure and education – and the New Testament ethic of active
compassion, the latter being emphasised about that time by certain
protestant sects, such as the Quakers and the evangelicals.
Reform became the
object of compassion.
Beyond this though was an underlying idea which justified the moral claim to the reforms sought. This was the idea, deriving initially from the stoics, of the equal moral significance of every human being. The idea of each individual’s moral significance was not novel. But what was new was that that significance had ceased to depend upon the equal capacity of each soul to attain posthumous salvation. By virtue of the Enlightenment, or principally the Enlightenment, this moral significance became grounded in ‘this-worldly’ human attributes, notably reason and autonomy. The disregard of the individual human being’s moral significance in this sense constituted the ‘wrongs’ to which humanitarian reform was directed.
It may be said that the explanation of these ideas overstates the significance of stoicism.I do not believe this to be so. On the contrary, in my view, the influence of stoicism has been unduly subordinated, if not neglected, in historical study. It is a mistake to identify the limited originality of a philosophy or importance to abstract thought, with its historical influence. Stoicism never occupied the 'commanding heights' of Western philosophy but its basic ideas, particularly those related to natural law and the individual soul, affected every era of European history.
It may also be complained that the essays excessively exalt the Enlightenment. The sudy of humanitarianism certainly proclaims the Enlightenment as a central breakthrough in civilisation.Voltaire, who epitomised it, is one of humanity's greatest intellectual and moral benefactors. The Enlightenment contribution of rationalism, autonomy and social reform presupposed that the problems of society were soluble by reason. As a result, the baggage of knowledge dependent solely upon 'faith' and simply upon belief defined and laid down by ecclesiastical institutions, was to be jettisoned. Ethics, deriving from divine command and accompanied, if not justified by fear was rejected.
The humaneness and tolerance of the Enlightenment were its special contribution and were, in my opinion, entirely beneficial. It is possible though to hold that view without accepting the superficiality of more extreme Enlightenment thought.
Some Enlightenment thinkers assumed that the human person, in a state of liberty, would apply reason only in the solution of social problems or, at least, that he or she would do so if freed from the limitations of upbringing and education and if unencumbered by adverse social and economic conditions.'Man' was above all perfectible. All that was necessary, it was said, was for human beings to be improved by a rational education in a wholesome environment.
Human irrationality, we know, is not simply the product of a controllable environment. The Enlightenment proclaimed the doctrine of Man's original virtue. It never fully realised that the darker side of human beings was inherent and not merely the superadded and artificial product of social conditions. In recognizing this to be so the approach in these essays to social values qualifies that of the Enlightenment. It recognises that human nature is not 'perfectible'. Social values are compelled to operate in relation -- sometimes in accordance with and sometimes in opposition -- to the force of human instincts, human impulses and human emotions. Social values therefore are not necessarily benign. They may encourage actions which are harmful, usually accentuating tendencies deriving from our nastier impulses such as cruelty or aggression. Such was the European value of antisemitism and described in the essay on that subject. The later essay on 'War in Europe since the eighteenth century' show how easily commendable values such as patriotism and national feeling can encourage and support militarism when they coalesce with the aggressive instinct -- a process made easier by nationalistic propaganda. But all this only points to Enlightenment exaggeration. Exaggeration of 'reason' and the capacity for human reform was understandable. For centuries superstition and ignorance had justified inhumanity.
A final essay in this collection of essays on ' Humanitarianism' examines whether and to what extent the ideas underlying the humanitarian movement were embodied in the eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.