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Exploring the humanity of humans

by Dr Robin Coupland

Robin Coupland, ICRC medical advisor on the effects of weapons and armed violence, reflects on the contributions the scientific community can make towards furthering our understanding of the humanity of humans.

No one doubts that better application of international humanitarian law (IHL) prevents cruelty and indignity in war and promotes peaceable and constructive co-existence after war. Sitting behind this is a belief in humanity; the Movement's first principle implies a kind of collective human morality underlying the spirit in which certain actions are taken. How would our dialogue and communications about application of IHL change if, instead of basing this belief on notions of collective morality, we brought scientific understanding of humanity to bear?

When we use the term "humanity," we use it interchangeably between two meanings. One refers to all humans collectively; the other to an attitude, morality or sentiment of good will towards fellow humans. The distinction between the two humanities is rarely made and there is an instinctive feeling that the two are linked.

The collective existence of humans has been studied extensively by multiple scientific disciplines. Furthermore, science has done much to bring objective understanding to sentiments such as anger, love and fear of strangers. And yet, discussion about the existence or nature of the second humanity - referred to here as the humanity of humans - has long sat in the domain of moral philosophy. Could science show that the humanity of humans is not only something we are born with but also an essential element of our successful collective existence? What makes this enquiry difficult is the brutal truth that humans are also capable of extraordinary acts of inhumanity.





There is a new wind blowing through the scientific world that might provide an answer.

Our dialogue about and application of IHL or human rights law in the 21st century could change dramatically if the humanity of humans, the inhumanity of humans and what leads us to successful co-existence were explicable in objective and scientific terms. Upholding these bodies of law would be seen to be not only a legal requirement nor even a moral responsibility but a human imperative integral to our existence. We could assert that certain behaviours are wrong not only from a legal point of view but wrong because they are carried out by humans. The great excuse-all of "man's violent nature" - which, we are told, is uncontrollable - could be refuted. Our dialogue and communication could stress that a collective consciousness of the humanity of humans is necessary for continued existence of humans in a world that is increasingly crowded, polluted, technological, terrorized, consumptive of resources and split by a dangerous "have/have not" divide. And when we call for a humanitarian "space", everyone would know we are calling for a time and place in which the humanity of all humans involved, including the weapons bearers, has top priority and that this means, as a first step, eliminating acts of inhumanity.

In exploring the humanity of humans, do we look to behavioural psychology, neurosciences, social sciences, anthropology, genetics, computing, medicine, economics, political science or all of these? There is a new wind blowing through the scientific world that might provide an answer. A fundamental premise of science is that knowledge gained should, in some way, serve to advance collective human existence. Disciplines as diverse as medicine, mathematics, physics, economics, anthropology and sociology have all contributed in synergistic ways but this has required translation of the scientists' findings into public knowledge and the decisions of powerful people. As science has advanced, with deeper and deeper levels of enquiry, scientists in the different branches and the branches of branches have gravitated towards other scientists with similar interests and developed their own communities along with their specific coded language. As a result, access to the knowledge gained has become increasingly difficult. The new wind blowing has brought recognition that, with increasing specialization and compartmentalization of science, there is an increasing need for research that involves multiple disciplines and interdisciplinary bridges; this comes with recognition that responsible translation of the outcome of research into knowledge usable by the public and by policy makers alike is neither easy nor automatic.

In relation to the humanity of humans, the good news is that scientific research has brought evidence for an objective and biological basis for it; the bad news is that the scientists concerned have rarely, if ever, made reference to the implications of their research for the application and promotion of IHL or human rights. The two communities, that is, scientists and "humanitarians", have simply not (yet) articulated their knowledge. In this domain, there is no single momentous, scientific discovery to be made the equivalent of finding the structure of DNA. The evidence of the humanity of humans is to be found in multiple disciplines. Studies of "primitive warfare" reveal that cruelty is not the norm, that fatalities may be few and that the violence is accompanied by much ritual and, importantly, great restraint. It has been shown that altruism is a biological phenomenon. Children who are educated to think about the plight of others who suffer some misfortune or cruelty are, in later life, less likely to resolve disputes by resorting to violence. Conversely, studies have shown how ordinary people can be brought to inflict great pain and suffering on complete strangers. The emotional distance brought by the use of weapons that separate their user and victim in time and space has been explained. In the same vein, there is ample evidence that "dehumanization" of a potential enemy is an important element in the committing of war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity; some would even say it's a prerequisite. In brief, the humanity and the inhumanity of humans are largely explicable in scientific terms and maybe also in terms of our evolved biology; only few policy-makers in the international arena or specialists in international law appear to take advantage of this.

The Movement should begin to use this knowledge, because people with the power to apply or restrain armed violence all too frequently see international relations and positive international law as serving, if not personal self-interest, economic or security leverage. Moral argument, which makes imperative a consideration of the victims of armed violence, seems to carry little weight in the international arena; this could be reinforced if the humanity of humans were cast in scientific terms. Importantly, it would speak to the true universality of IHL and human rights law and would maintain a focus on the object and purpose of these bodies of law.






The evidence of the humanity of humans is to be found in multiple disciplines.



The increasing interconnectedness of war and conflict with migration, globalization, overpopulation, poverty, infectious disease, the environment and even climate change is going to make it ever-more difficult to know what is and what is not the business of the Movement. Furthermore, the Movement cannot afford to believe that useful scientific knowledge is translated into correct policy in any of these domains. The pieces do not fall into place; they have to be put into place. Promoting a consciousness of the humanity of humans does not necessarily involve undertaking or commissioning scientific research, but multidisciplinary scientific knowledge could be harnessed to promote a notion of humanity that is modern, consistent, objective, comprehensible, shared and communicable. The Movement must bring the public and policy-makers alike to recognize the real meaning and importance of the humanity of humans and not confine it to a principle for action. Importantly, we must disconnect the implication of moral supremacy when we use the term "humanity". Is it not the right time, as a first step, to organize an international conference on "Science and Humanity" and so put the humanity of humans on the scientific map? Who other than the Movement should do it? Who else will do it?

Dr Robin Coupland
Dr Robin Coupland works in the ICRC's legal division. He is the medical adviser on the effects of weapons and armed violence.

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