THE FRAILTY OF THE IDEA OF A COMMON HUMANITY.
Professor Raimond Gaita discusses the deep connection between human rights and the ethically charged ways in which we speak about humanity.
An award-winning writer of both fiction and philosophy, Professor Gaita has much to say on good/evil and contemporary ethical challenges.
Ethically inflected ways of speaking of humanity – as when we speak of seeing or failing to see the full humanity of others, of de- humanization and of the common humanity of all the peoples of the earth – often go with talk of universal human rights and sometimes with talk of the Dignity of persons or humanity. This is apparent in some of the preambles to important instruments of international law.
Many philosophers are inclined to think the latter have conceptual priority in rationally perspicuous renderings of the importance that the various forms of the ethical (of which morality has a special kind of importance) can have in our lives. The concept of human rights, they believe, does much of the ethical work implied in the hope that the peoples of the earth will fully acknowledge their common humanity. Some philosophers believe that the idea of the Dignity of persons (some speak of the ‘inalienable dignity’ of persons to which an unconditional respect is owed) rationally underpins the concept of universal human rights.
In this lecture I shall argue that when our ways of speaking of human rights and the Dignity of persons cease to acknowledge their dependence on – or, perhaps, their interdependence with – ethically inflected ways of speaking of humanity, they lose contact with the only vocabulary in which their importance can be made manifest.
Raimond Gaita is Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at King’s College London. His acclaimed books in moral and political philosophy include A Common Humanity; Breach of Trust: Truth, Morality and Politics; and Romulus, My Father, nominated as one of the best books of the decade.