What happens when a common definition of "human rights," for example, is universalized, and a group refuses to follow that definition? Should they be destroyed?

I was recently competing in a debate tournament, and one judge’s comment after a round particularly caught my attention. The judge said, as advice for advocating the War on Terror, “You should go more neocon and argue that ISIS is evil and that they all ought to be killed, because they don’t conform to the common values of humanity.” In other words, what was being proposed was the destruction of ISIS on the basis of some global conception of “the good” that all humanity subscribes, or at least ought to subscribe, to. This got me thinking about global liberalism and the role of state morality in the context of what a collective liberal order ought to do if a group deviates from the accepted norms. That is to say, I began thinking, “What happens when a common definition of ‘human rights,’ for example, is universalized, and a group refuses to follow that definition? Should they be destroyed?”

Carl Schmitt.jpg (453×551)To attempt to answer this question, we must look back to the work of German political theorist, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), and his contemporaries. For the sake of clarity later on, it is important to sketch a rough outline of who Schmitt was and what he argued for and against. Schmitt was a German political, legal, and judicial theorist who lived in Germany under Hitler’s Third Reich, where his work on dictatorship and the “sovereign state of exception” quickly catapulted him to the level of “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich.” There is, however, much more to Schmitt than his involvement with the National Socialists or his theories about government. I speak, of course, of his extensive critique of liberal conceptions of politics in The Concept of the Political, among other booksSchmitt viewed the liberal order as one that “presuppose[d] a counterfactual ‘ontological priority of non-violence,’ a ‘state of total peace'” wherein man is viewed as innately good and peace is seen as the natural state.1 Schmitt resisted this, thinking that the a priori ontological ‘goodness’ of humans was ahistorical (in this sense, Schmitt can best be understood as “the Hobbes of the twentieth century”2). Further, Schmitt argues that, and which will be the point of explication of this post, “the discourse of a universal humanity (and its human rights),..produces and objectifies the other as the inhuman, which then becomes the proper object of annihilation as the enemy of humanity.”3

Following the breakup of the Old World Order – that is to say, the Westphalian state system – and the eventual creation of the League of Nations following the First World War, the idea of shared and universalizable values was not only created, but codified. This codification of shared values – namely, negative feelings toward predatory states and acts/wars of aggression – led to the widespread acceptance of the belief that the world could finally know perpetual peace now that “‘The War to End All Wars’ was over and everyone shared the same values.” In retrospect, the eruption of the Second World War should not have been all that surprising. It should not have been surprising not only because of the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles and the post-war reparations, but because of issues on a much deeper level. Specifically, the creation of institutional and global norms – in other words, general rules of humanity – necessitated the development of the concept of ‘global humanity’. This concept defined what was an acceptable human in the international community by drawing upon the effects of the First World War. The logical consequent of this, however, was that an inhuman was necessarily defined as well; that is to say, one who does not abide by the norms of the community.The only question that lingered was what to do with the inhuman once he inevitably arose. Fortunately, that question is easy to answer since, as Jack Donovan has pointed out, “violence is golden” and the international community has repeatedly shown that it enforces its norms via state violence in some form or another, be it by shells or sanctions.

This world order of ‘the international community imposing norms’ was further solidified, and backed by an even stronger military force, after the Second World War with the creation of the United Nations and its Security Council in 1945. Following that, the norms previously confined to interbellum Europe were spread across the world as a whole, often by force, as more and more states joined the UN. What started as a small shift away from the Westphalian state system turned into a kind of ‘New World Order’ where common values and definitions of humanity were assumed to apply to all. There was, of course, no going back. At this point, anyone (or group) that is against the current order – thus defined as ‘humanity’ – becomes the inhuman and “cannot be considered ‘just and equal’” in the context of conflict;5 they become the “‘Criminal’ [who] has ‘declared War against all Mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a Lyon or a Tyger, one of those wild Savage Beasts, with whom Men can have no Society nor Security.'”6

What’s more,

In a truly universal world, the French, say, don’t fight the Syrians because of political differences…Rather, wars are fought not for political purposes or the demarcation of land for ones people, [sic] but they are fought instead for moral reasons. Linking in with the [point above].., the constant war to maintain universality and the common human cause creates the conditions where wars are waged for moral reasons and to establish a common sense of humanity. And of course, when one is fighting for what is “right” or “just”, there are no limits on what tactics one can use to achieve one’s end…and thus the permanent state of unrestrained violence is unleashed.7

Circling back to the question posed at the beginning of this post, “What happens when a common definition of ‘human rights,’ for example, is universalized, and a group refuses to follow that definition? Should they be destroyed?”: I feel like we can adequately answer it. As per the current liberal order where values are universalized and “humanity” becomes an ideal that must be protected from the inhuman Other, those who dare defy the global order become the Lyons and Tygers of the international community; Savage Beasts “with whom Men can have no Society nor Security”8 and who must be terminated with extreme prejudice and fought against unto the last man.

The last question is what do we do? Where do we go from here? Continue to let ISIS behead people for the sake of pluralism? (I personally hope not.) But what is the alternative? I’m not entirely sure. I am, however, sure that waging wars for moral reasons, or to eradicate those who “do not conform to the common values of humanity” is a recipe for unlimited and unrestrained violence.  Perhaps it might be prudent to pause the synthesis of universal ethics with geopolitics, and instead view ISIS, and other rogue groups, as purely political adversaries and engage them accordingly.

As William Rasch says, referencing a song by Leonard Cohen,

What is to be done? If you are one who says there is a war, and if you say it not because you glory in it but because you fear it and hate it, then your goal is to limit it and its effects, not eliminate it, which merely intensifies it, but limit it by drawing clear lines within which it can be fought, and clear lines between those who fight it and those who don’t, lines between friends, enemies, and neutrals, lines between combatants and noncombatants.9


  1. William Rasch, “Lines in the Sand: Enmity as a Structuring Principle,” South Atlantic Quarterly 104:2 (Spring 2005, pp. 253-262), p. 254.
  2. Ndifreke Ette, “Carl Schmitt’s Radical Democracy: Schmitt, Hobbes and the Return to Political Identity,” master’s thesis, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, (May 2012), p. 7-8.
  3. Louiza Odysseos, “Iconographies of Enmity: Ethics and Obligation in Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan,” paper prepared for the Second World International Studies Conference, Panel 035 Carl Schmitt and International Relations I: Reflections on Theory of the Partisan (Draft 2008), p. 3.
  4. Odysseos, “Iconographies of Enmity: Ethics and Obligation in Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan,” p. 6.
  5. Ibid., p. 7.
  6. Rasch, “Lines in the Sand: Enmity as a Structuring Principle,” p. 254.
  7. Peter Heft, “Part 4: The Races of Humanity or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Socially Constructed Divisions – Part 2,” Peter Says Stuff, published 1/6/16, accessed 2/12/16, <http://goo.gl/yh6UvM>
  8. Rasch, “Lines in the Sand: Enmity as a Structuring Principle,” p. 254.
  9. Ibid., p. 260.

About The Author

Profile photo of Peter Heft

A “closet Conservative” on a liberal campus, Peter Heft is a student of philosophy and political science at Ohio’s Denison University where he mainly focuses his studies on Heideggerian and post-Heideggerian, Nietzschean, and Object-Oriented Ontological thought. He has had a life-long passion for knowledge and has been a national level debater since High School. He has maintained a blog for the past five years, Petersaysstuff, which is devoted to politics and philosophy.

  • Mick

    – Further, Schmitt argues that, and which will be the point of explication
    of this post, “the discourse of a universal humanity (and its human
    rights),..produces and objectifies the other as the inhuman, which then
    becomes the proper object of annihilation as the enemy of humanity.” –

    In his own words:

    “Wer Menschheit sagt, will betrügen.” – Those, who utter “humanity”, are deceivers.

    Schmitt was a master of extremely pointed rhetorical emphasis (as well as intellectual catgeorization), his aphorisms are legendary, but it may be difficult to keep their “spirit” in translation.

    • This is very true.The issue of having things “lost in translation”, so to speak, is far from unique to Schmitt, sadly. Heidegger in German vs. English is wild.

  • Pingback: What Should We Do About ISIS? – Right On()

  • Pingback: Democracy in Europe is Coming Apart at the Seams – Right On()