On the Origins of Humanitarian Intervention

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/03/2020 - 10:39pm in


Racism, Religion, War

[T]hose people are barbaric, uninstructed in letters and the art of government, and completely ignorant, unreasoning, and totally incapable of learning anything but the mechanical arts; that they are sunk in vice, are cruel, and of such character that, as nature teaches, they are to be governed by the will of others....But, for their own welfare, people of this kind are held by natural law to submit to the control of those who are wiser and superior in virtue and learning, as are the Spaniards (especially the nobility), the learned, the clergy, the religious, and, finally, all those who have been properly educated and trained. Such persons must be considered when a judgment is to be made about the morals and character of any people, for in them especially shine forth natural ability, uprightness, training, and the best morals of any nation. Both in Spain and among the Indians, spiritual and temporal government is entrusted to these people rather than to soldiers, who, for the most part, are unprincipled and, under cover of military license, inflict many injuries.

The conclusion drawn from this is that the Indians are obliged by natural law to obey those who are outstanding in virtue and character in the same way that matter yields to form, body to soul, sense to reason, animals to human being, women to men, children to adults, and finally, the imperfect to the more perfect, the worse to the better, the cheaper to the more precious and excellent, to the advantage of the both. This is the natural order, which the the eternal and divine law commands be observed, according to Augustine.

Therefore, if the Indians, once warned, refuse to obey this legitimate sovereignty, they can be forced to do so for their own welfare by recourse to the terrors of war. And this war will be just both by civil and natural law, according to the second, third, and fifth chapters of the Politics of Aristotle....Finally, all political philosophers, basing themselves on this reason alone, teach that in cities, kingdoms, and states those who excel in prudence and virtue should preside with sovereignty over the government so that government may be just according to natural law....

Even if these barbarians (that is, the Indians) do not lack capacity, with still more reason they must obey and heed the commands of those who can teach them to live like human beings and do the things that are beneficial for both their present and future life.--"Summary of Sepúlveda's Position" from In Defense of the Indians by Bartolomé de Las Casas, translated by Stafford Poole, pp. 11-13 [ca 1550]

Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda was at the time the royal historian of Emperor Charles V. Las Casas treats him as a trained theologian, but I have also seen him described as a lawyer (see here; perhaps he was both). The Summary of Sepúlveda provided by his opponent, Las Casas, understates Sepúlveda's assertion of natural hierarchies between and within peoples. A line often quoted elsewhere from Sepúlveda's (ca 1550) Democrates Alter, Or, on the Just Causes for War Against the Indians states that "The man rules over the woman, the adult over the child, the father over his children. That is to say, the most powerful and most perfect rule over the weakest and most imperfect. This same relationship exists among men, there being some who by nature are masters and others who by nature are slaves."  This does echo Aristotle. Sepúlveda also goes beyond Aristotle. In the same document Sepúlveda pretty much compares the Indians to apes,* in a way that anticipates Rousseau's idea in a note to the Second Discourse that certain kinds of humans are apelike in the state of nature.

Of course, while Sepúlveda wholeheartedly and repeatedly embraces natural hierarchies, his argument actually does not rest on it. For he allows that, perhaps, the Indians are in no way inferior in capacity. In fact the real work is done by the purported existence of social misery, especially certain form of immorality, in their affairs ("that they are sunk in vice, are cruel,"). In fact, according to Sepúlveda intervention is required because they must be raised from their present immorality, which is bestial and savage.

Sepúlveda is relying on reports of human sacrifice and ritualized cannibalism among the Indians (see here). This matters not just because it shows they are pagans and abhorrent, but also because innocents are harmed if the Spaniards stand by and do nothing. (In context, Sepúlveda offers testimony for this assertion.)

That is the say, the thrust of Sepúlveda's argument does not rest on the reality of natural hierarchy, but rather on the claim that without Spanish, humanitarian intervention, all the Indians will be harmed to some degree, and especially the weak  innocent among them. Indian existence is a proto-Hobbesian state of nature, and so an educated Spanish sovereign is better than no sovereign. 

As an aside, even Sepúlveda indirectly admits that the Spanish conquest need not be beneficial to the Indians in all respects. For, where the Indians fall under de facto Spanish military occupation, they are simply miserably oppressed. 

Sepúlveda, thus, brings together (perhaps partially reinvents) two tropes that become extremely influential and pernicious: (i) that the violent extension of civilization, conquest, is to be pursued because it ultimately benefits the backward and savage. And (ii) that immoral and wicked practices may invite humanitarian intervention. This intervention is humanitarian in character because it is in the interest of the Indians to become humane ("to live like human beings") and acquire the skill and practice of civilization and thereby benefit from it politically and personally, that is, in the afterlife ("that are beneficial for both their present and future life.")). 

According to Sepúlveda, Spanish empire is providential ("God wanted the greater part of the world to come under their dominion so that it might be ruled more justly..." (p. 13)). It's notable that it's not just in Sepúlveda and adherents of providence that (recall) (i) and (ii) can amount to the same thing.




*"[If you know the customs and manners of different peoples, that the Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in prudence, skill, virtues, and humanity are as inferior to the Spanish as children to adults, or women to men, for there exists between the two as great a difference as between savage and cruel races and the most merciful, between the most intemperate and the moderate and temperate and, I might even say, between apes and men."