Devalued Humanity: The Status of Human Life in Times of Nihilistic War

Devalued Humanity: The Status of Human Life in Times of Nihilistic War

[Elke Schwarz is a Reader and Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at Queen Mary University London.]

The scale of violence and destruction in Gaza is difficult to fathom; the sheer existential terror the civilian population experiences is unspeakable. First the shockingly high daily death toll on account of the military campaign, now the unfolding famine which affects children and the more frail disproportionately first, then, inevitably, the whole population. The monstrosity of the experiences the people of Gaza have to bear, while the world is watching, is un-imaginable. And it feels like any emotional response to the news that people are facing amputations without anaesthesia, that they are forced to eat grass and animal feed, that they are attacked when seeking shelter, seems wholly inadequate to the scope of the monstrosity that presents itself here. Neither words of outrage, nor rational pleas for an end to the violence seem able to halt the onslaught on an entire population. Neither legal limitations, nor ignominious images of mutilated or emaciated bodies, nor persistent protests, seem potent enough to bring the traumatic suffering of millions of Palestinians to an end.

How is this allowed to happen in an era in which technological innovation, progress, and ubiquitous connectivity are supposed to have lifted our collective human consciousness? How is the currency of humanity evidently worth so little? In his letter to Klaus Eichmann, son of Adolf Eichmann, the philosopher Günther Anders asks the question: “what has made ‘the monstrous’ possible”? (Anders 1988, 24). According to Anders what has made the monstrous mass extinction of Jews and other groups in World War II possible was “the fact that we have become creatures of a technologized world, no matter in which industrialised nation we live and which political colours it flies” (24). With this, Anders casts his net wide, but for good reason. For Anders, the technological artefacts that we have produced, and that now constitute the majority of our word, which we have prioritised and elevated to the highest status of goods have, in turn, made it impossible to comprehend the world in which we live. They have produced outcomes that are without measure, without compare, without comprehension. This has fatal consequences: a world that has become too big, too incomprehensible gives rise to a chasm between production and imagination. Writing against the context of nuclear weapons, he notes that the modern human can produce all kinds of things, but we are no longer able to either measure up to our products or imagine the consequences of that which we produce. Such an environment privileges process over meaning and ultimately leads to the failure of being able to adequately “feel”, and in particular, “feel responsible” (28-29). This differential between production and imagination, paired with a technological condition in which everything is drawn into the wake of computational machine logics produces not merely the disappearance of the human-as-human, but a devaluation of humanity.

To be sure, the mass violence in Gaza is enabled by a number of concrete factors some of a technological nature, some not. Together with Neil Renic, I have examined the factors that erode moral restraint and smooth the way for mass atrocities in the age of AI weapons (Renic and Schwarz 2023). Our analysis – in the long version as well as in the shorter blog version published earlier on this platform –  focuses on the contemporary use of AI targeting tools in warfare, which facilitate an erosion of moral agency, and with that, an erosion of moral restraint. This works through a widening of the category ‘human target’. A key aspect of concern in our analysis, and in the discussions on military AI more broadly, is the fact that technological systems can only ‘see’ humans as objects. When an AI system identifies a human as a target-object, that human is immediately objectified, and thus dehumanised. Dehumanisation is one of the key features in almost all mass atrocities. David Livingstone Smith’s (2020) book, On Inhumanity, offers a powerful and comprehensive discussion of the psychological, social, and political aspects to dehumanisation and its violent upshots. Dehumanisation is, for Livingstone Smith, a “kind of attitude – a way of thinking about others” (2020, 17). The act of treating someone in a dehumanising fashion is often mistaken as dehumanisation itself, but dehumanisation is a mode of thought about other humans, a mindset that is installed before the violence occurs. It can be triggered by various channels (propaganda, for example) to “exploit the chinks in our psychological armour” that would otherwise safeguard against seeing other humans as having less value, as being subhuman. And perhaps an encroaching devaluation of human life is at the heart of the apparent tolerance for the unfathomable violence on display in the current conflict.

Analyses of specific mass atrocities and large scale violence can only ever offer post hoc insights; typically from a perspective already convinced that such levels of mass violence will not happen again, could not possibly be tolerated again. As we read accounts of past genocides, ethnic cleansings, and other mass atrocities, a sense of incredulity inevitably grows: how could other people could have ever let such massacres take place? Often, we think, they simply did not know of the full scale of the violence inflicted. Perhaps in an age before social media, it was easier to look the other way, to not pay attention. This ‘excuse’ is, however, decidedly unavailable today. Social media channels and broadcast news abound with images impossible to ignore. Nobody, certainly not the leaders of Western countries, can plead ignorance of the fact that Gaza, as a habitat for Palestinians, is being razed to the ground as we speak, and that Palestinian life is being dehumanised, being rendered utterly devoid of value.

Perhaps Anders is right and the devaluation of human life, more broadly speaking, is a consequence, or a feature, of our digital-technological condition that has a longer history. On very first glance, it seems terribly cynical that the closer we are to creating artificial “life”, the less worth we ascribe to human life, indeed ‘humanity’. But the two developments are intimately related. Already in the 1950s, Anders was well aware that with the advent of ever-more pervasive and autonomous technologies, humans were gradually rendering themselves obsolete. Anders understood the interplay between the technological products humans create and our changing sense of the human self in relation to these products. From the Industrial Revolution onward, human life is increasingly measured in units of productivity and functionality, benchmarked against standards of machine perfection. In other words, the modern human measures her worth and general moral standards against the flawless functionalities of machines, yet she must realise that, despite being a producer of technology, she cannot, as a human, ever be a product, and so cannot ever live up to the strength, speed, precision, and perfectibility of her artificial creations, and thus cannot ever fully fit into the normed environment that is shaped and determined by ever-accelerating autonomous technologies.

Anders’ calls this condition “Promethean Shame”. Promethean Shame reflects a corporeal shame which is simultaneously bound up with notions of human self-identity. I have written elsewhere at length about what the upshots of this condition are in the context of warfare (Schwarz 2018). But it is worth stressing Anders’ broader perspective on the human-machine complex in modernity. His reflections on the obscenely destructive power of the atomic bomb, on which he wrote extensively, are worth quoting at length.

Nothing would be more shortsighted than to consider the possibility of our extinction as an accidental by-product of some specific technological devices, for example, atomic weapons. Rather, the potential for our liquidation is the very principle which we provide all our devices with. What we aim to do is to produce products that do not need our presence or assistance, and could function without us without complaint – that means devices through which we make ourselves superfluous, through which we liquidate ourselves. (Anders 1972)

A “human-made desertion of humanity”, as Konrad Paul Liessman (2022) puts it. What are we, as fallible, mortal, suffering humans even good for when everything that constitutes our world is vastly better, faster, more rational, and seemingly autonomous than we are? What are we even doing here? Anders’ notion of Promethean Shame is not merely about making the human obsolescent, but rather about devaluing that which we understand human life to be in the first place. As everything in politics, the cruelest upshots of this devaluation are not applied evenly, but a devaluation of the meaning of humanity is felt across contexts and communities as scores of humans are subject to mass atrocities.

What should become of us, as humans, in an AI-shaped future? All signs point toward the answer being “nothing”, or at least nothing of much value. Could this be, as Wendy Brown suggests, the symptom of a “pervasive nihilism that disinhibits aggression and devalues values” (2023, 9)? Nihilism is a structural signature of modernity and has perhaps become more extreme since the possibility of nuclear annihilation made it possible to think of human life at large as extinguishable. Where the invention of the telescope provoked a shift in perspective that enabled humans to think of the earth as an object ready for exploitation, the advent of nuclear weapons technology enabled another shift in perspective, bringing into view the possibility of destroying human life through human-made technologies. At the centre of these shifts stands the pursuit of science and technology as new modes of truth finding. But this scientific mode, while able to produce knowledge, cannot produce meaning. Or as Max Weber put it, via Tolstoy: “Science is meaningless because it has no answer to the only question that matters to: what should we do? How shall we live?” (1946, 9). The same is true for the technological condition. It cannot give us any meaningful inkling as to what shall become of us. At best, it can remind us of the pressing philosophical questions about life and its meaning, about our relations to others, to which we are less and less equipped to give answers.

In this epoch of nihilism, instrumental reason – an ostensibly value-neutral form of reason – draws everything into its domain and, in so doing, does away with any semblance of ‘meaningful’ ethical constraint. Values are perpetually re-negotiated and ultimately undecidable, “established meaning relentlessly unmade” (Brown 2023, 15). In such a setting, the danger is that negotiating values and meaning becomes fraught with power dynamics. Values become political, politics becomes about values. This nihilism carries another terrible danger: an always latent “potential inversion into indifference or worse – fatalism, cynicism, frivolity, narcissism, or non-accountable deployment of power and violence” (17). For Weber, Brown writes, the way to counter this nihilism was to foreground an ethic of responsibility – not responsibility as an abstract concept, but an ethic of taking responsibility in the knowledge that one’s values are “situated and partial, temporally, geographically and spiritually” (Brown 2023, 49). The tussle for values and their meaning could not be more evident in the present context, where an army can proclaim to be “the most moral army in the world”, and in the very next breath, decimate a hospital which gave shelter to the already wounded, orphaned, and traumatised.

How to avoid descending into cynicism or fatalism? How to avoid these things when so many precious human lives, futures, livelihoods are maimed and extinguished right before our eyes? When violence of this proportion, inflicted on an entire population, can seemingly be justified on historical or ideological grounds, when, rather than foregrounding the unspeakable and evident human suffering, the debate primarily navigates half-truths, falsehoods, distractions, and shrill proclamations? What can be done to refocus our attention on that which matters, on that which makes us human among humans, even in brutal endeavours such as warfare?

It is against a nihilistic frame that we can better understand how the discourse of AI in military targeting operations coalesces around the word “responsible AI”, against all warnings and calls for caution issued by critics. The current use of the term “responsible” or “responsibility” seems to have no clear ethical or normative meaning, but certainly a political function. In such a world, it is perhaps little wonder that the value of ‘human life’, subject to politics and power, loses its footing.  If we follow Anders in his thinking, we have a mandate to exercise our imagination, to develop, or ‘progress’, our faculties to be able to feel– feel with others, and, in particular, feel responsible for our actions within a monstrous world. Perhaps we must begin with insisting on giving concrete meaning to the word ‘responsibility’ and demand this in particular from those that currently hold power.

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