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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Elke Schwarz