Bartolomé de las Casas, apology for peace

Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) was a Spanish Dominican friar, writer and missionary known for defending the rights of the indigenous peoples of America during the Spanish colonisation period. He had a somewhat self-taught education, oriented towards Theology, Philosophy and Law. He went to the Indies in 1502, ten years after the discovery of America, in La Española, Santo Domingo. He was ordained a priest in 1512 and was the first to do so in the New World. He later became bishop of Chiapas, Mexico.

The controversy with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1550) on the status of indigenous people and the lawfulness of war is famous. Las Casas was a pioneer in thinking about human rights and social justice. In this controversy, Bartolomé de las Casas provides some arguments for abstaining from war and on equality, which will be discussed below in the style of Estrategia Minerva.

“In the first place, because, between two evils, if one cannot be avoided, the lesser should be chosen, according to right reason”(Bartolomé de las Casas, Apología, cap. 40).

A distinction must be made between the doctrine of the lesser evil and the doctrine of the double effect. According to the former, the option that produces the worst consequences must be avoided at all cost. According to the second, when a given action is performed, there are unintended negative consequences in addition to the intended ones, which are positive. Applying the double effect assumes that the good produced by this action is greater than the evil.  

The relationship between the lesser evil and rationality is fundamental. Rationality provides the tools and analytical framework necessary to apply the lesser evil principle effectively.

“In the second place, it is manifest that more innocent people will perish in this way than those we are trying to free. Moreover, by a very strict negative precept, we are forbidden in any case to kill the innocent” (Bartolomé de las Casas, Apología, cap. 40).

Innocent people, in this context, are those who do not actively participate in combat. If self-defence is usually justified under just war theories, it does not extend to innocent people.

“Third, because in war, the innocent cannot be distinguished from the guilty”(Bartolomé de las Casas, Apología, cap. 40).

War is defined in one of its meanings by the Spanish Royal Academy as “armed struggle between two or more nations or between sides of the same nation”. They are usually brutal, violent situations that involve suffering and pain, damage and victims on both sides. Las Casas’ reflection is along the lines of recalling that, in these situations of armed conflict, the nuances and differences are difficult to define, especially between combatants and innocent people. The consequences in personal and material terms are often terrible.

In the final part of his work Apología, Bartholomé de las Casas argues: “the Indians are our brothers for whom Christ gave his life. Why do we persecute them without having deserved such a thing with inhuman cruelty?”(Bartolomé de las Casas, Apología, cap. 63).

Facing his opponent, Ginés de Sepúlveda, in the Valladolid Controversy, Bartholomew de las Casas maintains that the indigenous are brothers of the Europeans. This, far from being an improvised principle in the face of the new situation, is at the core of Christianity. In the Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This message of equality was a novelty in Antiquity and continues to be so today and had as its antecedent the Stoics.

The best-known work of Bartolomé de las Casas is “Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias/A Very Brief Recital of the Destruction of the Indies “, published in 1552. This book had a significant impact in Europe and helped to generate a debate on the human rights of indigenous people. It is an invitation to consider otherness and rethink one’s assumptions. To be authentic, we must start with the assumption of differences, starting from the equality of human beings.

“If this is done, I am convinced that they will embrace the evangelical doctrine, for they are neither fools nor barbarians, but of innate sincerity, simple, modest, meek and, finally, such that I am sure that there are no other people more disposed of than they to embrace the Gospel, which once received by them, it is admirable with what piety, ardour, faith and charity they fulfil the precepts of Christ and venerate the sacraments; For they are docile and ingenious, and in skill and natural endowments they surpass many people of the known world (…)” (Bartolomé de las Casas, Apología, cap. 63).

Underlying Las Casas’ message is the notion of equal human dignity, the basis of human rights. A common criticism of this author is that he did not extend this concept to black people. His views need to be appropriately contextualised historically and not read from the postmodernism of some views.

Mestizaje/Mixed-race and syncretism could be vindicated from the approach close to Bartolomé de las Casas. Racists of all stripes are afraid of mixing, and what has characterised the most genuine view of Latin American history is precisely mestizaje, which is something to celebrate. Syncretism, as a fusion of cultures and/or religions, is also something positive to learn from. It can enhance the best energies of society, but as is often the case in identity politics, it can be approached in a divisive and exclusionary manner. In the face of this risk, Bartolomé de las Casas launched a universal message of equal human dignity and fraternity as the engine of social progress.

Deontological ethical model

Before delving into more strategic content, I will dedicate a series of posts to various ethical models. These models are used to judge our actions and can also inspire multiple strategies. The first ethical model is the deontological model.

First, it is necessary to clarify its meaning to avoid confusion. There are two meanings for the term ‘deontology’. The first has to do with professional ethics, which is related to the set of values and rules that regulate the practice of a profession and that are sometimes set out in a code of ethics, as in the case of doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc… The second is related to an ethical approach that is based on duties.  

I will explain this second meaning in this post. The deontological ethical model, based on duties, often contrasts with the consequentialist ethical model, which is based on consequences. More precisely, the deontological model is based on the individual’s duty to act according to the correct principle or value.

The paradigm of the deontological ethical model is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and is usually exemplified in the formulations of the categorical imperative. Thus, it is stated, “behave in such a way that your maxim of action becomes a universal law”. This seems an essential moral principle, but some argue it is empty. With sufficient skill, the universal law can be turned into unacceptable claims. Let’s see how this mechanism works. If someone wants to use hate language against minorities, it seems that this could not be universalised. However, if someone advocated positive discrimination policies, could they be universalised? Some might argue that it does not make hate speech but that the principle of universalisation is the freedom of expression of people with their own pride.

Behind the categorical imperative lies the Golden Rule of Humanity, which has strategic significance and holds “treat others as you would like to be treated yourself”. It is a rule based on reciprocity, but unlike the an eye for an eye, it is not a rule of response to an attack but anticipates a cooperative attitude, which implies putting oneself in the other person’s shoes. Some studies indicate that this long-term cooperative attitude is the one that yields the best results.

Another formulation of the categorical imperative is to “always treat every human being as an end in himself, never as a means”. This shows how the deontological ethical model is a maximal ethics. Others connect this view with the notion of human dignity. From the perspective of strategy, it could be said that this is a commendable statement of principles, but that human relations move between cooperation and competition. The strategy should enhance the cooperative elements and diminish the competitive aspects to achieve specific objectives.

This ethical deontological model is legalistic, rigorist, not based on experience, rational, and universally applicable. Two maxims defended by this model are of particular strategic importance. The first is that promises must always be kept. In the U.S., some journalists go to prison for not revealing their sources in court. Their promise of confidentiality is stronger than the legal duty to testify. Keeping promises is a good ethical principle, and society relies heavily on the expectation that promises will be kept. Objections may come from the Machiavellian ethical model, where keeping one’s word is not always the best solution. The deontological model holds that commitments should always be honoured, regardless of the circumstances. The strategy should prevent being exploited by those who claim commitments and then do not want to fulfil them.

The other maxim of the ethical deontological model with strategic interest is that the truth must always be told. First, a distinction should be made between not telling the whole truth and lying. Second, the strategic use of threats assumes they must be credible to be effective. The ethical deontological model holds that the truth must always be told, even if it harms the speaker. In such cases, the best strategy is silence. Or as Wittgenstein said “what cannot be spoken about, it is better to remain silent about”.

The deontological ethical model is a morally demanding proposal; it could be described as rigorist. It is based on universally valid principles not based on experience. It can function as a mechanism to make commitments and threats solid and credible. However, the strategy learns from experience. Thus, there may be special situations where exceptions to the general principles can be made, provided they are adequately justified.

Principles and values are guides for action that occasionally mark the limits where one should not go. The ethics of duties should allow for a flexible application, not an absolute one. Arguably, this flexibility reflects the spirit of Kant, but it is closer to life.