Ethics as part of philosophy plays such a fundamental role in contemporary reflection that some philosophers would claim that whoever wants to think seriously about the modern world cannot do so without going into ethics. Others, with or without a touch of cynicism, hold that just as epistemology was the central philosophical problem of the seventies and a large part of the eighties, it is ethics in the nineties and for the years to come.

            Beyond these impressions, it is clear that, in conjunction with ecology and human rights, ethics constitutes one of three fundamental axes of the state of the contemporary world. Here, however, we shall concentrate on showing the rela-tionships between ethics and human rights. For this it is nece-ssary to situate ethics within the triangle of three closely re-lated issues.

            Ecology considers our habitat, the surroundings in which we live, which is both the result of our way of living and the condition of possibility for human life as well as the life of our planet. The fundamental problems of ethics concentrate upon two chief spheres. On the one hand, in bioethics the issue is to determine adequately in what a human life of quality consists, and the minimal sufficient and necessary criteria of a policy to favor this. On the other hand, discussions con-cerning ethics are found on two main fronts. In one the main preoccupation is normative, from which point of view the relationships and thresholds between ethics and law, econo-mics and politics are foremost. In facing the normative pro-blems of ethics the second problem concerns the grounding of ethics; this is perhaps the most urgent for our days. Here, however the aim is rather to study the situation of ethics and ethical problems in the frame of Latin American culture, while recognizing that there are analogous situations in other regions. In order to bridge common or analogous circum-stances it is necessary to circumscribe the present analysis to the Latin American domain. Hence, instead of elaborating general analyses and inferences, I shall concentrate on the specifics of Latin American and then build bridges and simila-rities to other regions and situations. Nevertheless, even such a task needs to be narrowed.

            One of the most important philosophical problems in the history of human reason is to track relationships between what can be characterized in logical terms as common, on the one hand, and distinct, on the other. In various other fields or lan-guages this is as the relation between what is one’s own and what is foreign, between the specific and the generic.

            In no other area of knowledge is this such an urgent pro-blem as when we try to speak of ethics in Latin America, or about a Latin American ethics. In order to broach this problem I would advance the following hypothesis. In Latin America ethics continues to be an agonizing, vital and everyday reality, in sharp contrast with Western Europe or particularly the United States. Indeed, in the so-called first world, ethics has become a "discourse" -- in Ricoeur’s expression a "discourse of action". This chapter will explain that hypothesis.

            An article by J.L. Aranguren tracks philologically the meanings and evolution of the term "ethics";1 it has two main understandings. On the one hand, it deals with the way in which we live. Thus, ethics refers to the specific behaviors of either individuals or their social groups, which define one’s home, one’s surroundings or, in sum, one’s world. On the other hand, ethics deals with the way in which we should behave or act with regard to an ideal or goals, whether onto-genetically or filogenetically. From this standpoint, ethics refers to an ought-to-be that constitutes the criteria or meaning of an action or series of actions.

            In Europe a gap has arisen between ethics as a reflexive activity in the academic or scientific community and ethics as lived outside those circles. In contrast, in Latin America for-tunately the links between the academy, whatever be its form, and society (the streets, the companies, and so forth) are not yet broken, but remain sufficiently solid. Hence, the question of ethics in Latin America entails at the same time both an epistemological and a methodological problem, namely, the difference between what one wants the human being to be, and what a specific human being effectively is. To understand this problem it is necessary to clarify what ethics deals with; what it is all about.

            Ethics does not deal with the human being, that is, with the human essence or nature, but with the explanation of action as it takes place effectively in the world. But even here ethics does not deal with human acts in whatsoever manner for many aspects are better treated by particular sciences. Thus, economics deals with human acts insofar as they are speci-fically acts of production, distribution and consumption of goods; medicine deals with human acts in terms of health and/or disease; law gives an account of the legality or illegality of human acts; while politics deals with the legitimacy or illegi-timacy of human acts.

            What is specific to ethics is the fact that it deals properly with the value of actions. This is defined by ethics in terms of the good, for example, whether or not actions are free, or cor-respond with justice and equality. Hence, the chief problem in ethics nowadays is whether the value of human actions is arbitrary or can be established in accord with certain criteria. If the latter, then what are those criteria and how are they determined? If the former, is it indifferent which value(s) one adopts? This situates us plainly on the terrain of ethical pro-blems and discussions.

            These problems cannot be answered abstractly and inde-pendently of experience. In fact, there would seem to be no a priori idea concerning human actions or human situations. Today the real problem of the entire universe of ethics is that of the relationships between ethics, life and the project of individuals living in determined communities. In other words, the challenge is to begin from, and build upon, the real pos-sibilities of life instead of from what we would like it to be with the consequent risk of arbitrariness. To understand this we shall proceed in four steps: first, to clarify the object of ethical concerns; second, to propose and argue that human rights are the ethics of our time; third, to situate the problem and proposal within the Latin American context in order to consider its specificities; and finally, to suggest a few impli-cations.


            Certainly one of the fundamental problems now being encountered by the human race is ethical; namely, to under-stand who the other is and can be, what are my own pos-sibilities vis-à-vis the other and, in turn, his or her possibilities vis-à-vis myself or ourselves. The entire destiny of indivi-duals, as well as of peoples and cultures, depends upon the comprehension and resolution of these questions.

            Ethics evidently is a human problem,2 more specifically its task is to determine the value of our human actions re-garding others which define the ways we relate to society and, hence, our own possibilities and those of others.

            The only authentic way to relate with others, to value and judge those relations, and to determine the conditions of their possibility, in brief the only way fellowship or solidarity with others is possible, is to begin from human acts and the way in which they take place. In other words, the value of the other in relation to me, of me for him or her, is established in accord and whether or not they are carried out. Indeed, the only way truly to relate with, and value, others is in accord with his or her actions. That is, even though it is impossible to ignore the importance of intentions, emotions and the like, what really counts in the realm of ethics are the actions them-selves. All else is relegated to such other spheres as psycho-logy or psychiatry, religion or poetry, and the like. The inter-nal human being does not exist; on the contrary, the human being exists in the world and as such is expression.3

            In ethics the value of human life is not established in accord with its intentions, its projects never achieved, or its dreams and fantasies. The value of human life is established in a determined period of time always and necessarily post fac-tum, that is to say, once the human actions have or have not been carried out. This is to say that there is no a priori of hu-man life, human acts and human situations. They always and necessarily are judged after -- never before -- they take place and always in accord with whether they take place and the way in which they occur. In a word, an a priori ethics is not possible. The possibilities, reality and necessity of ethics are grounded precisely upon whether human actions take place or not.

            This is valid not simply when one pays attention to indi-vidual considerations, but also in evaluating or making ethical judgments regarding organizations, institutions and organisms. It is from this point of view beyond epistemology that ethics has its guarantee of rationality and its space for action with regard to, e.g., politics, economics and law. The point is really a much more delicate and broader problem. Judgments for or against the state or para-state are legitimate ethically precisely in accord with, and after, the acts of the state and its organisms -- including, though not exclusively, acts of indivi-duals -- which have been carried out or omitted, and the way in which they have occurred.

            Human individuals as well as organizations and institu-tions are judged ethically and evaluated not in accord with their intentions or programs, but based upon their real expres-sions. Those expressions are called acts or actions, so that in-dividuals and their organizations, including their state, are but their acts as taken or omitted.

            As such, ethics adopts a clear ontological character; it recognizes or eliminates the being of human individuals as well as of their organizations and institutions on the basis of what they are socially and intersubjectively, that is on the basis of their acts themselves. Thus ethics is not simply about values, ideas or ideals, ends or goals; beyond this, ethics is basically about the very being of individuals, groups and hu-man communities and finally about the very being of society, culture and political regimes or government.

            The importance of human acts, and therefore also of the judgments and evaluations concerning them, lies in the fact that the meaning of a human act is both something to be ful-filled in itself and also in its making other acts possible. An act or series of acts that simply is fulfilled and then dies does not have great import, and may even be meaningless. On the con-trary, what is of interest to human beings and their politics, philosophies and organizations is that while their acts are being fulfilled new horizons are being made possible through those very actions.

            Hence, the meaning of a human act lies at the same time in the fulfillment of the intention which motivated it, in setting up new possible actions and, therefore, in the enlarging of the horizons of the world. The value of ethics in general lies essentially in ever making new acts possible and hence in making life possible, that is, in exalting the best of human existence in the world and contributing thereby to the cons-titution of new and better horizons. Any other ethic that is simply an affirmation of the state of matters that actually prevail or has happened does not do this or even care about the possibilities of, or for, human life. Such an ethic must be rejected and criticized to its very foundations. In other words, not all ethics fulfill the task of exalting and understanding hu-man life, rather some ethics are at the service of other interests or goals, thereby converting the value of human existence into a means for other ends. Attention to ethical principles does not necessarily translate into making possible and exacting hu-man life.

            Therefore, what truly is at stake in ethical discussions concerning, for example, a method of research, its impact upon the world order, relationships between individuals and society, or tensions between the normative and the founda-tional are the modes of evaluating human actions and thus also the values adopted as grounds, criteria or ends of human acts. For it is upon those evaluations that depend finally the meaning of a human act, a series of acts, or a human life.

            Not every value is equally valid or desirable; and no value which is reasonably accepted and legitimately reco-gnized is a priori. Disputes about the various, even numerous, co-existing ethics in a society or in a culture generally are in-substantial due to the incommensurability of values or of di-verse ethical theories. This comes to be seen as a challenge to human life and fellowship and, ultimately, in an indirect apo-logetics for death, as well as for systems of exclusion and eli-mination. Hence, at the very heart of ethical reflections must be placed the problem of the commensurability or incommen-surability of ethical values supporting a determined way of life, a particular politics and administration for planning com-mon or individual actions. Such a problem cannot and should not be omitted or left aside, not even temporarily. Without the full clarification of that problem from the very start, no rea-sonable form of ethics would be possible and ethics itself would be reduced then to mere instrumental normativity. Finally, what really is at stake is not so much a dispute about ethical values, principles and methods, but human life as such -- the life of individuals, groups and communities belonging to a determined society or culture.


            The basic problem for an ethics nowadays is to over-come objections from axiology about its theoretical or its pra-ctical implications or consequences, that is, to assure an ethics that makes possible an affirmation of life as such. This is the issue of the axial value of all its propositions and statements, its principles and in general its entire theoretical corpus. Hen-ce, the importance of a sufficient clarification of such an ethics does not lie simply in the theoretical order, but in its consequences or very ground: human life.

            Indeed, we are living in a century of war, an epoch of death in which life is being threatened; it is a time of ever greater and more diversified dangers. We are living an epoch of violence, the presence of which demands serious reflection upon ethics.

            Violence has become a reality for the individual, for large human groups and for whole communities. It becomes ever more anonymous, but at the same time increasingly systematized. In such a situation the individual has become perfectly superfluous and accidental: "use-it-and-toss-it-away". In this situation such large structures and organiza-tions as army, company, church or political party are taken as ends in themselves; the individual can disappear provided the structure perdures. Violence therefore means the total or vir-tual elimination of individuals and is imposed, despite them-selves, on entire peoples, societies and cultures. Notoriously that is what is happening with indigenous groups, retired and terminally sick people, ethnic and religious minorities, and the like.

            It is in such circumstances that human rights have taken on an importance never before known in the history of man-kind. To say that violence is the principle of human rights4 is equivalent to stating that it is because there is a violent regime -- whether political, social, military or psychological -- that problems of human rights exist. The meaning of human rights consists in first criticizing, and then gradually or totally suppressing the state of violence against human dignity which impedes the full affirmation of human life and reduces it merely to striving for survival. The basis of human rights is then human life as an absolute value in the sense mentioned above.

            From this standpoint, the meaning of human rights con-sists in recuperating the existence of the individual as an absolute and unquestionable reality, rather than taking it for granted. It is not necessary that there be a regimen of open and unbridled violence, but simply that the dignity of human life is threatened, or that the possibilities of life with sufficient qua-lity be endangered, in order for concern over respect for hu-man life to come to the fore and, with it, the right to life and other fundamental matters.

            However, effective respect for human rights and denun-ciation of violations of human rights presuppose elucidating who the other is, and in which way we relate with him or her. Human rights demand that we be sensitized with regard to the other and his or her situation and condition so that we are affected by his or her state as if it were our own, for were things different we could well be in their place. Hence, one is concerned even about situations in which we have never been and may never come to experience. Grasping this means understanding how the individual represents the species, and how the possibility of a life with dignity for an individual or a group is equivalent to that of the species.

            Human rights are the ethics of our time for we confront a unique situation in the history of ethics and of ethical ideas. For the first time in the history of mankind, there is a demand for an ethics not simply as the work of a particular school or individual author, but as a common and universal task. The difficulty lies in the foundation of human rights, but that is a matter outside the immediate interest of this text.

            That human rights stands as the ethics of our time means that the objective to be reached, namely the dignity of human life, the expansion of the possibilities of human life and re-spect for the improvement of the quality of life as an absolute value is no longer an individual problem, but a preoccupation common to all so that each one’s concerns are everyone’s con-cerns. The relationship between the individual and society was never so close as in our time.

            The ethics of human rights is unquestionably of univer-sal reach. One of the paradoxes of all prior ethics is that be-cause they were not universal neither was their normative power, but only hypothetical according to Kant’s distinction. In contrast, human rights penetrates the internal forum as well as national or international public forums; they are registered also in positive law and in the political charters of countries alongside their juridical system with its administrative and penal system.

            The ethical strength of human rights lies in the fact that the life and personal dignity of individuals in the community has its proper value which can neither be dissolved in nor de-rived from, anything else. The goals of human existence can be discussed, but unquestionably human life has a value grounded solely on its acts and their very possibility. From this standpoint, the aim of human rights consists in enlarging the general conditions of life in order for the existence of hu-man beings to be ever more full and improved, and for the pos-sibilities of human life to develop in as many ways as possible for individuals, communities and cultures.

            What each one decides to do with the possibilities created or broadened by human rights and their enhancement of respect for the dignity of life is beyond the frame of human rights. This matter concerns educators, politicians, sociologists, psychologists and the like. Human rights only make it possible for human life to achieve better and richer horizons. The broader the horizons the greater the dignity of human existence, but what each one decides to do within those horizons is each one’s own matter. This is the limits of human rights, as of any other ethics. To be sure, in the actual state of affairs, and perhaps for the future, such a task for human rights is no little thing; nor does this escape those working in this field.


            In general terms, life in Latin America is restricted in its possibilities; its value is yet to be fully established. From the standpoint of human rights, we can say that the history of Latin America is a search to make life possible in terms of its individuals as well as its different ethnic, linguistic and reli-gious communities. The case of ethics is no different; in this part of the world ethics is still an agonizing matter. Talk about values and the absolute value of life, striving for dignity, questioning the state of violence and pleading for peace con-front real dangers and are matters of life or death. Life is at stake and in one way or another is to be rescued. Truth is not yet a way of life, but rather silence, suspicion, conformism and accommodation.

            Ethics in Latin America when radically grasped be-comes a field of battle between death and life, atomism and solidarity, silence and the ability to denounce and criticize, between exile, forced displacements and the disappearance of people and human fellowship. The challenge is to create so-cial space and a national conscience, with horizontal and ver-tical unity of individuals and their environment.5

            We are living a Cartesian epoch, in pursuit, however, not simply of apodictic certainty, but of human existence itself. In our time each individual’s existence is in principle question-able and must be proven, but this is true also of determined communities and human groups. In this culture the individual exists only as a representative of another reality which is suf-ficiently established. When one is asked on whose behalf one comes and answers ‘I come in my own name’ one is obliged to wait, but when the answer is: on behalf of an important com-pany or a well-known public or private person then one soon is attended to, for in that case one "represents" another reality. But representing someone or something else is not to exist oneself; we are challenged6 to demonstrate our own existence or reality! In the history of humankind this had never before been known; it is a pathological situation! What is really dra-matic here is that the demand to demonstrate our existence falls upon whole groups of individuals, communities and, more generally, upon peoples, societies and entire cultures.

            It can be said that Latin America is a continent upon which has been imposed the historical destiny of having to demonstrate its own existence. As there is no ethics without a parallel philosophy of history or of culture, to construct or cri-ticize an ethics is to enter into a problematic relationship with other subjects concerning both history and culture. A pure ethics does not exist; it is a sophism.

            From several directions voices call for a Latin American ethics. Generally, they think of the problem in terms of "creating" a specific ethics different from that which was im-ported from other regions, usually in the context of political, economic or cultural domination or dependence. Beyond those aspirations, however, the primary imperative which cannot be put off consists of a shared and determined effort to make life more and more possible. In cases such as Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico this is the foremost task. This defense of life is not a reductionism or a mere strategy, rather the effort to achieve jointly a determined quality of life which promotes human dignity constitutes the very core of ethics for Latin America and characterizes and typifies its central problem. In sum, the defense of human dignity and the effort to recognize the absolute character of human life, namely, of children, old people, men and women of different conditions and situations, simply cannot be a matter of balan-cing strategies or programming possibilities. The ethics of hu-man rights is not a question of strategies because neither is the rescue of human dignity a question of logistics. For the first time and for all, ethics ceases to be a mere question of "dis-courses".


            In what then does the ethos of human rights consist, which is to ask what is the specific ethical problem of Latin America? This question cannot reasonably be formulated nor intelligently and sensitively answered without considering at the same time a community of meaning. This is the process of individual and social sensibilization with regard to a general or generic conscience, first in each community and then at na-tional and sub-continental levels.

            Against the vague incommensurability of ethical values one must start from life as experienced by socially related in-dividuals. In other words, against an undifferentiated state, human rights ethics is the configuration of an open space for deliberation, critique and common action, that is, the con-stitution of a unity of diverse life experiences. The big weak-ness of all previous ethics lay precisely in the difficulty of affirming simultaneously a unity in the multiplicity. Recently, such different proposals as dialogical ethics or a certain ver-sion of communitarian ethics have tried to solve this con-fusion -- thusfar unsatisfactorily. Their error has been to start from a determined axiological or philosophical perspective in order to undertake an analysis of social reality.

            Human rights does not begin with any preconceptions, but holds to the evidences from individual and intersubjective life. In the face of a determined state of violence, threat or dis-respect for human rights there is no room for theoretical dis-cussion or abstraction. The ethical principles of human rights are grounded upon inter-subjective life experiences with their linguistic, ethnic, religious or cultural characteristics. In this way it is possible to unravel the central problem of the logic of human rights, namely, combining the universal and the par-ticular: the universal is the absolute and unconditioned value of human life, the particular is the specific way in which life exists in a determined space and time, in accord with the deter-mined tradition and common horizon of that way of living.

            In Latin America ethics is no longer possible in sepa-ration from the elaboration of a community of meaning. This is to acknowledge the absolute character of human dignity and the horizons of constant amelioration of life and its pos-sibilities. The best contribution of Latin America to the his-tory of humanity consists exactly of this: in it lies our whole future and destiny. Hence, for us ethics is an agonizing problem.


            l. Cf. Jose L. Aranguren, "Ethics and Its Etymology" (in Spanish), in Themata, pp. 1-16. For the philological develop-ments that follow herewith I am in debt to Aranguren’s analyses.

            2. Within the general frame of ethics other new problems concerning the relationships between individuals and the hu-man species with the rest of nature are now included, though they must be left aside here. The generic titles for these pro-blems cluster around ecology and bioethics.

            3. I borrow this thesis from Sartre’s existentialism as well as from M. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological philo-sophy. See mainly J.P. Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego, and, M. Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception.

            4. Cf. C.E. Maldonado, Towards a Philosophical Foun-dation of Human Rights. (Bogota: Instituto de Derechos Hu-manos/ESAP, 1994).

            5. We cannot ignore the similarities existing with other parts of the planet, especially with Central and Eastern Eu-rope. However, I shall leave aside these similarities which are not the main object of this analysis.

            6. The ambiguous expression "imposed upon us" is used in economics, but comes from the social, political and administrative orders. In this sense, H. Marcuse pointed out that it is the system of total administration and control that causes the pattern of relations we are generally analyzing here. According to Marcuse the system of total control and administration characterizes post-industrial society. Such a designation connotes also a political principle. See H. Mar-cuse, The One-Dimension Man, and Eros and Civilization.