The Limits of My Moral Are the Limits of My World

In this special edition of Stories of Europe, our guest writer and former intern of the EuroStorie Centre of Excellence Paul Behne delves into fundamental European values and reflects on the recent violations of human rights at the EU borders through the failings of European morality, which allow forgetting those who are left outside our "moral world".

On the 3rd of March, 2020, Ursula von der Leyen said in a joint press conference as a statement of the European Commission: "We will hold the line and our unity will prevail. Now is the time for concerted action and cool heads and acting based on our values.“1 She was responding to the opening of the Turkish border towards Greece and the large number of refugees aiming to enter European territory. This was a reaction to the decision of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to open the borders on the Turkish side towards the EU. From the EU this action has often been seen as an offensive act from Turkey, what produced a debate that was influenced by martial vocabulary, such as von der Leyen’s statement,2 "Those who seek to test Europe's unity will be disappointed".3

Forgotten violations of human rights

The European Union's focus laid more on the rising conflict with Turkey than on the humanitarian circumstances at the most intense locations like Evros or Lesvos. Because of this special political focus, the media was relatively late talking about the ongoing violation of human rights at these places and the breaking of fundamental European obligations such as the "non-refoulement" principle stated in the 1951 Refugee Convention4 that forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in likely danger of persecution based on "race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".


The reporting on the humanitarian situation at the border nearly stopped due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 Virus. Therefore, the issue has not had the social media attention as it should have had.

Especially because the general social and political stance on this topic was affected by an idea of Europe First – meaning that the protection of the border was the focus of most politicians5 – it became increasingly apparent that European people are using two kinds of measures for people within and outside the EU as for people with or without an European citizenship. Despite the irrevocable signs of human rights violations,6 the European governments refused to take committed action against it.

At other points of migrational difficulties – such as Portugal’s decision to give asylum seekers a one-year residence permit as an answer to the Covid-19  crisis7 – European states acted on behalf of the universal idea of the European Convention of  Human Rights.8 This circumstance leads us to think about the mechanism that exists in the European society that is letting people forget their responsibility for humans outside their juridical territory.

Breaking principles and moral codes?

Ludvig Wittgenstein claims in his early work "Tractatus logico-philosophicus": “[…] the limits of the language (the language which I understand) mean the limits of my world". (Wittgenstein 1922, p. 84.). In principle, he meant that what we think is within the limits of our vocabulary and that also what we can imagine will always be inside these limits. This theory can be modified to explain the fundament of the mechanism that leads the society to a state of neglecting the responsibility outside the borders of the European Union. 

Thinking of language, the language of a society is nothing but the values we share, the moral we chose to be the fundament to the structure of our community.

This moral code it is, that defines our understanding of us living together. It seems that it is this idea which creates the sense of belonging that forms the fundament of the European nation-states. This moral code is based on a universal idea of human rights.9 But as we see in the given case of violations of human rights at the European border towards Turkey, the area of applicability is limited. It seems to be limited by the borders of even this exact idea of moral, the borders of the European Union.

The idea of a limited spectrum of applicability for right coming from Wittgenstein’s idea of a limited world of mind and space here leads us to Hannah Arendt, who tried to explain these borders in her work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) in the context of the Second World War referring to the idea of universalism.

Hannah Arendt showed a differentiation between natural law and the universal concept of human rights. Her argument goes with Edmund Burke, who criticized the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man as a sheer "abstraction" (Burke, 1790, p. 3.) meaning that the idea of inalienable human rights can never become more than the rights the citizens have in the country of origin of the idea of human rights. Thus, Burke and at this point Arendt through his theory are denying the existence of universal human rights in practice (for Arendt especially in situations of totalitarianism).

Arendt sees the verification of this thesis in the example of the state Israel (Arendt, 1973, p. 299.). "The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they were still human". (Arendt, 1973, p. 299.). 

Hence, we can see that the loss of citizenship leads towards a state of being-human, but just being-human.

In Burke’s words, being-human means nothing but the degradation to what has been called barbarianism and by that to the very minimum of rights (natural law) and the exclusion from the civilized world. In fact, this means to have no right to have the rights of a citizen and that the rights of a citizen would triumph over the "right of the naked savage" (Burke, 1790, p. 17.). Even though Hannah Arendt would not contradict the idea of the existence of universal human rights, she experienced a situation where people who were seemingly influenced by this idea, violated their principles in the face of circumstances where the universality was facing practice.

The outcome of this concept shows us the instability of the concept of human rights which our society is based on. Seeing that the declaration of the universality of the human rights from a single state means nothing but an attitude that the state keeps as far as it is not being put to the test with people that stand outside the system itself, leads us to scrutinize today's refugee situation. Even though Hannah Arendt's thoughts are a product of a time that was possessed by war, terror and racism, nevertheless we can still see similar structures that Arendt attested in her time in contemporary thinking.

The rejection of one humanity

In the disguise of ethno-pluralism – the idea of creating cultural diversity by encapsulating one culture from another –  we can detect a way of thinking in the new right scene that dissociates itself from the classic fascistic and nationalistic ideas of the National Socialism, e.g. the Identitarian Movement10 that already has immensely influenced the debate on refugees and is in a way connected to Arendt’s description of the loss of human rights.

Alain de Benoist, whose ideas are often used as intellectual fundament for this new right scene, denies in Die Religion der Menschenrechte  (1988) the existence of a natural law that is the basis to the idea of universal human rights (Benoist, 1988). Following his argument, the idea of one “humanity” is a product of a concept where human culture is reduced to a biological origin (Benoist, 1988, p. 3.). According to Benoist, there is no reason for the assumption of unity of humankind. Moreover, Benoist states that a human has no other nature but culture. Hence – presuming the plurality of cultures – the individual rights are inextricably connected to a person's cultural background (Benoist 1988, p. 3.). Furthermore, Benoist impeaches the idea that every human is a person per se (Benoist 1988, p. 3). This results in his thesis that the cultural identity of every human assigns the individual rights, which are in no case universal but produced in particular.

This perspective on rights draws a picture of societies that claims the dishonesty of our fundamental moral. Such exclusivity can strengthen a society's identity, but with the cost of the de-personalisation of people, who are not allowed to be part of this structure.

Thus, the societies are losing the sense of belonging and thereby of responsibility for the people outside their structures. The rising Identitarian Movement uses Benoist's thesis to justify their xenophobic stance on the refugee topic. This take on ethno-pluralism was already expected by Theodor W. Adorno when he said, that instead of the white race, we now find the occidental culture and from that an evolving Pan-European chauvinism. “Race” is just being exchanged for “culture” and then used for the same segregating purpose (Adorno, 1954, p. 276f.). 

This builds us the bridge back to Hannah Arendt’s work and shows once more the validity of her observations for today's case. Having Wittgenstein’s, Arendt’s and Benoist theories in mind – even though these three do not share the same ideas, values and are not even talking about the same topic – we can see an enhancement of the sense of not-belonging and especially irresponsibility.

The modification of Wittgenstein’s thesis from language to moral shows us, that for us it is very difficult to relate to what is outside of our “language”, our moral code, our moral world.

Coming from this idea, Burke’s and Arendt’s disenchanted approach of denying the practical existence of universal human rights in certain situations prevents the possibility of creating a moral world for the whole humanity (see Burke, 1790, p. 3; Arendt, 1951, p. 299.). Finally, we see Benoist’s idea – which experiences a renaissance in today’s debate and clearly classifies humans – from the scratch denies the idea of one humanity.

Taking responsibility of the promise of our moral code

As we can see in recent reporting, pieces of this ethno-pluralistic ideology have already affected parts of our society.11 In the media, the de-personalisation of refugees is a common practice. Their names seem negligible; instead, we see numbers and dates.

The thereby originating deadening about this topic is not a problem of just parts of the society. Even among the people who should especially feel responsible for refugees and have the duty given by the people to do so, such as politicians, some are hiding behind the limits of our world; the limits of our moral. The missing of an action that should be taken because of the responsibility that is set by the idea of the human rights that we are calling the fundament of our system, shows us the hidden visage of our society.

Realizing this, it is our obligation to take action and to be on a par with the fundamental values we claim to be the basis of our society. Otherwise, we will have to deal with the presented idea, that our moral is nothing but an illusional codex we use if it is comfortable and deny when we would have to stand up for it and make the effort to think outside of our moral world, to make it indeed universal.


About the author

Paul Behne studies cultural and social anthropology and political science at Freie Universität Berlin. During the spring of 2020, Behne worked as an intern at the EuroStorie Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narratives. 

This text was originally published in Finnish at as part of the Rajaton ja rajallinen Eurooppa-series. Find the Finnish version here


Theordor W. Adorno, Schuld und Abwehr. In: Gesammelte Schriften 9.2. Suhrkamp 1954, pp. 121-324.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcout, Inc., 1973, first published 1951, pp. 270-320.

Alain de Benoist, Die Religion der Menschenrecht. In: Pierre Krebs (ed.), Alternativen zum Prinzip der Gleicheit. Yavalod 1988, pp. 1-21.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. E. J. Paynes Ausgabe in Everyman’s Library 1790.

Edmund Burke, Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword an Biographical Note by Francis Canavan. Vol. 2. (visited 17.05.2020). Liberty Fund 1999.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophus. Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung. Side-By-Side Edition, Version 0.54 (June 4, 2019), London: first published by Kegan Paul, 1922.