Caribbean Journal of Philosophy, Vol 12, No 2 (2020)

Las Casas’ Articulation of the Indians’ Moral Agency: Looking Back at Las Casas Through Fichte

Rolando Pérez


According to Levi-Strauss, in Race and History, “…the barbarian is first and foremost the man who believes in barbarism” . This is a good point to begin our discussion in this essay aimed at understanding how pre-Columbian societies in the New World related socially and culturally before Europeans arrived.

Much has been written on Bartolomé de Las Casas’ contribution to the notion of universal human rights. Liberation theology thinkers like the assassinated Bishop Oscar Romero, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and philosopher Enrique Dussell, have thought of him as the central spokesperson and defender of the Amerindians: firstly, in the great debate with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1651, and secondly, as a voice that continues to speak for the oppressed and marginalized indigenous peoples of Latin America (in the age of globalization). For someone like Dussell, for instance, Las Casas represents the embodiment of a proto-Marxian Christian ethics.

What seems understudied, however, is Las Casa’s conception of Christianity and religion in general—a view of religion, which anticipates an eighteenth-century German enlightenment concept of religion, or what Kant called “the religion of reason.” Interestingly, for the Spanish philosopher, Christianity was conceived more as a rational system of ethics than as a doctrine of faith. The Indians, argued Las Casas, were members of the same community of rational human beings as Europeans. He believed, like Fichte after him that all humans belong to the same universal community of rational beings, which is why Fichte will help us shed some light on Las Casas’s anticipatory notions of moral agency, formal freedom, rational religion, and the rights of a free people against the use of coercion—regardless of their race, religion, or culture. This, I believe, is what underpins Las Casas’ notion of universal human rights (Paulist and Thomist in nature), and his of ethics of the Other, who “is just like me”: a rational, feeling human being, deserving of equal justice and rights.

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