Responding to humanity

Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney

Why is it that we respond to one form of human suffering rather than another? If we are all human beings, and thus are all capable of imagining—if only imperfectly—the pain and suffering caused by wars, famines, bombings, floods, accidents and other instances of human misery, then why should it matter if it happens to people who look like us or talk like us? Or who happen to live here rather than somewhere else? Immanuel Kant, in his amazingly prescient 1796 essay on ‘Perpetual Peace’, suggested that the moral possibilities of what we today call globalisation would only be realised when ‘the violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere’ (Kant 1991, pp. 107–8). How close to this ideal are we today?

Moral and political philosophers have been arguing about this question with great urgency over the past few years. And it is even more poignant in light of the terrible events of September 11. The huge outpouring of grief and sympathy felt around the world over the pain and suffering caused by the bombings in New York and Washington was extraordinary. But why did it occur for this terrible event and not for others? Was it unique in its horror? Perhaps it was the intensely televisual impact of the World Trade Centre and Pentagon bombings that contributed to the response, and the fact it was the most powerful nation on earth that was being hit. Seeing a human catastrophe unfold before you on television in real time makes an impression that reading a newspaper account or listening to a news summary after the event does not. Most plane crashes, wars, massacres, famines and other terrible events are not recorded live-to-air on prime time TV. They’re usually presented in quick, digestible chunks on the evening news that only reinforces their distance from us.

But almost as soon as the sympathy over the attacks was expressed, a groundswell of criticism of American policies emerged. These criticisms focused, among other things, on the fact that although America was at the forefront of pushing for an ever-more integrated world—mainly by flexing its economic and military power—it was at the same time unwilling to actually take responsibility for addressing some of the serious challenges facing everyone, as opposed to the interests of America alone. Living up to the universal values it champions has proven to be a difficult task.

Public attitudes towards human suffering seem to be narrowing.

If one thinks about the moral history of the twentieth century, its clear that September 11 was awful but not unique. It wasn’t the first and won’t be the last tragedy to befall ordinary people going about their daily business. Moreover, the way the world is organised today ensures that a huge amount of suffering will continue. Over one billion of the world’s six billion people can’t read or write. One and a half billion don’t have safe drinking water, and almost three billion survive on less than two dollars per day. The figures are as familiar as they are startling. We know this. It’s not news. And yet the gap between rich and poorer nations is growing, not shrinking. And our public attitudes towards addressing human suffering, at least as expressed in our willingness to part with our hard-earned cash, or welcome those seeking refuge within our borders, seem to be narrowing not expanding. The United States, for example, has the smallest foreign aid budget of any rich country in the developed world, about 0.1 per cent of GDP. Australia isn’t much better, devoting only 0.25 per cent of its GDP to foreign aid (its lowest ever). (To put this in perspective: Great Britain contributes 0.32 per cent of its GDP, Japan 0.28 per cent, and the most generous, Denmark, 1.82 per cent.) All of this despite solid evidence about the benefits of targeted and well-managed foreign aid, and the relatively small sacrifice it would take for us—as citizens of these rich countries—to help. Even from the counter-terrorist perspective that dominates among our policy-makers today, tackling global poverty and ensuring the emergence of stable political and economic institutions in developing countries makes a lot of sense in terms of promoting global security.

So why don’t we do more? There are always practical issues to consider, but I am interested in the moral dimensions of our response to these problems. How do our responses reflect particular moral values? And how do we define who counts as the appropriate object of our response in the first place?

A fundamental question here concerns the scope of moral values. A relativist is someone who thinks that truth of a claim is relative to the standpoint of the particular individual or group that holds the belief. Thus the potential scope of moral values is inherently limited. A universalist, on other hand, thinks that there are some genuinely universal or general values that can be vindicated across a diversity of particular moral and cultural standpoints. How far do ‘our’ values run and to whom can they justifiably be applied? If ‘we’ believe in the universal value of human rights, for example, does that mean we are justified in intervening in the affairs of other countries who violate their citizens’ human rights? Or does it simply mean we pass a moral judgement on the offending parties, leaving the messy business of what actually to do about it to someone else (or no one, for that matter)?

In fact, the issue is more complicated than the standard debate between universalism and relativism implies. We only come to have the values we do in light of growing up amidst particular cultural practices in the first place. We acquire our beliefs about value—even beliefs about values we believe to be universally true—in culturally and historically specific ways. Some cultures and nations are more porous and multicultural than others, but very few are rigidly homogenous. All cultures and traditions are complex and multi-layered, admitting of a great degree of variance and change over time. So although we always begin with a set of beliefs about value we may not have chosen, that isn’t to say we can’t go on and change those beliefs as we reflect upon them, or engage with others from different cultures, or perhaps even leave them behind altogether and take up new ones. Cultures and traditions are not stable entities. So it’s not clear what relativism means anymore. Relative to what? But what is clear is that people value the special attachments they have, and the special obligations they feel, in identifying with a certain concrete way of life—with, for example, a language, set of cultural practices, religious beliefs, or homeland.

It's not clear what relativism means anymore.

But here is where the philosophical argument begins to deepen. For some political philosophers, Kant among them, the only future for humanity lies in a global system organised along universal principles imposed through the international rule of law, which he summarised as ‘cosmopolitan right’. Particular cultures, and the political units and institutions created in their name, are always only a means to valuable human goods, and never an end in themselves. The particular narratives and myths embodied in their practices, if allowed to go unchecked, get in the way of realising universal values to do with respecting the freedom and equality of others—in other words, of respecting other’s humanity.

But does this mean that the special attachments and obligations human beings have and value, especially in relation to particular cultures and nations, should be gradually overcome, like a child learning to walk from a crawl? For some philosophers, like the American political theorist Michael Walzer, this is not only impractical but untrue to the nature of moral experience. Particular understandings of morality are all there is. ‘Humanity’, writes Walzer, ‘has members but no memory, and so it has no history and no culture, no customary practices, no familiar life-ways … no shared understandings of social goods’ (Walzer 1994, p. 8). In short, for Walzer, the only universal feature of human moral experience is the fact that morality is made over and over again by particular individuals according to their own local understandings, and it is this ‘warrant for re-iteration’ that must be respected. This means giving up on the idea that there are any readily available universal principles that can be invoked to justify our intervention in other people’s affairs that they would be likely to accept.

We seem to be at a philosophical impasse. But what is striking about moral argument is the way that it almost always pushes beyond its culturally specific bounds, as even Walzer has to acknowledge. Very few people say things like ‘slavery is wrong around here’ but rather that ‘slavery is wrong’, or that ‘all human beings are created equal’ (see Waldron 1993, pp. 183–88). Even when we know that people do things differently elsewhere, the point is not simply that this is an expression of difference but potentially a substantial disagreement with us about a set of practices or values that have been defended or invoked. In other words, we tend to take our beliefs ‘as if they were true’ and assume that others feel that way too. There are limits to our capacity to grasp the nature of difference, to be sure, but the crucial point is that these can not be stated in advance of our actual engagement with others and the beliefs they hold.

Take, for example, the role of religion in public life. It’s sometimes suggested that in some Muslim societies today, one of the hindrances to democratic reform is the lack of a distinction between public and private power. Religious leaders are said to possess too much influence over everything from family law to foreign policy. The wrong response to this claim, first of all, is to say simply, ‘well, that’s the way they do things around there, and no more can be said about the matter’. But it is equally wrong to suggest that this constitutes a fundamental difference between ‘the Muslim world’ and ‘the Western world’. Instead we need to engage with the claims of those who wield power in Muslim societies, as well as with those—and this is particularly important—who seek to change them from within. What are the values being appealed to in these arguments? How far removed are they from the kinds of ends we purport to pursue through liberal-democratic institutions? Moreover, what is the role played by religious beliefs and practices in our society?

Moral argument almost always pushes beyond its culturally specific bounds.

In the end, our response to the harms suffered by others is undoubtedly shaped by the particular cultural, social, and political context we live in. We respond more immediately to the pain felt by people like us—whether the same nationality, skin colour, language, culture, whatever—because they seem already wired into our imaginative software, so to speak. And these barriers are difficult to overcome, all the more so at times when people are fearful about the world beyond their familiar moral and geographical boundaries.

Many commentators have focused on the reactive energies unleashed by globalisation over the past few years, and the rise of xenophobic political parties willing to exploit them. This is a very real danger. Still, I think the forces at work in globalisation can contribute to breaking them down as well. To do this, however, we need to grasp the moral—and not simply economic—consequences of the increasing interdependency of the world. It is becoming increasingly difficult to simply ignore gross violations of human rights, for example, given the emergence of highly effective international non-governmental agencies and movements and their capacity to at least publicise and agitate on behalf of victims. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to disassociate ourselves from the effects of domestic policy decisions to do with immigration and environmental issues, for example, without having to at least justify ourselves to groups and agencies outside of our national borders. These might seem to be very weak developments, especially in terms of actually changing the way states act, in the end, concerning their interests. But they point to a slow change underway in our thinking about national sovereignty, at least, and thus in the scope of our moral and political obligations.

One thing we need to do more of is to check our tendency to generalise about difference, and instead actually engage with the values appealed to by the different cultures and political systems in the world today. There is no general ‘clash of civilizations’ but rather clashes of particular cultural, political and social practices and beliefs between and within different peoples and cultures. Islam, for example, is not trapped in a pre-modern state of arrested development in light of the recent terrible events in the Middle East, any more than Christianity is on the basis of what occurred in Bosnia. And besides, there are considerable numbers of Muslims living in countries like Australia today. So who are we talking about when we refer to ‘them’? The question of ethnic, cultural, and religious difference is so much more complex than many commentators—on both the left and the right—are willing to acknowledge. The usual easy options of appealing either to cultural relativism or the inherent superiority of ‘the West’ to justify our responses are just that; too easy.

The ideal sketched here is undoubtedly ambitious. It involves always trying to expand the scope of our moral concern. Responding to humanity begins with responding to the basic vulnerabilities we share with other human beings. We all require adequate nourishment to get through the day. We all need the opportunity to express ourselves in a range of different ways—individually, collectively, culturally, economically and politically. We all suffer from physical and mental ailments of various kinds. And we are all vulnerable to the instability and danger that war brings. Of course we all interpret our needs in different and sometimes conflicting ways. But that doesn’t absolve us from asking how our actions may contribute to the suffering of others—wherever they are—or to helping distribute the burden of alleviating these shared vulnerabilities more equitably.


Kant, I. 1991, ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’, Hans Reiss (ed.) Kant: Political Writings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Waldron, J. 1981, ‘Values and critical morality’ in Liberal Rights: Collected Papers 1981–1991, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Walzer, M. 1994, Thick and Thin: Morality at Home and Abroad, Notre Dame University Press, Illinois.

Duncan Ivison teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. He is the author of The Self at Liberty: Political Argument and the Arts of Government (1997) and Postcolonial Liberalism,