Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics

Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics

Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics

Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics

Synopsis

Images of starving children, bombed villages and mass graves brought to us by television in the comfort of our homes implicitly call on us to act. What can we do when the suffering we see is so distant and we feel powerless compared with the forces behind the suffering? Luc Boltanski examines the ways in which, since the end of the eighteenth century, spectators have tried to respond acceptably to what they have seen, and discusses whether there remains a place for pity in modern politics.

Excerpt

The subject of this book is the question of humanitarianism which has been revived by the recent debate on humanitarian action but has been on the agenda for at least two centuries. Our aim is first of all to clarify this debate by taking up the discussions and models which accompanied the introduction of the argument of pity into politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the purposes of this return to the past is to show that the argument between those in favour of humanitarian altruism and those who deny its possibility was fixed when political theory began to be concerned with what Hannah Arendt calls the 'politics of pity'.

We are not attempting to show that there is nothing new under the sun however. To the contrary, it seems to us that over the last twenty years the development of a number of non-governmental organisations involved in humanitarian action throughout the world, and the importance and significance this movement is in the process of acquiring, is something new. What is more, this nascent humanitarian movement lies at the heart of two tensions within today's Western societies.

The first of these tensions is between an abstract universalism and a narrow communitarianism. Moreover, it is often in terms of this opposition that promoters and opponents of humanitarian action confront each other, the first siding with global solidarity against national particularisms and preferences, while the second unmasks the hypocrisy or, at best, naive eirenic idealism which ignores the primacy of interests and ties forged by history. Particularly ominous today, this tension may be reduced however by the development of forms of universalism connected to the historical traditions from which they arose and which are rooted in local groups and actions, that is by what Michael Walzer, whose reflections on the possibility of a third way between universalism and communitarianism are particularly innovative and promising, calls an . . .

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