Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Philosophy and Disaster

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Philosophy and Disaster

Article excerpt

Not a whit, we defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Hamlet, 5.2, 217-20.

William Shakespeare


The growing field of homeland security and disaster studies is practical. Its theories and models are linked to specific problems and contingencies. Besides studies in public policy, law, law enforcement, emergency response, and relevant applied sciences (both civilian and military), the academic side of this subject might support investigations in sociology, psychology, anthropology and history, while literature and journalism could help flesh out its human face. Art, music, architecture, theater, film and dance can all reflect and shape the anticipation of disasters and our reactions to them. Academic philosophy, with its focus on analysis, argumentation, and criticism of common sense (not to mention its pettifogging obsession with the abstract and abstruse) hardly seems relevant.

But academic philosophy could make an important contribution to homeland security and disaster studies while at the same time adding another relevant subject to its own "applied" subfields. 1 Although philosophers are specialists in critical thinking, the perspective of philosophers tends to be that of ordinary people who are neither government officials nor public policy planners. Much of the professional literature on homeland security and disaster is written from the perspective of existing leaders and officials, with the result that civilians or the public are often regarded as the passive objects of actions taken by authorities to protect and assist them. And of course it is members of the public who are potentially the most numerous victims of those events that are properly called "disasters." The innocence of the civilian public occasions the "terror" evoked by terrorism, and the public's absorption in daily routines sets it up as victims of catastrophe in earthquakes and floods. Despite the abstraction and abstruseness of philosophical discourse, it should be understood that as civilians and members of the public themselves, philosophers share the ordinary perspective on disaster. This is a wary and sometimes fearful perspective. 2 It comes from a sense of being unprepared and lacking the knowledge and skill to either become prepared on one's own or justify demands for official assistance.

In this paper I will suggest two dimensions through which contemporary academic philosophers might develop a contribution to disaster studies, from the standpoint of the public: social contract theory and moral theory. I will then conclude with brief suggestions about additional philosophical approaches to disaster studies. I begin with several assumptions about disasters, and one caveat. Here are the assumptions. A disaster is an event that harms or kills a significant number of people or otherwise severely impairs or interrupts their daily lives in civil society. Disasters may be natural, or the result of accidental or deliberate human action. Disasters include but are not limited to: fires, floods, storms, earthquakes, chemical spills, leaks of or infiltration by toxic substances, terrorist attack by conventional, nuclear or biological weapons, epidemics, pandemics, and mass failures in electronic communications. Disasters always occasion surprise and shock; they are unwanted by those affected by them, although not always unpredictable. In this sense, the effects of war on civilian populations may be disastrous, although wars have elements of agency, systematic planning, and the active involvement of legitimate government, which distinguish them from disasters.

The caveat is that I cannot speak for all or even a few philosophers, because philosophers always disagree. It is exactly disagreement among philosophers that sustains innovation in our discipline, because it "furthers the discussion. …

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