On Humanitarianism: Is Helping Others Charity or Duty or Both?

EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the first things associated clearly with humanitarian aid is philanthropy  ­— a selfless, voluntary act driven by kindness. But Michael Walzer, professor emeritus of social sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study, believes international humanitarianism is as much a call of duty as it is of charity. A few excerpts:

Humanitarianism is probably the most important “ism” in the world today, given the collapse of communism, the discrediting of neoliberalism, and the general distrust of large-scale political ideologies. Its activists often claim to escape or transcend partisan politics. We think of humanitarian aid, for example, first of all as a form of philanthropy—a response to an earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Asia, which is obviously a good thing, an effort to relieve human suffering and save lives, an act of international benevolence. But there is a puzzle here, for helping people in desperate need is something that we ought to do; it would be wrong not to do it—in which case it is more like justice than benevolence. Words such as “charity” and “philanthropy” describe a voluntary act, a matter of kindness rather than duty. But international humanitarianism seems more like duty than kindness, or maybe it is a combination: two in one, a gift that we have to give.

Individuals send contributions to charitable organizations when there is a humanitarian crisis, and then these organizations rush trained aid workers into the zone of danger and desperate need. But governments also send help, spending tax money that is coercively collected rather than freely given. Are individual citizens free not to give? Are governments free not to act? Does it matter whether the money is a gift or a tax?

The dilemma is even clearer in the case of humanitarian intervention. Governments may use force to stop a massacre—as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States are claiming to do in Libya and as someone should have done in Rwanda. We can think of this as a gift to the people being rescued, and what is given is substantial, since it may include the lives of some of the interveners. But is the state that intervenes acting charitably? Isn’t stopping a massacre morally necessary? And think of the diplomatic preparations for the intervention, the strategic arguments about how to do it, the necessary calculations of proportionality, the marshaling of military resources, the actual use of force, the problems of reconstruction afterward—none of that feels like a philanthropic enterprise.This is more like political work, governed by the rules of justice and prudence, not kindness. And yet, we call it “humanitarian” because we want to believe that what underlies and motivates the intervention, at the deepest level, is human sympathy, freely flowing fellow feeling. It is two in one again: a spontaneous act and a necessary one.

But what if the combination doesn’t work—what if the fellow feeling doesn’t flow freely?

Republished with permission by the Foreign Affairs magazine. Visit the original article.

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