Thursday, August 30, 2007

Pity and Compassion are not Enough

Paul Farmer gave a talk recently at the University of Utah as part of Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

Paul talked about the fact that more than 80 million Africans might die from AIDS by 2025 with a similar toll on that continent by tuberculosis and malaria. He states that “these numbers have lost their ability to shock or even move us”.

Paul goes on to ask, “What sort of human values might be necessary to save a young man’s life (someone dying from AIDS, for example). Compassion, pity, mercy solidarity and empathy come immediately to mind. But we also must have hope and imagination in order to make sure that proper medical care reaches the destitute sick.

“Are the human values of compassion, pity, mercy, solidarity, and empathy all there is to it? How might the notion of rights reframe a question often put as a matter of charity or compassion?

“Do the destitute sick of Haiti or Kenya ask for our pity and compassion? Often they do. But can’t we offer something better? The human values required to save one person’s life, or to prevent children in a single family from losing their parents, surely include pity and compassion and those sentiments are not to be scorned. Often it is possible to save a life, to save a family. But “scaling up” such efforts requires a modicum of stability and the cooperation of policy makers and funders, themselves unlikely to suffer the indignities of structural violence.

“To move from pity and compassion for a the values inherent in notions of human rights is along leap. For many, especially those far removed from conditions such as those faced in rural Haiti, the struggle for basic rights lacks immediacy. But sometimes we can entrap ourselves into becoming decent and humane people by advancing sound policies and laws. The road from unstable emotions to genuine entitlements is one we must travel if we are to transform human values into meaningful and effective programs that will serve precisely those who need our empathy and solidarity most. In other words, we are not opposed to pity, but we’re anxious to press for policies that would protect vulnerable populations from structural violence and advance the cause of social and economic rights.”

Paul finishes with the following:

“The language of political rights has become meaningless to many people living in the world’s unimaginable poverty. Conversely, the language of economic rights is sometimes viewed as excessive, menacing, and irresponsible in the eyes of people living in the midst of plenty. This growing rift, I would argue is the most pressing human rights problem of our times.”

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