When I studied international relations at university one of the great talking points was why statesmen decide to intervene in other countries. Now, on the one hand, you have your Tony Blair’s and the controversy of Iraq, but on the other, you have President George H.W. Bush in Somalia. Compounding the problem you have John Major doing nothing in Rwanda but Blair intervening in Kosovo on humanitarian grounds.
There is no consistency in Western, or more specifically US and UK foreign policy. It wouldn’t be much of a policy if it couldn’t be changed and it wouldn’t be foreign if we didn’t need one as a global state. It’s the calculating national interest of realism versus the principled standard-bearer of idealism. This is a dichotomy that will rage on for as long as there’s international politics.
But there is something deeper at play. Decisions are made by leaders who base their actions on what the public call or don’t call for. In a myriad of different fields, from scientists to psychologists and everything in between, studies have tried to account for the bizarre inconsistency of human nature in caring for our fellow Homo sapiens. If we see our fellow man in pain or struggling nearby, we’re likely to help if not, at least, feel empathy, yet we are indifferent to suffering across the world if it’s out of our eye line (even in the 24-hour news cycle).
Cecil the lion proved the point. The tragedy of a great beast being slain for sport is not lost on me in a world where extinction for most creatures beckons in the near future. It was quite right for there to be a shocked global outcry, particularly on social media, at something so garish. Yet the event united people in such a wisdom of crowds type way as to beg the question why we’re not like this about the daily human travesties that occur every day all over the world. Have we become so used to hearing of famines, murder, rape, genocides, female genital mutilation and terrorism that we’ve accepted it as a fact of life? Even if these are facts of our global civilisation that may well be perennial, have we really lost our ability to care and our desire to see change?
An image of the lion being projected onto the Empire State building was the final straw. Yes, it was a shame, but can we honestly say that was a measured response when so much human suffering happens all around us and gets no attention? ‘Well, that’s life’ is a bigoted and passive aggressive response unworthy of the species. As Joseph Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” And after all, we should listen to Uncle Joe, he who butchered more people than Adolf Hitler.
I’m not saying that people are uncaring. We care in our daily lives; we care if we see someone run over in front of us and we care if something happens to someone we love. But, on the whole, while we may have a tinge of feeling for horrific images of dead children and massacres on the 6pm news, we tweet and repost more about a dead lion than we do about those issues. Once upon a time that was a fact of life, the jurisdiction the nation-state; to care and respond to these issues because we didn’t know about them and could never do anything even if we did. In the digital age, that’s no longer true – we can all be armchair campaigners and grassroots revolutionaries but few bother to. The nation-state is still in charge of devising a response to international affairs, but the internet has made sure that the electorate can no longer say they’re in the dark about the once blurred, faceless masses who are out of our reach and in need of our help.
So why do we not act? Is there a moral case for passing the buck to our governments?
In his famous 1972 essay, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, the philosopher Peter Singer makes the case that proximity, distance, and national limitations make no difference to our duty to help others in need. He gives the example that if you can jump into a shallow pond to save a drowning child, with little personal cost and no risk to your safety, but choose not to, you’re making an immoral decision. The geographical distance between the person in need and the potential helper do not reduce the latter’s moral obligations as the principle remains the same. He says:
“It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour’s child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.
“The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. Previously […], this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now. From the moral point of view, the prevention of the starvation of millions of people outside our society must be considered at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.”
Singer builds on the 19th century political theorist William Lecky, who wrote that human concern is an expanding circle which begins with the individual, then embraces the family and “soon the circle… includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.”
If both were writing in the 19th and 20th centuries, and if a picture of scantily clad celebrities can make it around the world before I’ve had my breakfast, their arguments have even great prescience now. Dr Mann in Christopher Nolan’s world saving epic, Interstellar, described the problem perfectly: “We can care deeply – selflessly – about those we know, but that empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight.”
The absence of a global ethic at a time when the world is so interconnected with Facebook and Twitter means the reaction to the dead lion was just a gratuitous example of how Singer’s argument is being ignored. Desperate people are drowning in the Mediterranean as they try to find a better life in Europe; Africa remains impoverished and indebted; a Palestinian child was burnt to death in a bomb recently and this is to say nothing of that 17,000 children under five who die each day due to poverty.
“Nature teaches beasts to know their friends,” said Shakespeare. Well, thanks to Cecil the lion, we’ve been shown we don’t treat ours across the world very well.