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Friday, January 20, 2006

The Constant Gardener and the Duty to Aid

The Constant Gardener is a beautiful film which raises all manner of questions regarding the role of multinational corporations in creating and perpetuating cultures of official corruption in developing nations. But the heart of the film lies in the moral transformation of a quietist in the diplomatic service (Ralph Fiennes) stationed in Kenya. Toward the middle of the film, Fiennes and his wife (Rachel Weisz) pass several young children beginning a long walk home. Weisz wants to give the children a lift in the couple’s car, but Fiennes refuses, saying that there are millions of people who need help, and the couple can’t help all of them. Weisz responds that these children are among those they can help, but to no avail. Toward the end of the film, Fiennes begs a plane crew to allow a child to board the plane and escape from a militia slaughtering the rest of her village. The crew refuses, reminding Fiennes that they cannot save everyone. Fiennes, predictably but (I think) not cornily, reminds them that they could have saved more.

Issues surrounding the limits of the duty to aid are raised in dozens of films. Schindler’s List is probably the most famous, but pretty much any film set in a developing country includes a scene in which a naive character gives some money to a poor child and is soon overwhelmed by a flood of equally compelling requests. What I liked about The Constant Gardener was that it identified one of a number of sources of widespread reluctance to aid distant others which may be characterized either as cognitive biases or as moral errors. The two exchanges illustrate the "drop in the bucket"effect, by which individuals infer from their inability to correct social injustices such as poverty, homelessness, and famine that they lack a compelling reason to assist any particular victim of such injustices. One contributing factor is that these injustices are conceived as abstractions, such that they survive assistance to even a very large number of victims so long as some victims remain. No matter how many individuals are provided with the resources and opportunities needed to flourish, "poverty" persists so long as others remain deprived. The framing of the problem rules out incremental or partial solutions.

A similar dynamic may partially explain why nations and individuals often respond more readily to concrete and acute crises (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes) than to abstract and chronic problems. The former enjoy greater psychological salience, to be sure, and natural disasters make it difficult to blame affected communities for their own predicament. But it also may be that restoring a community to some status quo ante seems like a satiable, achievable goal, a fight that can be cleanly won and then left behind.

Confronted with equally valid claims to assistance, and without the means to address all of them, individuals might reach one of a number of false or misleading conclusions. One might conclude that since one has no more reason to help one person than another one lacks sufficient reason help either, forgetting that one has more reason to help either than neither. One might also think it would be unfair to help some rather than others on the basis of necessarily arbitrary considerations, revealing at the very least an overvaluation of fairness relative to other values and probably a misunderstanding of what fairness means and requires in the first place. One might repeatedly postpone helping others, reasoning that one lacks a decisive reason to help this person now rather than some other person later, and find at the end of the day that one has not helped anyone or at least not enough people. Finally, one might conclude that one’s duties to help others are extremely demanding, that one will probably fail to satisfy them, and that if one will fail morally one may as well do so at the least cost to oneself ("in for a penny, in for a pound"), perhaps on the view that morality is indifferent between partial compliance and noncompliance.

One point I took away from the film is that legal and philosophical discussion of the outer limits of the duty to aid, though interesting and important, should not distract us from that duty’s minimum requirements. When looking down the street or beyond our shores to people in need, the most pressing question is not where our duties end but where they begin, not where to stop but where to start.

Next week I'll post on Syriana, torture, and constitutional culture in Iran. 

Posted by Adil Haque on January 20, 2006 at 01:06 PM in Film | Permalink


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You make an excellent point....one that needs to be pointed out to many "quietists" who dismiss or evade the claims of the poorest. I try to develop this argument in


I think Thomas Pogge's recent book on the topic provides the best recent argument that aiding LDC's is not merely a supererogatory, but a perfect or mandatory duty. His book appears here:



Posted by: Frank | Jan 21, 2006 10:07:08 AM

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