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Distant rains fall on deaf ears here

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Wednesday, 19 January 2011

That's the clear message to emerge from the many (volunteer) willing hands and open wallets in response to the Queensland floods, in contrast to the indifference displayed towards the much graver flood in Brazil.

Nearly 600 people died in the Brazil floods which occurred at about the same time as Queensland was being washed out. By any measure, the Brazil floods were far worse than those in Queensland.

The people of both regions need and deserve assistance. Yet while the generosity of Australians has been overwhelming towards the Queensland flood victims, our response to the Brazil disaster has been mute.


The contrast in the care factor towards the respective victims undermines a central plank of moral thinking and highlights key aspects of the human condition.

Lots of moral theories have done the rounds of universities over the past 2000 years. Yet they are all built on the bedrock that people are equal and entitled to identical amounts of concern and respect. The location in which a person is born or lives is merely a historical accident and morally irrelevant. There is supposedly no role for luck or selective compassion in our moral choices.

The reality is different. The crucial issue that ethicists in generations to come will continue to ask is how is it that the radar of moral concern of most people as individuals and collectively in the form of governments remains so spectacularly successful at ignoring the desperate pleas from people in distant places.

There are three fundamental failings that are imbedded in the moral thinking. The first is the doorstep phenomenon, which recognises that proximate suffering matters more to us than anonymous, distant suffering.

The occasional fleeting glimpse of desperate people in far off, normally developing, countries on the evening news typically evokes some sense of sympathy or guilt. Unfortunately we are too good at escaping these feelings. Morally, we need to be conditioned to hold on to them. The extent of another's suffering is not measured by our capacity to directly sense it, neither is the scope of our moral duties.

The generosity displayed by our response to the massive South Asia tsunami six years ago was a striking and welcome departure from our normal level of disinterest towards desperate foreigners. This, however, only serves to highlight the reality of the doorstep principle. Our wallets were forced open by the media bombardment of the tsunami that pushed the tragedy into our living rooms. They closed once the media focused on more "important" matters: cricket, local politics and Britney.


The second basis upon which much of us (impliedly) deflect responsibility for preventable deaths and abject misery in other parts of the world is the acts and omissions doctrine. This is the principle that we are liable for only the consequences that we directly bring about, rather than the tragedies we fail to prevent.

This doctrine is unsound. While morality makes very few positive demands of us, there are occasions when acting morally requires us to do more than merely refraining from certain behaviour; there are times when we must actually do something.

Morality, defined exhaustively as a set of negative prohibitions, fails to explain why it would be morally repugnant not to save a child drowning in a puddle in order to avoid wetting our shoes.

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First published in The Australian on January 18, 2011.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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