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The causes of incalculable human suffering

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Monday, 23 April 2007

It is interesting to note the mass media reaction to the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech. It is a deplorable waste of 32 innocent lives. No less lamentable is the 100 civilians that are killed daily in Iraq; the hundreds of thousands of people that have been killed in the ongoing genocide in the Dafur and the 30,000 people who die daily of starvation and other readily preventable causes - people who perish from starvation are no less dead than those killed by a bullet.

An indispensable building block of moral thought is that all human life is equal. The fact that the deaths of Americans and other westerners attract saturation media coverage, while third word deaths typically fail to register on the media radar highlights a fundamental shortcoming of the value-set of much of the western world. The failing is the cause of incalculable human suffering.

It is the reason that much of the third world continues to starve, while over-eating is likely to the number one health problem in the western world by the end of the next decade.


While most westerners might be sleeping comfortably now, spare a thought for ethicists in generations to come who are sure to have countless restless nights trying to ascertain how the current generation has been so spectacularly successful at ignoring the desperate hungry cries from the developing world.

What are the moral defects that accounted for this?

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 starving children on the evening news typically evokes some sense of sympathy or guilt. Unfortunately we are too good at escaping these feelings - however, we need to be conditioned to hold onto 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 the western response to the massive South Asia tsunami two 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 door-step 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: Paris, Britney, Posh and Becks, Superbowl, World Cup soccer and cricket and the Oscars.

The second basis upon which much of the first world can and does (impliedly) deflect responsibility for preventable poverty generated deaths 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 deaths and 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 to decline to save a child drowning in a puddle in order to avoid wetting our shoes.

The circumstances in which we are liable for our omissions are in fact demarcated by the “maxim of positive duty”, which prescribes that we must assist others in serious trouble, when assistance would immensely help them at minimal inconvenience to ourselves.

Our non-neighbours are included in this principle by virtue of the fact that there is no basis for ranking the interests of one person higher than another. An argument along the lines that ‘I am more important than you” is inherently discriminatory and morally vacuous.

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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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