Bioethics Blogs

Humanitarianism in the Anthropocene by Sverre Molland

The decade has been conceptually rich for anthropologists. From multi-species ethnography to the practice of care, the past several years have seen a flourish of analytical concepts and theoretical preoccupations. Two key developments among these emergent and often-interlinked topics are anthropology’s focus on international humanitarianism and the Anthropocene. To date these two important research streams have not been linked. This seems destined to change, since the questions that underlie the anthropological study of humanitarianism—fundamental questions about our moral and political stance towards human life—overlap considerably with the central preoccupations of the Anthropocene debate—which asks what future forms life and politics will take on this planet. This short reflection hopes to encourage the discussion.

In its most defuse form humanitarianism is an ethos: the insistence that all people are fundamentally alike and thus deserve a certain equity of consideration. The concept of humanity implies a certain biological sameness, but also moral equality (Fassin 2012:1-17). Thus humanitarian discourse simultaneously universalizes and essentializes. It insists that—in our biological needs, our ability to feel pain, to suffer and to hope—we are all alike. Because we are all subject to the same vagaries of time and trauma the very fact of being human merits dignity and respect. Since we are all united in our weaknesses, certain elementary levels of substance—freedom from starvation, or arbitrary dislocation or death—should be guaranteed to all humans. People should not be instrumentalized, made tools of others’ selfish pursuits. Humans have a basic duty of care to other humans, especially in times of extremity. These are moral prescriptions, but they have the character of fact; in the present day the humanitarian argument is so pervasive that it seems axiomatic.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.