Expositions: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities
Ethics of care, Hospitality Philosophy, Empathy -- Social aspects
Why do some people donate blood while most eligible individuals do not? Why do many self-identified environmentalists eat meat? Why do numerous people who are concerned with social justice ignore oppressive practices affecting women? These questions have both ethical and psychological dimensions. Ethics, as it is traditionally understood in terms of rules, rights, and consequences, emphasizes rationality but often reason is not enough to compel moral action. One can make compelling rational arguments with empirical evidence to support donating blood, becoming vegan, and advocating education and aid to assist girls and women in developing nations. Yet, cognitive assent is insufficient to change the behavior of many people. Until individuals make a personal, affective connection – until people care – creating change and taking moral action are a challenging struggle. One way to view Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is as a case study for eliciting care within the complexities of contemporary international society.
There is a fascinating contradiction of social forces at work today. On a large scale or macro level, evidence suggests that human society is becoming more cooperative, empathetic, and understanding as a matter of survival and communal flourishing. A spate of books has documented this phenomenon. In Empathetic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin views empathy as the basis of civilization: “More complex social structures, then, promote greater selfhood, greater exposure to diverse others, and a greater likelihood of extended empathy”. In The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, Frans de Waal suggests that modern studies of primates reveal an outstanding capacity for cooperation and compassion, not just competition as often portrayed in the ruthless “survival of the fitness” characterizations of nature. De Waal describes how, “many animals survive through cooperation, so there is a long evolutionary history to compromise, peaceful coexistence, and caring for others. Empathy is part of the survival package, and human society depends on it as much as many other animal societies do”. Despite the historic tide of human cooperation and empathy, there appear to be pockets of backlash against empathy sometimes entangled in efforts to maintain systems of power and at other times tied to complacency and apathy. For example, in the United States, the growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor/working class is in part held in place by rhetoric antithetical to empathizing with those who need social services and thus painting taxes or transfer payments as a social evil even though they fund those services. The anti-caring rhetoric is so strong that President Barack Obama was criticized for suggesting that a Supreme Court justice nominee should exhibit empathy. In an ironic twist, empathy was characterized as anathema to the ability to carry out justice. Of course, international conflict and violence also demonstrate failure to care.
Amidst the contradictory social forces, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn offer a path to caring for women and girls who live in distant lands and cultures. Half the Sky presents story after story regarding the plight of women facing oppressive practices. These stories allow the reader to enter an imaginative relationship with the girls and women described that is only possible when the abstract is moved to the concrete. Kristof and WuDunn also offer stories of successful interventions on behalf of women that provide concrete examples and means for the reader to enact care.
Hamington, Maurice, “Caring, Journalism, and the Power of Particularism,” Expositions: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, Fall 2011.