Famine and Fraternity

Amartya Sen

The death of somebody one loves is unbearable not only because of its devastating impact on one’s life, but also because it is excruciatingly difficult for one to accept the victim’s own loss of everything he or she had. If one feels lacerated and burnt, this partly reflects the primitive agony of seeing the victim’s incomparable tragedy. The ‘self-regarding’ element in one’s grief at the death of a loved person is thus supplemented by an ‘other-regarding’ element concerning that loved person, even though the two elements may be extremely hard to disentangle.

The death of somebody one did not know appears to us as a different type of phenomenon altogether. We can read about victims of accidents or epidemics or famines with comparative equanimity, and we are evidently able to turn rapidly to the next news item, perhaps the latest cricket score. There is nothing perplexing in this contrast as far as the self-regarding element in grief is concerned, since our lives may not be at all affected by the deaths of distant and unknown people. But there is something that needs explaining in the altogether unmoved way we seem to be able to view the ‘other-regarding’ element when the victim has no relationship with us. To accept the legitimacy of this question is not the same as presuming that our agony at the dead person’s own tragedy must be independent of the personal relationship. There may be nothing perplexing in the fact that our ability to sympathise with, and grieve at, someone else’s tragedy may plausibly be diminished by distance. But there is something extraordinary in the almost total absence of sympathy and grief with which we are able to absorb massive news of premature deaths of victims far away. The varying intensity of our concern may not, in itself, compromise our humanity, but the near-absence of any concern for distant victims would do exactly that.

It is arguable that our indifference to distant deaths is part of a mechanism that ensures our own viability, which might otherwise have been strained by constant grief at ever-occurring tragedies, causing fruitless anguish in situations in which we can do nothing to prevent these tragedies. This view makes grief essentially an ‘intermediate product’, in which the end-product would be some helpful assistance that we may provide, spurred on by that grief. This is not a point of view that is easy to accept (grief can scarcely be only instrumental to action), even though some versions of the utilitarian philosophy have tended to push us in that direction. But even within its own general terms, the special use of this view to explain non-grief at distant suffering is defective in its taking for granted that our ability to affect distant tragedies is very nearly nil. In fact, in most cases, victims of famines and epidemics suffer and die over a longish time and can be substantially helped by others in their life-and-death battles. Indeed, there are many different ways in which we can help in tragedies occurring in distant places.

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[*] Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, 1980.

[†] See ‘Famine in China 1958-61’ by B. Ashton, K. Hill, A. Piazza and R. Zeitz, in Population and Development Review, 10, 1984.