"Advances In Global Health" Symposium: A Response

I’m still reeling from my exposure to a full two hours of rhetoric without substance at the symposium on “Advances in Global Health by Non-Governmental Organizations.” The radical difference between the conference keynote speaker’s view of the world and my own makes it difficult to find much good in a speech that majored on conclusions drawn from undefended assumptions. Nevertheless, rather than fall into the error I so heartily condemned I offer the following as an attempt to interact with the main thrust of the rhetoric and plea of the contemporary social democrat.

Ideology cannot be addressed by merely practical means. Stephen Lewis, symposium keynote speaker and former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, gave morbid and shocking details about the various ways some African men exploit women—men who even think of rape as a legitimate strategy of war. The ideology that undergirds the strategic implementation of these horrific actions to achieve political or personal ends is hideous and deserves all the censure and indignation we can muster.

However, to ask in futile exasperation (my paraphrase), “What in God’s name is wrong with this world that preconceived notions exist which permit men to allow this sort of behavior to go unpunished?” and then suggest that an increase of Western funding of food and water projects and public health and education programs in Sub-Saharan Africa is the primary solution is radically short-sighted.

But this is just what Lewis does. He exposes an insidious way of thinking among some powerful African people groups and then claims that throwing money at the problem by providing for basic needs will also defeat the ideology that allows the predicament of the people to flourish. Lewis seems to believe that Western money can change non-Western patterns of thought and deeply entrenched cultural habits. The arrogance and inconsistency of this solution is almost palpable: only individuals in a wealthy and decadent society could be expected to think that money can, and should, motivate other peoples to reject their own values and belief sets.

If some African nations are suffering because the majority of their (male?) population believes that women are objects and of lesser value than men, the onus is on these African people to reform their way of thinking. Until this happens, the most money can do is offer a bandage in lieu of open-heart surgery.

Not only are Lewis’ proposed solutions inconsistent and short-sighted, they also cannot be effectually carried out: They provide no fundamental motivation to implement the suggested remedies.

Lewis is unclear on why developed nations ought to provide aid to the under-developed. Perhaps he adheres to some sort of Enlightenment deism that has the universal brotherhood of mankind as a fundamental tenet. Such a viewpoint could undergird the categorical imperative that the rich ought to give to the poor, as to their brothers.

It is more likely, given his self-identification as a social democrat, that a Darwinian enlightened self-interest buttresses his altruistic tendencies. This is the view that altruism is better for survival since it allows men to enter into mutually beneficial contracts, recognizing that mutual dependency is critical to survival.

Whatever the reasons, he is consistently stopped in his tracks by the “incomprehensible” and “unbelievable” callousness to the plight of suffering human beings so prevalent among Western nations that is “beyond the capacity of the human mind to comprehend.” Neither universalistic religious sympathies nor Darwinian social evolution can account for this “incomprehensible” behavior of humankind that confronts us at every turn. Christians would call this behavior “sin,” and have a place for it in their worldview that the social evolutionist and universalist alike do not.

Whether “sin” or not, this arresting phenomenon of human behavior must be dealt with before the categorical imperative of altruism has any motivational force. Lacking an explanation, Lewis can offer no enduring reason to sacrifice one’s self and resources for the sake of others—at least not any reason that will provide meaning over the long course of continue self-denial so that others might live.

email
  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Keith Buhler (Enthusiasmos)

    Tex,

    I appreciate your candid and quite bold approach to an area so sensitive it has almost received “exempt” status when it comes to critical evaluation.

    Is it not one of the maxims of ethical philosophy that we must do good to our neighbor, meaning, to those close to us?

    I fear that such graphic and genuinely pathos-laden descriptions of crime, such pleas, such heartfelt exhortations to action, are fundamental misunderstandings. We may be approaching a “global village” but we are not yet all able to help all.

    In fact, how well are we doing at helping our parents, our children, our spouses, our co-workers? They are the ones we see and contact, weeks before and weeks after such an “inspirational” event as you attended.

    If you cannot love your roommate, whom you have seen, how can you love the African victims whom you have not seen?

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

    Keith,

    I’m interested to hear more as to why you think that “such heartfelt exhortations to actions are fundamental misunderstandings.” Misunderstandings of what?

    You are right, of course, to point out that much of the religious fervor of human-rights activists often sounds a bit hollow, given their rather selfish track-record with regard to their familial and neighborly relations.

    However, let’s leave our cynicism aside and suppose that at least a small handful of such activists are consistent in caring for their family as much as they care about the vast popluation of Africa. I’m interested to know two things from these people:

    1. Why should I (or they, for that matter) believe that there is an obligation incumbent upon us to alleviate suffering—that not doing so is morally reprehensible?
    2. Given that #1 above is established, why should I send money and physical resources to address what strikes me as a fundamentally non-physical and ideologically motivated issue?

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Keith Buhler (Enthusiasmos)

    Misunderstandings, primarily, of to whom our ethical responsibility is. I propose that it is for “our neighbor,” meaning those with whom we actually have daily or some form of regular relationship. For those in charge of or working with international organizations, one’s neighbor does indeed include the third-world poor, oppressed, starving, etc. But for the average person, it does not.

    Their languishing over our negligence, if this is right, is about as reasonable as my languishing over their negligence for not being a good friend to my brother Kevin, or for not taking the time to babysit my new neice and nephew. They are simply different spheres of responsibility.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Keith Buhler (Enthusiasmos)

    The reason it’s sort of horrible to say that is because it sounds like I’m saying, “Let’s leave all the unfortunate to themselves.” No! Insofar as we, as a country, DO have the power, do have the resources, do have the time to alleviate suffering worldwide, then some of us must do it! Those who devote their time to alleviating worldwide suffering are to be commended.

    At the same time, they should not be rhetorically persuading us laymen into feeling guilty for our lack of involvement in that project. We are plenty busy with our own ethical responsibilities, and the “good samaritan” analogy does not apply. We would not inflict upon them passionate appeals to pity, trying to convince them to take care of the poor and suffering in our household or neighborhood. Not everyone can be everyone else.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Keith Buhler (Enthusiasmos)

    Re: 1. It seems like their argument is simply this: “We are a global village. Africans are your neighbor. Love your neighbor.” I question the second statement as highly dubious for the average citizen of the Western world.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Keith Buhler (Enthusiasmos)

    Re: 2. This is a devastating critique. Regardless of my above comments, which may or may not be true, this is a deeper question.

    What exactly is the problem? If the problem is bio-physical or socio-economic, then bio-physical and socio-economic solutions will work. If it is psychological, then these will not; only psychological/spiritual solutions will work.

    How many humanitarian organizations are proposing such solutions? How politically incorrect would it be for them to do so?

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Keith Buhler (Enthusiasmos)

    So as not to be entirely critical, let me propose two practical solutions to our worldwide problems… These are, I argue, hopeful global cures for global health:

    1. Christian churches should be built in every country. Although food and water and medicine are necessary, they are insufficient for true life. True life is not merely bodily, but psychological. Doctors are necessary for bodily health, but evangelical orthodox pastors are necessary for spiritual and psychological health.

    2. All compassionate-minded people should pray for the health of all people on the globe. Since the problems of the human condition are problems we have created for ourselves, they are problems beyond our ability to solve. The enemy is not without, but within. The enemy is not hunger, disease, and death, but pride, ignorance, and disobedience to our Father. Therefore, purely ‘humanistic’ humanitarian efforts are, in principle, doomed. Our only recourse is to return to He who is beyond humanity. Our best way of returning is simply by talking to Him again. We should pray, and pray that others will also pray.

  • http://www.2knowtruth.com Jim Roane

    I have read this blog with interest, after having spend decades in humanitarian work overseas . . . yes, I must confess, I am a little older than the average kid.

    Anyway, Tex, you have a point. I am however reminded of what Barth once said: “Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.” Preaching to him was primarily the “kerygma” — although, he did not rule out social action.

    So, I guess that what I am saying is that, Keith, also has a valid point; that is, as I understand it, to witness through acts of kindness. And, in my opinion, that kindness is kindness for the sake of kindness, not for some visible reward. True love expects nothing in return. It is unconditional. We must not, however, let our good be evil spoken of, in the sense that we fund evil doers so that they are able to continue their evil practices. The breakdown in most of these humanitarian programs-Christian and governmental alike-is generally the middle man. A hungry child or an abused woman under normal circumstances is rarely, if at all, where the system of benevolence breaks down.

    The command still stands, however, to do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith. Galatians 6:10