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.