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At the Situationist, Paul Slovic asks if we will have “Another Century of Genocide?” In this and previous posts, he notes that our moral intuitions fail when the number of lives involved becomes large. In some cases, this is attributable to our inability to grasp the impact of events on large scales, but Slovic notes that research shows that compassion breaks down when the number of needy increases even from one to two people.
The fact that we cannot trust our moral intuitions highlights the need to invoke our capacity for deliberate, rational thought, i.e. moral argument, to guide us in the face of genocide. Such moral deliberation led to the drafting in 1948 of the Genocide Convention, designed to prevent such crimes against humanity from ever happening again. Yet this convention has proven ineffective in numerous episodes of genocide that have occurred after World War II. Why is this the case?
Confounding the problem of errant moral intuition is the common phenomenon of media fatigue, where the news media saturate the airwaves and print media with (largely superficial and sensationalized) coverage of an event, milking it for all of the ratings it can provide until the next big story (or bit of celebrity trivia) intrudes on the public consciousness.
As Humanists, we should always strive to bring about rational debate of such important issues. One area where this could be particularly effective is in playing a more active role in fostering a rational approach to resource allocation, so that our foreign aid, our biomedical research, and our military forces are deployed for maximal benefit to the global community.
Perhaps if the present administration hadn’t abdicated the moral authority of the United State we would be better positioned to play a leadership role in this area. But this is clearly an area where we need our government to intervene on our behalf. That such decisions are often mired in political calculus is tragic.
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