Yesterday morning, after debating whether to broadcast such distressing imagery, Al-Jazeera English aired footage recorded in a hospital in Eastern Aleppo during a bombing raid. Their report begins with a man and his children inhaling oxygen as a treatment for asphyxiation caused by a barrel bomb dropped a few blocks away. Suddenly there is an explosion and the lights go out. When power returns, hospital staff can be seen rushing around in distress, trying amidst the chaos to evacuate infants from intensive care. At one point, a nurse who has just lifted a premature baby out of its oxygen tent pauses briefly to hold her colleague and weep. When asked about the footage, an Al-Jazeera correspondent reported that a member of the news crew had been overwhelmed after hearing one of the children ask, “Why us, O God, why us?” Faced with such evocative footage, the Russian military swiftly disclaimed responsibility for the incident and released a statement comparing the accuracy of its airstrikes to that of a surgeon working with a laser.
Forty-five years ago the Australian ethicist Peter Singer posed the hypothetical problem of what we should do if we noticed, while strolling through an otherwise empty park, a child drowning in a shallow pond. “If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown,” writes Singer. “Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work.” The obvious refutation of this apparently heartless approach turns out, however, to be an ethical trap, for Singer then asks why so many of us tolerate the suffering and misery of children in other parts of the world when for relatively paltry sums of money we could alleviate their pain. We shrink from footage of children starving, or bombed hospitals, yet we actually do very little to help the victims.
Such thought experiments used to be thought of as purely academic, on par with debates about trees falling in the forest, but they often yield useful insights into our day-to-day political decisions. The eighteenth century philosopher Viscount Bolingbroke once observed, we should approach the lessons of history “in a philosophical spirit and manner” bearing in mind that “history is philosophy teaching by examples how to conduct ourselves in all the situations of private and public life.” Singer’s essay, for example, opens with the reminder that “As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care.” Right now, as you read these words, people are dying in Syria, for almost identical reasons. Singer’s larger point – the relative value that we attach to the lives of people who are remote from us, racially, geographically, culturally or politically – has, if anything, become even more important with the passing of time.
The wave of populism that has taken the UK out of Europe, installed President Duterte in the Philippines, and will soon deliver Donald Trump to the White House suggests that our view of politics is undergoing a seismic shift. Last year, Morgan Stanley’s strategist Ruchir Sharma argued that countries struggling to pay down the estimated US$50 trillion in global debt incurred since the 2008 financial crisis had become so desperate for relief from the old economic orthodoxies that they were willing to take greater risks with new faces. The populists who seized this opportunity have often been proudly insular, displaying a calculated indifference to the wider world and arguing that the time has come for politicians to place national interests ahead of vague international commitments such as trade treaties and climate change agreements. Thus Brexit, and thus Trump. Likewise, there has been a corresponding decline in sympathy for other people and their problems. Rather than lament the appalling human cost of migration from the Middle East and North Africa, for example, Europe’s increasingly emboldened nationalists now openly hope that the spectacle of mass drownings will deter further migration.
Ten years ago, most politicians would have argued that any decent society should try to save all of the victims in Singer’s thought experiment, regardless of their identities. Today, however, a significant number would suggest, with varying degrees of politeness, that in most cases it’s probably someone else’s problem. Foreigners have morphed into a vague, all-purpose bogeyman, or threat, that should be excluded or ignored. On the eve of the Brexit an infamous poster warned voters that Britain was at “breaking point” due to illegal immigration. The facts about immigration – which refuted this scaremongering – should have mattered, but they didn’t. In the US, candidate Trump’s disingenuous xenophobia frequently made the headlines, but equally shameful, perhaps, was the moment when Gary Johnson, the US Libertarian candidate was asked a question about Syria. “What is an Aleppo?” he countered, with the air of a busy man annoyed by a piece of jargon. On another occasion, when asked to name a foreign leader that he admired, Johnson went silent, despite being given extra time to formulate an answer.
The forthcoming US administration – which has appointed what amounts to a white supremacist as its chief strategist, an Islamophobe to oversee national security, and a xenophobe as Attorney General – expresses this emerging Hobbesian populism with unusual clarity. Responding to its worldview will require either an acceptance of the idea that the suffering other people are a remote inconvenience that someone else will, eventually, address, or a renewed commitment to humanist ideals, among them the old-fashioned idea that all people are created equal and have the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.