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Humanitarian Reason

Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present

Translated by Rachel Gomme
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Humanitarian Reason
    Book Description:

    In the face of the world’s disorders, moral concerns have provided a powerful ground for developing international as well as local policies. Didier Fassin draws on case materials from France, South Africa, Venezuela, and Palestine to explore the meaning of humanitarianism in the contexts of immigration and asylum, disease and poverty, disaster and war. He traces and analyzes recent shifts in moral and political discourse and practices — what he terms “humanitarian reason”— and shows in vivid examples how humanitarianism is confronted by inequality and violence. Deftly illuminating the tensions and contradictions in humanitarian government, he reveals the ambiguities confronting states and organizations as they struggle to deal with the intolerable. His critique of humanitarian reason, respectful of the participants involved but lucid about the stakes they disregard, offers theoretical and empirical foundations for a political and moral anthropology.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95048-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface to the English Edition
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Humanitarian Government
    (pp. 1-18)

    Moral sentiments have become an essential force in contemporary politics: they nourish its discourses and legitimize its practices, particularly where these discourses and practices are focused on the disadvantaged and the dominated, whether at home (the poor, the immigrants, the homeless) or farther away (the victims of famine, epidemics, or war). By “moral sentiments” are meant the emotions that direct our attention to the suffering of others and make us want to remedy them.¹ They link affects with values—sensitivity with altruism—and some, indeed, derive the latter from the former and morality from emotions: in this philosophical tradition, the...


    • 1. Suffering Unveiled Listening to the Excluded and the Marginalized
      (pp. 21-43)

      The 1995 presidential election campaign in France was dominated by the theme of “social fracture.” In a context where unemployment had finally come to be recognized as a structural fact of French society rather than a temporary result of a particular set of economic conditions, as it had long been held to be, a gnawing anxiety had developed around what was termed, during the 1980s, “new poverty,” and from 1990 onward, “social exclusion.” During this period when sociologists asserted that society was no longer organized as a vertical hierarchy but rather divided with an inside and an outside, the idea...

    • 2. Pathetic Choice Exposing the Misery of the Poor
      (pp. 44-82)

      How was “1 billion francs” to be distributed efficiently and fairly to the poor? This was the question faced by the French state following Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s announcement, in January 1998, that he was to set up aFonds d’urgence sociale(Social Emergency Fund, Fus) as a political response to “the movement of the unemployed and the precarious” (to use the phrase that quickly became accepted). Over the preceding weeks, this social conflict had emerged not only as the most pressing issue the new Socialist government had confronted since it came to power, but also as the problem of...

    • 3. Compassion Protocol Legalizing Diseased Undocumented Immigrants
      (pp. 83-108)

      One of the first initiatives of the new left-wing government resulting from the French parliamentary elections in 1997 was the publication, on June 24, of a circular from the minister of the interior, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, reconsidering the situation of various categories of illegal immigrants. Though at the time it went almost unnoticed, except by immigrant support organizations, the most remarkable aspect of this document was the automatic granting of residence rights to “any foreigner habitually resident in France and suffering from a serious condition requiring medical treatment, and for whom deportation would result in exceptionally serious consequences, provided that he...

    • 4. Truth Ordeal Attesting Violence for Asylum Seekers
      (pp. 109-130)

      In 2004, with 58,550 applications submitted, France became the industrialized country with the highest recorded number of requests for asylum, ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, which until then had been the top three countries for refugees. Yet in the same year, the rate of acceptance of applications by the Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et des Apatrides (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons, Ofpra), which had declined continuously for thirty years, reached its lowest level, at 9.3%. Thus, if we count not the applications submitted but the actually granted refugee...


    • 5. Ambivalent Hospitality Governing the Unwanted
      (pp. 133-158)

      On May 23, 2002, just two weeks after taking office in the French government under Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Nicolas Sarkozy, the new minister of the interior, made a highly publicized visit to the Sangatte transit center in the north of France. Since September 24, 1999, the giant hangar, located in a small coastal resort, had become an almost obligatory staging post for foreigners en route to the United Kingdom to seek asylum: during those two and a half years, it is estimated that fifty-five thousand people found temporary shelter there before crossing from Calais by train or boat. Run...


    • 6. Massacre of the Innocents Representing Childhood in the Age of Aids
      (pp. 161-180)

      When the Thirteenth International Aids Conference opened in Durban on July 9, 2000, South Africa was already seen as the nation most seriously affected by the epidemic. By a remarkable, but until now little-understood, phenomenon this country, which in the early 1990s had appeared so spared by the virus that it became the subject of studies seeking to explain this relative immunity (at that time less than 1% of the population was infected), a decade later had become the world epicenter of the pandemic (HIV seroprevalence was estimated at 24% among adults).¹ In a tragic coincidence with this unprecedentedly rapid...

    • 7. Desire for Exception Managing Disaster Victims
      (pp. 181-199)

      The tsunami that hit South Asia on December 26, 2004, causing the death of more than 285,000 people and sparking a campaign that resulted in donations estimated at more than 5 billion euros, dramatically highlighted the historical fact that natural disasters, insofar as they represent both the most massive (in terms of numbers of victims) and the purest (being putatively beyond human control) of collective misfortune, belong to the modern moral universe. As Theodor Adorno’s well-known argument put it: “The Lisbon earthquake sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz.”¹ For European societies, and particularly for the intellectual elites...

    • 8. Subjectivity without Subjects Reinventing the Figure of the Witness
      (pp. 200-222)

      The official history of Médecins Sans Frontières highlights one moment—the Biafran war at the end of 1968 with the urgent new imperative to bear witness, no longer simply to offer assistance—as the moment when the idea of the organization and more broadly of a new form of humanitarianism was born.¹ Whereas silence had long been seen as the condition for gaining authorization from all parties to the conflict to bring aid to military and civilian groups, to the extent that it had become virtually synonymous with neutrality, nongovernmental organizations were now on the contrary asserting not only their...

    • 9. Hierarchies of Humanity Intervening in International Conflicts
      (pp. 223-242)

      When the Czech president and the British prime minister described the Nato bombing of Kosovo, during spring 1999, as a humanitarian act, many analysts considered that a threshold had been crossed in the definition of just wars.¹ The subsequent Western army interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 confirmed this impression, demonstrating that humanitarian language could be mobilized at the heart of military operations. This development manifested a phenomenon that had been emerging over the preceding two decades. Humanitarian action has in fact become a major modality and a dominant frame of reference for Western political intervention in...

  9. Conclusion: Critique of Humanitarian Reason
    (pp. 243-258)

    What is a critical thinking? How can it help us in comprehending the world, and possibly acting on it? These are the questions social sciences have been asking since their inception. Although Émile Durkheim promoted a positive science of society, he was nevertheless profoundly engaged in a critical reflection, often more moral than political, about the world and its transformations—not only in his public life but also in his intellectual life. Long regarded as the defender of axiological neutrality, Max Weber still considered the exercise of critical thought as perhaps even more essential to research than to action—far...

  10. Chronology
    (pp. 259-262)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 263-306)
  12. Glossary
    (pp. 307-310)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 311-324)
  14. Index
    (pp. 325-336)