Political and Charitable Approaches
Within liberal political theory there is some consensus that individuals in the richer communities of the world ought to act to address global poverty. In determining what action this obligation entails, theorists have offered two broad approaches.
The first approach, as exemplified by Peter Singer, argues that the relatively affluent ought to divert a sizable portion of their income to the more effective aid organisations. Singer offers a number of examples of such organisations, but he primarily focuses on those addressing infectious diseases and delivering supplies in the aftermath of humanitarian crises (Singer 2010, pp. 81–105). The second approach, associated with the work of Thomas Pogge, argues that the globally affluent ought to pressure their own governments to support the reform of global institutions that act to systematically disadvantage less affluent nations (Pogge 2002). In keeping with the current literature (Kuper 2002; Langlois 2008) I will refer to these two approaches as charitable and political accounts of duties to reduce global poverty. To avoid potential misunderstandings, the use of the term ‘charitable’ here in no way implies that proponents of the former approach take donations towards aid organisations to be supererogatory.
In drawing a distinction between political and charitable accounts of duties to reduce global poverty previous discussions have highlighted the following features: (i) charitable accounts tend to emphasise financial donations in contrast to political activism; (ii) political accounts typically focus on long-term solutions to chronic poverty, whereas charitable accounts primarily focus on alleviating immediate need (Singer 1972). At the level of framing the following two further distinctions can be drawn: (iii) charitable relationships are traditionally understood to involve a significant power differential between the helper and the helped, with agency primarily lying with the former. As Kirk observes, ‘charity…rests on the interaction between a powerful giver—be that an individual or a nation—and a grateful receiver. In this paradigm, agency lies almost exclusively with the powerful givers’ (2012, p. 248). (iv) Political approaches tend to emphasise the agent’s own causal complicity in global poverty, for example through benefiting from or supporting an unjust international order that is at least partially responsible for much poverty globally (Pogge 2002). It is important to note that for each of these features this is a question of emphasis rather than a strict binary. However, I take these distinctions to capture important differences between charitable and political accounts, and, for the purposes of this paper, employ a family resemblance view of the two approaches based on the features outlined.
There is a significant and nuanced literature on strategies to develop more cosmopolitan orientations, to which I cannot do full justice here. Advocates of institutional solutions argue that a lack of motivation to address global poverty and other injustices can be largely attributed to a lack of robust global institutions (Ulas 2017; Weinstock 2009). These theorists suggest that collective membership of global institutions could, over time, lead to the formation of a robust sense of community with distant others—motivating individuals to live up to their cosmopolitan commitments (Ulas 2017). Statist cosmopolitans advocate utilising the machinery of the state to create more cosmopolitan identifications amongst the citizenry (Ypi 2008). Although sceptical concerning the broader cosmopolitan project, Lenard (2012) argues that the resources employed by nation states to inculcate robust national identities might be fruitfully applied to the task of creating cosmopolitan identifications. Avoiding a binary understanding of national versus cosmopolitan identity, Erskine’s account of ‘embedded cosmopolitanism’ (2008) has explored multiple and overlapping sources of identification that may be able to motivate individuals to act in a more cosmopolitan manner without identifying as a cosmopolitan as such. Proponents of ‘thick cosmopolitanism’ recommend highlighting causal relationships between individuals in more affluent countries and distant others (Lawford-Smith 2010; Linklater 2007; Dobson 2006). This strategy combines Pogge’s (2002) argument that individuals in more affluent countries are causally responsible for harming the global poor, through the collective imposition of unfair trading terms at the global level, with the psychological assumption that we feel greater moral urgency to rectify harms caused by our actions, than to address similar harms for which we are not causally responsible (Lawford-Smith 2010). Other theorists have rightly drawn attention to the other-directed nature of this debate, arguing that the task of motivating cosmopolitan behaviour need not purely rest on duty or fellow-feeling but can be in part supported by citizen’s rational self-interest (Bufacchi 2005), for example, through reducing the risk of global pandemics or unrest fostered by severe poverty (Weinstock 2009).
The sentimental cosmopolitan approach, which is the focus of this article, argues that limited action to address global poverty and other global injustices can be explained by a lack of affective concern for distant others on the part of individuals in more affluent countries. To address this, sentimental cosmopolitans recommend a process of ‘sentimental education’ where exposure to sympathetic portrayals of distant others in media and narrative art serve to develop the affective connections necessary for cosmopolitan arguments to motivate. In doing so, sentimental cosmopolitanism foregrounds the (plausible) assumption that affect is central to moral motivation (Green et al. 2001; Izard and Ackerman 2000). Finally, it should be noted that these approaches are not competitors, and that the complex task of motivating cosmopolitan action likely requires employing a variety of these strategies in tandem.
The Traditional Model of Sentimental Education
The concept of a ‘sentimental education’ has been developed in recent sentimental cosmopolitan scholarship (Woods 2012; Long 2009), but has two primary sources. Richard Rorty’s (1998) argument that journalism and literature encouraging sentimental identification with groups previously seen as other have played a key role in encouraging respect for human rights globally, and Martha Nussbaum’s (2001) account of the role of art and literature within formal education as a means to encourage the extension of compassion beyond national borders. Although these two accounts differ in some respects, they share a number of important features. Drawing on the commonalities between these two accounts I will offer a brief sketch of what cosmopolitan sentimental education is typically understood to entail. The picture provided here is not intended to be exhaustive, but to serve as a reference point for the discussion which follows.
The basic claim that underlies the idea of a sentimental education is that exposure to representations of the lives of distant others, in narrative art and print and television journalism, can lead to increased sentimental identification with those facing similar hardships. This increased sentimental identification can in turn motivate a greater propensity to undertake action in support of these individuals. From this basic claim I wish to draw out three features: (i) the nature of the sentimental connection, (ii) how this is achieved, and (iii) the end towards which this connection is put.
The nature of the connection. Both accounts are concerned that those in positions of relative power develop kinder feelings towards marginalised others. Rorty primarily focuses on the extension of sympathy to those suffering from human rights abuses (1998), whereas Nussbaum’s account advocates developing compassion for the sufferings of individuals beyond national borders (1993). We can note two commonalities here. First, both accounts focus on developing a unidirectional sentimental connection on the part of those in positions of relative power, for those suffering injustices. Second, on both accounts, attention is directed towards the suffering other, with notions of responsibility for their suffering playing a minimal role.
How the connection is achieved. Both authors share the conviction that representations of the lives of distant others, encountered in narrative art and within the media, are the primary means by which to encourage this extension of affective concern. However, there is a difference of emphasis. Rorty’s account focuses on the role of journalism, and what he terms ‘middlebrow art forms’, such as popular novels, and television shows (1991, pp. 66–85) encountered in day-to-day life. Nussbaum does not deny that these mediums are important, but argues that their content is especially vulnerable to being determined by market pressure (2001, p. 435). Instead, Nussbaum’s account focuses on the role of narrative art forms, especially literature, encountered during formal education, as a means of promoting sentimental concern (2001, pp. 425–433).
It is important to note three things here. First, encounters with representations of the lives of distant others operate in place of actual interaction with these others. This is a point to which I return below. Second, in this process encounters with depictions of the lives of distant others are necessarily mediated to some degree, for example through the presence of journalists or educators (Woods 2012, pp. 41–44). Third, on both accounts, images of suffering others serve as the primary means by which to provoke increased sentimental concern. Nussbaum’s account of the structure of compassion makes it clear that she considers this emotion to arise in response to suffering, requiring that an agent must ‘consider the suffering of another as a significant part of his or her own scheme of goals and ends’, and take this suffering to be both serious, and undeserved (2001, p. 319). Similarly, Rorty suggests that sentimental education requires people to ‘turn their eyes toward the people who are getting hurt, [and] notice the details of the pain being suffered’ (1998, p. 80).
Intended action. Although both authors offer a relatively incomplete picture of the action they hope a sentimental education to motivate, neither offers an explicitly political model of this action. For Nussbaum, global poverty is one of a number of cosmopolitan injustices that a sentimental education can motivate action to address (1996, pp. 3–17). The focus of Rorty’s 1993 Amnesty lecture is on reducing negative human rights violations (traditionally understood); however, in other work Rorty (1991) suggests a sentimental education can motivate action to address global poverty, but is relatively silent on what action this entails. Although neither author rules out political action to address global poverty, both operate with a primarily charitable model of the action required. Political responses to global poverty aim to identify institutional causes of global poverty and promote alternative institutional arrangements; however, there is scant attention to the institutional causes of global poverty, and identifying responsible parties, on either Rorty’s or Nussbaum’s account. Although responsibility features on Nussbaum’s model insofar as for compassion to be appropriate an agent’s suffering must be undeserved, Nussbaum does not take the further step of identifying responsible parties, or institutional causes of this suffering. Rorty’s account shares this lack of emphasis on identifying those responsible for suffering. As Woods observes, on Rorty’s account ‘sympathy floats free from responsibility, suffering exists almost spontaneously. Agents encounter suffering independent of causal factors and respond to it without questioning its roots’ (2009, pp. 60–61).
I want to suggest that the traditional model of sentimental education faces two key shortcomings as a means to motivate support for political action to address global poverty. (i) The means by which the traditional model aims to bring about increased sentimental identification with individuals facing global poverty risks obscuring the agency of these individuals. Woods (2012) and O’Neill (2000) have highlighted the adverse effects obscuring the agency of individuals facing global poverty has on motivating support for attempts to address global poverty; however, here I make the claim that this poses a particular problem for political approaches. (ii) The use of representations of distant others to bring about an unidirectional increase in affective concern on the part of the globally affluent, lends itself to the development of an excessively abstracted form of affective identification. However, political action to reduce global poverty requires the cultivation of a more robust affective relationship.
Concerns for the Traditional Model
Agency and Political Action
Political action and perceptions of agency. The claim that support for political strategies to reduce global poverty is especially linked to perceiving individuals facing global poverty as active agents may, on the face of it, appear puzzling. However, a link between perceptions of particular others as active agents, and a willingness to come to the aid of these others, is a feature of much of the theoretical literature on the concept of solidarity (Straehle 2010; Gould 2007). Solidarity, understood as a particular kind of affective relationship binding individuals or groups, and particularly conducive to political action, is thought to differ in kind from the affective relationship underlying charitable donation. There is a danger of begging the question at issue here, and drawing an overly sharp theoretical distinction between a political solidarity, and an apolitical pity or compassion, where whichever affective relationships motivate support for political action necessarily fall into the former category, and those motivating charitable donation, the latter. I do not wish to claim that such a sharp distinction is tenable, or that those moved to act by solidaristic feelings will not sometimes find that their aims are best served by charitable donation, or vice versa. Nevertheless, I do wish to argue that a form of affective concern, which recognises the agency of its subject, may be particularly conducive to motivating political strategies to reduce global poverty.
An initial route links agency to an expectation of reciprocity, or mutual aid, thought to differentiate a robust disposition of solidarity, from feelings of pity or compassion. As Carol Gould notes, ‘solidarity, rather than pity or compassion, is thought to presuppose some degree of equality between agents, and an expectation of reciprocity’ (2007, p. 154). This expectation of reciprocity or mutual aid necessarily requires that we see those we stand in a solidaristic relationship with as agents, capable of returning the favour, either now, or at some future time (Woods 2012, p. 41). Accordingly, solidarity may be more motivationally efficacious than compassion as it includes a weak prudential incentive. Political solutions to global poverty, thought to place particular motivational burdens on individuals, can take advantage of these additional motivational resources. However, this route faces two serious concerns. First, reciprocity is unlikely in the case of distant others, as ‘these others may not be aware of one’s actions in solidarity with them’ (Gould 2007, p. 154). Second, this looks especially untenable in the case of individuals facing global poverty, as their ability to assist is necessarily limited.
Even if reciprocity provides little additional motivational resources in this context, perceiving distant others as active agents may lead to more robust forms of sentimental identification. This is because a capacity for agency is typically an important feature in the self-understandings of the globally affluent (Haldane 2008),Footnote 1 and perceiving distant others as fellow agents, rather than just passive victims, can plausibly provide an additional source of identification. However, fully pursuing this line of argument requires empirical research beyond the scope of the paper; therefore, I will instead offer two reasons why recognising individuals facing global poverty as active agents is especially important for motivating support for political strategies to address global poverty.
First, political strategies to address global poverty that aim to alter global institutions thought to be responsible for causing, or entrenching, global poverty, such as unfair trade rules (Pogge 2002, pp. 169–172) presuppose the agency of individuals facing global poverty. This is because taking advantage of alternative institutional set-ups requires individuals facing global poverty to engage in complex practices, such as international trade, which necessarily require a high level of agency (Woods 2012; O’Neill 2000). Where the global poor are not viewed as purposive agents such strategies will appear implausible. This is compatible with the claim that the injustice of current global institutions is precisely that they undermine people’s agency, as these individuals’ agency would no longer be undermined by alternative institutional arrangements which allowed them opportunities to engage in purposive activities. Moreover, all attempts to address global poverty presuppose some level of agency on the part of those facing global poverty. However, support for financial donations to provide food, or immunisation programmes, is compatible with a view of these individuals that attributes them a more minimal degree of agency.
Second, political strategies to address global poverty often require engaging with particular individuals facing global poverty as active agents. This can either take the form of working together to achieve a solution, such as supporting the political struggles of those facing poverty globally, or individuals in more affluent countries may act alone, but enter into processes of dialogue to determine what action it is appropriate for outsiders to take. In both cases Carol Gould’s requirement of ‘deference to those in need’ is operative, where it is normatively appropriate to consult those facing a particular injustice in determining solutions, and practically sensible, as these individuals are likely to have relevant experiential knowledge of the situation (2007, p. 157). This is significant, as deference to the judgements of individuals facing global poverty, presupposes, not only a particularly high degree of agency on their part, but respect for this agency. These strategies therefore are not only incompatible with a picture of individuals facing global poverty that obscures their agency, but also with considering these individuals to be purposive agents with a lesser capacity for agency than individuals in more affluent countries.
Sentimental education and agency. I have argued elsewhere that strategies of sentimental education that rely on portraying individuals facing global poverty as suffering and vulnerable in order to provoke affective concern can have adverse motivational effects, increasing perceptions of distance between affluent individuals and individuals facing global poverty. I will not fully rehearse these arguments here, but instead restate the general claim, and note two further ways in which the traditional model of sentimental education can serve to obscure the agency of the individuals for whom the process is intended to generate reactions of empathy and compassion.
Strategies of sentimental education that attempt to increase affective concern for individuals facing global poverty by emphasising their neediness, suffering, and vulnerability, are central to the traditional model of sentimental education, and are a familiar feature of the campaigning literature employed by NGOs working in international poverty relief (Woods 2012, p. 41). However, if individuals facing global poverty primarily appear to persons in affluent countries in this manner, it can undermine perceptions of these individuals as capable agents, a quality which typically features heavily in the self-understandings of individuals in affluent countries (Haldane 2008). To be clear, the claim here is not that ‘they’ are vulnerable and ‘we’ are not, or that ‘we’ are ‘capable agents’ and they are not. What I am suggesting is that that such strategies present a misleading picture that both obscures the agency of distant others and the vulnerability of the affluent.Footnote 2 Due to the links between political strategies to address global poverty and perceptions of individuals facing global poverty as active agents discussed above, this poses a particular problem for motivating political action.
Where sentimental education focuses on cultivating affective concern for those suffering as a result of global injustices without also attending to questions of responsibility, particularly at the institutional level, the agency of individuals facing global poverty may be further obscured. When global poverty is encountered absent attention to its political causes we are offered an incomplete picture, of individuals unable to secure the means to survive, rather than capable agents constrained by unjust institutions. Here, perceptions of agency are compromised in two ways. First, poverty may be interpreted as resulting from a lack of ability of the part of individuals facing global poverty, rather than due to institutional factors at a national and global level. Second, insofar as a capacity for agency is compromised by the effects of global poverty, this diminished agency may be taken for the norm, rather than as a temporary situation.
A second issue is that charity is the current paradigm through which global poverty is typically viewed by publics in more affluent countries. This is corroborated by empirical studies by Kirk et al. (2012). Here, there are two concerns. First, where sentimental education does not explicitly focus on political causes and solutions to global poverty, it will plausibly be interpreted within the dominant paradigm, as it makes no attempt to challenge or question this approach. Second, the emphasis within the traditional model of sentimental education on encouraging reactions of sympathy or compassion may lend itself to interpretation within a charitable paradigm, due to the lack of attention to responsibility for injustice in the structure of these sentiments (Hobbs 2019). Moreover, as a number of theorists have argued (Lichtenberg 2014, pp. 180–184; Woods 2012, p. 42), charitable relationships are traditionally understood to involve a significant power differential between a powerful giver and a beneficiary. This relationship can further obscure the agency of individuals facing global poverty. As Kirk notes, ‘most conceive of aid and development as being acts of charity. Charity, in turn, rests on the interaction between a powerful giver—be that an individual or a nation—and a grateful receiver. In this paradigm, agency lies almost exclusively with the powerful givers’ (2012, p. 248).
Sentimental cosmopolitans propose that encounters with depictions of the lives of distant others in narrative art or news media will, in the right circumstances, lead to affective concern for abstract representations of individuals facing global poverty or the subjects of sympathetic news coverage, from which we are then encouraged to generalise to like cases. In either instance, abstraction plausibly compromises the motivational efficaciousness of the sentimental connection. The first issue is with the process of generalisation itself, as the motivational efficaciousness of affective concern for specific individuals (real or imagined) facing global poverty will likely be compromised as we generalise to other cases. This is a problem for all attempts to move from affective connections to particular others to connections to groups to which these individuals are taken to belong (Bartky 2002). However, where particular representations serve to cultivate connections with specific groups of similarly situated individuals, rather than to a generalised ‘distant other’ or ‘global poor’, these connections are likely to be both more robust and better able to motivate informed action. Knowledge of the specifics of others’ situations is only possible at this level. This knowledge is important, not only for identifying effective solutions, but also for developing sufficiently robust affective relationships, as in order to care for others we plausibly need to know something about their actual situation. As Woods notes ‘the motivational gap in cosmopolitan thought proceeds in part from an epistemic one’ (2012, p. 91). A generalised concern looks both too thin to motivate sustained action and prone to motivating action that is ill-informed.
A second issue concerns the feature, or features, that serve as the basis for generalisation from a particular sentimental story to other cases. Generalisation based on shared poverty can undermine perceptions of the individuals concerned as capable agents. Here, the many different causes and manifestations of global poverty are ignored, and instead what is identified is a shared form of suffering, which is not interrogated to address questions of responsibility or blame. Rather than attention to specifics, and the attendant level of complexity, this strategy encourages an image of a single body, ‘“[T]he poor” [who] are understood as an undifferentiated group without intrinsic strength, often referred to through the shorthand of “Africa,” where nothing ever changes’ (Kirk 2012, p. 248).