Michael Stuart Kelly Posted August 7, 2007 Share Posted August 7, 2007 Starving Child in the Wilderness RevisitedThere is a debate going on at RoR about a photograph that was posted—one highly pertinent to the starving child in the wilderness episode I was engaged in a while back. I continue to be disturbed about this—not about the issue so much as about the fact that nobody in Objectivism-land has any real answer, but everybody has enough of one to hurl insults at each other. It bothers the hell out of me that the role and rights of children are not well-defined in Objectivism.First the photo, then some background, then some thoughts.This photograph was taken in 1993 in Sudan by a photographer named Kevin Carter. It was first published by the New York Times, then all over the world. Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for it in 1994. He also took his own life at 33 years old in 1994. In 2004 an HBO Documentary directed by Dan Krauss of Carter's life was filmed: The Death of Kevin Carter - Casualty of the Bang Bang Club. The film won several prizes but was only nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 (for some reason). This is a famous picture of Kevin Carter at work.Carter received a great deal of criticism at the time of the vulture photo for not putting down the camera and helping the girl. Guilt over this is usually given as one of the reasons for his suicide. I looked into it and the story is quite a bit more complicated than that. Here is a Time Magazine article (Sept. 12, 1994), The Life and Death of Kevin Carter by Scott MacLeod, that gives greater perspective. There is a series of articles here, The Ultimate in Unfair. The Time article is included and so is another intriguing one, "The Atrocity Exhibition: A War Fueled by Imagery" by Charles Paul Freund in Reason, June 1999. The quote below from that article sheds some light on the moral issue. In Carter's case, Western newspaper readers saw a little girl. Carter, in the Sudanese village where he landed, was watching 20 people starve to death each hour. Perhaps he might have laid aside his camera to give the victims what succor he could (and thus never have encountered the girl in the bush); perhaps his photographs could have led to greater help than he could personally give. Should he have carried one girl to safety? Carter was surrounded by hundreds of starving children. When he sat by the tree and wept, it was beneath a burden of futility. But his was not a photo of futility, nor of mass starvation, nor of religious factionalism, nor of civil war. Readers saw a little girl. In part, at least, Carter died for that.Let's put this in a more visual sense. Below are a couple of photos from Carter's daily fare in Sudan:What do you do when there are so many of them? Here is an experimental video on You Tube that more or less gives a depiction of the inner torment of such a photographer: . Also, if anyone is interested in seeing what Carter looked and sounded like, here is another video on You Tube: .Moral considerations and some things that bother meThe problem that most irks me on the discussion of this affair is the charge that people let their emotions override their philosophical principles. Added to that, some self-proclaimed custodians of Objectivism claim that any thought of the child's welfare on a philosophical level is a form of altruism (in the Compte sense). That is pure bunk.Regardless of which side of the issue one takes, it is perfectly possible to hold philosophical principles that are not in line with altruism. And regardless of the screech level and pseudo-macho posturing I have observed, the question of emotions/altruism is not the only one at stake. To be fair, there are more reasoned arguments, but most every one I have read so far claims that his/her interpretation is what is proper under Objectivism. After a great deal of thought and reading over months, ever since the starving child in the wilderness episode (see here and here), I have concluded that children's rights is one issue that is not resolved in Objectivism. I want to repeat that because this is not just an opinion. Children's rights is one issue that is not resolved in Objectivism. I have looked for answers throughout the writings of Rand and others (Branden, Peikoff, Kelley, etc.) and I have found no uniform principles that govern this.Without going deeply into the arguments, here are a few of the problems that bother me.1. Objctivism holds that all human beings have individual rights, and that no right of one person may violate the right of another and still be called a right. It also claims that children have the right to life and by definition, they need to be cared for by adults until reaching adulthood. There is obviously a moral collision here. Something has to give because it is impossible to maintain both positions across the board. When one is considered as true for all cases, the other infringes it at certain points. Several solutions have been proposed (limiting liability to the parents, etc.), but for every principle on one end, another conflicting principle on the other end can be brought to bear.2. Definition of human nature. Simply put, I have concluded that the Objectivist view of human nature is incomplete. The part that it gets right is right, but there is so much more involved. Rand defined man as a rational animal, with rational being the differentia and animal the genus, then concentrated her entire ethics on the differentia. In her view of human nature, it is up to the individual's rational part to take care of his animal part and that part is nobody else's business. There are species considerations, however, that are present in common environments and they are simply not covered in Objectivism on the definition level. In questions like the starving child in the wilderness (or Carter's vulture licking its chops), I normally see them all swept under the rug of altruism in Objectivist discussions. This is technically wrong. I don't want to cover this issue here since it has been discussed so much elsewhere. I simply want to register that this is a point that is repeatedly misrepresented. The argument that a person is letting his emotions govern his philosophical principles suffers from the same error of misrepresentation. All principles start with observations and definitions. A disagreement over the definition of human nature is not the advocacy of altruism, nor the abandonment of rational thought in favor of an emotional reaction.3. The right of depravity. There is a traditionally argued Objectivist position that a person who ignores a helpless child in the wilderness is morally depraved, but this falls within the individual rights of that person. Regardless of how it is phrased, whether non-initiation of force is invoked, whether voluntary shunning is proposed, etc., the argument is for the right of a person to be depraved with resulting loss of life. There is no way on earth to sell this idea as a philosophy for living on earth. And there is no such thing as the right to be depraved to the detriment of another. I am not proposing a solution here, merely stating another moral collision.4. Personal choice. I have a real problem with granting a moral sanction to monsters. I do not want life to be like that and I cannot endorse a moral principle that leads to it. That is not the reason I adopted Objectivism.A while back, a person sent me an email with a linked story, suggesting that I use it one day for the abandoned child discussion. Here is the story and a quote from it:Abandoned baby found head-first in Sask. toiletMay 23, 2007CanWest News ServiceA baby boy abandoned after being born in a department store washroom was found face-first in a toilet.Chad Fraser, manager of the Prince Albert, Sask., Wal-Mart, was the first to find the child Monday afternoon."I couldn't see his face, but he was head-down," he said. "He was barely moving when I picked him up. There was blood everywhere."It was unreal."Fraser cleared the baby's airway and massaged his chest until emergency services arrived to perform CPR and hook the baby up to an IV.A spokesman for the Parkland Ambulance service said it was only Fraser's quick thinking which saved the child from drowning or death by hypothermia.I believe that Mr. Fraser morally did the right thing and, as a personal preference, I want no part of advocating his right to stand over that child in the toilet, eating a candy-bar, watching the child die and deriving pleasure from that. Paraphrasing Patrick Henry, if this be treason to Objectivism, make the most of it. I cannot live on those terms.Fortunately, I do not think that defending such a right is what Objectivism is about. I am firmly convinced that it is possible to arrive at a logical solution. My present position is to (1) add the missing parts to the definition of human nature and (2) reformulate some parts of the ethics by taking the expanded definition into account. (Not an "ethics for mankind" but one for "me as an individual member of the human species.") Then it will be easy to arrive at how to resolve the question of conflicting rights. This is no more than a proposal at this moment. Maybe another solution can be found. After much reading, I have not yet seen anything satisfactory.One thing is certain. Objectivism does not have a good answer to this question so far.5. One final beef: the exclusion of context. This is particularly irritating. Let us return to the case of Kevin Carter. On the RoR discussion linked at the start of this post, both sides of this debate condemn Carter in the harshest of moral terms. Both sides agree that he was morally depraved in not helping the girl—the only difference is that one side defends punishing him and the other side defends his right to be depraved. I saw no interest at all in understanding context in that discussion. Photographers like Carter have an enormously complicated job. The psychological price is overwhelming—so unbearable to Carter that he took his own life. In order to perform his job competently, he was required by reality to step outside the situation. He simply could not do two things of that nature at once. My heart went out to him as he sat under that tree after shooing the vulture away and cried his heart out. What a horrible situation. Yet if he had not done what he did, the world would not have had the visual statement of a drastically depraved situation that needed to be resolved if the sanctity of human life is to be a value. How can Objectivists miss this kind of thing?My final conclusion is that, depending on the context, there is no morally correct position. If there is no morality, there are no rights either. I see no point in defending the right of the photographer to be depraved (or the right to life of the child) in a situation where no rights are possible.This is the only point where Objectivism actually provides an answer. The vulture child was in that heartbreaking situation because of a dictatorship of warring tribes. It was the evil of that dictatorship that Carter was exposing—by showing the world the concrete results. Rand stated the proper moral position eloquently in the Q&A book (p. 114) when questioned about an emergency situation where a person was forced to to do something morally wrong:Under a dictatorship—under force—there is no such thing as morality. . . Whatever a man chooses in such cases is right—subjectively.I take this to beyond dictatorships and include all emergencies where force overwhelms an individual's possibility of action. But I'm still thinking about all this.Michael Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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