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Building the Road Ahead: From “Ethics for Disaster” to “Obligation from Disaster”

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Disasters are curious things. They occur regularly yet remain unexpected; they disorient yet bring clarity of purpose; they call for urgent action yet mire us in red tape; they fray individual psyches yet reaffirm social bonds; they challenge old ways of doing things yet prompt yearning for the status quo. These contradictions render disasters a rich but ignored subject of philosophical inquiry. The current drive to overcome this ignorance stems not just from the curiosity of intellectual minds but from the realities of our physical world. The United Nations estimates that every year more than 200 million people around the globe are directly affected by environmental disasters triggered by floods, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes and tsunamis—nearly five times the number directly affected by war and other conflicts over the past decade (UNHCR 2006: 207). Moreover, these numbers don't include terrorist attacks or massive industrial accidents such as Chernobyl, or Bhopal, or British Petroleum's deepwater gusher in the Gulf. When these incidents are added to the list, disasters become some of the most significant cultural events of our times, simultaneously exposing our collective vulnerabilities and challenging us to rethink how we address them.

One way to proceed is to downplay these challenges. This is our current approach, and it takes several interlocking forms. First, it emphasizes the statistical improbability of each specific disaster, casting public concern as irrational unless tied to a clear enemy, with a clear motive. Second, it limits disaster preparation and response to a small, if well-meaning, circle of professionals, who develop plans without much public input or awareness. And third, once disaster happens, it restricts government response to a short time period before handing over quickly to market forces. These approaches maintain the status quo, muddy clear thinking, and preclude ethical planning. This is the thesis of Naomi Zack's wonderfully provocative Ethics for Disaster. In it, Zack pushes us to think and plan better for disasters and lays out the ethical reasons why we should. These reasons are developed through a series of arguments that can be bluntly summarized by the proclamation that clearer thinking and better planning for disaster aren't just good ideas, they are our moral obligation. This obligation extends beyond individuals to governments, and beyond preparation to response, and it is a moral issue because it involves human dignity and well-being, which are intrinsically valuable. What makes Zack's book so engaging is her ability to bring fresh, direct thinking to these issues by dragging the ethical dimensions of disaster into the light for all to consider. Along the way, Zack encourages us to think, plan and act more effectively not only for own safety but for the everyday wellbeing of humans everywhere.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2011

More about this publication?
  • Review Journal of Political Philosophy Volume 8.2: Naomi Zack's Ethics for Disaster
    The Review Journal of Political Philosophy publishes high-quality work in moral and political philosophy, broadly-construed. The Journal prides itself on its eclecticism, not limiting itself to any particular tradition, school of thought, or historical period. We publish articles, reviews, and discussion pieces from leading and new scholars from analytic and continental perspectives, along with articles that bridge the gap between these traditions. This volume of The Review Journal of Political Philosophy is devoted to the further exploration, elaboration, and criticism of Naomi Zack's Ethics for Disaster (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009). For those unfamiliar with the work, this volume also features an overview of the central points of the work in Naomi Zack's reply to the contributors.
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