Fassin D - Humanitarian Reason

Didier Fassin – Humanitarian Reason

Fassin D (2012) Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press


A brief summary of the text

Fassin seeks to describe the outlines of a moral framework that he has detected at work in France and, perhaps more controversially, globally. He starts with a definition of “moral sentiments” (p1) that sets up the arguments for the whole book: “the emotions that direct our attention to the suffering of others and make us want to remedy them” (p1). Such sentiments manifest in compassion, and when translated into policy result in “humanitarian government” (p1), i.e. governments basing policies and programs, and their justification, on an explicit desire to alleviate suffering. It is this “deployment of moral sentiments in contemporary politics” (p1) that Fassin refers to as humanitarian reason.

In the Introduction, he states that he will investigate the moral obviousness of humanitarian reason, i.e. why does this line of moral reasoning work so well? As well, he states that he will follow an analytical, rather than a normative, approach, seeking to follow what has been enabled or foreclosed by this framework, and what consequences it has had. As such, he seeks to describe a new “moral economy” (p7).

He does so by way of a number of ethnographic case studies and non-ethnographic research involving interviews and analysis of documents. The first four studies are based in France, and the following four outside France, in the underdeveloped world: South Africa, Venezuela, Palestine and Iraq.

Group Discussion

Participants: Richard Werbner, Amy Penfield, Karen Sykes, Phaedra Douzina Bakalaki, Jong Min Jeong, Jenna Murray de Lopez, Ben Eyre, Soumhya Venkatesan, Angela Torresan, Jeremy Gunson, Piyush Pushkar.

Clearly, Fassin’s project is ambitious. He is seeking to find generalities across a number of sites in order to find evidence of a logic that he argues prevails globally. He refrains from using the word ‘universal’, but he comes close to framing it in these terms. While the group differed in opinions regarding the success of what he was trying to achieve in terms of a macro-level analysis, everybody agreed that one key failure was in his micro-level analysis. The question was whether this led to a collapse of his whole argument, or just represented a lacuna that could be ameliorated by further work.

One other member of the group and I felt that the best attempt at this kind of micro-level analysis was achieved in Chapter 2, in which Fassin describes the creation of a 1bn Franc Fonds d’urgence sociale, a one-off scheme to give money to poor people in need of emergency funds. Fassin carefully analyses the appeals that are made to the scheme and the rationales of the decision-makers, and is able to demonstrate that the appeals made were not to legal precedent or some kind of rule-based rationality. Instead they were to the compassion of the decision-makers, i.e. they sought to elicit pity, rather than invoke rights. The chapter neatly demonstrates evidence for the compassion-based reasoning of the people in charge of regulating the donations, but as he himself admits, actually says nothing about the subjectivities of the recipients of these donations. This is because Fassin only reads the written appeals, but does not actually interview or spend time with the people writing them. Indeed, he never actually meets them at all. So, were their appeals conscious and skilful strategies to manipulate a bureaucracy, or were they evidence of an internalisation and acceptance of a construction of their selves as the subjects of aid? Fassin’s investigation cannot answer this question.

This gap, replicated in all of the case studies, was a key criticism for our group. The main argument concerns humanitarianism, a key element of which is the giving of aid to those less fortunate than the donors. (I am knowingly conflating charity, philanthropy and governmental aid, simply because Fassin does. This was another of the group’s criticisms.) An anthropological investigation that has only looked at one half of this gift relation has missed a key constituent of the dynamic. Although I felt that this kind of gap was most important for the gift relation, other group members found that his analysis – in this chapter and others – was devoid of other intricacies of detail that were deeply important: gender, religion, aesthetics, etc.

These gaps matter because he is seeking to make a globally applicable argument. Of course, no monograph can cover all topics, but by failing to examine the micro-level relations that may undermine his argument, Fassin has opened himself up to easy criticisms. In other words, French governments may well attempt to apply humanitarian reason in various sites. But what if it ends up working in different ways in different places? What if differing social, cultural, economic and political contexts lead to the recipients of aid experiencing the effects of that moral logic (and its translation into policy/programs) in different ways? What implications would that have for humanitarian reason itself? He has outlined the moral structure of humanitarian reason with a clear direction of centre to periphery, European (or more specifically, French) government/charities to the suffering poor of Europe/France and less developed countries. By not countenancing the possibility that the obverse part of the relation may affect the moral structure, he undermines the foundations of his argument.

I do not believe that these criticisms necessarily invalidate his argument regarding the existence of something called humanitarian reason. However, they do weaken it, particularly with regard to its universality.

Although the group levelled the above criticisms regarding the examination of the gift relation and the subjectivities of the recipients of aid, we did find much to praise in his elucidation of the unintended consequences of humanitarian programs, e.g. the construction of “hierarchies of humanity” (p223) in South Africa by the prioritisation of children with AIDS by French and American charities. I myself was particularly moved by the chapter on the medical documentation of torture, having myself done work as a medico-legal report writer for Freedom From Torture. These reports, written by well-meaning physicians, are used in claims for asylum, but at the same time reinforce a logic in which the body becomes the “ultimate site of veracity” (p113), a scar – psychic or physical – being required in order to be believed by the state.

These successes of the book form a part of what he has described elsewhere as part of the project of moral anthropology: examining “the economic and social issues [moral language] reformulates or eclipses, particularly in terms of inequality and power, and the alternative perspectives it delegitimizes, whether they invoke justice or conflict” (Fassin 2015:15). But in his quest, he fails to forge an anthropology of the good that goes beyond the “suffering subject” (Robbins 2013). In other words, he fails to ask what else is ‘in’ the good that cannot be accounted for by compassion. As pointed out quite vociferously by one member of the group, the reason he fails to account for a broader conceptualisation of morality is because his definitions “have rigged the game”. For Fassin, “moral sentiments”(p1) are “the emotions that direct our attention to the suffering of others and make us want to remedy them” (p1).[1] His a priori definition has already focused the investigation on suffering, thus foreclosing an analysis of what one member called the “ambiguity of morality”. The same member wondered if Fassin was a philosopher rather than an anthropologist because of this rigging of the game. He also lamented Fassin’s lack of reference to the long history of anthropological literature on suffering, violence and morality.

This was not nit-picking. The point was that Fassin, in imposing these a priori definitions of morality, had disavowed any intention of investigating where morality comes from. As such, he may have provided evidence of the moral obviousness of humanitarian reason (in some sites), but had not spoken to his own question of why this line of argument works so well. Therefore, he had not helped the group with its primary question (which you can find on the About page).

However, he had certainly helped us with our second question, albeit primarily with regard to France and French institutions. This clearly-written, digestible and frequently moving monograph does provide evidence for something he calls humanitarian reason, although it may not extend as far as he claims, at least not in the same way in all sites. As well, he goes a long way towards analysing the hidden effects of this moral framework, what it enables and forecloses, what kinds of economic and political structures are reinforced by it, what kinds of social struggles it contains. In short, Fassin’s major success is in showing us that humanitarian reason exists, and in showing us some of its unintended consequences. Not all of the group would agree with me on this, but I think there is much to be appreciated in that achievement, even if much works remains to be done in order to fill in the gaps.

 Piyush Pushkar

Fassin, Didier. 2015. “Introduction: Toward a Critical Moral Anthropology.” Pp. 1–17 in A Companion to Moral Anthropology. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Robbins J. 2013. Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good. J. R. Anthropol. Inst. 19:447–62

[1] We realised that although Fassin does not credit him, he may have been following Adam Smith in his definition. The following quote is from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but I have lifted it from Wikipedia:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

However, as one member pointed out, Smith was drawing on the Nicomachean Ethics to make his argument, according to which there was a limit to how much pity a person could beneficially draw from another, after which compassion would be replaced by resentment. I realised after the discussion that actually, Fassin does make a similar argument in Chapter 2, in which he identifies “compassion fatigue” in the decision-makers (p61).


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