HI-01-02 Images, Empathy, and the Humanitarian Impulse

This is lesson two of six on humanitarian intervention.

Here are links to the other five:

Ethics & Politcs of Humanitarian Intervention:
Lesson 01-01, Lesson 01-03

Intervention: From Theories to Cases:
Lesson 02-01

The Evolving Norm of Humanitarian Intervention:
Lesson 03-01, Lesson 03-03


It is difficult to know how to react and respond to the suffering of distant strangers. Our inherited wisdom about duties of justice and aid, not to mention our evolved psychology, derives from a world without modern institutions and technologies, such as the global media, satellite communications, and the Internet. Today, the faces of distant suffering appear (and appeal) to us through our television and computer screens.

What is the appropriate reaction to such images? Should we respond? Can we respond to all images of crises and misery abroad? Should we respond only to those crises accessible to camera crews?

Humanitarian intervention is often placed on the table as a potential way to respond. But how should we conceptualize such commitments of force and material resources? Are interventions to help needy and threatened individuals in distant places acts of relief or of rescue, or must they amount to more considered, long-term involvements (including commitments to postconflict reconstruction, to be discussed in lesson 8)?

In this lesson we consider the "moral psychology" of humanitarian intervention and the role of global communication in mediating which crises solicit responses and how those responses come to be characterized. We talk about the role of emotions in motivating the humanitarian impulse; and the role of media- and elite-framing effects in conditioning the way we view humanitarian crises and action.


Select 30-minute excerpt(s) from 100-minute documentary Darfur Now (2007).


A. In-class Activities
Watch: Darfur Now (30 minutes)

Do: Discussion (30 minutes)
Class discussion of documentary, drawing on readings

B. Assignments to Be Completed in Advance (0-2+ hours)
John Langan, "The Politics and Ethics of Rescue," in Ethics and the Future of Conflict, ed. by Lang, Pierce, and Rosenthal (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004)

Steven Livingston, Clarifying the CNN Effect: An Examination of Media Effects According to Type of Military Intervention, KSG Research Paper R-18 (1997) [PDF]

Nancy Sherman, "Empathy, Respect, and Humanitarian Intervention," Ethics & International Affairs 12 (1998)


A. In coming to the aid of fellow persons, to what degree are we moved by respect and to what degree by empathy? Are the two really distinct?

B. Why is it important for moral theorists to think about both psychology and technology?

C. What effects do media coverage and celebrity endorsements have on our consideration of foreign policy options? Which effects should we welcome, and why? Can you think of a positive example of a celebrity figurehead drawing attention to a previously hidden or underreported injustice?

D. Isn't it usually a good idea to "rescue" people? Why should the idea be controversial within the humanitarian intervention debate?


"Fiona Robinson on the Ethics of Care," EIA Interview (February 16, 2009). Video, audio, and transcript available.

John Langan, "The Politics and Ethics of Rescue," in Ethics and the Future of Conflict, ed. Lang, Pierce, and Rosenthal (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004)

Amir Pasic and Thomas Weiss, "The Politics of Rescue: Yugoslavia's Wars and the Humanitarian Impulse," Ethics & International Affairs 11 (1997)

Plus short responses to Pasic and Weiss:

Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, "Historical Frames and the Politics of Humanitarian Intervention: from Ethiopia, Somalia to Rwanda," Globalisation, Societies and Education 5, no. 3 (2007)