Discrimination and Disaster Ethics

On Thursday, Nov. 11 Bill Lawson, a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis spoke and led a discussion on how people should respond and prepare for major distressing and uprooting events, termed as an ethics for disasters.

Lawson’s lecture is a response to Naomi Zack’s book Ethics for Disaster. Zack’s book describes how many disasters in other countries are not reported in the U.S., and that if they are reported it is on the aftereffects of the disaster, such as water or food shortages, violence, etc.

These aftereffects are then deemed ‘social problems’ and subsequently do not get the response or aid that is usually given to a ‘disaster.’

Her book continues to state that when examining social problems/ disasters, preparation and response needs to focus on the value of human life and that if ‘social problems’ are portrayed as ‘disasters’ then aid and relief will be better able to help other people on the basis of relieving suffering and pain of fellow humans.

Lawson’s response to this paper focused on the necessity of an ethics for disaster, but he noted that Zack did not go far enough in her analysis of disaster and social problem situations. He said that racism, classism and sexism are major impediments in disaster preparation and response and will not be fixed by simply focusing on the value of other people’s lives.

He gave the examples of major oil spills and water shortages in Nigeria as well as the “role of race in disaster planning for Katrina.”

He said, “How do we retrain persons to overcome disregard for certain persons on this planet?”

Disaster response as well as what is called a disaster, he said, is a product of the individuals and groups involved in the disaster and what prejudices are held against those groups. He added some groups are seen as “less worthy of help because of race and class.”

Discrimination can be difficult to address and he said that Zack was not as explicit about these issues because the ethics she described would be “easier to sell if not directly connected to problems of poor women and black people” and would “not look like a pleading for special groups”.

Lawson said that “disaster ethics need to transcend class, race, gender, Etc….but we can’t ignore those issues right now.”

He said that although helping people in disaster situations should be based on alleviating suffering, there are many other factors of discrimination that need to be addressed before disaster ethics can be as effective as Zack hopes.

Also discussed was the issue of not having the language to properly address the “policy and sociological and psychological implications” of disasters and the connection between disasters and social problems. He said this was similar to not having a gender-neutral word to describe people.

He concluded and said we need to “think about disasters differently” and change the fact that empathy is “not related to how people live their lives.”
Audience members said that they enjoyed the chance to meet with and discuss the issues that Lawson presented.

Sophomore Brittany Davis said, “[Lawson] was really open to audience interaction and…actually discussed topics that are uncomfortable to talk about in class, but are important to talk about.” First-year Shanyn Harry said the social problems discussed “definitely need to be recognized as disasters as well.”

Sybol Cook Anderson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, said Lawson was “doing some really influential work in environmental justice…and there is a hesitancy to bring in [race, class, and gender]…but that it has to be part of our thinking.”

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