Saturday, August 23, 2008

Be Informed About Atrocities

Carlo Filice, "On the Obligation to Keep Informed about Distant Atrocities," in Applied Ethics (May 2000), pp. 236-247.

Filice contends that persons have an obligation to keep informed about distant atrocities. United States citizens, for example, live under a government that has supported some oppressive regimes. Filice describes repressive activities in East Timor that have led to the deaths of about one-fourth the population. He suggests that the U. S. has supported repression in several countries, including Guatemala, Thailand, El Salvador and Brazil. Tax money is used to support such activities, so the U. S. citizen has a duty to keep informed about moral atrocities for which the U. S. government shares responsibility.

Filice responds to four objections to his thesis. First, citizens are politically too naïve to keep informed. Failure to recognize that the mainstream media have blind spots in matters that are embarrassing to the homeland is understandable and even forgivable. This does not, however, remove the duty to keep informed about U. S. support for repressive regimes.

Secondly, citizens are too powerless to find out about distant atrocities. Filice replies that, with some assistance and a sincere heart, such sources as The Nation and Amnesty International can be tapped for information.

Thirdly, people should help only those they can—namely, their neighbors. Influencing one or a few may have a ripple effect; the magnitude of the issue requires some response; a cosmopolitan outlook is necessary in our world and the dichotomy of "one’s own/others" should be transcended.

Finally, it would be great to help, but is it wrong not to help? Seeking information about distant atrocities is obligatory, not merely commendable. The U. S. government acts as the individual citizen’s agent, and wrongs that are done by the government require compensation as a matter of justice.

Do you agree with Filice's thesis that American citizens have an obligation to keep informed about atrocities in other countries?

Is this a moral obligation or a civic obligation? Why?

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