Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present – reviewed by Dr Duncan Wilson

‘Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present’ by Didier Fassin (University of California Press, 2013).

humanitarian reaosnEver since the historian E. P. Thompson used it in a 1971 essay to describe the social norms and obligations that structured crowd behaviour in eighteenth century bread riots, ‘moral economy’ has become a popular analytical tool across the humanities and social sciences. Following Thompson’s warning that the concept should not be applied too broadly, in order to retain its analytical usefulness, scholars in these fields generally studied the moral economy of specific professional and social groups, such as peasant farmers in South Asia or laboratory geneticists in the early twentieth century. In Humanitarian Reason, however, the anthropologist Didier Fassin does not restrict his analysis to one region or professional group and instead documents the emergence of ‘a new moral economy’ in global politics during the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries (p. x).

Fassin’s central claim is that humanitarian ideals, which direct our attention to the suffering of others and make us want to remedy it, now underpin the discourse and legitimise the practices of government agencies, local administrations and international charities that seek to manage, regulate and support the existence of what he calls ‘precarious lives’ (p. 4). He argues that while these groups previously justified actions or policies by stressing the political rights of those facing inequality, violence or hardship, they now do so by emphasising their suffering and misfortune. We commonly associate this tactic with non-governmental organisations intervening on behalf of famine victims in the developing world, or civilian casualties of war in locations such as Iraq and Syria. But Fassin claims that humanitarian reason is now a generalised mode of government that is equally prevalent in Western societies, where administrators look for evidence of physical and mental suffering in deciding whether or not to grant immigrants asylum, or to provide financial assistance to the homeless, the unemployed and the poor. While the configurations may differ in specific locations, Fassin argues the deployment of humanitarian reason ‘holds these various worlds together’ (p. xi).  Ascertaining why this humanitarian reason became so ubiquitous, he continues, as well as determining what it means and what it hides, is ‘indispensible to comprehending the larger issues at stake in our moral economies’ (p. xi).

The nine chapters in Humanitarian Reason result from over a decade of fieldwork and provide what Fassin calls ‘vignettes of what we might call the humanitarian moment in contemporary history’ (p. 13). The first five chapters form the book’s first section, titled ‘politics’, and chart the implementation of humanitarian reason in France from the 1990s onwards. Here, Fassin details how the politicians began to use the language of ‘suffering’ to describe the effects of social problems in the 1990s; how administrators used often arbitrary moral choices when distributing state aid to applicants ‘who were required to expose their suffering’ (p. 82); how the government prioritised serious illness and evidence of physical torture when assessing asylum cases; and how humanitarian reason operated in the Sangatte centre in Calais, where immigrants were given food and shelter but denied information on their right to asylum.

The book’s second section, titled ‘worlds’, adopts a more international perspective on the deployment of humanitarian reason. In these four chapters, Fassin details how children became potent symbols of innocence and suffering in South African debates on AIDS; how natural disaster prompted a brief display of social solidarity in Venezuela; how the ‘trauma’ and suffering of war victims has increasingly been reconceptualised in psychiatric terms; and how humanitarian interventions in Iraq exemplify a ‘politics of life’, where organisations such as Médecins San Frontières prioritised the lives of their foreign aid workers over those of the Iraqi civilians they had been sent to protect.

These chapters all document how humanitarian reason has come to occupy a ‘key position in the contemporary moral order’ (p. 247). Fassin clearly shows that range of government and non-governmental actors use it as a potent antidote to concerns surrounding inequality and suffering by ‘insisting on the equivalence of lives and the equivalence of suffering’ (p. 257). He concludes that this vision of a unified moral community, where human life is the highest good and suffering is a redemptive ordeal, provides a secularised or ‘post-religious’ vehicle for the Christian sacralisation of life and valorisation of suffering. In this view, then, humanitarian government functions today as a ‘form of political theology’ that exemplifies how ‘the contemporary presence of religion is most effectively manifested where it is least identifiable, where it becomes so self-evident we do not even recognize it for what it is any more’ (p. 249).

But each chapter also shows how this vision of a unified community is misleading, and Humanitarian Reason’s greatest strength lies in the way that Fassin uses his empirical findings to lay bare the contradictions at the heart of our new moral economy. Humanitarian government, he contends, is predicated on and furthers an ‘unequal relationship between the one giving aid and the one receiving it’ (p. 193). Calculations of suffering and need are always made on the part of those with greater power – be they politicians, medical administrators, psychiatrists or aid workers – while the recipients of this aid are largely passive and ‘beholden’ (p. 242). By reifying the biological life of the people it constructs as victims, humanitarian government consequently ignores the biographical life ‘through which they could, independently, give a meaning to their own existence’ and overlooks the social issues that might be addressed to properly combat inequality (p. 254).

By highlighting these inequalities, and by asking what we miss when we simply focus on suffering, Fassin asserts the value of ethnographic and historical approaches. Their ‘greatness’, he argues, lies in how they encourage critical reflection on assumptions that are often taken-for-granted or held to be ‘morally untouchable’ (p. 247). By dealing with ambiguity and ‘realities that are complex and even indeterminate because they result from human intentions and actions’, they might help overcome what is lacking in humanitarian government: that is ‘recognizing a right beyond any obligation, and hence a subject beyond any subjection’ (pp. 247, 255).

Humanitarian Reason is a clearly written, insightful and persuasive book that deserves a wide audience. Yet it is far from the last word on the issue. At the outset, Fassin admits the book is not a comprehensive account of the ways in which humanitarian government functions, nor the ‘precarious lives’ it seeks to administer. If humanitarian government is as ubiquitous as he claims, then scholars in the humanities and social sciences should be encouraged to investigate how it operates in other locations than the ones documented here, to detail how its ‘politics of life’ endows a range of human and non-human populations with different meanings and values, and to draw the crucial link between the articulation of a moral discourse and its effects. Like E. P. Thompson before him, Fassin’s analysis of our humanitarian moral economy will surely inspire work for years to come.

Reviewed by Dr Duncan Wilson, a Wellcome Trust research associate at the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM). His research investigates debates surrounding the morality of science and medicine during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is the author of Tissue Culture in Science and Society: The Public Life of a Biological Technique in Twentieth Century Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), and his new book on The Making of British Bioethics will be published by Manchester University Press later in 2014.

Correspondence to Duncan Wilson.


Thompson, E. P. 1971. The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century. Past and Present, 50(1): 76–136.


2 thoughts on “Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present – reviewed by Dr Duncan Wilson

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