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  • Literature, Catastrophe, and NumbersSaadat Hasan Manto and Tahar Ben Jelloun
  • Dominic Rainsford

We are confronted every day with events that call for an ethically motivated response. To some extent this could be said of all events that affect human beings (and perhaps other species) for good or ill. But the events that strike most of us most insistently as calling for such a response are those that are painful, horrifying, and catastrophic. There is a broad assumption, tacitly underpinning most nations' support (however half-hearted or hypocritical it may be in practice) of institutions such as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, encoded in religions, and implicit in cultural products that play on a thoughtful interest in the predicaments of real or imagined strangers, that people want to know about other people's suffering, and would, in principle, like to alleviate it.

In public information-exchange and debate, notably in political discourse and the news media, the first recourse, in conveying suffering, is frequently to numbers. We are told that a given event has affected, or may affect, one person, nine, two hundred and seven, three thousand … a million.… We try to respond coherently; with feeling but also with justice. We try to take the measure of the events. We use numbers for this, but the process is fraught with problems. As Peter Andreas and Kelly M. Greenhill note, "numbers are equated with science," and so, "they provide… a tempting and powerful political tool. The legitimacy of quantification is based on lofty claims about 'scientific measures' and 'objective data,' however dubious such claims may be. For the media and the broader public, this too often means accepting and regurgitating the claims rather than questioning and challenging them" (264).

Nevertheless, much questioning and challenging goes on. Dissatisfaction with the quantifying process has clustered around many recent events. After 9/11, for example, many public intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Žižek, as well as hundreds of less prominent individuals, hastened to put the casualty figures in a critical context: comparing them with violent deaths elsewhere in the world, or with other forms of carnage, such as domestic gun crime. The early years of the third millennium have been marked by intense debates about the numbers of casualties, sometimes varying by hundreds of thousands, in conflicts such as the war in Iraq (see, for example, Burnham, and the ensuing debate). And we [End Page 5] have had to consider how and why the image of a single drowned child on a beach may fill more media space, and prompt more political action (or gesturing), than the frequently reported loss of whole boatloads of migrants. It is obviously important, when we invoke numbers, to be clear about how we have arrived at them, about the ways in which they may not be accurate, and to point out the political biases that condition their use, but the question arises: where does it end? Has anyone got a sufficiently balanced and comprehensive view of the suffering in the world to be able to assign concern (and assistance) justly?

Underlying the problems with numbers in the specific cases that crop up every day are a set of large philosophical problems that resist solution and will not go away. Moral claims that make recourse to numbers depend upon a heritage of consequentialist reasoning about the rights and wrongs in the world, with its roots in nineteenth-century utilitarianism. This is a tradition that, in its most ambitious forms, sets out to ground moral choices on calculation, and therefore to avoid arbitrariness and injustice. It aims to transcend the merely intuitive status of moral impulses. However, as Bernard Williams argued, utilitarianism:

should not be thought to rest on no ethical intuitions at all. It rests on two. One of them was well expressed by Henry Sidgwick in his densely argued book The Methods of Ethics, in making this very point, that utilitarianism requires at least one intuition:

I obtain the self-evident principle that the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 5-18
Launched on MUSE
2017-11-01
Open Access
No
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