Courtesy Reuters

Humanitarianism is probably the most important "ism" in the world today, given the collapse of communism, the discrediting of neoliberalism, and the general distrust of large-scale political ideologies. Its activists often claim to escape or transcend partisan politics. We think of humanitarian aid, for example, first of all as a form of philanthropy -- a response to an earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Asia, which is obviously a good thing, an effort to relieve human suffering and save lives, an act of international benevolence. But there is a puzzle here, for helping people in desperate need is something that we ought to do; it would be wrong not to do it -- in which case it is more like justice than benevolence. Words such as "charity" and "philanthropy" describe a voluntary act, a matter of kindness rather than duty. But international humanitarianism seems more like duty than kindness,

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  • MICHAEL WALZER is Professor Emeritus of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study and co-Editor of Dissent.
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