Friday, February 19, 2010

Haiti: A Test for Humanity

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The disaster that hit Haiti, levelling Port-au-Prince and killing thousands of people, and depriving the people of the minimum structures for survival, is a test for humanity. According to forecasts by those who continue to systematically monitor the Earth, it will not be long before we are faced with several Haitis, with millions and millions of climate refugees, caused by extreme events that may cause real ecological devastation and the destruction of countless human lives .

In this context two virtues, linked to human essence, must become particularly relevant: hospitality and solidarity.

Hospitality, as the philosopher Kant saw it, is a right and a duty for all, for we are all inhabitants, or rather, sons and daughters of the same Earth. We have the right to move about her, to receive and offer hospitality. Will nations be willing to meet this basic right of the multitudes who can no longer live in their superheated regions, without water or crops? The survival instinct does not respect the boundaries of nation states. The barbarians of old toppled empires and the new "barbarians" of today will not do anything else, if not exterminated by those who usurped the land for themselves. I will stop here because the likely and not impossible scenarios are Dante-esque.

The second virtue is solidarity. It is inherent in the social essence of the human being. The classics in the study of solidarity such as Renouvier, Durkheim, Bourgeois and Sorel have emphasized the fact that society does not exist without solidarity with one another. It represents a collective conscience and sense of belonging for all. Everyone naturally accepts co-existence in order to make policy together, which is the common pursuit of the common good.

We should critique the concept of modernity that comes from the absolute autonomy of the subject in the solitude of his freedom. It is said that everyone should do their own thing without needing others. For such solitary human beings to be able to live together, they in fact need a social contract, such as the one developed by Rousseau, Locke and Kant. But that individualism is false and illusory. The real and undeniable fact must be recognized that the human being is always a relational being, a being-with-others, always woven into a fabric of all types of connections. Never alone. The social contract doesn't found society, it only arranges it legally.

Moreover, solidarity has a cosmological background. All beings, from the the top quarks on up but especially living organisms, are relational beings and no one lives outside the network of inter-retro-connections. Therefore, all beings are mutually supportive. Each one helps the other to survive -- this is the meaning of biodiversity -- and they are not necessarily victims of natural selection. At the human level, rather than natural selection, because of solidarity, we introduce caring, especially for the most vulnerable. Thus, they do not succumb to the exclusive interests of groups or a fierce kind of culture that puts ambition over life and dignity.

We have reached a point in history in which we all find ourselves intertwined in a single geosociety. Without the solidarity of all with all and also with Mother Earth there will be no future for anyone. The woes of a people are our misfortune, their tears are our tears, their progress, our progress. Their dreams are our dreams.

Che Guevara said it well: "Solidarity is the tenderness of the peoples." It is the tenderness that we must give our suffering brothers and sisters in Haiti.

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