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Are all disasters created equal?

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In the event of a human tragedy where there is a significant loss of life and entire cities are reduced to ruins, how should one respond?

In the case of Haiti, where a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed over 212,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damages, there has been no shortage of charitable benefits or people opening their wallets to help the devastated nation. At the University of Toronto, our student union has started a fundraiser with the goal of raising $50,000, hopefully to be matched by the administration. Also, UTSU’s Board of Directors unanimously approved donating between $500 and $1,000 of student levy money to Partners in Health, a charitable organization that works in Haiti.

However, it seems not all human tragedies are created equal.
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Last year, UTSU’s Board of Directors decided that they would use money raised from UTSU-sponsored events in support of Palestine to send to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools in Gaza, after the Israel Defense Force launched a series of air strikes on the Gaza Strip, killing roughly 1,300 Palestinians and injuring 5,500 more. However, this past summer, UTSU decided not to send money to Sri Lanka after the deadly civil conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The conflict in Sri Lanka saw over 20,000 civilians killed between January and May of 2009, not including the casualties incurred in over 26 years of fighting between both groups. Moreover, no relief had been sent to Mumbai in the wake of the November 2008 terrorist attacks that killed 176 people. Four human tragedies, three of which are the result of conflict, the other caused by natural disaster.

Some would say that we should approach each disaster on a case-by-case basis. However, this principle is far too inconsistent. A consistent rule needs to be applied to each instance of human tragedy.

One principle that can be used as a guide is moral philosopher Peter Singer’s argument for the obligation to assist. The argument has the following principle as its foundation: if we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, then we ought to do it. This principle de-politicizes tragic events and forces us to recognize that no matter what the circumstances, if we can contribute something to alleviate suffering without causing ourselves to suffer, then we should do it.

If UTSU truly wants to be an organization that promotes social justice, then it should not take the myopic view that only some tragedies are significant while others are not. UTSU should be giving the same amount of support it’s giving to Haiti to Sri Lanka, Darfur, Palestine, Mumbai, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Burma, and other regions that have experienced natural or man-made disasters. If not, then it should drop its social justice role and just focus on being an administrative council. It could then empower clubs that focus on these issues by giving them more funds to raise awareness among U of T students. Either they treat each tragedy equally or they stop their social justice activities altogether.

Only by applying a consistent moral principle to each case would they be considered just.


Correction: this article originally read that the “Israel Defense Force launched a series of air strikes on the Gaza Strip, killing over 14,000 Palestinian civilians and injuring over 400,000 more.” The true numbers are roughly 1,300 killed and 5,500 injured, and the article has been updated to reflect this. The Varsity regrets the error.