Imagination as a source of human responsibility

Margaret A. Somerville


In this address I want to propose that imagination has an important and powerful role to play in helping us to recognize and to fulfil our human responsibilities.

This is particularly true in relation to vulnerable people, such as women and children, who are often powerless to prevent serious breaches of their human rights.

In short, I see imagination as a conceptual tool that we can use to allow us both to identify with the people who suffer such breaches and to stimulate our resolve to take steps to remedy their situation.

The address is divided into three parts. The first part consists of usings on imagination and some other concepts and theories that could affect the ways in which we see and define our responsibilities with respect to discrimination against women and the abuse and exploitation of children. The second part briefly describes some imaginative approaches taken to deal with some tragic situations in the developing world, which involve such discrimination or abuse and exploitation. The third part is a very preliminary set of questions aimed at those of us who live in developed countries, which might stimulate our imagination and, in doing so, help us to establish a structure or framework that would allow us to see why we do not respond to others in need and suffering in our world, and what we might do to overcome our inertia.

Part A

The concepts and language we use to address discrimination against women and the abuse and exploitation of children, can make a difference to how we see our responsibilities to them and, as a result, what will be our response.

1. Imagination

Imagination is an important way of “human knowing”.

Recently, we have recognized our over-reliance on reason – often, we regard it as our sole way of knowing – and have expressly identified the other ways in which we can.

These include common sense, creativity, human memory (history), in examined emotions and ethics, as well as imagination.

While we have all used all of these ways of knowing, we have tended not to articulate that we do so. In fact, many of the ways of knowing other than reason, have often been denigrated, which probably explains our reluctance to admit to using them.

Imagination is exercised in circumstances where individuals recognize that distant strangers are much like themselves – it is the basis of such recognition.

Martha Nussbaum[i], in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and public Life, proposes the combined use of Adam Smith’s ‘judicious spectator” and, what she calls, “rational emotions” – those emotions that exhibit object-directed intentionality, for example, sympathy and fear – as the device through which our imagination can bond us to others and their suffering. The judicious spectator is essential “filtering device “that we must have to separate useful emotional inputs from those that are unhelpful.

This spectator adopts two perspectives, so far as imagination will allow. The situation of those affected by a given course of conduct which yields ”vivid” insights into the emotion-informed perceptions of those who are the objects of the spectator’s attention. The spectator then does an ‘external assessment’ these emotion based perceptions. This looks at the reasonableness of both the conduct and the reactions to that conduct it involves a deliberative process which is a check on the emotional response. Nussbaum says that what we need is the ability to encourage imaginative engagement with, and a willingness to reflect constructively upon the difficulties of marginalized people. In other words, it is crucial that we connect with these people, who include vast numbers of women and children, and imagination can allow us to do this.

In a similar vein, the controversial philosopher Richard Rorty[ii], believes that progress is an increase in “the ability to think of people wildly different ourselves as included in the range of ‘us’,” rather than as being separated nation, tribe or race.

Rorty says we make moral progress through identifying and empathising the victims of such practices as racial discrimination, cruelty, abuse and exploitation. We learn how these feel through the most eloquent descriptions – which are not to be found in philosophy, but in literature, journalism and ethnography.

These approaches reflect what we seek to achieve in practical or “applied ethics”. “Doing ethics” is one way to approach the fulfilling of our human  responsibilities. In “doing ethics” we ignore our feelings at our peril. But while feelings can be a guide to deep ethical intuitions, they are not infallible and need careful analysis – we need “examined emotions”. As mentioned above, these

 examined emotions are an important human way of knowing, especially with respect  to our treatment of vulnerable people. In contrast, our emphasis in “the West” on reason as our principle way of knowing, may be one reason that we have become disconnected from the plight of so many others.

Our disconnection may also be a psychological defence mechanism to disconnect from vulnerable people – we can feel personally threatened by their situation.

In contrast, a more charitable – for us – explanation of our disconnection is that it can be especially difficult to establish feelings of connection with people whose se situations of vulnerability are ones in which we never expect to find ourselves.

Many of the situations on which I will touch briefly in this address, are of this kind. Imagination can help us to respond in an ethically acceptable way to the people in these situations.

2. The power of association: linking women and children

One can question the linking of wrongs against women and children in the same article of the Declaration. A danger of this traditional approach is that it can reflect a view of women as having value only as child bearers, an attitude which has been a source of serious discrimination against them. (With reference to SDGS Goal 5)

But the commonalties between women and children are also important; they are both very vulnerable groups of persons in many communities and, often, among the weakest and most in-need members of a community.

How a community treats such people, is the base-line test of its ‘ethical tone’.

The way in which we characterize situations (e.g. alcoholism as an illness or simply deviant behaviour and a lack of self control) and our choices of association in analysing an issue from an ethical perspective, especially our choice of metaphor, are not neutral – they colour our response.

We should also keep in mind that metaphor and language are the tools and voice of the imagination.

3. Choice of language: “responsibilities talk” cf. “rights talk”

Language is never neutral. The range of terms, human ethics, human rights, human responsibilities and human freedoms, and the differences between these, if any, need exploration .

While human rights have been (re)conceptualised to include human responsibilities, the concept and articulation of responsibilities is especially important in relation to highly vulnerable, discriminated against persons, a group in which many women find themselves, and abused or exploited persons, such as some groups of children.

Formulating the claims of women and children in terms of our responsibilities is not simply the use of an alternative language to “rights talk”. It can make a major substantive difference in whether we and our governments see claims as valid or invalid.

For instance, our language can be crucial in overcoming discrimination against women in the work place: compare, for instance, the term ‘affirmative action for women in employment’, with ‘equity for women in employment’:

Both mean the same thing. But some people who might oppose what they see as a privilege being given to women under affirmative action, would not object to implementing the fairness for women that the term equity conveys.

4. Human responsibilities and “applied ethics”

We also need to consider:

•    how the concept of human responsibilities relates to ethics, for instanceto an ethic of care (which focuses on relationships, rather than competing rights) and an ethic of compassion;

•    whether adopting a concept of human responsibilities moves us away, from or towards other values and concepts, for example, paternalism (including in the form of beneficence), or liberty, and what are the harms and benefits involved and for whom?;

•    what the impact of a concept of human responsibilities might be, for example, on the “intense individualism” that predominates in many Western societies. Could a concept of human responsibilities help us to re-find and re-form community?

•    do we have any right to fulfil our human responsibilities? For instance, we could consider the right recently recognized by the United Nations General Assembly to cross national borders in times of armed conflict to bring humanitarian aid.

5. Negative rights, positive rights; positive responsibilities

  • Negative rights – rights against, rights not to be wrongfully interfered with – constitute the broadest, most readily recognized group of rights. These rights are very important, but they are not adequate protection for those who also need positive rights – rights to the necessities of life, such as food, shelter, a minimally adequate standard of health care, and education.

These positive rights are often the most important for women and children, but they are much less likely to be fulfilled than negative rights: one very pragmatic reason is that usually – and unlike most negative rights – they require us to provide the economic resources necessary for their fulfilment.

Using an articulated concept of responsibilities to complement that of rights is likely to be helpful in shifting us towards recognising that we need to respect and fulfill positive rights as well as negative rights.

  • Very often in Western democracies, human rights claims are aimed at keeping out government, usually through court action to prevent government interference in what are rightly claimed to be fundamental human rights.

In contrast, what vulnerable people, such as some women and children, often need is more government intervention, not less.

This is true in both developing and developed countries. For instance, the withdrawal of resources by Western governments from areas such as health care, education, housing, and social security has caused or magnified the intensity of many of the serious problems of discrimination faced by women and the likelihood of abuse of children in these countries.

The withdrawal of funding for these services in such a way that it causes serious harm mainly to certain vulnerable groups, such as women and children, can arguably be regarded as a form of discrimination under a concept of discriminatory impact.

Here, again, a concept of responsibilities might be especially valuable in ensuring respect for the fundamental human rights of women and children.

6. Good ethics depend on good facts

Facts relevant to women and children that should powerfully activate our sense of responsibility include:

  • 600,000 women, mainly in developing countries, die each year in child birth – the vast majority of these are avoidable deaths;
  • 40,000 children die a day from starvation;
  • unethical child labour, that is profited from by some of the richest countries, is widespread;
  • young boys are conscripted as soldiers in armed conflict and young girls are kidnapped to be used as “wives” – sex slaves – and slaves, in general, for soldiers;
  • the child prostitution industry, resulting in disease, trauma and early death for many child prostitutes, is still flourishing;
  • poverty among women and children is increasing substantially, even in Western democracies. The highest rate of poverty in Canada is in the group consisting of young, single mothers.

Major societal changes causing serious harm to women and children have resulted from factors ranging from globalization to:

  • economic rationalism as the informing principle on which we base our societies;
  • the loss of family structure and of community;
  • large numbers of children being raised in single parent households, usually headed by a woman who lives below the poverty line;
  • increasing numbers of old women being left alone and in poverty at the end of their lives;
  • women still facing serious discrimination in the work place.

Part B

In this part I want to take tree examples of the horrific conditions experienced by some people in our world where imaginative, yet simple and basic, thinking and approaches have emerged as key factors in redressing the suffering involved. The first example, starvation, involves putting women in positions of trust where they can help their families and communities. The second example, child soldiers and child “sex slaves”, shows the importance of how we characterize situation in determining, first, whether we feel that we can do something to remedy the situation and, if so, second, what we then do. The third example, Street Kids International[iii], is an initiative started by a young Canadian in 1988 which began with an effort to help street kids in Khartoum, Sudan, to help themselves.

1. Starving women and children

(With reference to SDGS Goal 2)

Catherine Bertini, Director UN World Food Program, recently stated that:


“If hunger had a face it would be the face of a woman… Hunger
afflicts women and their young children far more than men. Few
people recognize that there is a gender dimension to hunger –
and a gender dimension to ending it.”(1)
At the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996, Bertini called on the
international community to put women first in the battle
against hunger. Her ideas were met with some resistance.

“It’s new, and it’s strange that it’s new because it’s basic”, she said.
“Women are the people who around the would gather the food.
who grow the food, who find the water to cook the food, who find
the firewood. They spend their whole day doing this.

“It… should be very basic that we should give food to women”.

“When we talk about this to diplomats or policy-makers, they say,
`Oh. Gee. That makes sense’. It seems so very basic. The best way
to make sure the food is delivered is that it gets to those women”.


(With reference to SDGS Goal 16)

Bertini said there have been instances when supplies were not delivered because too many men got in the way. When refugees first fled Rwanda into eastern Congo, they moved in such massive

numbers that it was almost impossible to give rations for each family.

The food was distributed institutionally through the prefect of the town. However, Bertini said, the prefect would receive food for 10,000 people but those supplies would be distributed to each of

the equivalent of an alderman who would deliver goods to the next layer in the political system before it actually got to the women.

“In these camps, you could see food being sold on the side of the road”, Bertini said, “Of course that happened. It would go through three political levels before it got to the poor woman who really needs it”.

In camps that were more manageable, Bertini said, the food distribution was organized so that goods were delivered to each family.

Almost all of the people who came to collect the rations were women, and World Food Program agents did not see any food being sold on the roadside.

“We’re insisting that women are more a part of the management process”, Bertini said “We want to have more women ourselves, but I’m talking about in the country itself. We are insisting that those

managers, whenever possible, are women. That makes a difference because they know what’s going to happen to the food”.

Resistance to women being in charge

However, the organization has found that some cultures are uncomfortable putting women in charge.

“That part is actually harder than saying the food should go to the women”, Bertini said. “One country invited me to speak to all of their people and all of the people involved in management of the WFP, and I said, ‘No, not until 50 per cent are female. Then I’ll come.” 2

The World Food Program (WFP) also used highly imaginative approaches in:

North Korea

   Kindergartens for children under six years of age were 15-20% occupied

   The WFP sent food there and now they are 90% occupied.


The WFP has faced the appalling sexism that is rampant in Afghanistan including refusing girls access to education. The agency insists that girls be allowed in school or food will be withdrawn.

 This latter example shows the double vulnerability and discrimination faced by some children. Girls in Afghanistan face discrimination not only as children but; also, as girl children.

What are our responsibilities in the light of such facts?

Working to eliminate discrimination against women is also to work against starvation. This realisation could give much greater importance and urgency to our efforts to stop discrimination against women, as important as this is for its own sake.

Seeing the broader picture of world hunger…

There are, of course, many other critical, ethical problems in the context of world hunger, including, somewhat paradoxically, as a result of extr ordinary new technologies. What are the responsibilities regarding these technologies of those of us in the developed world, who never expect that we or our children will starve. I will give just one example here:

What are the ethics of multinational agri-business spending huge sums of money to be able to manipulate the genes in seeds that are sold to farmers in such a way that the crop yield is very substantially increased, but the seeds from those crops are sterile? There is fully justified fear that this could result in even greater rates of starvation in developing countries which produce 37% of the world’s food because the farmers in regions will not be able to afford to buy seed each year.

What does ethical investing in agri-business require? What are our obligations to try to ensure ethical agri-business in each of our countries?

2. Child soldiers and child sex slaves


(i) The Lord’s Resistance Army [iv] (LRA) has conscripted up to 8,000 children,

…children as young as 11 years are abducted, trained as soldiers,
and forced to commit brutal crimes and ritual killings, sometimes
even murdering family members. Abducted children are “owned” by
LRA commanders and girls are held as virtual sexual slaves through
enforced “marriages”. Some children manage to escape, but need
psychological and medical support to reintegrate into the community. 3

World Vision Uganda and the Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO) have a reception centre where these children are rehabilitated, which shows an empathetic ethical imagination at work in the approach taken:

Two principles guide the work at the centre: that children are perceived not as sick victims but as survivors with individual resources, and that most children, given a protective and understanding environment, will go through a healing process. For this reason, GUSCO takes a long-term, community-based approach that draws on local traditions and allows children to take part in decision making. The psychosocial support helps the children to reestablish their self-esteem, trust other people, and build a civilian identity. 4

The aim is to try to return children to their families, but they may not be welcomed back because of violence they committed or because the LRA will return to recapture them. These children need close follow up and support from GUSCO social workers.

We can applaud and support such work, but is there anything else we can do?

(ii) We need to break the cycle of violence in Northern Uganda

And pressure from international community is needed to achieve this,

Canada has taken a lead in proposing:

The recruitment of children into military forces or armed opposition, groups should be a war crime under the jurisdiction of a new international criminal court…

Fifteen is the minimum recruitment age set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by almost every government. But there is currently no legal tool to enforce this standard.

A permanent international criminal court might be one answer. The world needs “some way of holding not only presidents and prime ministers and ministers accountable, but to hold individuals

accountable, whether it’s abusing children or recruiting children or propagating bate or committing acts of genocide…”

The Canadian minister for External Affairs Lloyd Axworthy has already pledged Canada’s support for efforts to stamp out the military recruitment of children world wide and is working on ways to

raise Canada’s own minimum enlistment age from 16 to 18.

In more than two dozen civil wars, however, children much younger than that do the fighting, either as volunteers or as forced recruits. Boys of 7 or 8 have been frontline combatants in conflicts ranging from Guatemala to Liberia to Cambodia. Girls have been forced into armed groups to serve as “wives” for soldiers.

In April 1998 in Geneva, Minister Axworthy called on member states of the UN Commission on Human Rights to support the creation of  an independent international court modelled on the current

Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal. A final decision will be made at a diplomatic conference in Rome in June 1998.

Many children’s-rights groups want recruitment of those under 15 listed among the “core” war crimes the international court would consider. Such core crimes include genocide, torture and the commission of atrocities.

But they would also like children who are forced into hostilities to be immune from the court’s jurisdiction. Children are too young to make decisions about appropriate behaviour in the heat of battle. They argue, and should not face charges in an adult court for their transgressions.

This is a sticky issue, however, because it is often child soldiers who commit the worst atrocities of war.5

Sadly, the efforts in Rome seem to be failing, at least for the present, because the opposition of some countries, including the United States, to the proposed court. This is tragic. Rather, we should know and feel that we must act to those children, as for example, the Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Stephen Lewis, pleads with us to do in a very recent speech to the UN

Commission on Human Rights:

“Today, in northern Uganda, the pattern of abductions of children
pursued by the so called Lord’s Resistance Army amounts to a litany
of disappearances and torture for which there is no equivalent any-
where on the face of the Earth.

It is a psychotic war on children. UNICEF appeals to the international community, through this commission, to move whatever mountains are necessary to bring the terror of the Lords’ Resistance Army to an end.”6

3. Street kids international

In 1988, a young Canadian, Peter Dalgliesh, saw TV pictures of starving children in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He canvassed Canadian businesses for donations of bicycles and started a cooperative courier service in Khartoum. He also set up a drop-in centre. The children worked in groups of four to six. Each group paid a small amount of rent for a bike from the money they earned. They were

jointly responsible for the bike and their work tasks. Some of these children found employment as a result of their contact with businesses who used their courier service.

This initiative, Street Kids International has resulted in the “Karate Kids” cartoon – a major AIDS education effort – and projects around the world for destitute children: the countries involved include Zambia, Tanzania, Mexico, The Dominican Republic, South Africa, India, Canada, and Papua New Guinea. This imaginative, committed response of one person is helping some of the world’s most vulnerable and abused children.

Part C

I would like now to take an example that is “closer to home” for most of us in developed countries. We all personally identify with the situation of being sick and needing health care. What are our obligations to provide some minimally adequate level of health care for everyone who needs it? In some of our countries, such people can include our fellow citizens – especially vulnerable women

and children – and they certainly include vast numbers of our fellow global citizens.

Could imagination help us to recognize a responsibility and design a response?

What imaginative solutions could we propose?

In relation to the latter, Solomon Benatar, in a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health , proposes we should divert money from military and militarism to health care aid for people in developing countries.

We need to make health – especially for women and children – not war.

How can we do this? I can only briefly summarize a response to Dr. Banatar’s proposal that I drafted, which is published elsewhere: 8

  1. Providing some minimally adequate level of health protection and care to all people will require us to use not just reason, but all the other human ways of knowing that have already been referred to, especially imagination.
  2. The issues and problems that need to be faced are of overwhelming scope and seriousness and are likely to elicit a nihilistic response: We need a framework of questions to deal with these issues and to avoid such a response.
  3. Such a framework could include the following questions:
    1. What political changes are needed and possible? Do we feel powerless? -do we believe that we and our governments have responsibilities to help those outside our borders?
    2. What role does guilt play? – do we have a guilt complex which inhibits action? – have we lost the sense of guilt and shame? – do we depersonalize and disidentify from those we should help? – is there a moral claim on us to provide a certain basic level of health protection and care?
    3. Can we recognize suffering? – what effect does ‘medialization’ of suffering (seeing suffering only through the eyes of the media and as portrayed by them) have? – do we see suffering as ‘virtual reality’?
    4. Do we need a “soul search”? – search our conscience? – search for meaning? search for community? – search for global community? – search for some form of transcendence? in order to respond to the others’ needs and suffering.
    5. Would a concept of human ethics help to implement human responsibilities relating to health protection and care?
    6. What is the ethical basis of health development?
    7. In what ways do we need to change? We need to: – believe that we can make a difference; – see “our” health, “their” health and the health of our planet as inextricably entwined; evolve a broad concept of human rights and human responsibilities and to give priority to these.
    8. Do some of us have special obligations?


    The overwhelming global scenario of the wrongs visited upon vulnerable people in particular women and children, and the seeming responsibility of redressing these and fulfilling our responsibilities to them, could elicit a dangerousnse of either nihilism or impossible idealism and utopian thinking. We to avoid both. Rather, we need to recognize, realistically and with courage, vast magnitude of the responsibility that we are facing and to hold this creative tension with the realization that each of us can make a difference by taking whatever small or large steps we can towards fulfilling this responsibility. In particular, we need to believe that we can give others hope.

    Imagination is crucial to achieving this, because it is essential to having hope, oneself, which, in turn, is essential to being able to create it in others. And hope is the oxygen of the human spirit which is to come full circle back to the source of imagination.

    1 As quoted in Carrie Muskat, "How to Feed the World", The [Montreal]
    Gazette (27 April 1998) B4. (emphasis added)
    2 As quoted in Carrie Muskat, "How to Feed the World", The [Montreal]
    Gazette (27 April 1998) B4.
    3 George Omona & Karen Elise Matheson, "Uganda: Stolen Children,
    Stolen Lives", The Lancet, 1998; 351:442.
    4 George Omona & Karen Elise Matheson, "Uganda: Stolen Children,
    Stolen Lives", The Lancet, 1998; 351:442. (emphasis added)
    5 Christina Spencer, "Child-Soldiers Ought to be War Crime: Axworthy",
    The [Montreal] Gazette (5 April 1998)
    6 Reuters News Agency, "Ugandan Abductions Decried", The Globe and
    Mail [Toronto] (3 April 98) Al 1.
    7 S. Benatar, "Global Disparities in Health and Human Rights: A Critical
    Commentary", American Journal of Public Health, 1998; 88:295-300.
    8 M.A. Somerville, "Making Health Not War - Musings on Global
    Disparities in Health and Human Rights: a Critical Commentary by Solomon R.
    Benatar", American Journal of Public Health, 1998; 88:301-303.
    Notes on the Web Edition:
    • References follow the criteria of the author
    • References to institutional sources are linked in the text by the editor
    • Other references and notes are given in roman numeral