the BIG question

As Chip noted last week, PBH has begun to host a series of events called “The Big Question.” It’s a space where people are encouraged to reflect on some of the oft-forgotten big questions of life while eating pizza and drinking soda. Tonight was the second event, another success with tremendous insights and a wonderful speaker. Tonight Big Question(s) was about how Harvard, both students and as an institution, should respond to natural disasters such as Katrina, the tsunami in south Asia, the earthquake in Pakistan and India or the mudslides in Guatemala and Southern Mexico. In an effort to continue that discourse, Cambridge Common has agreed to post a few continuing big questions and encourage people at the Big Question, and our readers more in general, to offer some further thoughts, answers or questions of their own. So, with that in mind, this week’s Big Question(s) is/are:


1) Many upset alumni have written letters criticizing Harvard’s post-disaster efforts (such as matching donation programs) and have argued that Harvard’s role is to be an educational institution, not a charitable one – that they donated their dollars for new buildings, professorial salaries, etc and not for disaster relief. Does Harvard as an institution have a responsibility to do more than educate in times following these tragedies?

2) What is our responsibility as Harvard students in the wake of these disasters? Is donating money the solution or not enough? How do we make the most of our resources and standing in the world in our responses to these events?

3) Why do certain disasters seem to be prioritized over others? Is this justifiable? Understandable? Inevitable?

4) In our responses to unexpected natural disasters (like the earthquake, hurricane, etc), do we privilege these more instantaneous events in comparison to perhaps greater, persisting problems that we might have more control over such as disease, poverty, etc?

Share some wisdom, just hit COMMENT!


5 responses to “the BIG question

  1. Latin America is a pretty big place friend, try Southern Mexico and Guatemala.

  2. good point. corrected!

  3. I was dissappointed that my group didn’t really get into the question of Harvard’s responsibility. I think that people made very persuasive cases about why all of us as individuals should care, but I didn’t see how that necessarily transferred over to Harvard. It works with a government, because a government is supposed to be the collective morality of a people and so a communities priorities can move the government into action. However, Harvard isn’t supposed to be the collective morality of its members, at least in the positive sense. I agree that it should remove itself from immoral actions (investments in Darfur, paying workers poverty wages, etc.) but is inaction an immoral act in itself? Doesn’t that screw with the language and physics of morality in a problematic way? Maybe a way Peter Singer would like…

    Anyway, while I’m open to arguments, I’m unconvinced that Harvard should be spending money on something like this, and I wonder where the line would be drawn if it started to. I find that strange because that was supposed to be the primary topic, but instead we mostly talked about the media and why people themselves didn’t get up in arms…


  4. yeah. i agree with the previous poster about how Harvard administration’s responsibility kind of got lost in the discussions about individual students’ reactions (although why there still remains such a level of student inaction outside of the South Asian commmunity at Harvard in relation to post-earthquake stuff is a deep issue too…)

    but i think that inaction can have immoral dimensions. if harvard used its resources to help out with the tsunami, the hurricane, why not the earthquake on the same level? and getting beyond the $ issue, aren’t there even bigger ways it can be using its resources in terms of brainpower, etc to really lend a hand after such instances?


  5. The New York Times has a whole section on “Giving” that is related to the disasters. A lot of interesting articles related to Friday’s conversations. Definitely worth a look…

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