Ethics of Humanitarian Disaster

In this evolving work, I am examining responses to disasters ranging from Hurricane Katrina to genocide by three categories of moral agent–victims, humanitarians, and bystanders. While these three categories of moral agency can be considered discretely, they are interrelated not only by the circumstances that bring them together, but also by concepts of vulnerability, agency, and virtue. Victims frequently possess resources for agency even in the midst of vulnerability. Humanitarians seek to act virtuously without disempowering victims. Bystanders watch from afar while wrestling with questions of agency and complicity. Each of these responses is shaped by the “vantage point” of the ethical agent and yet each involves moral ambiguity. My research in this area draws on recent studies of vulnerability, critiques of humanitarianism, and writings on agency and virtue at the intersection of feminist legal, theological, and philosophical ethics. Preliminary work presented at the Society of Christian Ethics.


“Between Joy and Lamentation: Theological and Ethical Dimensions of Hurricane Katrina,”Lecture at the Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans, part of the Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond series, March 17, 2011.

“ ‘Victims,’ Humanitarians, and Bystanders: Vulnerability, Virtue, and Vantage Point in Hurricane Katrina,” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, January 7, 2011.

“From Saint Martha to Hurricane Katrina: A Feminist Theopolitical Ethic of Hospitality,” in Feminism and Hospitality, Maurice Hamington, ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 91-106.

Understanding Katrina: Theology, Ethics, and Praxis

“Service in a Time of Suffering,” Harvard Divinity School 2006 Year in Review (2006): 27-29.

“Charity, Justice, and Resurrection: The Example of Saint Dorcas,” Sermon at All Saints Episcopal Church,Brookline, MA, August 20, 2006.

“A Chance to Help Amid the Chaos in Louisiana,” Harvard Divinity Today (December 2005): 6.

Other Reading

David Brooks, “The Rugged Altruists,” The New York Times, August 23, 2011.

Benedict Carey, “Becoming Compassionately Numb,” The New York Times, October 1, 2011.

A.G. Sulzberger, “Relying on the Kindness of Strangers,” The New York Times, January 1, 2012.

Rajiv Shah, “From Relief to Resilience,”, June 4, 2012