Furman and O’Connell on HIV/AIDS, Moral Responsibility, and South African Literature (Rescheduled for 1 June 2015)

hiv-aids Finding Africa is pleased to announce that the theme for the next seminar in the Philosophy and Literature stream will be HIV and AIDS. Katherine Furman, from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences will tackle the controversial question, “Is Thabo Mbeki Morally Responsible for his AIDS Denialism?” Furman’s paper will be followed by a presentation by Dr. Gráinne O’Connell from the University of Sussex on “‘Post-AIDS’ Futures, Global Health Governance and Representations of HIV and AIDS in Post-Apartheid Literary Fiction”. The seminar will take place on 1 June 2015 at 5.30pm in The Treehouse at the University of York’s Berrick Saul Building. The event is both free and open to all.

Abstract: “Is Thabo Mbeki Morally Responsible for his AIDS Denialism?”

From 28 October 1999 to 26 September 2000 former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, publically endorsed HIV/AIDS ‘denialist’ scientists – a marginal group of scientists who oppose the claim that HIV causes AIDS – and used their views as the basis for a policy of not providing treatment via the public health system. This policy continued until 2003, with severe consequences. Best estimates indicate that it resulted in 171, 000 new HIV infections and 343,000 deaths between 1999 and 2002. This policy also resulted in long term damage to public trust in science and to HIV/ AIDS education efforts in South Africa, the consequences of which persist. Can Mbeki be held morally responsible for these harms? Or might his ignorance excuse him?

Katherine Furman London School of Economics and Social Sciences
Katherine Furman
London School of Economics and Social Sciences

Ignorance frequently excuses in moral cases, but only if the ignorance itself is not blameworthy. On Gideon Rosen’s account of ‘culpable ignorance’, agents can avoid blameworthiness for their beliefs by satisfying ‘procedural epistemic obligations’. Individuals are therefore not required to hold any particular beliefs, but must rather manage the process of their belief formation, such that they are neither ‘reckless’ nor ‘negligent’ in this undertaking. In this paper I examine two potentially relevant epistemic obligations – the ‘duty to gather evidence’ and the ‘duty to take disagreement seriously’. I note that it may initially appear as though Mbeki is blameless, because he engaged in substantial evidence gathering, such that it may seem as though he was a diligent but unlucky epistemic agent. However, I will argue that it was precisely Mbeki’s independent evidence gathering that created the problem in this case, and that his lack of relevant expertise ought to have precluded him from doing so. Rather, it should be concluded that Mbeki was negligent in his belief formation, because he failed to take large-scale disagreement with his view seriously. I will therefore conclude that Mbeki’s ignorance was culpable, and that he should be held morally responsible for his AIDS denialism.

Abstract: “‘Post-AIDS’ Futures, Global Health Governance and Representations of HIV and AIDS in Post-Apartheid Literary Fiction”

 Dr. Gráinne O’Connell University of Sussex
Dr. Gráinne O’Connell
University of Sussex

Ideas of a ‘post-AIDS’ future now circulate in global health discourses despite the continuing effects of HIV and AIDS on the global south in particular. While foregrounding global health discourses that focus on a ‘post-AIDS’ future, such as UNAIDS and the WHO, I examine HIV and AIDS in Phaswane Mpe’s 2001 South African novella Welcome to our Hillbrow. Though there has been a robust engagement with HIV and AIDS in post-apartheid literary non-fiction texts, such as Khabzela and Three Letter Plague, apart from Mpe’s literary fiction text, there has been little engagement with HIV and AIDS in literary fiction. With this backdrop in mind, my focus is how do postcolonial AIDS narratives unsettle a post-AIDS’ future? And what is the comparative relationship between global health discourses and postcolonial AIDS narratives given the predominant global north bias in the writing of AIDS histories? A key point of debate is who the audience is for post-apartheid literary fiction given the focus on HIV and AIDS in South Africa within global health forums. While acknowledging that the salient gap between non-fiction and fiction literary texts has received little attention, I examine Welcome to Our Hillbrow as part of a post-apartheid literary genre that engages with the transitional dialectics of the ‘New’ South Africa. I also address Mpe’s choice to utilise a novella form especially how Welcome to Our Hillbrow contrasts with texts such as Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog which, like Mpe’s novella, questions the idea of fiction as opposed to non-fiction.

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