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Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster




To start our enquiry into humanitarian ethics, we need to step back a little to ask two fundamental questions: what is ethics, and how does it shape and inform humanitarian action?

The word "ethics” comes from the Greek word ethos, meaning character. The study of ethics, therefore, makes judgements about human character and the character of human actions. In essence, ethics is the field of human enquiry and endeavour that seeks to establish what is good and bad in human life and society, and so what is right or wrong to do in particular situations and to hold as particular attitudes. The English word "morality” comes from the Latin equivalent moralis, which means right behaviour, customs and manners. As we shall see, there are many different schools of ethics but all of them share a core concern to understand the meaning of value in this life, and so what it means to live well as an individual, a group, a polity and a global society. Most ethics, therefore, tend to discuss questions of value and fairness. They talk about moral goals and moral means, and praise policies, practices, attitudes, character and behaviour that are purposive, wise, just, reasonable, discerning, courageous and loving. In its own ethics, the humanitarian profession has decided that every human life is good and that it is right to protect and save people’s lives whenever and wherever you can. So, why has humanitarian ethics reached this moral view and why does it suggest that we should all recognize this view as a universal truth?

The ground of ethics in humanitarian action is a profound feeling of compassion and responsibility towards others who are living and suffering in extremis. It is a feeling of identification and sympathy that demands some reasonable and effective action as a response to suffering. Humanitarian feeling can be born out of a warm glow or a cold shiver. It may burst from the chill horror at outrageous cruelty and a strong passion to stop it; or it may spring from the depths of love and a burning desire to care for someone. It may arise between the two in a sense of sadness at suffering, and a desire to encourage and build up.

Whatever the source and manifestation of this humanitarian feeling, it is a universal one. People can and do feel for others and seek to put these feelings into practice as help and protection. These positive feelings are evidently not the only universal feelings towards others that we exhibit as human beings. We also share a tendency to rage, hatred, greed, violence, power, selfishness and sadism. These destructive feelings are often the cause and context of humanitarian action, but they are not the main subject of this book.1 It is also very clear that for much of the time and in certain particular political crises we can treat one another with what Norman Geras has called "a contract of mutual indifference”.2 We pass by beggars in the street. We look away from distant tragedies sometimes and ignore calls for help because of embarrassment or fear. Often we just get on with our lives so that, as Peter Ungar has observed, we live high while letting others die.3

However, this chapter and this book will focus on our desire as a species to repair suffering not to create it, and on our urge to do good rather than harm to other members of our species. It will explore the challenges to our morality when we choose not to ignore other people’s suffering but to respond to it. So, at the outset, we need to understand how we account for our essential ethicity as human beings and for the positive feelings that drive humanitarian work.

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer takes an evolutionary view of our moral development as humans and traces our ethical history in three key phases of emerging altruism—three gradually expanding circles.4 Singer argues that a fundamental concern for others in our pre-human and human ancestors was, and still is, primarily focused on our family and our biological desire for the survival of our DNA. This "kin altruism” means that an ethic of care and responsibility for others was laid down in ancient patterns of mammalian behaviour but was tightly limited in a way that suited the many thousands of years when we lived in small and isolated groups.

A second wider circle of ethics is also evident in our own and other species. There is an obvious “reciprocal ethic” that operates beyond families in our larger groups. Like other species, we do things for others that are difficult to do for ourselves, and they then do them for us in return. We delouse one another and scratch each other’s backs. We care for one another when we are sick. Singer notes that this reciprocal ethic quickly introduced more subtle ethical notions that transcend an urgent survival goal to include principles like fairness, cheating, retribution, reputation, gratitude and praise. If I do not reciprocate, or only do so half-heartedly, then I am cheating and can expect some retribution. If I always reciprocate well, then I will get a good reputation and can be trusted. These moral ideas born of reciprocation began the more complex social process of intra-group ethics.

Singer’s big ethical leap came with our increasing use of reason as a species. Our gradual ability to think objectively and to ask questions about existing customs meant that we could go beyond egoism and reciprocity to consider the interests of others from a disinterested position. We could think and feel ourselves in other people’s shoes not just because we wanted to exchange some favour with them but because we could imagine what they were experiencing. Singer describes this as a major moral shift that enabled us to take “the objective point of view” and ask what is best for others regardless of kin and reciprocity. This objectivity allows us to imagine and understand the “point of view of the other” or POVO as it is called in conflict resolution theory. From this perspective, we could imagine what strangers and unmet people might want and need, and what might be good and fair to do to them. Most dramatically, according to Singer, we could then develop this into a “universal point of view” in which everybody’s interests count and become a matter of ethical concern for us. The “universalization” of ethics is where we find ourselves today and is most easily seen (and contested) in international conventions of human rights that set out in international laws what is good and bad, and what is proper to a life with dignity.

There is always an element of myth-making in narrative accounts of the origin of human moral consciousness, whether we are in the hands of evolutionary ethicists like Singer or theologians and philosophers. Jewish and Christian theologians do not traditionally start with a slow build-up of ethics like Singer. Instead, they reverse the process. They imagine original moral perfection followed by a terrible ethical fracture, or Fall, in the distant past which we must now piece together again with an ethics of love and personal discipline. Political philosophers of the European Enlightenment, like Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also use retrospective ethical myths. They posit an original "state of nature” from which they elaborate and justify their political theories of governance. Rousseau imagined a primal state of nature into which we were all born free and instinctively moral with empathy for one another and an essential lack of cruelty. But our entry into society with its inevitable competition for power and domination means we become entrapped in immoral systems so that everywhere we are in chains, or somehow putting others in chains.5 Society is our Fall and each one of us morally stumbles as we encounter it or is morally abused as society encounters us. In contrast to Rousseau, Hobbes’ original state of nature is famously brutal and competitive from the start and is a state of permanent war. It requires strong sovereigns to govern firmly and introduce political and social ethics into society as best they can.6

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