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Principle-Based Ethics

Humanitarian ethics has developed as principle-based ethics. International humanitarian law (IHL) is built on a range of key princi- ples—humanity, distinction, proportionality, protection, precaution and military necessity—that should guide the conduct of hostilities in armed conflict. Humanitarian action is grounded in the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence that have been developed to guide the provision of humanitarian assistance and protection. Subsequent codes and standards have introduced a range of new principles to guide specific areas of humanitarian action as the profession has matured. There are now thirty-three principles that are routinely used in the pursuit of humanitarian action. These are set out in Figure 1. They range from the foundational principle of humanity, which is the essential moral insight of humanitarian law and action, to everyday ethical principles of operating efficiently and effectively.

Because of the strong emphasis on principles in humanitarian action, it is important to understand the purpose and limits of principles in ethics.

A principle is a fundamental proposition that governs a system of belief or behaviour. It expresses a basic truth or moral norm that should be routinely applied as a universal standard of practice. From this truth a number of specific rules can be derived. These rules then prescribe how we should live and act in accordance with the principle. So, for example, from the principle of honesty are derived specific rules that we should not lie, deceive, forge, exaggerate or cheat. In applied ethics, principles are used for three main purposes:

  • • To affirm moral norms
  • • To act as constant operational guides to ethical decision-making
  • • To generate specific rules

Principles, and the rules that flow from them, are typically presented in codes of conduct and laws that set out a framework to govern professional practice.

Humanitarian action is not alone in having developed a principle- based system of ethics. The modern elaboration of medical ethics has built on its original guiding principle of nonmaleficence (do no harm) to develop numerous codes of practice that set ethical guidelines to different areas of practice. In the USA, the simplest and best known principle-based framework in medical ethics is the Four Principles Approach that identifies autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence and justice as the fundamental principles of medicine, and the main obligations on all health staff.2 These four principles are core to most medical codes of practice, often with fidelity and competence separately identified. In the UK, social work ethics has been elaborated in thirty-two major principles.3 These range from "upholding and promoting human dignity and wellbeing” to "empowering people" and "maintaining clear and accurate records”. A large part of business ethics is also principle- based and formulated in company codes of conduct, or larger international principle-based frameworks for business ethics like the ten principles of the Global Compact.4

Principles set out to influence character and actions. They are "guides to being and doing” and are of three main types: absolute; obligatory and aspirational.5

  • • Absolute principles—these are "exceptionless norms” which always apply in any situation. The prohibition of murder is an absolute principle, in contrast to killing for a moral reason. Murder in its strict sense is an act that is always absolutely bad in itself, or malum in se as it is known in the Latin of traditional jurisprudence.
  • • Obligatory principles—most principles are strong obligations and apply to all but exceptional circumstances. The principle that one should care for one’s children is a clear example of a constant moral obligation that ensures the life and health of others and delivers important personal and social benefits. But obligatory principles are not always absolute because they can imagine and tolerate exceptions arising from the impact of other moral considerations that must always be weighed in a situation. John Finnis gruesomely illustrates the point: "There are many moral norms which are true, but not absolute: ‘Feed your children’, for example. This moral norm is true, forceful, but not absolute. When the only food available is the body of your neighbour’s living child, one (morally) cannot apply the norm in one’s action; nor does one violate it by not applying it.”6 Sometimes, breaching an obligatory principle is the right thing to do.
  • • Aspirational principles—these represent an ideal of perfection to which we ought to aspire. These are principles of excellence in which the very process of aiming at them has moral value for drawing us towards them, even if we are never likely to reach them fully. Aspirational principles are hortatory and encouraging rather than obligatory and binding. In religious traditions, love and self-sacrifice are examples of principles of perfection to which we must turn and strive but to which we will seldom conform in full. In recent years, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have acted internationally as aspirational principles for the global political community.7

Humanitarian principles include a mixture of all three types of these action-guiding principles. The way in which the principle of humanity has been developed in international humanitarian law means that there are absolute prohibitions on certain acts like murder, rape, torture, cruel and degrading treatment and indiscriminate attacks in armed conflict. The wider principles of humanitarian law, like proportionality, precaution and military necessity, are less easy to judge. In the principles of humanitarian action, humanity and impartiality seem close to being absolute principles; while neutrality, independence and the dignity prin?ciples are obligatory. Many of the principles relating to effectiveness inevitably appear more aspirational.

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