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