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Interpreting and Balancing Principles

Because most principles are not absolute in the strict sense, they are what Ronald Dworkin calls “interpretive concepts”.8 They require interpretation in any given context: either because they are relative principles like fairness and proportionality that need specification in a particular situation; or because principles can compete with one another to create moral conflicts, or even a moral paradox whereby when I do one thing right and according to principle, I do something else wrong. Any ethical system that involves more than one principle is bound to experience tensions between competing principles in certain situations. This is certainly true in the practice of humanitarian action.

The first form of interpretation involves understanding the best meaning of a principle in a particular situation. Intrinsically relative principles like fairness require judgement and calculation based on the number of people concerned and the resources available in a given situation. Deciding what is fair in a food distribution for 30,000 people in a refugee camp in a forgotten emergency where food supply levels are lower than Sphere Standards needs to be interpreted there and then on the ground. This requires a judgement on how best the principle of fairness can be met in a bad situation. This involves deciding the particular meaning of fairness in this situation. What does fair mean when you have a lot of people and not enough food?

The second scenario in which it is necessary to interpret principles occurs when moral common sense requires us to prioritize one principle over another. This means we have to weigh the relative importance of two particular principles when they seem to compete with one another in a given situation, in order to find the right balance between them at a particular moment.9 In such situations, one cannot easily rely on the precise rules derived from principles. Instead, you need to find a good balance between different principles. For example, in a Red Crescent hospital that strictly prohibits weapons within its grounds, a member of a local militia rushes to his wife’s bedside in order to comfort her as she lies mortally wounded from a bomb blast forty minutes earlier. As he sits down beside her, weeping, he hurriedly takes off his coat to hold her hand, and the nurse sees a pistol strapped to his waist. The nurse then challenges him and insists he go back to the gate to hand in his gun, even though he might then not be with his wife when she dies. Such a literal application of a rule makes little ethical sense within this particular context. It is an instance of the long-observed problem of following the letter not the spirit of the law. Much better just to ask him gently to give over his weapon or defer the discussion to a better moment. This conflict between humanity and neutrality requires a particular judgement to be made about the relative weight of these two principles in a given situation, and to balance one’s actions accordingly.

Principles can help with many moral predicaments by guiding us in specific situations, but they do not instantly solve every problem. As we have just seen, they can create moral problems because they tend to clash or conflict in certain situations. Because of this, principles are seldom simply prescriptive but have to be interpreted. Principles always tell us what is good to do but they do not easily tell us what is best to do in difficult situations. We have to work this out. This means that principle- based systems of ethics are necessary but not sufficient to the ethical challenges in humanitarian action. All sophisticated principle-based systems are aware of the weakness of simplistic "principalism” and so value and include other ethical practices of deliberation, good judgement and the cultivation of practical virtues in their ethics. The inclusion and integration of these wider ethical traditions is currently the main challenge for humanitarian ethics and will be explored in Part Two of this book. But first, we need to understand the main principles that currently structure humanitarian ethics.

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