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The Ethical Goal of Humanitarian Action

The Greek word for "goal” is telos, from which we get the longer word "teleology”. The teleology of any particular project is its eventual goal, its ultimate purpose or final objective. It is the target at which the arrow is aimed or the fulfilment of a personal or political desire. The moral purpose of humanitarian action (and of a humanitarian agency) can be understood in the light of Aristotle’s conviction that everything has an inherent goal at which it aims. This goal is an end that it is constantly becoming, or a call to which it is always responding. So what is the goal of humanitarian action? Just as the goal of a boat is to be a boat, so the goal of humanitarian action is to be humanitarian. But how do we understand being humanitarian? What is its aim? What makes an action a humanitarian act rather than any other kind of act?

A humanitarian act is one that aims to respect and protect the humanity in everyone. This overall goal of humanitarian action has come to be expressed in two key terms: humanity and impartiality. The first encapsulates the purpose of the action, the second its universal and non-discriminatory application. In international relations and international law, the term "humanitarian” has become particularly linked to organized assistance and protection for people who are suffering, or who are likely to suffer, from armed conflicts or disasters. Like other words in political discourse such as state or party, the word humanitarian can be used in other non-political ways, but increasingly it has come to have a particular political and legal meaning as a legitimate form of organized action in the extreme settings of armed conflict and disaster.10 The ethical goal of this politically and legally recognized action is the preservation of humanity itself, regardless of the more specific and detailed identities developed around each human being. This requires us to understand the most fundamental part of humanitarian ethics, the idea of humanity itself.

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