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A Realist Ethics

Simone Weil felt passionately that "contradiction is the criterion of the real”. When we find ourselves in an apparent contradiction, we are probably hitting hard upon reality because reality is seldom simply one thing or another but usually a difficult mixture of things. This is certainly humanitarian action’s experience of the mix of ideals and political realism in every operation. Humanitarian ethics has long struggled with the contradiction that it seeks to be apolitical in the midst of some of the world’s most extreme political environments. Naturally, humanitarians encounter a contradiction here—the hard knock of reality. Humanitarian action finds it impossible and undesirable to avoid politics. To be present and active on the ground, agencies must negotiate political space with political actors. It is impossible to be humanitarian without also working politically. It is a dream to imagine that humanitarians are allowed simply to be principled and to go and do as they choose wherever they choose. Instead, humanitarian action is routinely obstructed, restricted or manipulated by politicians; and humanitarians must do politics and make compromises to operate amongst them. Like politics, humanitarian action fast becomes "the art of the possible” and the art of the expansion of the possible.2 Alongside its intimate care ethics, humanitarian ethics is all about political ethics. The political arena in which humanitarians operate requires them to be politically realistic if they are to deliver some of their ideals of compassion and care. Of all the agencies operating today MSF has been the most explicit and transparent about this fact.3

Political ethics has long involved a struggle between idealists and realists. Today this difference is discussed in political theory as a difference between ideal theory and non-ideal theory.4 Ideal theory sets out how the world should be and can reasonably be, and then sets this vision as a target for politicians. For example, the ideal theory of democracy and human rights serves to be inspirational and prescriptive in politics. It sets out a blueprint for the kind of ideal liberal society that should be constructed on the ground. Non-ideal theorists reject the practical feasibility of such idealism as profoundly unrealistic. Instead of modelling perfect societies as a pattern of potential reality, they emphasize the importance of starting with the world as it actually is and theorizing about what is practically possible within it. In their political ethics, realists prefer to compare options within the "feasible set” of real world possibilities rather than go all out for a "transcendental” model of justice that is not feasible in the current situation.5 For realists, politics is always about generating as many "instantiations” of good things as possible in an imperfect world. It can never be about pre-designing and ushering in the perfect world.

The British philosopher Bernard Williams has criticized idealist politics as an overly simple "enactment model” of politics in which politicians decide what is morally right and then expect to roll it out in practice. Williams notes that in the enactment model, "political theory formulates principles, concepts, ideals and values; and politics seeks to express these in political action, through persuasion, the use of power and so forth”.6 The weakness of the enactment model for Williams is that it gives "priority to the moral over the political” so that politics becomes simply "applied morality” when, in fact, politics is about a hard struggle for order, legitimacy and the "conditions of cooperation” which must precede moral agreements. Williams contrasts the enactment theory’s "political moralism” with a more accurate and prior process of "political realism”.

Humanitarian ethics lives in this tension between humanitarian ideals and political reality. It has its ideals but is soon thrust into reality. In most armed conflicts and disasters, humanitarian action is not a simple ethical goal that is routinely and easily applied or enacted as obvious political morality. Instead it is a fundamental moral ideal that must be struggled for in very non-ideal circumstances in which longer-range political goals or downright unethical objectives are being given greater priority by those in power. The enactment model of politics does not ring true in humanitarian action. The simple good of reaching out to save a life is soon challenged, constrained and compromised amidst the fierce passions of national politics and the calculating grand strategy of geopolitics. Williams points out that, although it relies on the same moral impulse, rescuing many thousands of people in a war sits in a different ethical paradigm to rescuing one person drowning in a canal.7 William Galston, another realist, elaborates the point: "Individual rescue typically leaves everything else as it was: throwing a rope to a drowning man typically does not require or produce reorganizations of social relations and responsibilities outside of the rescuer-rescued dyad”.8 In contrast, it is clear that humanitarian ethics at scale is not a simple and unique form of ethics that exists and operates in isolation from politics as an intimate form of caring that we can just scale-up from a personal emergency to a public emergency. Instead, when expanded into international organizations, massive resources and extreme political environments, humanitarian ethics is as much about political ethics as it is about religious, humanist, medical and care ethics.

Humanitarian action is the pursuit of certain goals within the context of other people’s politics and is consequently carried out in the political sphere above all others. It is in the realm of politics that humanitarian ethics finds its natural habitat and not simply the realm of medicine, nutrition, sanitation, economics or social work that make up the various fields of its practice. Doing humanitarian work at scale is doing politics. Like the political realists, the postmodern ethicist Zygmunt Bauman observed that "the problem of extending moral insights and impulses to society at large is a matter of politics not morality”.9

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