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THREE THE PRACTICE OF HUMANITARIAN ETHICS

REASON AND EMOTION

In Parts One and Two, we have looked at the origins of our ethical consciousness as human beings and its particular elaboration into a humanitarian ethics for responding to suffering in armed conflict and disaster. Now we need to start thinking about what it means to make ethical decisions in practice on the ground in the full flow and ferment of humanitarian work as it really happens. What is it to actually practise humanitarian ethics? What parts of ourselves should we use to be ethical and make ethical decisions? How can we develop a consistent practice of ethics as humanitarian professionals that enables us to operate realistically and habitually by humanitarian principles, and so walk the talk of the first part of this book? This chapter examines the various parts of ourselves that we can draw on as we try to be ethical in humanitarian work and the various ethical traditions that guide the making of moral choices.

Our Moral Faculties

Our experience as ethical beings is a mixture of feeling, thinking and action. All three aspects of our person-heart, head and hands—need to come into play if we are to embody sound moral practice. We need to feel something, to reflect upon the problem posed by our feeling, to choose the best response and then to act in a way that best embodies our decision.

As ethical practice, this requires a good balance between emotion, reason and action. However, the history of ethics has all too often witnessed different ethical schools that over-emphasize the rational, the emotional or the activist element in isolation from one another. In his intellectual history of Western ethics, Alasdair MacIntyre describes a "long catastrophe” in moral thinking since the Enlightenment in which different philosophers have wrongly defined the practice of ethics in binary terms as either rule-based "calculations” or emotional "preferences”. MacIntyre suggests that the fundamental dualism in this modern ethical tradition has left us with unintelligible and conflicting ethical "fragments” as our guides.1 He argues for a return to a more integrated Aristotelian and Thomist approach that builds on the cultivation of virtues in which thought, feeling and habits combine as practical wisdom.

Despite humanitarian action’s strong focus on principles, it is this integrated approach to ethics that I will pursue in this part of the book. For most humanitarian practitioners, applied ethics is most likely to involve humanitarian virtues which they develop over time and can apply routinely every day and in moments of major crises. Virtue grows from using all our moral faculties, so it is useful to look at each of them in turn in this chapter, before looking more specifically at humanitarian deliberation in the next.

 
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