Desktop version

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



Two highly rational and calculative schools of thought have tended to dominate ethical thinking about human welfare in modern Western culture and have influenced global norms accordingly. These are the ideas of duty-based ethics and utilitarian ethics. The first affirms absolute principles of good in human welfare, which have subsequently emerged as human rights in international law. The second is generally used as the proportionate rule with which to distribute resources fairly in efforts to fulfil these welfare duties and realize human rights.

Immanuel Kant, the great eighteenth-century German philosopher, nurtured human reason as the source of our moral judgements and developed the principle of the "categorical imperative”. This states that "I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law”.2 In other words, Kant believed that we live best when we always do what reason dictates that everyone should do in our position. This strand of ethics became known as "deontology” (from the Greek word for duty) because applying Kant’s categorical imperative created a series of absolute duties in particular situations. Insisting on a range of moral absolutes as universal principles led Kant to argue that we should never tell a lie, not even if it is to protect someone hiding in our house when his would-be murderers knock at our door and ask if he is inside.3 This absolutism may be rationally coherent if we are to conserve a principle, but it strikes us as emotionally wrong if we want to save a life.

The second great calculative schema of European ethics emerged in the nineteenth century from the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He argued for a "moral science” that could be governed by a single rule: the principle of utility. This view of ethics, known as Utilitarianism, dictates that any moral problem should be resolved by calculating which course of action would be most useful to ensure the happiness, pleasure and wellbeing of the greatest number of people. In Bentham’s words:

By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question..! say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.4

If Kant’s absolute duties are instinctively attractive to us for the consistent moral norms they help to shape, Bentham’s absolute single rule of utility chimes with a very different ethical intuition within us. Utilitarianism confirms our deep moral sense that we must always weigh the consequences of our actions in a difficult situation. This is the idea of conse- quentialism or proportionalism in ethics, which determines the goodness of an action by its consequences, or in proportion to its wider effects.5 It is consequentialism that makes many of us think that it is right to lie, in the scenario of the murderers at the door, and so breach Kant’s principle of absolute duty. But in a different situation, it is Kant’s sense of absolute duties that resonates with many of us when we feel that it is wrong to torture a captured enemy soldier to make her give up important information about her army’s plans for a future attack.

Kant’s absolute duties are insufficiently nuanced to recognize when lying might be the right thing to do. Bentham’s single rule is vulnerable to its reliance on risky speculation about the future impact of an action. His requirement that we gauge the morality of an action by the "tendency which it appears to have” is full of uncertainty, inevitable specula?tion and guesswork. Standing in the present, it is not always clear what impact and side-effects our actions will have in the medium and long term. This is particularly true if we do not control events and if others, unbeknown to us, are making decisions of their own around the same problem. Medical science and engineering can sometimes know enough to make near certain choices about which drug or material to use. But other areas of human morality, especially politics, tend to be less certain. This means that raw consequentialism cannot routinely be applied with confident scientific precision. Typically, in political ethics, we neither know enough, control enough, nor can we predict enough about the outcome of our actions. Between them, Kant and Bentham confirm a deep moral sense in all of us that duties and consequences both have fundamental significance in ethics. But neither system seems to speak completely to life as it is felt and lived. Somehow we want to respect absolutes and consequences at the same time.

The unsatisfactory feel of a purely deontological or consequentialist approach indicates two other deep truths in our experience of ethics: the constant reality of moral risk, and the significance of emotion and intuition in ethics. Neither Kantian nor Benthamite ethics is without risk. Our ignorance about the future means that, in each system, a "right path” could still involve, and even initiate, bad things for people. There will be winners and losers in either approach. The insight here is that risk is an essential part of ethics and one that is very seldom overcome. Indeed, it is only by recognizing the central place of risk and uncertainty in ethics that we can move into a more balanced and truly reasonable approach to moral problems. The felt incompleteness of simple deontology or utilitarianism also indicates the important place we need to give to our emotions and our intuition in ethics. If we need to honour absolutes, consequences, risk and intuition as permanent concerns in our ethics, then we will also need a more human and less calculative approach to humanitarian ethics which at once respects the depth of our values and the range of our decisions. It seems it is too hard to resolve ethical problems with our intellect alone, so the emotion we bring to difficult moments is important too.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics