Desktop version

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



A more nuanced approach than purely calculative or emotional schemes is best found in the ethics of Aristotle and the long tradition that has followed him in Christian and Islamic ethics. Alongside the Jewish Torah and Talmud, the Christian New Testament and Islam’s Koran and Hadith, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics are the founding systematic texts of Western ethics. These traditions have a strong focus on the detail of particular problems, the cultivation of individual virtues, the importance of personal choice and a strong sense of moral absolutes. It seems possible to use this idea of virtue to develop a sense of humanitarian virtues.

Aristotle used the Greek word arete, meaning excellence, to describe good conduct and character in his ethics. This word was translated into Latin as virtus, which has its root in the Latin word for strength. Like prudence, the word "virtuous” has suffered some denigration in modern English and tends to be confused with ideas of piety and self-righteousness. However, as John Finnis points out, this is very far from its true meaning:

Virtue is not some prim conformity to convention or rule, but excellence and strength of character involving a disposition and readiness to act with intelligent love in pursuit of real goods...and with successful resistance to the ultimately unreasonable lure of bad options.19

Fundamental to Aristotle’s ethics is a search for the "golden mean” which sees virtue as a "middle state” between excess or deficiency in attitude and action in a given situation. So, the virtuous middle state between cowardice and foolhardiness is courage; between gain and loss it is justice; and between cunning and naivety it is wisdom.20 For Aristotle, the cultivation of these median virtues and their application in difficult situations becomes central to acting ethically. The repeated practice of ethics also works to develop character (ethos), and the accumulated experience of moral problem-solving develops habits of practical wisdom and judgement in a person’s life and choices that are based on intuitive reason as much as intellectual reason.21

Sound judgement and moderated behaviour are by no means the only aspects of Aristotle’s ethics. He also has a strong sense of the goal of human life. He sets out some clear moral absolutes and espouses clear thinking about moral choice and moral responsibility. Aristotle is very clear that the goal of human beings is to live a good life, which is a largely virtuous life that will produce a meaningful and lasting happiness. This is what we are for as human beings. This is "our use” and the "work we have to do”, just in the same way that a good cloak has the virtue of keeping us covered and warm, or a boat and a house each have something that is their intrinsic purpose. So, "the work of a good shoemaker is a good shoe...and the work of the human soul will be a virtuous life”.22 This is our goal as human beings.

Aristotle’s idea of an overall goal in ethics and the virtues needed to achieve it are important to humanitarians and to humanitarian agencies. Like a shoemaker who is true to his goal in the work of a good shoe, a humanitarian agency must be true to its goal and create humanitarian outcomes for people affected by war and disaster. In pursuing a goal, Aristotle suggests we must cultivate wisdom, judgement and deliberation to find the golden mean in a given situation so that we can create "the goods achievable by action”.23 These achievable goods are the instantiations of value so prized by political realists in their ethics. After all, we cannot be judged for what is not achievable, but only for what is actually possible in armed conflict and disaster. So, while we should always have goals in any area of life, we are always limited by the feasible set of what we can actually bring about. Feasibility is an important aspect of ethics. It does not change the goal itself but determines the degree to which a goal can actually be achieved in a given situation and helps shape what is a "practical option” for action.24 The virtues of practical wisdom and judgement help us find the appropriately virtuous route through a particular situation. Sometimes it may be a mix of daring and invention; at other times it may demand caution and restraint.

Not all goods exist as a middle state between extremes. Aristotle makes clear that "not every action nor every passion admits of a mean”.25 Some goods are absolute and basic goods like life, friendship, society and reasonableness.26 And some things are absolutely and intrinsically bad like envy, spite, murder and theft. You cannot find a middle state for these intrinsic wrongs and, for example, murder someone in a right and balanced way. Humanitarian ethics with its absolute values of humanity, impartiality and the prohibition of indiscriminate killing and suffering shares this strong sense of a moral bottom line.

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

Related topics