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Ethical Competence

All these different ways of deliberating need to combine with the technical knowledge of humanitarian workers and the values and expertise of their organizations to develop a sufficient level of ethical competence in every humanitarian worker. Ethical competence is a very practical notion that has been developed by Ann Gallagher and others in nursing ethics. Gallagher defines ethical competence as the trained manifestation of a strong sense of moral agency, which is "the capacity to recognize, deliberate and act upon moral responsibilities”.43 Moral agency and ethical competence stand in stark contrast to moral blindness or moral complacency, in which people will not or cannot scrutinize the ethics of a situation.

Ethical competence is a good level to aim at for all humanitarian workers, and an equally good way to gauge and evaluate the ethics of humanitarian programming as a whole. Gallagher’s model involves a fivefold ability set. First is knowledge, in particular the ability to know something about ethics, the technical field in which you are working, rules and guidelines, people’s options and the wider socio-political situation around you. This knowledge can then inform ethical problem-solving. Secondly, there is a perceptual dimension—the ability to perceive and recognize ethical problems as they arise. A good sign of ethical compe?tence is that people develop a "moral eye” which enables them to spot moral problems. This perception is also the space of intuition and moral sense that guides right analysis and action. Third is ethical reflection, the kind of deliberative competence we have discussed. Fourth is ethical doing and action; this is the competence, and often the permission, to act in the right way in a given problem. Finally, "ethical being” is the gradual "habituation” of ethical awareness and competence that eventually becomes second nature in the humanitarian professional.

This chapter has examined three types of deliberation—organizational, political and intimate—that have important parts to play in humanitarian ethics. At any one time, a humanitarian agency and its people are likely to be engaged in every one of these deliberative spaces: thinking about what is best to do among themselves, in public meetings, and privately with individuals in their care. The next chapter looks more precisely at the typical structure of moral choices that will often be the contexts of humanitarian deliberation.

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