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Apples and Oranges— Conflicts of Incomparable Values

Many moral conflicts are not between the relative certainties of equal goods (choosing between three ripe apples) or equal bads (three rotten apples) but are difficult choices between different goods (a ripe apple and a ripe orange).

Conflicts between incomparable or incommensurable values preoccupy moral philosophers, especially ones who are analytically or mathematically minded. They struggle to see if a poet and a novelist could be assessed equally for a literary prize, or if it is better to grow up to be a great violinist or a great lawyer. Can you compare the genius of Mozart and Michelangelo and decide who is the greater artist? Are these things "roughly comparable”, or is there such discontinuity between them that they are essentially arguing between "incommensurable” values? Is it possible to say when we should make a choice between life and liberty, privacy and national security?6 How do we weigh different goods?

Problems of incomparable or incommensurable value often emerge in humanitarian ethics. For example, people often question whether humanitarian agencies should stay on and feed people in camps when the authorities are simultaneously using these camps as a convenient way to coerce them and violate their wider civil and political rights. In another example: is it better to invest in a programme of school repair and teacher training or post-conflict counselling and economic support for women who have been raped? These moral problems seem to present difficult choices for humanitarian agencies between the different values of human life and political justice, or education and personal dignity. For many multimandate agencies, these choices create ethical tensions between different aspects of their mission: relief and development, long-term poverty reduction and immediate humanitarian need, advocacy and discretion.7

If it is impossible to find a way that different values like life and freedom can trade off against one another, then one philosophical solution is to find a moral equation that always allows you to "trump” one value with another. James Griffin recommends trumping in conflicts of value "if a small amount of A is always better than a large amount of B”8

Humanitarian ethics with its fundamental value of humanity probably accepts this trump most of the time, thus putting human life temporarily above wider rights. But the way many philosophers discuss value differences and frame them as "clashes” and "conflicts" can be a misrepresentation of these problems. It makes them unrealistically binary as either/ or choices, when sometimes it is possible to address both moral claims on an agency in creative humanitarian programming. It is usually possible to smooth these moral conflicts by addressing different values together in one programme, or separately in two programmes. For example, it is not inevitable that an agency should have to choose between a project for women recovering from rape or a project of school rehabilitation. The two can be finessed. Rape survivors can be trained as staff, teachers or pupils in a school rehabilitation programme, thus recovering their dignity in an empowering social role. Humanitarian agencies that are committed to food distributions in coercive IDP camps could also try to protect people from the worst dangers of this coercion, and also discreetly campaign for national and international action to stop it. If it is impossible to resolve this incompatibility smoothly and completely, then it becomes yet another part of humanitarian action’s inevitable and continuous struggle for elements of success in difficult situations.

Perhaps Simone Weil has the most realistic approach to the problem of incomparable values or, as she puts it, "the incompatibility of duties”. Discussing the problem, she notes: "Consciousness of [our] various obligations makes it impossible for us to resign ourselves to situations in which obligations are incompatible with one another.”9 We must never be resigned to this problem, but we have to keep trying to meet these various obligations whenever and in whatever way we can. We may never have complete success, but we may get instances of success. The very fact that we keep trying ensures that all the values we hold remain alive in a given situation, if not sufficiently fulfilled. The restriction of women’s rights in Afghanistan under the Taliban is one of the most obvious cases of this incompatibility of duties in recent humanitarian history. The Taliban policies restricting women’s participation in education, work and health examinations by male medics constructed a situation of incompatible obligations for humanitarian agencies. Humanitarians felt bound to help everyone, but could not help everyone. They also wanted to work against the Taliban’s violations of women’s rights and to change Taliban policy. In this situation, humanitarian agencies were really the victims of coercion, and they could not be sure that they would be in a better moral position by leaving the country and “focusing on advocacy” to change Taliban policy. The best way to mitigate this moral outrage was probably from within by doing what they could for men and boys while gradually finding innovative and perhaps subversive ways of reaching women and girls through the illegal underground network of girls’ schools. From this operational base, agencies could then also inform public advocacy by others.

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