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



The second element to be scrutinized in any analysis of moral responsibility (our own or that of others) is, therefore, the intention of the actors involved in any situation. Thomas Aquinas stressed that our intentions are the most fundamental part of any moral project because they define the object of our actions.3 In our intentions we deliberately "tend towards something” and set ourselves a particular end or goal.4 An intention is purposeful and is "an act of the will in relation to the end”.5 This means that a first question in any analysis of moral responsibility runs as follows: what is this particular actor and action aiming to achieve? For example, why is this humanitarian agency distributing cash to destitute people? Or why is this country director speaking out about violations of international humanitarian law on BBC World? What do they want to achieve? What is their intention? The first place we must be judged as ethically responsible or not is in our intentions and our will.

Immanuel Kant placed a similar emphasis on intention in his idea of moral will. Kant set the highest store on the goodness of what we "will” in our moral life. Even if we fail and do not manage to achieve the thing we will, "our good will would, like a jewel, still shine by its own light as something which has its full value in itself’.6 So our intentions count for a lot and are the first locus of moral judgement. To have good intentions is a good thing in itself, no matter how hard it is to realize them in practice. Because of this, any deliberation or evaluation of moral responsibility in humanitarian operations must be clear about its fundamental intention: what do we intend and what we do we desire to achieve? Is our intention good and in line with humanitarian ethics?

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