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



One of the most extreme forms of motivation is coercion: when we are forced to do something. As we have seen, free will is essential in the cre?ation of genuine intention. Our intentions are what we want to do. Something that I do under coercion, and so against my will, can never be a true intention. If I am forced to do something, then I cannot be held responsible for my actions in the same way. My level of responsibility must be discounted. For example, if I decide to rob a bank and work with a small group to plan the raid, prepare for it and carry it out, then it is obvious that my intention was to rob the bank. However, I could also be forced to become involved in the raid against my will. If I am the bank manager who is taken hostage by the group and forced to give them information because they are threatening to kill my family, then my role is coerced. My intention (my deep desire) was never to rob the bank but to save my family.

Coercion can be a significant factor in humanitarian ethics. Humanitarian agencies can be coerced to do certain things by various authorities. They can be made to focus on certain places or be forced to avoid helping certain groups. Threats against humanitarian staff can be direct or veiled. Affected populations can also be coerced and so prevented from cooperating honestly and openly with humanitarian agencies. They can be

deterred from giving important information or frightened into giving false information. Sometimes, they can simply be forcefully prevented from using humanitarian services. Leading members of affected communities can also coerce humanitarian agencies into prioritizing particular interventions. When coercion is in play, a person’s level of responsibility is significantly diminished. In the face of force, threats and fear, we cannot be held as responsible for our actions and inactions as when we are free to choose our goals and shape our own intentions.

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