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



The next aspect of moral agency to have an important bearing on moral responsibility is the capacity of an actor in a given situation. A humanitarian agency can only truly be held responsible for what it can actually do. This reflects the famous dictum derived from Kant that "ought implies can”. We are only required to do what we can realistically do. Aristotle makes the same basic point that a person is only responsible for those things "that are in his power if they occur or not”.10 Therefore I am not morally negligent if I see a person being attacked by a gang of ten armed men and do not rush to his aid to fight them off. It would be physically impossible for me to protect him this way and I would as likely be killed or beaten up myself. I would need to find better ways to help him. This illustrates the reality of what Kant described as problems of imperfect power. An agency is only culpable for doing something badly if it could have done it better, or if it would have been better to do nothing at all. In the same way, a humanitarian agency cannot be rightfully criticized for not stopping some abuses against civilians if it simply lacked the capacity to stop them.

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