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Moral Entrapment

It seems genuinely wrong to say that in cases like Darfur and Korem agencies are strictly complicit with wrongdoing. They are certainly knowingly contributing to a structure of wrongdoing and so, as Lepora and Goodin would insist, they "have a case to answer”. So what is the answer to this perennial problem in humanitarian ethics? Most agencies seem to argue a greater good. They decide to continue to concentrate on their main mission to save people’s lives and mitigate the risk of their presence by creative aid strategies that reduce people’s risks (in Korem this was dry food distributions) and advocacy. This justification seems right and, in most cases, is not the logic of a lesser evil argument but the commitment to sustain a good in the midst of wrongdoing.

However, it may also be fairer to nuance the weaker variant of complicity with one of entrapment. Most agencies that decide to stay in these situations are morally entrapped rather than simply complicit and morally irresponsible. In such circumstances, it seems fair to suggest that they are acting rightly for someone who is entrapped. The moral philosopher David Rodin has elaborated the notion of moral entrapment in his discussion of just war theory.34 As Rodin observes, “a trap is something that it is easy to get into and hard to get out of’. Rodin’s thinking can be usefully applied to humanitarian entrapment too. Most human endeav- ours—whether in politics, business, marriage or medicine—are characterized by one persistent variable: that things will change once you start upon a venture. Some of these changes will be enabling, others will not. The Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke coined the famous military adage that “a battle plan never survives first contact with the enemy”. The same is true in humanitarian work. Various things can happen that begin to construct a moral trap. Other parties in a conflict or disaster have their own plans and will often want to block humanitarian action or exploit it somehow as a part of their plan.

What may start as a simple health or feeding programme can soon be distorted by the actions of others intent on diverting or restricting food supply. A project that sets out as a development programme may be compelled to transform into an emergency operation as conflict or flood happens around it. A fuel wood project needs to become a protection project. An initial decision to integrate displaced children into local schools suddenly becomes untenable as numbers escalate and local resentment rises. But how do you change course without letting down those to whom you are already committed, or increasing social discord?

These changing contexts, creeping commitments and difficult exit choices are the norm in humanitarian work, as in many other human activities. They manifest themselves in what moral philosophers like C. A. J. Coady call “extrication problems” in which “whether they stop or persist, an agent will cause harms”.35 These problems are, therefore, traps of one kind or another. Traps are often what Rodin calls "dangling” or "aggravation” dilemmas. He defines an aggravation dilemma as a paradoxical situation in which you are left morally dangling: "in an aggravation dilemma the only way to avoid aggravating an offense is to continue to prosecute it”. Rodin notes that most aggravation dilemmas are associated with exit decisions of some kind. "Very often there will be issues of extrication from immorality that will require wrongdoers to continue (and perhaps even to escalate) the immoral action prior to its termination.” As above, I am not suggesting that agencies are acting immorally in these situations, but Rodin’s specification of this predicament is useful. The party left dangling in a potentially immoral situation seeks an exit from it; but the best way to achieve that exit is—paradoxically—to keep doing what they are doing until rescue of some kind arrives or a better solution emerges. This seems to fit the bill for many humanitarian predicaments. It is another reason why agencies are usually right to stay until international action, new aid strategies or a change in the warring party’s unethical policy transforms the situation.

 
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