ICRC photo

For the past decades many non-profits and international humanitarian agencies have been faced with an increasing number of complex moral dilemmas in their everyday work, reason for which they have come under an unprecedented wave of criticism. Should they follow their duty of upholding human suffering, therefore doing “good” or should they aspire to see a broader perspective and also do the “right” thing? This article proposes a short analysis of the ways western ethical thought applies to humanitarian action and emphasizes how important it is for humanitarian agencies to openly admit where they stand in the debate, as this will result in improved accountability and prompter reactions to dilemmas in the field. 

When faced with helping the ones less fortunate, we are often confronted with a series of question and doubts about the course of action we should pursue, a decision making process broadly considered to be “ethical”.  Do we have a duty to help the others? Is giving money to charity sufficient or does it only make us feel good about ourselves? How much should we engage with the less fortunate;is small financial help enough or should we involve in changing their lives for the better? If our intention is good, can it ever have undesired effects and should we be responsible for them? On a bigger scale, humanitarian agencies are confronted with the same questions and dilemmas, and by their approach in answering them, we can differentiate between two main perspectives: deontological and teleological. The debate is mainly about the course of action and its consequences and is extremely important from the perspective of assuming responsibility.

An old discussion in moral philosophy has been the one between people considering that a right action in its nature is also a good path of action and the individuals thinking that an action is only truly right if, as a consequence, goodness emerges. Therefore, while for some there are certain actions always good in themselves, for others any course of action has to be judged by its wider outcomes. The first line of thought is considered to be the deontological one, corresponding to the duty-based ethics: the primary responsibility for its advocates becomes the identification of the right actions to be pursued and undertaking the duty of accomplishing them. In contrast, people with focus on the greater result, corresponding to a belief in teleological ethics, are more skeptical in engaging in any kind of action, as different contexts maygenerate different outcomes of the same act. Thus, their job becomes a constant and uncertain effort of anticipation and wide interpretation of responsibilities. As an illustrative example, in the field of humanitarian work we can take the case of a wounded combatant – while believing that it is in his/her duty to help all the wounded and suffering, a duty based aid worker will alleviate the soldier’s pain and treat his wounds. On the opposite, a teleological aid worker will first question him or herself if, by treating an ex-combatant, they will not increase the chances of suffering at a later stage, if when healed, the warrior will not engage in fighting again and kill more innocent.

Understanding the ethics on which an organization bases its action could mean a substantial improvement of our perception of humanitarian aid and, most importantly, could have the potential of transforming the nature of criticism into a constructive one. To date, the majority of writings focused on the pitfalls in the humanitarian endeavor have been conveyed exactly from this ethical angle: mostly teleological critics emphasizing the devastating side-effects of a duty-based approach in the field. Although it has been useful to acknowledge where the deontological method has failed, I consider that proposing teleological solutions will not benefit the cause in any way, simply because the two sides believe in different, but complementary aspects of humanitarianism. Engaging in a debate without understanding and respecting the values in which the other side believes, will never become a fruitful one. I believe that only by working with the two perspectives in complementarity, a step forward could be taken. As an example, in the case of an armed conflict, an organization like the ICRC with strong deontological routes will never admit non-action or wait for ample evaluations of how engaging with the wounded might negatively influence the course of the conflict. Because they believe in the principles of neutrality, impartiality, humanity, they will help ALL those in need without discrimination. In this situation, an organization with teleological beliefs could give its support to the cause by investigating any possibility that the effects might not be the ones expected and communicate the findings to the others. But for that to happen, some humanitarian values will need to take precedence over the others, a fact that agencies and non-profit organizations need to assume.

What an organizational introspection can do is to make it clear for the humanitarian personnel and management which values come first. But such an attempt of placing different humanitarian organizations or agencies on an ethical spectrum has no intention of defining an approach better than another. The argument is only that an effective engagement in the field needs more than one view upon the values of humanitarianism and understanding what the other believes in, could not only improve cooperation, but also increase accountability. I consider that the moral obligation both sides have is to communicate and inform each other at all times of the risks one course of action might have in comparison to the alternative. If informed and advised otherwise, an organization decides to still pursue or continue according to their perspective, only then should they assume full responsibility for the effects of their decision. I am of the opinion that the whole humanitarian dispute has come too often to resemble an empty blame game. Organizations are hiding behind their duty to save lives instead of taking a step back and realizing that healing and nurturing combatants can in fact prolong the conflict, therefore killing many more innocent, or other agencies that do not engage in action for fear of unwanted side effects. Steps have been taken and professional platforms of information sharing have been created, the question is if different humanitarian relief agencies will be able to see past their fundamental values, interpret the data and act accordingly without adding to the harm already done. 

Photo credits: Steve Kline, Flickr