IDHA 45 Lecture Brief: “The Moral Cartographer: Difficulties in the Construction of Humanitarian Ethics”

“When I introduce ‘ethics’ there’s a tendency for there to be a big yawn,” began Anthony Land, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the IIHA. “One imagines,” he continued, “I’m going to get into a very boring subject, which is only really [covered in] those big books on the bottom shelf of the library, collecting dust.” The audience laughed. But Land was quick to note that this approach was “not quite what I’m going to be presenting.” Land’s intention—far from merely picking up that old, dusty behemoth and clearing its jacket—was instead to tear out the book’s essential pages and apply them directly. From principles, to institutions, to individuals, and finally to actions, maintaining operational consistency along this vertical spectrum is perhaps the most difficult element of applied ethics. Decisions made on the local level often fail to align with frameworks constructed at the cosmopolitan. Through his presentation, Land aimed to provide students with the means of navigating this inconstancy and bridging the chasm between theory and practice.

Ethics is constructed upon standards—“legal standards, social standards—but they have to be well-founded […] grounded on something that’s solid, and they prescribe what humans ought to do—in terms of rights, but also in terms of obligations,” Land explained. The “ongoing” process of ethics is “really a question of a continuous reflection and trying to make sure that our actions” actually meet the standards of the institutions that have established them.

But “the world we work in as humanitarians,” Land noted, “is often the least perfect of all worlds.” How one is able to implement absolute rules in an imperfect world becomes the core challenge of humanitarian ethics. It would appear that flexibility is paramount, and most students in the class seemed to agree. But flexibility carries with it its own challenges, namely, the extent to which such laws and standards become malleable. “If you agree with this, [then] where do you stop bending and disregarding the rules?” Land challenged the students.

The tension between upholding and bending standards exists at the core of moral decision-making. “Ethical dilemmas pervade our work,” iterated Land, and they often boil down to this very tension between adherence and adaptation. The former is a matter of duty, of the obligation to hold oneself accountable to standards and laws (not just legal, but social and moral). This notion, that “rules bind you to duty,” is the fundamental tenant of the deontological approach to ethics. “Deontological ethics at any level,” Land explained, “tends to emphasize ‘accountability’”; it focusses on the means of a given action.

The latter viewpoint of adaptation holds standards as imperfect, flexible guidelines and grants primacy to an action’s ends corresponds to a consequentialist approach. “If you take a consequentialist view, you tend to emphasize not accountability but ‘responsibility,’” noted Land, “because whatever the outcome is—whether you predict it or not, whether it is bound by rules or not—you have to be responsible for that outcome.” The distinction between these ethical approaches, however, is not always clear-cut, and the moral ambiguities presented by a given scenario in the field often forces humanitarian aid workers to adopt a middle approach. Balancing duties and consequences remains a fundamental challenge at each level of decision making.

The Principles

Atop the “ethical cascade” stands the humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. The principle of humanity states that “the purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings” (OCHA). As Land bluntly declared, “if that principle is not accepted as the sole purpose within the organization, the individual, and the action, we don’t qualify as humanitarians”; it should be the principle most vertically adoptable along the ethical cascade. This seemingly obvious principle of humanitarian action, however, becomes difficult to qualify. Which life is one obligated to protect—which side—and what means should one go about doing so? Though the end of humanitarian action seems uniform, many points of contention lie between the prerogative to provide aid and the complex reality of relief efforts during situations of conflict.

Some may hold that the principles of humanitarian aid admit no ambiguity, that the “purpose” is uniform and its terms require no explication. The principle of neutrality, however, is anything but rudimentary. Can one maintain personal or professional neutrality in conflict zones? “I first used this slide in Beirut,” Land reflected. He was delivering the presentation to Syrian national staff at a time in which the UN was considering “pulling out completely” and leaving the local staff in charge. “I put this question up and there was just a stunned silence,” Land told the students. “Finally, one brave soul in the back said, ‘No. Of course we can’t,’ and everyone agreed.”

There’s an “enormous” cost to maintaining that professional neutrality, especially when local aid workers find themselves forced to assist neighboring aggressors —expressed in this not uncommon sentiment which Land iterated: “Why the hell are you taking aid to those people over there today, when they are shelling us tonight? Are you crazy?” Or as one young man once explained to Land: every time he sees his father he is told to “resign from that job, go pick up a gun, and go fight for the cause.” The principle of impartiality may dictate that the humanitarian works “on the side of the victim whichever side the victim is on,” but identifying the aggressor is sometimes a difficult designation to make.

The Organization

In the ‘Age of Liberal Humanitarianism’ following the crises of the early 1990’s, “the international community of humanitarians [began to question] the very essence of what it meant to be a humanitarian,” explained the professor. Three documents became the “core to the crystallization of much of this thinking”: The Humanitarian Charter, the Sphere Standards, and the Code of Conduct. These frameworks sought to reconstitute the humanitarian approach and to “recommit the international community to humanitarian values, largely as absolutes, as rules.” The three documents “all emphasized duty,” Land pointed out. They indicated a movement towards ‘accountability’ and an ethos that stood largely upon the core values of the deontologist. The “Humanitarian Imperative” was clearly defined: “The right to receive humanitarian assistance and to offer it is a fundamental humanitarian principle which should be enjoyed by all citizens of all countries” (ICRC). The language, Land pointed out, was “very absolutist” and sought to establish clear “rules binding us to duty.”

The “moral shift towards this insistence of humanitarian aid and protection” reflected the emergence of a ‘rights-based approach’ to humanitarianism. Though this concept may not appear novel, on a cosmopolitan stage of legal and social development, the approach proved quite ambitious—and unprecedented. Hugo Slim, Associate Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, maintained that the Sphere Standards reflected a clear revaluation of the humanitarian effort. For Slim, the standards represented “‘a really quantifiable way of expressing what this ethical humanitarian duty would look like in writing.’”

The Sphere Standards are not just “moral obligations”; rather, they introduce a “latrine-based” approach to ethics—that is, one which attempts to provide clear content, i.e., providing specific utilities, rather than bold rhetoric. That being said, the standards do also seek to ensure “not just survival, but a life of dignity,” and they aim to provide this through a clearly-explicated framework, one in which human needs are founded on a “legal basis”—not just a right to life, but a right to a dignified existence. “This is an extraordinary attempt to specify rights and duties,” Land reiterated.

The “latrine-based” approach became indicative not only of the international community’s shift to a more deontological framework, but also signified something much more telling: an attempt to quantify moral obligation and, in many ways, turn duty into law. As Slim noted, such efforts embodied an extraordinary attempt to specify rights and duties that was unprecedented in international law.

But despite the bold rhetoric and ambitious efforts of these proposed legal frameworks, many in the field found the reality of such pronouncements unrealistic. “The humanitarian pragmatists, the ethical consequentialists see the Humanitarian Imperative as being blind to the complexities of the operational context,” Land explained. “Contextualization has to be used to balance this duty-based approach.” The goal is “trying to limit, trying to predict, trying to rectify ‘unintended consequences,’” under the principle of ‘do no harm.’ Oftentimes contextualization is “forced onto projects rather than designed into them,” continued Land. This structural defect in the planning process becomes problematic, especially for the humanitarian first pressured to apply given standards and then thrown into environments in which such standards no longer prove feasible.

Critics of the strictly deontological approach suggest a method containing “professional value judgements and acceptance of the responsibility for” the outcomes—interpreting the standards on a situation-by-situation basis. These “can be written into a deontological account of the framework—manuals, guidelines, checklists—but it’s essentially a consequentialist philosophy,” Land concluded. This method, though difficult to quantify and inclusive of many variables, nevertheless, presents a more flexible guideline to acting in those “imperfect” environments of humanitarian action. “‘Accountability’ is nice for a bureaucrat,” Land noted: “ I know what I have to do; I’ve ticked all the boxesthat’s job done.” But the reality on the ground calls for flexibility; it calls for the capacity to adapt to local complexities, complications that global frameworks are often incapable of foreseeing.

The Individual

The basic structure dictating the standards and responsibilities of the individual is his or her organization’s Code of Conduct. “Almost all of the Code of Conduct stems from the unequal power relationship with the beneficiary,” Land explained. Understanding this inequality and appropriately adjusting one’s attitude becomes paramount in maintaining professionalism and impartiality. “It’s very hard in the Code of Conduct to legislate attitude,” noted Land, and yet this is precisely what the humanitarian must achieve. “If you think they’re all crooks, you’ll treat them all as crooks; if you think they’re all deserving people, you’ll treat them all as deserving people,” Land put bluntly.

Frustration, group closure, and the development of negative views and stereotypes are all factors that serve to “reduce our discipline in unequal power relationships.” One’s ability to maintain this discipline dictates the nature of one’s actions. “How we behave then in an unequal power relationship—recognizing all these risks—defines whether our conduct is ethical or unethical,” the professor concluded.

Dilemmas faced at the level of the individual appear the most clear cut—given that individuals adhere to a strict set of rules to which they are legally bound through their signature—and yet such scenarios often prove the most ambiguous due to variables difficult to address through the Code of Conduct alone. The dilemmas faced at this local level of decision-making challenge the consistency and applicability of ethical frameworks forged atop the “cascade.”

Despite the outlines of academic ethics—the deontological or consequentialist systems of thought—the humanitarian on the ground is often forced him or herself to play the role of the moral cartographer and trek forward without clear guidance from such broadly-constructed academic maps. It is here, on the ground, where the moral quandaries of humanitarian action unapologetically reveal themselves and illuminate the difficulties of translating theory into practice.

And perhaps the best way to understand such ethical complexity is not through the analysis of systems at all, but rather—as the humanitarian—through these very individual cases. To culminate the lecture, Land gave the students precisely this task. One such example incited much discussion among the students, and it is here, within this challenging dilemma, that the lecture concluded:

As a nurse working with an NGO in a small, remote region you are approached by a young pregnant woman (possibly due to rape). A member of a deeply conservative society, the woman fears for her life should the birth take place, but is unable—due to local laws—to abort the pregnancy. She asks you for a salary advance so she can go into the city for the procedure. Such illegal operations are incredibly dangerous due to the lack of sanitary conditions and proper medical equipment. You know a doctor in the town who you have worked with before and who operates under relatively sterile conditions. He is willing to perform the operation, but only on the condition that you also aid in two separate procedures—procedures that your agency has been working to convince the population to abandon: a relatively severe form of female genital mutilation.

What will you do?


Lecture given by Anthony Land, Ph.D., IIHA Senior Fellow, to the IDHA 45 class at Fordham University, New York, June 2015

Brief written by Joshua Paul St. Clair, IIHA Summer 2015 Intern

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