Dictates of Conscience in the Humanitarian System

Abstract: This article explores two recent books on the ethics of humanitarian action from the moral perspectives of the practitioner, and the tensions between personal desires to ‘do good’ and actual outcomes for suffering populations. The first work (Hugo Slim, Humanitarian Ethics) defends humanitarianism and prescribes correctives to its unintended negative consequences; the second (Liisa Malkki, The Need to Help) gives voice to Finnish aid workers who seek global connection and wider purpose through their work. Both authors frame humanitarian action in terms of an individual ethics whose insertion into a wider nexus of cause and effect generates new moral dilemmas and insights that often surpass the practitioner’s capacity to assess, critique and shape constructively.

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About Edward Rackley

Edward Rackley is a security and governance specialist, living and working in conflict-related emergencies with leading international institutions since 1988. He is a philosopher by training; his dissertation addressed the presumption that inaction before atrocity amounts to complicity, an association inherited from post-Holocaust German social thought. His research essays have appeared in African Arguments, Oxford Research Group, Warscapes, Roads and Kingdoms, Journal of Disaster Studies, Journal of Refugee Studies, Continental Philosophy Review, and Sustainable Security. For Crisis and Catastrophe: Legal and Scientific Perspectives (Amherst, 2010), he wrote on the complications of reintegrating ex-combatants. Earlier, he coedited RD Congo: Silence on meurt: Témoignages (Paris, 2002).