The second fundamental elaboration of humanitarian ethics involves humanitarian action’s reasonable accommodation with political power in order to achieve humanitarian goals within the inevitable politics of a given situation. Humanity and impartiality set out the universal ethical goal of humanitarian ethics as the preservation of every human person as a good in itself. The next two principles of humanitarian action serve as practical ethical measures to achieve this goal in the actual political conditions of armed conflict and disaster. In this pragmatism, they continue to build on the needs-based objectivity of impartiality that has already begun to rationalize the application of humanity with a notion of reasonable prioritization. Neutrality and independence aim to increase this objectivity still further by building trust and access within highly politicized environments.

Neutrality and Independence as Prudential Principles

With neutrality and independence, we begin to move clearly from moral ends to moral means in humanitarian ethics: from what is good to do, to how it is best done. The ethical emphasis in humanitarian principles now changes from why we should have a humanitarian goal to how we should achieve it in the real conditions of intense political rivalry and competing interests that characterize war and disaster. Our discussion now moves from ethical ideas of moral value to consideration of ethical practices of moral wisdom, in particular the virtue of prudence or practical wisdom. In English, "prudence” has become overly associated with ideas of caution; but in its original ethical usage it referred to the skill of being able to get things done in imperfect and difficult circumstances. Aquinas used the Latin word prudentia as a translation of Aristotle’s idea of phronesis, which is the practical wisdom of choosing the right means to a good end, and so the operational ability to achieve good things and avoid bad things. As John Finnis suggests, prudence is perhaps best translated as "practical reasonableness”.1 For Aquinas, it reflects the idea of "right reason in doing” as distinct from an artistic reasoning that makes things or an intellectual reasoning that thinks theoretically and speculatively.2 Essentially, practical wisdom is the virtue of being able to put good things into practice and so is the foremost operational virtue in politics, business, humanitarian action or any kind of practical project. In armed conflict and disaster, humanitarian ethics has consistently argued that putting humanity and impartiality into practice is most wisely and prudently done by working neutrally and independently. This operational posture is deemed to be the best way of being inside a conflict without being problematically invested in it.

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