The purpose of reason, emotion and their cultivation in particular virtues is to make the best moral choices in our lives. These might be choices about the best attitudes, behaviours, strategies, partnerships or actions. Because of necessary judgements about feasibility, the virtuous mean, and moral absolutes in any situation, ethics is ultimately about choosing and deciding. All ethical traditions emphasize the importance of purposive and deliberate choice in our lives as individuals, and this must be true of organizations too. Choosing is inevitably a key part of humanitarian ethics too.

Choosing is often stereotyped as a sharp binary decision of some kind. One particularly dominant image of choosing is a person standing at a crossroads who must decide to go one of four ways: right, left, straight on or backwards. Sometimes we face these stark moments of extreme choice: to close down a humanitarian programme or to risk trying some emergency surgery that we have never done before. But these stark choices are relatively rare, even in humanitarian ethics. Most often our everyday choices are not dominated by sharp turns through 90 or 180 degrees.

More usually our choices are scalar rather than binary. We move up and down a scale of some kind that we are already on. For example, as we try to balance humanitarian principles with an authoritarian government or alongside a counter-insurgency, we decide to accept a relative loss in independence for an increase in access. We move up and down a scale of compromise. These choices are more like changes in ethical climate than dramatic decisions. This makes these scalar choices subtler and more pervasive than crossroads moments. If we are not conscious of making them, we can become dangerously path-dependent and soon be unwittingly hot, like the famous boiling frog.

Choosing can also be more exploratory and path-finding than scalar or binary. We may make choices with which we edge further up an uncertain pathway that has already been chosen for us. This might mean pushing the envelope a little more in our food security programming to increase the proportion of cash-based transfers and reduce direct food distributions. We are not sure it will work without making people vulnerable to inflation, but we choose to try it.


Our ethical lives do not stop at making choices that are shaped by reason and emotion. Ethics is not just being rational and affective. Our choices must also seek to be effective. If reason, emotion, virtue and choice are essential to how we actually practice ethics, they remain incomplete without actions that attempt to deliver on the moral judgements and decisions we have made. Feeling and judging what is right and wrong, and willing good things, is important as a good in itself. But, wherever possible, we must translate this moral sense into specific practices. Acts are, therefore, the ultimate outcome of ethics. The practical field of humanitarian ethics is deliberately known as humanitarian action because of this basic moral insight that ethics without action is nonsensical.

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