An Uncertain Choice—Epistemic Veils

Many choices involve high levels of uncertainty. This is essentially what makes them moral problems rather than simple ethical choices. These uncertain choices are often described as being shrouded in an “epistemic veil” or an “epistemic cloak”, meaning that people do not know enough or cannot know enough to make an informed choice between various alternatives.5 These terms in moral philosophy are equivalent to the cognitive blinders of psychology.

In humanitarian action, uncertain choices may involve programming choices around what kind of aid and protection is likely to work best or security decisions about when it is safe for a team to continue to work in a high risk area. New information can sometimes improve the structure of these choices by introducing higher levels of certainty. However, making these choices usually involves the virtues of courage and practical wisdom. Uncertain choices carry high levels of moral risk, but even when a decision has a bad outcome it may not have been an unethical decision. For example, sending a humanitarian team back, with their own consent, into a dangerous area to continue to provide primary health care for IDPs can be an ethical decision even if two members of the team are then kidnapped two weeks later. The decision may well have been a good one because it was rightly weighing a variety of different goods—people’s health, staff safety and a principled stand for continuing health provision. Outcomes and consequences alone do not determine what is responsible ethical behaviour.

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