Philippa Foot’s point about guilt and regret after difficult choices leads us naturally into a discussion of moral responsibility in humanitarian ethics. How can humanitarian professionals and humanitarian agencies gauge their own moral responsibility in the various situations they face? What are they responsible for in difficult conditions and what is the responsibility of others? These questions need to be at the heart of humanitarian deliberation of all kinds: public, private and organizational.

Ethics has always pondered the question of responsibility as one of its original problems. Determining who should be praised for good things and who should be blamed for bad things has naturally preoccupied philosophers and theologians. If ethics is all about developing good character and doing the right thing, then it becomes essential not only to decide what is good but also to know when someone has done it, or not. In law, all criminal proceedings turn on proving or disproving a person or a company’s responsibility for certain things. In humanitarian ethics, agencies and their staff also need to consider where moral responsibility lies in humanitarian operations and in the politics around them. This is particularly important in situations when many human lives are at stake. Analysing and understanding moral responsibility in humanitarian action is important for three main reasons:

  • • Understanding and taking responsibility is an essential part ofan individual’s professional accountability and an agency’s mission accountability.
  • • Allocating humanitarian responsibility correctly among the many state, non-state actors and international actors in armed conflicts and disasters is essential if these actors are to face up to their precise responsibilities, and not pass off responsibility wrongly onto others.
  • • Having a clear sense of the extent and limits of personal responsibility in extreme situations is important for the morale and mental health of humanitarian workers, and the management of moral distress. Humanitarian professionals can carry an inappropriate and disproportionate sense of their own responsibility for bad things that happen around them.

Reflecting on moral responsibility in particular situations of humanitarian action, therefore, becomes important for political and legal reasons as well as for humanitarian, organizational and personal reasons.

This chapter elaborates a basic framework of moral responsibility that has proved useful to humanitarian agencies.1 The framework will then help to inform the next chapter’s discussions of particular moral problems in humanitarian work. This framework focuses on eight key factors that are deemed essential to any careful deliberation of moral responsibility in humanitarian work: agency, intention, motivation, knowledge, ignorance, capacity, mitigation and deliberation.

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