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Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster
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Self-sacrifice

Many professions who work in potentially dangerous conditions for the benefit of others—like firefighters, medics, police, social workers, human rights defenders and military personnel—have to confront the ethics of losing their own life. Many people in these professions are prepared to risk their own lives to save others, although they will always protect themselves as much as possible from "paying the ultimate sacrifice” of their own death. Soldiers, firefighters, human rights workers and medics do not embrace a cult of martyrdom, but they do have an ethic of selfsacrifice as last resort.

The notion of personal sacrifice in humanitarian work is rarely discussed publicly by humanitarian agencies. There is a firm determination to maintain the international legal principle that killing humanitarian workers is taboo because they are neutral and working humanely with every side. As a result, the loss of a humanitarian worker’s life can never be publicly accepted as a legitimate and noble sacrifice, as it can be in the military or the fire service where there is an acceptance or expectation of ultimate sacrifice in extreme situations. Instead, the murder of a humanitarian worker has always to be condemned as a moral outrage in order to maintain the taboo and deter further killings. Also, the majority of humanitarian workers do not seek a heroic status and are wise to the potential narcissism in self-sacrifice. In humanitarian action as it is actually practised, there is a proper rejection of a cult of sacrifice. Humanitarian workers may start out with narcissistic heroic rescuer fantasies but, unless they are psychologically unstable, a few days in the presence of people suffering in war or disaster makes clear to most aid workers who the real heroes are in such conditions. With the great majority of humanitarian workers, there is a professional modesty born of seeing the much more significant suffering of others. Quite rightly, it is morally improper to play the humanitarian hero in such a context. There is, therefore, a second taboo on emphasizing personal sacrifice that stems from this healthy resistance to a heroic model of the humanitarian profession. Humanitarian agencies quietly remember their dead but do not venerate them like military or paramilitary groups. Those killed vio?lently are correctly remembered more as the victims of murder than for having voluntarily given their lives.

This judicious reluctance to talk publicly about personal risk or heroism means that the ethics of humanitarian sacrifice is under-developed and the place of aid worker death in humanitarian ethics remains an open question. Religious ethics have always accepted the principle of giving one’s life in a good cause, and especially in love for one another.78 Atheism has also always admired the moral value of a generous death. Most famously, Albert Camus summarized this position in the twentieth century with his comment that: "the only way to know if something is worth living for is if it is worth dying for”. But it is important to put strong parameters around a principle of self-sacrifice. As the ethicist Gene Outka has observed: "self-sacrifice is justified only if it confers actual benefits on others, not merely because it displays an internal disposition of the self’. More practically, of course, "self-sacrifice proves to be self-frustrating if everyone acts on it”.79 Here is the right spirit for humanitarians: one that warns against narcissism in any voluntary selfgiving, and also recognizes self-sacrifice as an exceptional move that makes a very impractical general principle.

Humanitarian workers have always died in the course of their work. Before antibiotics were developed, most died from disease, not violence. For example, in the First World War’s terrible typhus epidemic that killed 200,000 displaced Serbians in central Europe, some 125 doctors also died from the disease out of the total of 425 working in the Serbian zone.80 These high death rates may well be the norm again if, as many medics fear, Ebola and other infectious diseases run rampant to become the major cause of global deaths in an era of widespread resistance to antibiotics. In most contemporary humanitarian operations, people are rightly given the freedom to choose their level of risk. An aid worker’s consent is typically sought (by his or her boss) in a risky humanitarian operation. Humanitarian culture does not operate a system of orders and obedience in the face of extreme danger that would be the essence of military discipline. Obviously, it makes no sense to be reckless or careless and so "waste” the lives of humanitarian workers in futile operations or foreseeable tragedies. Risks taken in humanitarian work should always be calculated risks. In line with Singer’s expanding circles of moral obligation, we have a greater responsibility and a deeper duty of care for those who are emotionally and physically closest to us. This is the duty of care that the management of an organization must show to its employees. But beyond these duties of consent, calculation and care, it can make moral sense to accept death in the responsible pursuit of humanitarian goals.

Consequentialist arguments on this point are relatively simple to make. Many humanitarian actions can carry the risk of death. Leading a convoy down a dangerous road, or staying in a clinic alongside a threatened population to see if humanitarian presence can deter attacks, or smuggling a suitcase of cash through hostile territory to IDPs can all be dangerous. If these various activities are successful and sustain the life and safety of hundreds of people but two aid workers are killed in the process, then a utilitarian case for these individual aid worker losses can be made. As usual, however, such utilitarian logic fails to satisfy the real moral meaning in human life. Most people will not usually give their lives simply for the compelling numerical reasons of consequentialist maths. Instead, it is only ever a much more fundamental relational commitment that can make a person see the potential value in their own death. As discussed in Chapter 2, the virtue of humanity in humanitarian ethics is about extending and forming equal human bonds and coming close to people in a genuine solicitude that cares about who they are and what they need. In this relationship, dying oneself when trying to save and protect others can be the ultimate act of solicitude. Such a death is not about definite outcomes, but about being with people you care about. Those humanitarian workers who get kidnapped and killed are most often in that situation to be with people, not because they are calculating the precise number of lives saved that is morally proportionate to their own death. With this more intimate understanding of human bonds and personal commitments, the notion of a good humanitarian death can find a place in humanitarian ethics. The death of humanitarian workers must never be encouraged or required in humanitarian work, as it is sometimes in the military. However, giving one’s life for others does make moral sense, especially if experienced by the community concerned as an act of humanity and compassion.

 
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