Principles of Humanitarian Ethics

Humanist ethics, or humanitarianism, is an ethical approach that places great weight on the condition of human beings everywhere, without distinctions of any kind. This doctrine holds that human needs are basically the same and revolve around the protection of basic freedoms within a context of an economic system that serves the population as a whole rather than groups of well-connected elites.


Humanitarian ethics begins from the point of view that human beings can only prosper under specific conditions. Governments and economic systems must be geared to real needs such as food, shelter, work and education. The goal is not merely to prevent atrocities and catastrophes, but to create a social world where the potential of each person is maximized. Potential is stifled, for example, when people do not have legal right to property, are forced to work long hours or do not have a stable home because of war or economic hardship.


Humanitarian ethics recognizes that human rights entail corresponding duties. Preventing human rights abuses, responding to catastrophes and monitoring the behavior of governments and other political actors are positive duties incumbent on all peoples and states. In short, not only do people have the negative duty to avoid harming people, but they also have the positive duty to actively intervene when suffering has become the norm.


Intervention in times of great suffering needs to be independent of all political concerns. Humanitarian ethics holds that the positive duty to relieve suffering does not imply any political or religious commitment. When intervening in a foreign dispute that has created a large refugee population, for example, the only criterion of action is need. Humanitarianism on a global scale refuses to take political affiliation into consideration, and insists on positively assisting suffering people regardless of their background or stance on political or religious issues.


Charity is only the beginning for humanitarianism. The ultimate principle of humanitarian ethics is transformation. It is one thing to intervene to feed the starving, it is another to make sure such disasters don't happen again. Humanitarianism wants to build institutions and attitudes that respond to peoples and their direct needs, not those who belong to the “right” political party or religion. Humanitarianism seeks to slowly revolutionize societies to prevent atrocities, human rights abuses and violence of all kinds. The “reduction of vulnerability” is the proximate end of all humanitarianism. The duty is first to protect, then finally to create institutions where people can not only survive, but thrive.