The humanitarian act: how humanitarian?

International Social Science Journal (Chinese Edition)

No.3, 2017


The humanitarian act: how humanitarian?



Michael Barnett


What makes an act “humanitarian”? Consult those in the humanitarian sector, and they will typically respond: the provision of impartial, independent, and neutral provision of life-saving relief to individuals in dire urgency. Consult the literature that examines humanitarianism from a critical perspective, and it will say it depends on a relationship of equality. In this essay I propose to navigate between these perspectives. Following critical theory I argue that humanitarianism is best understood not as a set of actions but rather as a set of social relations. Following the standard view in the humanitarian sector I suggest that it is also founded on an ethic of consequences, which shifts our focus back to results rather than relations. I use the concept of paternalism to explore this “third way”. Paternalism can be understood as the attempt to substitute one actor’s reasoning for another’s on the grounds that it is in the latter’s best interests, welfare, or happiness. Although there are many different definitions of paternalism, their shared elements include an ethics of care, relations of inequality, the substitution of reasoning, and an ethic of consequences. These elements, I further claim, are nearly ever-present but not always fully recognised aspects of the relationship between the humanitarian and the recipient.