The “New Humanitarianism” and Rule vs. Act Utilitarianism (Consequentialism)

In chapter 3 of Humanitarian Intervention Weiss analyses “new wars” and “new humanitarianisms.”  The changing nature of humanitarian work is characterized by many things, but I’d like to focus on one particularly, which will lead us to a discussion of the importance of neutrality and the concepts of rule and act utilitarianism.

Weiss argues that humanitarian responses, by NGOs particularly,  are becoming more ambitious in scope and thereby shifting from a focus on short-term emergency relief to “attacking the root causes and post-conflict peacebuilding.” He continues,

“rather than provide band-aids, they [humanitarians] wish to use assistance and protection as levers. Many aid agencies desire to spread development, democracy, and human rights and create stable, effective, and legitimate states.” (76)

This has led, concomitantly, to a change in the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality. These principles, Weiss notes, “made sense if the objective was to provide relief and gain access to affected populations.” These principles, it is argued, foundered upon the reality that contemporary wars–“new wars”–were creating “unanticipated and unintended negative consequences.” Moreover, in a world in which the combatants are state militaries, neutrality and impartiality retained some internal logic. However, as genocidaires and other ty[es of rebel groups become the main combatants in civil wars and the predominant perpetrators of crimes against humanity, the principles of neutrality and impartiality come to be seen increasingly as relics of a bygone era.

A few students took issue with this argument, insisting that there are also likely to be unintended consequences of humanitarian organizations repudiating the principles of neutrality and impartiality. They mentioned some of these in class. This prompted a quick excursion by me into the difference between act and rule utilitarianism/consequentialism. I’ll explain below the fold:

Bosnia Muslim leaders argued that the neutrality policy allowed Messrs. Karadzic and Mladic free reign in their campaign to ethnically cleanse large swaths of Bosnia of (well-fed) Muslims.

Consequentialism is a moral principle that suggests that the morality of an action is judged by the ultimate consequence of the action. If, on balance, the benefits of performing the act, outweigh the costs (associated with performing the act), then morality requires that the act be done. Note that consequentialism is not concerned–as is deontological ethics–with the inherent moral worth of the act; it is only concerned with consequences.

Rule vs. Act consequentialism. This is an important distinction, and has implications for whether one would support a move to an interested and partial humanitarianism. The distinction between act and rule consequentialism:

  • According to the act utilitarian (AUian), the principle is applied directly to the selection of particular actions under particular circumstances. (For this reason AU has also been called “direct utilitarianism.”)
  • According to the rule utilitarian (RUian), the principle is applied to the selection of a set of rules, which are in turn used to determine what to do in particular situations. (And thus RU is sometimes called “indirect utilitarianism.”
  • What does this mean? An act utilitarian would look at each instance/operation of humanitarianism and determine whether remaining neutral and impartial would generate a better outcome than not remaining neutral. This assessment could change on a case-by-case basis. The rule utilitarian, on the other hand, would ask herself, if this rule (i.e., neutrality) were followed in every single instance of humanitarian need until eternity, would the overall consequences be better than if the rule were not followed? If the answer is yes, then there is a moral imperative to follow that rule, without exception, even if in some particular instances, following the rule will lead to worse consequences in that one instance.