Humanitarian Ethics and Action

On the 1 and 2 June 2017 the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham hosted its third annual conference, on the theme of ‘Humanitarian Ethics and Action’.

The theme focused on the ethics and politics of actions and policies that aim at benefitting or preventing harm to others. This topic has been increasingly pushed to the forefront of public discussions, due to pressing practical concerns – such as the current refugee crisis and debates over military intervention in Syria – and the activities of philanthropy groups such as the Effective Altruism movement. While these debates have rightly focussed on fundamental questions – such as the strength of our duties to assist and protect others and the best general strategies for implementation – our conference explored a wider range of practical ethical questions that arise for humanitarian actors on the ground.

This was especially true of our first keynote session, in which Hugo Slim (International Committee of the Red Cross and Crescent) gave a fascinating first-hand account of the moral dilemmas facing the ICRC in its day-to-day operations. In particular, Hugo focused on the tension between the ICRC’s commitment to impartiality and neutrality, on the one hand, and its ever-expanding role in maintaining vital institutions during protracted armed conflicts, on the other. 

Hugo Slim presenting his talkHugo Slim (ICRC) giving his keynote lecture on Day 1.

Following the first keynote, the conference moved on to panel sessions featuring papers selected from an open call. Topics covered included altruism and philanthropy, the ethics of migration, and the ethical duties of consumers. The final session of day was a keynote lecture by Cecile Fabre (Oxford University) on the topic of the ethics of economic sanctions. Following this, the conference delegates headed over to the University’s iconic Aston Webb building for the CSGE’s annual public lecture, delivered by Leif Wenar (Kings College London). We were particularly pleased that Leif was able to join us this year, as he an exemplar of how to combine academia, advocacy and policy advice in precisely the way that the CSGE aims to do. Leif gave an inspiring lecture on themes from his recent bestselling book Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World, which explores the ethical pathologies of the international system of trade in resources and offers concrete proposals for their amelioration. The lecture was very well attended and provoked  a lively question and answer discussion with members of the audience.

Leif Wenar presenting his talkLeif Wenar answers a question from the audience during his public lecture.

The second day kicked off with a stimulating keynote lecture from Helen Frowe (Stockholm University), who considered the extent to which the protection of cultural property can contribute to the justification of war. The main part of the day was then given over to panel sessions, which focussed on the current refugee crisis and the ethics of war and humanitarian intervention. The conference was brought to a close by Simon Caney (Oxford University), who gave a detailed lecture on the ethics of climate change mitigation strategies, with a focus on measures aimed at curbing population increases. Simon argues that such measures are unlikely to be effective in isolations, and unjustifiably place burdens on individuals in developing countries. Simon then presented his own proposal about how to integrate population control and climate change mitigation in an ethically acceptable way.

We are very pleased with how the conference went. Numbers for both the conference and public lecture were significantly up on previous conferences, and we attracted attendees from across the UK, as well as several from Europe, America, India, and Australia.

The conference was generously supported by the Society for Applied Philosophy, the Aristotelian Society, and the School of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion.

Next year’s conference will take place on 31 May and 1 June 2018, and is provisionally titled ‘A Post-liberal World?’ Please visit the centre’s events page for further updates and the call for papers.