May 20, 2024

The morally messy world of international NGOs

When are they complicit in the actions of oppressors?

The topic of complicity, or cooperation in evil, poses a particular problem for the utilitarian ethics which currently predominate in bioethics journals. Surprisingly, but consistently, Peter Singer, the doyen of utilitarianism, ended up defending the guards of Auschwitz in his recent book The Most Good You Can Do.

“Strictly utilitarian effective altruists … would have to accept the implication that, on a plausible reading of the relevant facts, at least some of the guards at Auschwitz were not acting wrongly.”

Right or wrong, this judgement does not square with the moral intuition which led a German court to sentence a 94-year-old bookkeeper to four years in jail for facilitating mass murder at Auschwitz in 2015.

The problem of complicity is alive and well for international NGOs like Medecins Sans Frontieres. In a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, several of its staff and an ethicist at the British Medical Association tackle the tricky issue of how MSF (and other NGOs) should behave when their humanitarian activities also give effective help to oppressive regimes. They give three examples of MSF’s work amongst Rohingya refugees, with Syrian refugees in Jordan, and in Libya.

The academic literature on complicity is surprisingly well-developed, with many distinctions and sub-headings — conspiracy, co-operation, collusion, connivance, condoning, consorting, contiguity, dirty hands, spattered hands, etc. However, the authors are interested in examining whether the use of the concept of “complicity” is enough to evaluate the morality of an NGO’s decision to stay or leave, cooperate or stand aloof.

They argue that at least a utilitarian understanding of complicity, such as Singer made, which balances good outcomes against bad, is not enough. However, this might lead to another moral problem: moral narcissism. This is “the possibility that where humanitarian actors inadvertently become implicated in wrongdoing, they may focus more on their image as self-consciously good actors than on the interests of potential beneficiaries”.

Somewhere in the middle is the grey area in which well-intentioned NGOs operate.

So, they maintain, intentions do need to be taken into account – which are anathema to a utilitarian calculus. Citing Bernard Williams, the contemporary British moral philosopher who was a formidable foe of utilitarianism, they say

“moral agents have good reasons to seek to realise their (good) personal projects and, at times, their commitment to these projects will be in tension with the demands of utility. There can be something incompatible between the demands of personal integrity—our virtuous desire to realise our self in the world—and the demands of consequentialism.”

The moral responsibilities of NGOs may seem like an arcane discussion but it could shed some light on today’s increasingly bitter disputes over conscientious objection to abortion, euthanasia, and the like.

Creative commons
conscientious objection
cooperation in evil