‘He who helps the guilty, shares the crime’? INGOs, moral narcissism and complicity in wrongdoing

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Abstract

Humanitarian organisations often work alongside those responsible for serious wrongdoing. In these circumstances, accusations of moral complicity are sometimes levelled at decision makers. These accusations can carry a strong if unfocused moral charge and are frequently the source of significant moral unease. In this paper, we explore the meaning and usefulness of complicity and its relation to moral accountability. We also examine the impact of concerns about complicity on the motivation of humanitarian staff and the risk that complicity may lead to a retreat into moral narcissism. Moral narcissism 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. Moral narcissism can be triggered where accusations of complicity are made and can slew decision making. We look at three interventions by Médecins Sans Frontières that gave rise to questions of complicity. We question its decision-guiding usefulness. Drawing on recent thought, we suggest that complicity can helpfully draw attention to the presence of moral conflict and to the way International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) can be drawn into unintentional wrongdoing. We acknowledge the moral challenge that complicity presents to humanitarian staff but argue that complicity does not help INGOs make tough decisions in morally compromising situations as to whether they should continue with an intervention or pull out.

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