Argumentative Essay Using Ethos on Violence

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Whilst concerns around the use of humanitarian intervention are not new, justifications for waging war in the name of humanitarianism are becoming increasingly common. Airstrikes in Syria, for example, have shown how the international community uses humanitarian language to defend violence against other states. (Dexter, 2019). It is in this context that Jeremy Moses (Moses, 2020) calls for humanitarian organizations to disassociate themselves from state agendas and embrace a ‘pacifist ethos’, incorporating the traditional principles of humanitarianism into their work with a particular focus on neutrality.

Largely basing his arguments on the writings of the former Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) (Pictet, 1979), Moses’ article is framed around two questions. Firstly, why is neutrality important to humanitarian ethics, and how has it been neglected?; secondly, how could a ‘pacifist ethos’ benefit the future of humanitarianism?

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In the first half of his article, Moses provides a convincing argument around the link between neutrality and humanitarian ethics, writing of ‘its relation to the principle of humanity that stands at the heart of humanitarian aid provision.’ (Moses, 2020: 70). This centrality of humanity is maintained by Larissa Fast, who claims that it ‘is the most universally and uncritically accepted humanitarian principle’ (Fast, 2015: 111). First articulated in 1965 by ICRC, humanity is the commitment to saving human lives and the refusal to prioritize the lives of some above others (Moses, 2020). Thus, if all humans are to be treated equally, ‘political friends and enemies alike’ (Moses, 2020: 70), humanitarians need to be politically neutral and must refrain from allying with a state or particular ideology.

Moses (2020) then explores the reasons for a shift away from the traditional principles after the Cold War. Although some organizations such as the ICRC still try to adhere to political neutrality, others are now ‘in pursuit of a more thoroughgoing universal justice and the promotion of human rights and democracy’ (Moses, 2020: 75). As non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began to work more closely with states, (Barnett, 2011), they no longer wanted to ‘treat the worst symptoms’ of military conflict and began to address the ‘root causes’ (Moses, 2020: 73), largely through development and democratization, but also through military intervention. Consequently, humanitarianism became too closely aligned with state power (Moses, 2020: 81). Despite providing an accurate explanation for the split between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ humanitarianism, this narrative has been discussed before and therefore does not particularly offer anything unique (Barnett, 2011). Nonetheless, this context is still valuable, especially for a reader who may be new to the field.

In the second half of his article, Moses writes that the only way for humanitarian organizations to separate themselves from state agendas and return to ‘genuine’ humanitarianism is to incorporate a ‘principle of consistent non-violent action and opposition to war’ (Moses, 2020: 77); specifically a ‘pacifist ethos’. By arguing for a ‘pacifist ethos’ rather than a commitment to absolute pacifism (Moses, 2020), Moses recognizes that strict adherence to pacifism would not align with neutrality, the main principle that humanitarians should retreat to. A purely pacifist principle would need all actors to be pacifists themselves, requiring them to speak out against war and preventing them from accessing victims as warring parties would not view them as neutral. Although this may seem confusing for some readers, as Moses is urging humanitarian organizations to sustain an anti-war voice, following a ‘pacifist ethos’ rather than following an explicit pacifist stance would enable organizations to maintain an implicit anti-war position without compromising the traditional principles (Moses, 2020).

Furthermore, a ‘pacifist ethos’ would also be useful to address the concerns of humanitarians who are critical of neutrality because of its implied complicity with human rights abuses (Slim, 2015 in Bradley, 2021). By following a ‘pacifist ethos’, organizations have a reference point (Moses, 2020) to see if intervention would escalate violence and ‘diminish protections of human rights’ (Charney, 1999: 835) as can be seen in cases such as Kosovo. Here, Moses has successfully removed the association of complicity from neutrality to intervention, putting forward a convincing argument for a need to embrace a ‘pacifist ethos’.

Of particular value is Moses’ assertion that a ‘carefully constructed pacifist ethos’ would allow humanitarians to adhere to the principle of neutrality without reducing humanitarianism to a choice between acting in a political or apolitical manner’ (Moses, 2020: 76). scholars tend to describe ‘traditional’ humanitarianism as non-political (Barnett, 2011 and Chandler, 2011), in reality, humanitarian actors are profoundly engaged in the political world, as they need to cooperate with political authorities or warring parties to access victims of conflict. (Warner, 1999). https:international-review.icrc.orgsitesdefaultfilesS1560775500092397a.pdf) Following in the footsteps of the ICRC, Moses writes that ‘staying silent and continuing to provide aid to victims, in such cases, constitutes real political engagement’ (Moses, 2020: 79). Miriam Bradley further supports this theory that neutrality does not mean a detachment from politics, as classical humanitarianism is, in itself, a kind of political project in that it is grounded in a liberal ethic of valuing all lives equally.’ (Bradley, 2021: 14)

Whilst Moses’ argument for the embrace of a ‘pacifist ethos’ is convincing, it would have been worth discussing the failure of post-war interventions in greater depth. Peace interventions and post-war reconstructions have contributed to the increased occurrence of post-war violence and crime (Howarth, 2014), strengthening Moses’ argument for humanitarianism to return to ‘its traditional mode’ to achieve a ‘less violent world’ (Moses, 2020: 82). Nevertheless, this is a detailed and rigorously argued article about the need for humanitarians to uphold the traditional principles whilst also bringing to light the question of how organizations should respond to mass atrocities. Whilst it is difficult to imagine how non-violent approaches could have stopped mass murder in Cambodia or genocide in Rwanda, how can humanitarians follow a doctrine based around the right to life but ‘simultaneously legitimize violence to right human abuses?’ (Ignatieff, 2010 in Wheeler, 2001: 4). Thus, despite the need for armed intervention, it can be argued that this should not come under the realm of humanitarianism. The only way for humanitarians to truly place the commitment to saving human lives at the center of what they do is to embrace a ‘pacifist ethos’ (Moses, 2020) and adhere to traditional principles.

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Argumentative Essay Using Ethos on Violence. (2024, May 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
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