International Journal of Applied Philosophy

Volume 34, Issue 2, Fall 2020

Jonathan Edwards
Pages 255-270

Should Humanitarians be Heroes?

Humanitarian aid workers typically reject the accolade of hero as both untrue and undesirable. Untrue when they claim not to be acting beyond the call of duty, and undesirable so far as celebrating heroism risks elevating “heroic” choices over safer, and perhaps wiser ones. However, this leaves unresolved a tension between the denial of heroism and a sense in which certain humanitarian acts really appear heroic. And, the concern that in rejecting the aspiration to heroism an opportunity is lost to inspire more and better humanitarian action. Having set out this problem in more detail in Part I, the argument in Part II will suggest that a virtue ethics approach to humanitarian moral obligations can make good sense of our intuitions concerning the role of heroism in humanitarian action. In Part III I will argue that at least “professional” humanitarians, instead of rejecting heroism, should aim to be heroes, in the sense of displaying a virtue of humanity in high-stakes contexts, because this is consistent with the aim of humanitarian action. Finally, some lingering problems of demandingness and motivation are considered.