© Ricardo Garcia Vilanova
24 Apr 17 22 May 17

Opinion and Debate: Time to abandon the language of complicity

Please note: Views expressed in this section are those of the author(s) alone and do NOT reflect the official position of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

By Julian Sheather

Ethics Manager at the British Medical Association and MSF

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Good people can give themselves a bad time. A team of good people can give each other a bad time. Take a multinational organisation of good people and the possibilities for self-punishment are limitless.

I am a specialist in medical ethics at the British Medical Association. I have also worked with MSF for some time, helping think through some tough ethical problems. And in MSF I see a lot of good people giving themselves a bad time.

Perhaps it is a side-effect of high moral principle. Take the concept of complicity. I hear it an awful lot in MSF. Sometimes it is whispered and fearful: Is there, might there be, the slenderest… erm… possibility that we might be complicit?

Sometimes it is a condemnation, defiantly hurled at decision-makers: YOU ARE COMPLICIT.

"Oskar Schindler was complicit with the Nazis, but his sin was outweighed by the lives he saved"
Julian Sheather

MSF works in some terrible places. And despite the best intentions, people working in terrible places are forced into moral compromise. It goes with the territory.

Getting access to the sick and suffering can mean negotiating with treacherous regimes and vicious individuals. It can involve agonies of self-suppression: of the ordinary human desire to say something, to condemn.

It can also involve trade-offs: most humanitarian organisations know that some of the help they bring will be syphoned-off for malign purposes.

“Everything is in the distinctions”

The greater the pressure to compromise the louder the klaxon of complicity is sounded. Suspending work supporting the Rohingya in Myanmar; getting access to the transit camps in Libya; getting caught up in global power play in the refugee camps on the Jordanian border: every time accusations of complicity with the powerful were levelled.

But the more I hear the cry – or whisper – of complicity, the less I know what it means. And that’s because it means different things to different people. Dig deeper and it unravels into a cluster of concepts.

The key lies with the prefix, 'com'. It means doing things, in this case bad things, together. But it ranges from deliberate joint wrongdoing at one end to the vaguest whiff of proximity at the other.

Which is why it is unhelpful. Getting close to wrongdoing to help people is a country mile from doing the wrong together. And a single word that spans them all is no use. Everything is in the distinctions.

"Accusations of complicity are no help"

For a nebulous concept though, it has power. It can paralyse decision-making, tying us up with vague feelings of guilt. It broadcasts responsibility for wrongdoing without being clear about what the wrongs are, who is responsible, and for what.

The world being what it is, when we try and do good, we can end up doing harm. Sometimes it is our fault, sometimes the good we do is bent to harmful ends by others. At other times we cannot do good without doing harm – and this is when we talk about moral dilemmas.

Decision-making in this territory is difficult. The right path is seldom clear. Well-intended actions can have fateful consequences. But accusations of complicity are no help. Beyond reminding us that we are always at risk of being drawn into inadvertent wrongdoing, it is simply too vague to give us what we need.

"Although standing on principle and refusing to sup with the devil can feel virtuous, it can also betray those in desperate need."
Julian Sheather

Oskar Schindler was complicit with the Nazis, but his sin was outweighed by the lives he saved.

It is time to abandon the language of complicity. It leads to navel-gazing, sanctimony and reproach. It over-simplifies a morally tangled world and fuels attack on individuals rather than respect for the complexity of decision-making. It smears those who try to do good with the evils they wrestle with.

Good decision-making is difficult. It doesn’t need moral bogey-men like complicity. When working in morally troubled places what is needed is a careful, clear-eyed assessment of the likely good and ill involved.

Although standing on principle and refusing to sup with the devil can feel virtuous, it can also betray those in desperate need. There is no substitute for the slow and painful business of assessing the likely effects of our choices. Forget the dark murmurings of complicity. When all is said and done, the overall good should be our guide.

What do you think? Have your say and join the debate below in the comments section.

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