Global Ethics Corner: Disaster Relief and Ethics

November 7, 2008

When disaster strikes, relief operations' managers must make difficult decisions with a sure hand. The proper distribution of resources and personnel is critical when it comes to saving lives and delivering essential services. A few minutes may make the difference between life and death.

Yet, many residents ignore mandatory evacuation orders, potentially exposing rescue workers to risks and diverting resources. Is it ethical to abandon them, knowing the danger they face, their needs?

Some argue that the rights of first responders should have priority. But, can we be sure that those who stay behind do so out of bravado or spite? Some may not get the warning or stay out of fear, infirmity or disability.

We enter a slippery ethical slope when we begin to make distinctions between victims. When can an individual's rights be set aside?

When emotions are high, time is of the essence, and lives are at stake, deciding equitably can be impossible.

Often snap decisions are placed on the shoulders of individuals, asked to make judgments based solely on instinct. Alongside search and rescue training, formal ethics discussions are important for these brave professionals.

How can their difficult decisions be made easier? If faced with this choice, how would you decide?

By Matthew Hennessey

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