Book Review: The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism

Review of The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism. David Kennedy. Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J., 2004. Pp. 400. $29.95 (cloth).

In The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism, Professor David Kennedy asks how the many devoted, resourceful, and well-intentioned individuals who make up the international humanitarian community can so often fail in their most basic goals. According to Kennedy, humanitarianism has many unintended costs stemming from the failure of humanitarians to acknowledge their increasing influence on international policymaking. Government officials and political actors recognize that they ultimately bear responsibility for the consequences of their policies, and, therefore, they pragmatically consider the risks and potential costs of their actions as well as the benefits. Humanitarians have traditionally seen themselves as outsiders with respect to global “rulership” and thus do not feel the same accountability for their actions. In addition, humanitarians often mistakenly assume that because their actions are well-intentioned, they will have only benefits. Kennedy argues that if humanitarians identified with their power in global governance, they would engage in pragmatic cost-benefit analysis more often and avoid many of the dark sides of humanitarianism. Although Kennedy offers few concrete solutions, his broad exploration of the problem through his own experiences is thought provoking and compelling. Kennedy’s goal is to provoke the human rights community to engage in the type of self-critical, pragmatic thinking that might reduce, if not eliminate, the costs of humanitarian action. The result is a challenging, engaging, and complicated book that may well have the desired effect.