This study critically reflects on a schism evident in debates surrounding 'humanitarian communication'. On one hand, it is approached as embodying an ideal of ethical practice. On the other, ideal humanitarianism is deployed as the grounds for a critique, whereby 'humanitarian practice' is seen as compromised by exigencies and political-economic influence. Drawing on the testimony of humanitarian communication practitioners within major international agencies, we argue this also reflects a felt tension within the field, where practitioners are very aware of the practical constraints and material influences to which they are subject. In both cases, however, an assumed opposition between the 'practical' and the 'ethical' tends to position 'humanitarian ethics' as an ahistorical ideal that stands apart from, and acts as a check on, instrumental action. This paper argues that a more historically grounded analysis suggests a more complex interrelationship between ethical and instrumental concerns. © The Author(s) 2012.