Saturday, August 12, 2006

Moral Equivalences

Gil posted this a while back but it comes to mind on a daily basis atm, and seems as pertinent as here it is.


David said...

I don't think it's even worth dragging morality into this, unless you're looking to take it into Kurtz territory. Is it a comfort to those who've lost relatives killed by the Israelis to think 'well, they did have the moral highground'? It's nonsense. All the talk of solidarity with this or that side.

As to the suggestion of human shields...

Personally I think we should dig up Gavrilo Princip's body and slap it about a bit. He started much of this.

Carlotta said...

I am sure it is even less of a comfort to those who've lost relatives to terrorist mortar fire to think that the loss was a matter of completely unprovoked genocidal intent.

And are you (and the article) saying that the Hezbollah actively distinguish themselves from the rest of the population, making it easy for the IDF to target them, and that the IDF therefore deliberately target civilian populations?

Carlotta said...

The fact remains that when an Israeli kills a Lebanese civilian, it is a mistake, and when a Hezbollah terrorits kills an Israeli civilian, it is a success.

David said...

If morality is to mean anything, it is to make killing immoral. Any talk of moral equivalency, or moral high/low ground, where life is being so casually discarded by both sides is absurd. This was my point. People are no less dead if they're killed by 'mistake' (do the IDF truly regret any loss of innocent life? Do they sink to their knees and weep?). You could, if you wanted to, conjur up some ethical version of Realpolitik for all this - thus the Kurtz reference. But to me.. it's a joke, and I see any attempt at taking sides as obscene. What we the observers need to do is take Mr Hezzbollah Leader and Mr IDF Leader and bang their moronic skulls together until they see sense. To show support for a side is to show support for the killing, 'mistaken' or otherwise.

I've much more to say, but I've also a bus to catch.

Some things of interest in this:

Carlotta said...

I wasn't inferring that killing was anything less than terrible. What I was saying is that one side is taking the lesser of two evils, ie: killing to protect its people as opposed to not protecting them and allowing them to be killed when it has a duty not to let this happen, whereas the other side is actively seeking to kill people because it wants to obliterate a country.

Sorting out the issue is not a matter of banging people's heads together as any effective parent should know...this only leaves the participents with outstanding senses of grievance or impunity or some such which will doubtless later result in further conflict.

You have to get stuck in there and try to sort out who has a good argument and who doesn't.

In this instance, the overall moral question really is, does one
think that Israel has a right to exist?

David said...

I still don't believe any argument can be 'good' if it ends with even the slightest justification of the killing of innocents - to me, such a thing smacks of moral relativism. You may have no other option than to take innocent life, but if so you should get on with it and never seek to justify it. The lesser of two evils is still evil, and we should stand up and say so. The rest of the world reacting with shows of disgust and condemnation of both sides would be much better than any support marches. Both sides are convinced enough of their rightness.

If we are to have morality at all, we may as well make a good go of it, and that means having the sanctity of life as the foundation. The problem is that the world makes a mockery of morality.

Does Israel have a right to exist? I don't know. I don't know enough about the country's history to make that call. I should point out you could ask me if France or Spain or Germany or the UK (or any of her constituent parts) had a right to exist and I'd answer the same. Obviously, the question of Israel's right to exist is somewhat more urgent than any of the other aforementioned countries.

I've read stuff from both sides of the argument that appeals to me, and stuff from both sides of the argument that appalls me. Most of the time it seems tit-for-tat, with either side looking to pick an incident where the other 'started it'. If ever there is an impartial, objective point of view, it won't be over this.

As to the banging heads together, it can't leave any more grievances or feelings of injustice than the recent debacle.

David said...

Apt. Still.

Carlotta said...

Saying something is the lesser of two evils is not the same as saying that there is a "good" justification for something. Israel is forced to take the action it does because it's choice is either to try to eradicate the threat to it's people, or let these people murder their people when the state has a duty to protect it's people. In other words, doing nothing is even more terrible (because of the duty to protect)than doing something.

If the question of whether a country has a right to exist is too fraught, we could stick with the simpler "Would it be better if Israel was allowed to continue in peace, or would it better if it were consistently exposed to genocidal attempts, or disbanded completely".

And...Given that the area would appear to be able to support the number of people who live in it, given a bit of a constructive attitude towards solving this problem, what would be the reason for not letting Israel continue to exist?

Gil said...


Let's imagine that there is such a thing as morality, and that it's possible for one of two parties in a violent conflict to be behaving more morally than the other.

Given that possibility, do you deny that the IDF, which has responded to ongoing attacks on the people it has a duty to protect and has accepted many casualties in the cause of trying to avoid innocent civilian deaths is acting more morally than Hezbollah, which has engaged in an explicit campaign of mass murder and attempted genocide and clearly considers the innocent deaths on both sides to be tactical successes?

If you can't see any moral difference, then I don't think you understand the words we're using.

This commitment to denying a moral component to the conflict is not sophisticated, it's obscene.

And, the smugness you exhibit about your inability to detect such a difference is sad.

And, by the way, the lesser of two evils is only evil if there's a third option that's better. Doing the best thing one can do, morally, may involve tragedy but doing something else is more tragic and less moral.

So, either you can propose a more moral course that Israel could reasonably take (one that would result in fewer rights violations in the long run), or you're just spouting dangerous nonsense.

David said...

As I have hopefully made clear, I don't know enough about the specifics of the situation to make a call - at least it feels that way to me. Seeing as my opinion is, sadly, inconsequential to the actors and their actions, I'm not taking sides. Indeed, what I object to is the way the slaughter of innocents has turned into some grotesquely petty scoreboard of right and wrong.

I've spent plenty of time arguing with others who see things the opposite to you, dragging out 'no moral equivalence' between the killing of Israeli civilians and Lebonese civilians, and it is this surity on both sides of the 'moral highground' that prolongs the violence - hence my distaste for those who pick a side. People who I'd previously had a lot of time for were confusing anti-war marches with pro-Hezzbollah ones. As I also hope to have made clear, I'm not sitting out on judgement on this one. I'm calling a plague on both houses. I believe it is always, at all times and forever wrong to kill innocents and it can never be a moral thing to do so. It may be necessary - it all too often is - but it is still wrong. It could be argued Country A has a moral obligation to protect its citizens. It could also be argued that Country A has a moral obligation to not kill innocent civilians of any country. As we have seen, these two worthy moral goals are, often, incompatible. It is practicalities that win the argument, not moral arguments. Hence my point that the world (well, humanity) makes a mockery of morality.

Carlotta - I can't really go with genocide, so I'm left with peace/disbanded. It would be better if it were left in peace. Things would be better if everyone, everywhere were left in peace. But I still don't feel I know enough to decide on this. I'm a-learnin', though.

Gil - Imagine morality exists? It does exist. It's just it's outnumbered by amorality and plain old immorality. Always has been, always will be. Unless you want to get all Nietzschian/Randian and turn it on its head.

As I see it, Israel had two options: all out fighting until Hezzbollah is crushed and the soldiers recovered with as much 'collateral damage' as this takes, or negotiation. If they didn't have the stomach to see the former all the way through then I don't think it made much sense to start it. And seeing as they'll most likely end up having to negotiate anyway...

The lesser of two evils is still evil. I might be in a situation where I have to kill either 500 people or 1000 people. On crude utilitarian grounds I opt for the 500, assuming everything else is equal (if the 500 were, say, nice, gentle people and the 1000 pederasts and arms manufacturers, things'd be different). It is still an evil to kill those 500.

That's about as explicit as I can make it.

Carlotta said...

Dear David,

I very much appreciate the problem of not knowing enough to formulate even a vague attempt at a moral opinion. For example, as parents it can happen that we are told two completely different versions of events, and therefore feel incapable of making that call.

But suspending moral judgement until more facts are known is very different from not having the intention of formulating a moral theory, say in the situation of a conflict.

It is also different from saying that both participents are wrong simply for being in a conflict, since to say such a thing is to imply, for example, that the judge holds that the principle of self-defence is a bad one. It is potentially equivalent to saying that the woman who kills her rapist when she has no other available way of defending herself is as wrong as her rapist.

Gil said...


I don't think your notion that people behaving in the best way possible can be doing evil is conventional, or even coherent.

Morality is about making good choices. If one has made the best choice available, then he must have behaved morally. If not, then one cannot behave morally unless the stars happen to align so that he has an option that cannot result in harm to anyone.

I think you're confusing evil with tragedy.

And, this is apt as well.

Carlotta said...


Norm has a neat take on the "Who started it" argument here:

David said...

Carlotta - I did formulate a judgement. I find them both in the wrong. Was one side more wrong than the other? Maybe, but they're still both wrong. If people who want to fight want to kill each other, fine, let them do it. It's the snuffing out of innocent life that bothers me.

Can't make the norm link work. I'll peruse his blog later of it.

I don't think the rape analogy is apt in the Israel/Lebanon sense - who 'started' it is clear in the rape case, whereas Israel/Hezzbollah seems ongoing. Again, I don't know enough. Though I'd fully agree she has every right to self defense. If she kills him, so much the better.

Sorry, the mask slipped there.

Gil - I understand where you're coming from, I just think no action can be called 'good' or 'moral' if it leads to the deaths of innocents. I've been known to dabble in moral relativism, but that'd be one of my set-in-stone absolutes. It may, by circumstance, be necessary. But never good.

It may be that it was necessary for Israel to react as they did; I don't know. But it isn't tragedy. It's humanity. Too much human action leaves no room for acting morally. Moreover, it's usally the self professed 'moral' who act the most disgracefully.

Again, my point was never actually about handing out blame/shame. It was about the way this skirmish was picked up and used for point scoring whilst lives on both sides were being torn apart.

It may make you both feel better (or worse. Or nothing) that I've argued pretty much the same against pro-Hezzbollah peeps, and got similar reactions.

Anonymous said...

David, I wonder what you think the morally right thing to do is, for Israel, in the cirumstances? I imagine that you might just say 'turn the other cheek' (as a Christian would, perhaps you are one) and that this is moral.

Or does the moral argument embrace a bigger picture whereby Israel is justified in protecting its citizens from all potential, future threat based on past experience - similar to the Iraq scenario? The eradication of an evil man. Not that I am more than very vaguely informed about current affairs, so undoubtedly miss out on the subtleties (if not fundamental facts!).

In the last couple of months literally thousands of Hezbollah missiles have landed in Haifa...It is not as if Israel has not been severely provoked. It seems from what I have read that the IDF's code of practice is actually of a very high ethical standard, is well argued and usually adhered to.

The controversial bit is that they do say that they have a duty to protect their citizens which means that though they obviously think that they should do their utmost to avoid collateral civilian damage, when it comes to this being a possibility, they must still undertake the action in order to protect their own citizens.

Obviously very complex - assuming that this is at all accurate.

In this scenario is being passive more moral? (It seems that there is not one scenario without innocent deaths resulting) What do you think?

I suppose one might get a sort of sense of virtue from doing nothing (at least 'it wasn't me, miss' they could say to the world's leaders...)


Carlotta said...

Good questions, D.

Of course, in the situation that they could say "it wasn't me, miss" the IDF could be construed as having colluded in the deaths of their own civilians.