Saturday, January 03, 2009

"The American conversation"

Matt, as you would expect from someone who has studied philosophy at Harvard, has been able to solve one of the toughest moral questions that have arisen so far in what he calls "the American conversation" on this. He writes:
Meanwhile, of course, there’s still such a thing as ethics and so forth. Vaguely pointing rockets at civilian areas and hoping they kill as many people as possible is wrong, completely independently of whether or not Israel is also doing things that are wrong. I think that’s a point that’s pretty well-appreciated in the American conversation on this. But by the same token, Israeli actions that are wrong are wrong independent of whether or not Hamas is launching rockets.
I think this gives us a hint why the launch of a ground invasion is being held up. They are waiting for a similarly authoritative pronouncement from Matt on what happens in "ethics and so forth" in the case of a ground invasion.

Clearly when the tanks go in, they will be guilty of something like disorderly conduct, so that would be wrong, "quite independently" of what the resistance does. But here's another point. If the Hamas fighters, without being shot at, and in a completely unprovoked way, start blowing up tanks and shooting at soldiers trying to escape, clearly that too would be wrong, "quite independently" of the fact that driving tanks around was also wrong. Moreover, if it turns out the Hamas fighters have weapons, then clearly they will have been smuggled in, unlike the Israeli arms, which have been purchased in a completely above-board fashion in the open market. So that would be doubly wrong. And the argument will be the same: both sides are in the wrong, each independently of the other.

If you think this is a ridiculous argument, ask yourself: Did you ever, honestly, think it possible that aerial bombardment with American weapons of an encircled and starving population would not be condemned in the most unequivocal terms "in the American conversation"? All I am saying is: There is more where that came from. Wait for it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate you more than you can know.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a current philosophy student in the U.S. (though not of such a prestigious institution as Harvard) I feel I should weigh in.

I should point out that the kind of moral evaluation of actions totally independent of their contexts (for instance, seeing whether a given action falls under a given rule or not) is typical of the kind of moral philosophy we find in Anglo-American moral discourse. The alternative is to think about the moral value of actions within the larger context of political structures and power conflicts, without consideration of which we haven't even minimally appreciated the significance of any morally relevant action.

So it makes little sense to want to talk about Hamas's firing of rockets into areas with Israeli civilians without mentioning the context in which this event has significance, namely the total economic blockade imposed on the Gaza strip, and the explicitly stated and actualized intention by Israeli leaders to depose Hamas and make it costly for Palestinians to politically support Hamas.

And yes, it's very convenient when talking about the morality of actions to pretend that they are discrete events by isolated moral agents who aren't already linked up in power conflicts and decades-long struggles over occupation and territorial sovereignty. Convenient because it allows us Americans to forget that we supply the Israelis with billions of dollars as well as the very weapons they use to annihilate Gazans. With this model of the depoliticized and dehistoricized subject, we can delude ourselves into thinking that it's legitimate to tally up the moral value of actions, seeing how well they accord with the universal and eternally valid principles we invent. And then we utter empty and insignificant words like "the Israelis do bad things, but so do the Palestinians," and wash our hands after doing ethics.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Helena Cobban said...

Extremely relevant to all this is the strong preference of liberals, including liberal hawks, in the west to focus strongly on "intentions" (e.g., with respect to "targeting") and far less on the effects of the actions taken.

Thus we have Human Rights Watch castigating Hamas for allegedly "targeting" Israeli civilians-- while quite ignoring the evidence there is that Hamas (unlike some other groups) has worked hard to restrict its targeting to Israeli military targets... While HRW lets Israel completely off the hook re its "targeting", even when it should not (e.g. the assassination of a Hamas political and military leader in his own home along with many members of his family... H'mm, would that make it OK for Hamas or others to target Israel's political and military leaders while they're in their own homes with their families?)

But HRW has relatively little to say about the (comparative) EFFECTS of the two sides' military actions... because, you see, Israel's intentions (and targeting) have already been prejudged as pure. And Hamas's as impure.

Kant and other moral philosophers have always stressed, though, that a moral actor needs not only to have moral intentions but also to check the effects of her/his actions on others to see whether they having a moral effect. I guess HRW forgot about that part of it...

Also, in IHL, military7 commanders are under a positive responsibility to exercise both discrimination (as between military and non-military targets) and proportionality, and to take actions to limit the harm visited on noncombatants even if his own forces have thereby to suffer greater risk. Oh dear, guess HRW forgot about that, too.

3:05 PM  

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