Friday, 23 November 2012

Israel's Moral Choice

Israel has stopped bombing Gaza. For now. Yet the agreed truce is not likely to last very long. There is too much hatred on both sides. In just a week of bombing more than 150 Palestinians were killed. The bombing was meant to be a response to the more than a thousand rocket attacks that Hamas launched on Israel. During those attacks five Israelis were killed. Five too many certainly, but it still doesn't seem to justify the killing of 150 Palestinians, the majority of which were civilians, including many women and children. It all seems, to the say the very least, disproportionate, and not exactly in accordance with the lex talionis, which both demands and permits taking an eye for an eye, but no more than an eye. Instead, Israel thought it was okay to take 30 eyes for one eye. This is a bit as if I took revenge on my neighbour for kicking my dog by killing him, his family and all his relatives and friends. So how can anyone think that this is justified?

When I listen to Israeli officials (as for instance the Israeli ambassador to the UK), the impression I get is that there are two (localised) moral principles that they assume to be true. The first is that the life of an Israeli is worth much more (given the numbers, at least thirty times as much) than the life of a Palestinian. So if we were discussing a trolley problem in an Israelian school to test the students' moral intuitions we might have to specify whether those about to be killed are Palestinians or Israelis. Would you push the fat man over the bridge to save 30 people on the track from the oncoming train? Not if the fat man were an Israeli and the 30 on the track Palestinian. So how many Palestians would there have to be on the track in order to justify the sacrifice of that one Israeli? 100? 500? Or would no number be high enough? Discuss.

The second moral principle that allegedly justifies the disproportionate mass killing of Palestinian children is that if you are provoked to an action, you carry no responsibility whatsoever for the consequences. If Hamas leaders choose to hide themselves in populated areas, then it is their fault, and their fault alone, if a lot of civilians die during Israelian counter attacks. It is thus not Israel that kills those people, but Hamas. In a way they are killing themselves. It is like pushing a button that causes an explosion: it would be ridiculous to hold the button responsible for the resulting deaths, especially if you are the one who pushed it. So the Palestians pushed the button that started the Israelian bombardment. In other words, Israel, in their own perception, had no agency in the matter. They didn't act, they reacted. This strikes me as a very curious and - I might as well say it - cowardly attitude. It is as if I, after killing my neighbour and his family for kicking my dog, justified my action by saying "He started it!" implying that I had no choice, that I wasn't free to do otherwise, that I was merely a means to his death, which ultimately he brought on himself.

But even though it may be true that the other is partly to blame for what happened insofar as his actions are part of the causal chain that eventually led to his death, I certainly am responsible for how I chose to respond. It is I and nobody else who decided what to do. I did have a choice. And so did Israel.


  1. Again I am thinking of Persson's and Savulescu's book Unfit For The Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Would the artificial, biomedical enhancement they suggest as a possible way of ending people doing harm to each other work in this part of the world? But I don't think one could convince either side to take part in such an experiment.

  2. Yes, I agree, and the reason is that people do not usually know that what they are doing is wrong. They feel entirely justified. In their right. Righteous. Nobody does bad things knowingly, claimed Socrates. Well, some may well do, but most people don't and that is exactly the problem. Their righteousness makes them even more dangerous.