Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Philosophical Elaboration of the “Bombing ‘Tics’” Post Below

During the Second Lebanese War, my friend Georges Rey, a professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, asked me a simple question: "Would Israel be bombing Southern Lebanon if the Hizbollah terrorists were surrounded by Jewish civilians rather than Arab civilians?" If they wouldn't, he concluded, then there is no moral justification for the current bombings, for Arab civilians have no fewer human rights than Jewish civilians.

A similar thought experiment has recently been proposed Joseph Levine, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts. I would like to thank Joe for allowing me to post his as yet unpublished (and untitled) op-ed on the Magnes Zionist blog:

By Joseph Levine

Israel's current assault on Gaza has sparked controversy in the mainstream press. But for all their differences, critics and supporters share a fundamental assumption: that Israel, as a Western industrial democracy, accepts the Enlightenment idea of the absolute value of individual human lives, and recognizes the inalienable rights that stem from it.. Against this background, Israeli officials are seen as facing a tragic dilemma: how to confront threatening forces who do not share these values – Islamic extremists -- without sacrificing their own moral standards. Thus, supporters of the action in Gaza ask how else but with deadly military force can Israel protect its citizens from rocket attacks, while the critics insist that the bombing, with its high human costs, is anyway a poor means of ensuring Israel's security.. The critics, of course, are correct. But in their tacit endorsement of the "clash-of-cultures" frame, they let Israel off the moral hook. The current assault is not governed by a painful recognition of conflicting demands of human rights; rather it is animated by profound racism, tribalism, and the ancient doctrine of collective guilt.

To see why I say this it is only necessary to engage in a simple thought experiment. Suppose Hamas terrorists were hiding out in Tel Aviv (or Los Angeles, or London, for that matter -- the exercise is equally illuminating applied to the U.S. and or any other "civilized" Western state). Would an assault of the sort we have seen against Gaza even be contemplated? Would Israeli officials grimly but dispassionately calculate the cost-benefit ratio concerning a massive aerial assault on Jewish neighborhoods? Would American and European officials condone such an attack? Would the pundits express their sympathy with Israel's terrible dilemma? Of course not! The very idea of such an action would be recognized immediately as morally outrageous, and anyone who proposed it would be treated with contempt. You can hear the voices: What, are we just like Hamas and Al Qaeda? They don't respect human life, but we do.

Except, of course, "we" -- members of the self-consciously enlightened West -- don't - any more than "they" do. If we really acted out of the values we claim to espouse, then there would be no asymmetry in our reactions to the suggestion in the thought-experiment. Either we would acquiesce in the decision to sacrifice the people of a Tel Aviv neighborhood for sake of the greater good, or – more likely – we would have to see Israel's current assault against Gaza as morally out of bounds. The fact that the cases do not immediately strike us as parallel– a regrettable necessity in one case, a moral atrocity in another – betrays the existence in us of two very primitive, anti-Enlightenment impulses: racial/tribal chauvinism, and a belief in collective guilt.

The first one is obvious. If we are honest, we'll admit that the men, women, and children of Gaza seem different from Israeli Jews and other "Westerners" – they are "Other," not fully human. We vehemently disavow such judgments, of course. But if we don't believe it, what explains the result of the thought experiment? Why would we not be willing to kill hundreds of "us" in order to protect the rest, when we are prepared to kill as many as necessary of them? It's simple: they just don't count as much as we do.

But maybe not. Someone might object that there is a morally relevant difference between the two populations: because Hamas is a Palestinian organization, it is morally justifiable to put Palestinian lives at risk in order to protect Israeli citizens. But this objection simply lays bare the second anti-Enlightenment element in the modern Western psyche: the notion of collective guilt. But why should the mere fact that Hamas is Palestinian justify imperiling the lives of Palestinians who are not Hamas fighters, who are not personally responsible for the terrorist acts the organization commits? It is only if one believes that all Palestinians are made guilty in some way, simply by -- how else to put it? -- being of the same tribe as Hamas. How else can one find a basis for distinguishing between potential victims who are innocent and Palestinian and those who are innocent and like "us?"

Collective guilt is a notion that is as morally primitive and abhorrent as any of the ideas supposedly espoused by "religious extremists." This is why collective punishment is prohibited by international law. Moreover, embracing the doctrine of collective guilt means abandoning the moral high ground. Terrorists always appeal to the notion in justifying the taking of life. Al Qaeda viewed the victims of the World Trade Center bombings as minions of the Great Satan, just as Hamas views its victims as collaborators in the occupation. If we wish to repudiate such thinking, we must not indulge it in ourselves.

Once we give up belief in collective guilt and relinquish allegiance to the tribe, there is nothing left to distinguish the very real victims of Israel's assault on Gaza from the imagined victims in my thought experiment. Indeed there is no morally relevant difference. Vociferous outrage is the only humanly decent response to Israel's brutal assault. It is what's demanded by those Western, Enlightenment values we all supposedly hold dear.


Anonymous said...


Jerry Haber said...


I notice that the only post you write "shkoyech" to is the one that I didn't write!


I would like to add that if I wanted to write an erudite op-ed, I could. Instead I just blog.

Anonymous said...

"A similar thought experiment..."

That's the problem. You are talking about "thought experiments". You have made it all academic.

Well, war is real life. It is as real as it gets!

There are some things that just can't be made "academic" but instead plays itself out in real life.

So, I guess if real life is too hard for you, then you can use your ivy tower as refuge. But you aren't adding any insight into this real life situation.

Sydney Nestel said...


(or by extension Joseph Levine)

But is collective guilt really so primitive - especially in a democracy?

If a people votes for a government with an expressly violent and intolerant policy, if they then support it, sympathize with it, and root it on, do they then not deserve some of the consequences of that governments immoral actions.

On a different a playing field, do American citizens in general owe any compensation to Amerindians for past killings and robbery by the American government, or to the families of dead Afghani civilians killed by American bombs?

Or are Palestinian victims of Israeli atrocities owed anything by the Israeli citizenry, the majority of whom votes for the governments that commit theses atrocities. Or is the debt only to be exacted from the individual soldiers who committed the acts, and their direct chain of command.

My gut tells me there is collective responsibility here. What is the difference between collective responsibility and collective guilt?

Anonymous said...

"If they wouldn't, he concluded, then there is no moral justification for the current bombings, for Arab civilians have no fewer human rights than Jewish civilians."

But that is simply not true.

Looking at it from the Israeli perspective (remember you can't look at it objectively but instead need to look at it from a subjective viewpoint) it is the duty of the Israeli Government to protect Israeli Citizens.

So, Indeed from the perspective of the Israeli Government the lives of Israeli citizens are much, much more valuable than that of those of other countries (in this case Lebanese).

Just like to YOU your children's lives are worth much, much, much more than the life of Ghayan's children.

Or at least I hope that's the case otherwise you are a cold heartless, inhuman academic.

Anonymous said...

"They don't respect human life, but we do. Except, of course, 'we' -- members of the self-consciously enlightened West -- don't - any more than 'they' do. "

That is simply a wrong statement. While 'we' might not live up to an absolute respect for human life as you have defined it we do respect it in relative terms MORE than 'they' do.

And yeah, we need to stop being self-conscious and just admit that we are humans. In the end it really is about who can throw the bigger rocks most accurately.

The difference isn't how we conduct the war but why we go to war and what we do once victory is obtained.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. If Tel Aviv or Los Angeles or London had an entire network of smuggling tunnels, snipers, landmines, stockpiles of weapons, armed militias, funding pouring in from hostile nations, the eager participation of civilians, and were firing rockets into the neighboring city? I don't quite think the response would be so reserved.

Case in point, the Altalena incident. Or how about Waco?

Jerry Haber said...

Anonymous 1 and Anonymous 3 are scumbags that I don't have to respond to. (I'd call them Nazis, but I wouldn't want to offend the Nazis.)

Anonymous 2 raises the issue of preferential ethics, and that, of course, has a long history and extensive literature. So maybe I should cut to the chase and make the following distinctions.

Common-sense ethics (or ordinary morality, if you like) allows that it is justifiable to prefer your own in many circumstances. To treat your son no differently from, say, a Rwandan, seems odd and inhuman. And so most moral philosophers (and thinkers of all sorts) don't have a problem with that. And neither do I, or Joe Levine.

But, obviously, there are limits to this. I may be concerned more with my son's play rehearsal than with a stranger's mugging. But if I walked by a stranger being mugged on the way to a pharmacy, and then didn't call the police on my cell phone because that would make me late to the play rehearsal....well, you get the point.

Being a decent person involves learning those limits.

Being a mafioso, or a rank tribalist, involves not learning those limits. The mafioso says that if you are a member of the "family" you have rights; if you aren't you don't.

Now it is natural to say, I don't care how many strangers will die; all I care is about my son who is being held hostage. So if I can get him back at the expense of all those innocents dying, I don't care.

It is natural -- and it is wrong.

Joe Levine's point was not that it was unethical to accord preference to your own. Rather it is unethical to treat people who are not your own as possessing less human rights than your own.

There are people who respect human life, and there are those who don't. If Israel wants to stand up and say, "Only Israelis or Jews have human rights," fine. Ditto for America.

But what Levine was saying is that Israel (and America) talk the talk of human rights ("All men are created equal"), and claim for themselves the mantle of a decent society, and then simply act like a barbarian society. They lie to themselves, to their children, and to the world.

After all, it's the real world, isn't it? En guerre comme la guerre.

Jerry Haber said...


You know as well as I do that this is a weighty topic. But I also think that you know what the answer is going to be.

Even those who believe in collective guilt don't feel that the collective is as guilty as the actual perpetrators. And it is generally accepted, both historically and in international human rights law, that civilians, even of representative democracies, have certain inalienable rights.

To say that it is legitimate to bomb civilians because of collective responsibility is the way of terrorist organizations. What Levine is arguing is that Israel is acting like a terrorist organization.

By the way, perpetrators of atrocities also have rights, don't they? We try war criminals, don't we? Think of the time and money we could save if we could do away with the court system.

Jerry Haber said...


The bomb aimed at Ghayan was not intended to do anything but kill Ghayan. It was not intended to take care of the other problems you mentioned.

In my example in the precedingpost, Ghayan was in Gaza but surrounded by Shalit and Israelis from Sderot. Would Israel have dropped a bomb on them?

In your example, I agree that the response would not be so reserved. But...what exactly do you mean? Would Tel-Aviv be a Palestinian city? And if it were an Israeli city, how would your example even work?

The Atalena was full of terrorists and weapons. If there had been the families of terrorists on the boat, it would have been morally outrageous to sink it. As it is, Ben Gurion's actions were extreme and have to be justified.

The Waco case is so completely different. Nobody in the US government wanted to destroy the Branch Davidians; on the contrary, the final move to end the siege was initiated in fear of a mass suicide on the scale of Jonestown. One can argue whether it was done properly or not.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jerry

Happy New Year.

I love reading the philosphical moral writing on your blog and want to thank you for some really novel way of looking at this latest f*& Up in the middle east.

I wanted to ask you as an orthodox jew with the moral philosophy that you hold dear, how do you reconcile that with the biblical version of when we first went into Israel and hashem said we had to kill anyone who lived in the land - well at least that's the story I was told in my very orthodox jewish school. I personally am having trouble assimilating that with the moral philosophy you have braught to life.

If you have written about it before then please excuse this silly quation and refer me to the appropriate post.


Jerry Haber said...


YOu went to orthodox day school? So did my kids. My sympathies.

According to the Bible, when the Hebrews go into the land, they are not to make peace with some of the inhabitants of the land, but go to war with them.

Fortunately, orthodox Jews don't read the Bible literally -- well, some fundamentalist orthodox Jews today, too -- but through the filter of the commentorial tradition.

1. Whether the above has anything to do with the modern situation has been argued by orthodox rabbis for the last century. If you went to a modern orthodox day school with a religious zionist orientation, or, worse, if you went to a religious zionist school in Israel, you were indoctrinated with a very selective reading of rabbinic Jewish sources -- or more likely, your teachers were.

2. The Rambam in the Mishneh Torah says that one doesn't enter into any war with the peoples of Canaan until they have been offered and accepted peace terms. Those terms include accepting second-class "dhimmi"-status to the Jews. But there is no Biblical precedent for the peace overtures. And apparently Rambam wasn't bothered by that.

3. If the Rambam can read Jewish law in light of twelfth century legal and moral standards, based on Jewish and non-Jewish sources, then I can do the same, based on contemporary legal and moral standards. Of course, he, more than I, will claim that this is the original intention of the text. But both the Rambam and I share the view that God is not immoral, nor can He command, something is immoral. If He is portrayed that way in the Bible, that is because the readers of the Bible could only understand such a God. (He is also portrayed as having bodily parts, but not many orthodox Jews go for that, thanks mainly to Rambam and Saadia Gaon) .

These are deep ideas and I can't handle them here, or anywhere, adequately.

If you want to get some idea of where I am coming from, you may want to read my posts on "Jewish Ethics" and "A Talmudic Precedent" on the right.

The Hegemonist said...

I loved your thought experiment, it blew my mind. I think you make a persuasive argument. The downfall is, of course, that Hamas was elected democratically. Hamas isn't sovreign over Gaza, the Gazan people are. In that situation, you aren't punishing them because they're palestinian, but because the are the sovreign government that is firing rockets. Nevertheless, this is a great post. Thanks for making me think!