Monday, January 5, 2009

moral equivalence and intentionality

Without diving back into the weeds of the Gaza issue in particular, I hope, I want to flag this post of Jon Chait's, as it's very instructive of typical hawkish argument regarding any conflict.

Chait's argument rests on two common but illegitimate memes, the sin of moral equivalence and the heal-all of intentionality.

Chait here has a particularly empty application of the moral equivalence attack. If you're unfamiliar with this tactic, it's when a defender of pretty much any bad behavior by this country or one of its preferred states excuses that behavior, by way of saying that the person criticizing the behavior is drawing a comparison to the actions of an antagonist of the United States. So, here Chait criticizes Matt Yglesias for supposedly drawing a moral equivalence between Israel's actions and Hamas's actions. You see this all the time, though; following the Georgian conflict, some (such as myself) pointed out that Putin's actions amounted to a neocon's dream. This attitude was derided as being an act of moral equivalence. What makes this maneuver so aggravating, to begin with, is that those who use it see no particular reason whatsoever to actually explain why there is in fact no moral equivalence between the actions compared. So, in this post, you'll notice that Chait spends no effort or time at all describing why, exactly, the killing of civilians by Israel is fundamentally different from the killing of civilians by Hamas. Jonah Goldberg has taken this tack for a long time. He'll merely run a post alleging moral equivalence, with no notion at all about a reason why the particular moral comparison is invalid. Simply stringing the two words together seems to be taken for some sort of damning argument. I personally dislike debate performed in shorthand.

What's weird about this is that comparison between behavior is a rather essential element of any kind of moral discourse. When we talk about right and wrong, we often try to derive meaningful comparisons between behaviors as a way to illuminate what is and isn't acceptable behavior. As I will persist in saying, the comparison doesn't generate morality; most of us believe in some sort of categorical vision of morality, and indeed, those who argue against such things are commonly accused of the worst kind of moral relativism. The idea is not that Hamas or Israel are made moral in relation to each other; each one has moral content independent of the other. We can make comparisons between moral content, though, to better get a grasp on any individual situation, and hopefully to sort out judgments. These comparisons are always only as valid or meaningful as we make them. It's like the old question of whether it's ever valid to compare contemporary leaders to Hitler. How are you comparing them? Any comparison that calls two different people or actions identical is invariably wrong, but that doesn't mean that we reject outright the use of comparison or metaphor to help solve moral quandaries.

This is particularly important when we consider foreign policy because this is a realm where hypocrisy is rampant and particularly damning. We advance moral readings on countries and their actions in part out of categorical claims about what is right for any country to do. If, like me, you're a small-d democrat, you believe that the best available form of governance available to us is self-government, you articulate that point when judging totalitarian societies; but you damn well better apply that thinking equally, meaning, for example, that you have to support the rights of the Iranians to elect theocratic politicians even while you are horrified that they've done so. And when you deride acts of aggression or violence against civilians, you damn well better deride those things when perpetuated by your own country. This is why many were so strident, following the attacks of 9/11, in asking the United States to stop spreading violence and instability in the world, while at the same time condemning Al Qaeda in full voice. You must reap what you sow; to be taken seriously as a moral arbiter you've got to live up to your own moral code. Jon Chait and many others would wave their hands and banish those kinds of appraisals of American or Israeli actions simply by invoking the term moral equivalence. But most of us believe that it is a elementary aspect of morality that it be applied equally to different agents.

The common slide, in such a discussion, is to move from saying "You're saying Israel's actions and Hamas's actions are the same" to "You're saying Israel and Hamas are the same." Well, that's not actually true; it's certainly not true of Matt Yglesias, whose record will show that he has consistently criticized Hamas, and it's not true of me or of Daniel Larison or any number of other critics of the assault on Gaza. The point is not that Israel is "as bad" as Hamas or any such thing. The point is that the same moral imperatives that tell us that Hamas's actions are inexcusable equally tell us Israel must cease its behaviors that cost so many innocent people their lives. The point isn't "Hamas and Israel are the same." The point is that if we believe in a categorical vision of morality. Maybe Jon Chait or others like him are pure moral relativists, but I kind of doubt it.

As far as intentionality goes, I've written about it at length before, primarily here. I won't rehash those arguments beyond saying that intent of countries is never uniform, is unknowable, and ultimately can't be a panacea against culpability for acts of aggression, or we lose any meaningful ability to judge the behavior of nations. Intentionality, also, becomes a maneuver used to absolve our country or preferred states from sin, and it again rests on pure assertion: the United States and its favored nations never intend to kill civilians, while the antagonists of the United States always do. So the Georgians, who we favor (at least in comparison to Putin's Russia), attacked South Ossetian separatists out of a desire to fight terrorism and rebuke authoritarianism from Russia, and never intended to kill civilians. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is one of our designated enemies, and therefore was a cruel dictator acting aggressively without regard for the innocent lives he put at risk. That is a naive and hopelessly biased way of looking at the situation, but it has the benefit, as all appeals to intentionality do, of being nonfalsifiable: there is no referent to check, no way for anyone to independently confirm who is telling the truth. Intention has no physical referent in the world, which makes it unverifiable, which is one of several reasons why it is a lousy notion to hang foreign policy judgment on.

In the case of Israel and Hamas, at least, we get no particular claims from Hamas that they aren't trying to kill civilians. And, not coincidentally, Hamas and Hezbollah are some of the only agents in international conflicts where you can find almost no one, and certainly no one in the media or political mainstream, willing to defend their attacks. That's as it should be. The IDF, meanwhile, has the cover of not only a government that claims to minimize civilian death but a credulous Western media, which tends to take those things at face value when they come from status quo governments, and particularly those broadly aligned with American interests. You can judge the IDFs commitment to minimizing civilian deaths on your own. If pressed, I would say that I think that, indeed, the IDF has greater respect for civilian lives than Hamas, but that this is again damning with faint praise, and I have always had a hard time synthesizing three claims: first, that Israel has one of the most competent and most disciplined militaries in the world; second, that the IDF tries its utmost to minimize civilian death; and third, that the IDF has killed thousands of civilians in the past decades. Ultimately, though, as I've said, I don't find judging intent a worthwhile or meaningful activity when analyzing foreign policy.

For too many people, analysis of foreign policy and the ethics of aggressive action really boil down to one question: did we do it? Or did they?

Update: Jeff Goldberg orphans a claim of moral equivalence: "I'm not a J Street moral-equivalence sort of guy." Why? What about the comparisons J Street draws is unfair or unhelpful? Why do you think just saying the words "moral equivalence" somehow exculpates Israel from any moral judgments of its behavior whatsoever?


Matoko said...

Like I said to Conor, this is a tit-for-tat game.
Tit-for-tat is the optimum strategy for both Hamas and the Israelis, but unfortunately for the Israelis, Hamas' cost/benefit ratio is much better.
So the Israelis will lose.
The morality doesn't really matter in tit-for-tat.
Once the cheat move is made, it is just iterated cheated, no matter who who cheated first.

Jake said...

too long... didn't read.

Freddie said...

As I imagine you're aware, that says more about you than it says about me, Jake.

E.D. Kain said...

Well it's true that intent in state-actors is often unknowable, though one could fairly safely observe patterns, geopolitical realities, etc. and come up with a pretty good idea.

For instance, Hamas intends to create chaos and fear in Israel. That's the only reason to send rockets into towns like Ashkelon. Beyond that, they intend such fear and terror to theoretically somehow drive out the Israelis, though more likely they merely intend to hold on to power and to do this by provoking the Israelis to attack they are now.

But beyond these sort of basic intentions exist all sorts of complexities that are impossible to quantify. Israel's intentions in the invasion are manifold, I think.

James said...

Wow, this really got the heart of the two most annoying arguments made by the Zionists, Freddie.

I would also argue that the focus upon intention is also overly deontological, and detracts from the fact that the IDF have done a lot more killing. Indeed I do so here:

and here:

In other words even if we could reliably ascertain that Israel were acting in good faith and Hamas were not, this would still not make the scale of killing (chemical weaponry is now in use, btw) acceptable. Israel is a more worthy target for criticism and condemnation as it possesses far more power than any Palestinian organisation (at the moment, of course, there is no Palestinian embassy to protest courtesy of there being no Palestinian state).

Dave Hunter said...

E.D., it sounds like your saying that Hamas' motives are knowable, while the Israeli government's are not.

But you could observe the Israeli government and come up with all sorts of similar theories as to what their "only" intentions could possibly be. And you can make all sorts of conflicting hypotheses as to what Hamas' intentions are.

Anyway, I thought it was a good post.

E.D. Kain said...

James--two things.

First, I can't stand it when people refer to Israel or anyone even remotely pro-Israel as "the Zionists" if only because it displays a huge lack of understanding. Zionists vary much like Republicans or Democrats do. One of the most liberal Jews I know--lives in a big hippie house, writes for truthout, thinks the Israeli treatment of Palestinians is horrible--she considers herself to be a Zionist.

To my mind a Zionist is merely someone who believes in the continued existence of Israel. It has nothing to do with Israeli government policies.

Now, no doubt there are some hard-line Zionists who are pushing the settlements, but it might be better to refer to them as settlers or hard-liners than Zionists.

But I quibble.

To Dave's point, no I did not mean that all Hamas's intentions are knowable. For one, I'm not sure whether they mean to just go down with the ship, or if they really do seek some sort of peace and all this talk of the destruction of Israel is just sound and fury.

I do know that it's odd when an invading army is at your door, to fire not on their soldiers but over their heads randomly into civilian neighborhoods...

James said...

"Some Zionists" or perhaps "Most Zionists", then. I am aware of J Street.

Dave Hunter said...

E.D., I wish that your last paragraph had been a completed thought, instead of just an insinuation of...

But, anyway, the rockets being fired by militant groups cause very few casualties. Thus, when a militant presses the launch button, he knows it is unlikely that anyone will be hurt. Meanwhile, an Israeli pilot on a bombing run knows that there is a comparatively strong possibility that she will kill a civilian.

Somehow, though, we just know what's in each of these two men's heads at the time they decide to commit violence? Of course not. It's wishful thinking disguised as ethics.

But no one bats an eyelash at the assumption that the Israeli pilot, and the one who sent her, are full of remorse, while the militant is only hoping that his rocket kills somebody two days away from retirement.

Chait asserts that "If Israel lay down all its weapons, Hamas would kill as many Israelis as it could." How does he know this? What is the constant assertion that we try to minimize civilian casualties while they try and maximize them based upon? It seems to me to based on the same wishful thinking.