Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Socratic Questions about the Israel-Gaza Conflict

One of the worst things anyone could do in a debate is to allow an opponent to get away with asserting context-less "self-evidencies" in their position; that would be allowing them to win by default with little chance of appeal. This error of debate has been especially prevalent during the brief war between Israel and Gaza, where some moral evaluations of the situation were given as self-evident and thus pitting the world against Israel from the start. To counter this problem we must employ the Socratic method of questioning, i.e., the method questioning that makes the person reduce his or her positions into underlying premises that support them and those premises into further premises and so on, until one finds he has hit the bottom. But we will not resort to reduction to such a depth; after all, the Socratic method got Socrates killed. We must use such a method sparingly lest our opponents refuse to converse with us.

Using this method has multiple benefits. By making explicit your opponent’s premises you may be able to convince people witnessing the debate (whether it be online or verbal) that your position is correct, even if you should happen to fail to convince your opponent. If your opponent is dishonest, then you may undercut his confidence in his position and perhaps prevent him from spreading his ideas around. Or if your opponent is honest, he may realize that his position is not sufficiently supported or is without merit and will examine himself. And so on. You will not know until you try.

The way this essay is formatted is that we will start by introducing a question that needs to be asked about the Israel-Gaza conflict but has been left to implicit defaults, and then dissect it. In the first paragraph underneath the question I will state the popular opinion and then in the following paragraphs explain what is wrong with it.

Now, let us boil down sloppy thinking into essentials.

* * * * *

1.) Should a killer or an army be acquitted of aggression just because of its lack of competence?

Before a war starts we of course have a reason it was initiated. The reason Israel decided to go to war with Gaza is because the army of Gaza had been firing missiles into Israel for several months in an attempt to kill civilians. After months of a disobeyed cease-fire, Israel took action. But the public thinks that its actions were excessive and not justified by what aggression had occurred, that Israel should not be taking out cannons to combat butter knives.

The big error here is that such people have dispensed with moral principles and are trying to judge the appropriateness of a course of action according to what already has happened instead of what may happen. Since, the popular opinion states, the missile attacks have been almost futile there is no need for action. But this ignores two things: to let any type of evil army to continue to exist is to allow the possibility for them to grow stronger, and no army bent on victory is going to quit until the odds are excessively in or against their favor. The former point shows that judging armies only by what they have done is an extremely dangerous and ignorant route. Just because Hamas today is attacking with "poorly" made missiles offers no assurance that they will not drop bombs tomorrow or launch nuclear weapons in the coming years. To wait until such a situation arises is to wait until it is too late. The latter point tells us that to win a war is to destroy the opponent's will to fight. So long as either side sees a chance of getting ahead of its opponent will neither side back down. This is why America won WWII: Japan had to pay the price of having two cities leveled in exchange for its bombing of Peal Harbor; an arm and a leg were given for an eye.

2.) Do perpetrators of evil have rights?

Except for the perpetrators themselves, rarely anybody disputes that the actions of some countries in the Middle East are evil. There are plenty of articles listing the brutality of the civilians and government, including everything from sulfuric acid attacks on women to stonings as par cultural norm. But with Israel, however, it is of opinion (and rationalism) that it has cast the first stone by taking land from Palestinians and therefore has brought upon itself the attacks and widespread hatred.

Again the public has dropped principles in favor of a concrete mentality; only this time we have the absurd problem where a person has two different opinions on one subject because of scale. To give an example, it is rarely argued against that a robber or a murderer deserves to be punished and lose their rights because they have violated other’s rights. If, however, we change the scale so that we are dealing with an entire country of robbers and murderers, the same people that would agree with the previous statement of justice may now conclude to the contrary that this country does have rights. But again, it is only a difference in number we are dealing with; we have the same subject with two opposing opinions. In a group these persons see not a collection of individuals, but a new, unique entity.

The fact is that anyone or anything that does not observe rights cannot have rights, and this subsumes both cases where a person may be actively violating rights and cases where a person may not have conceived of rights. To assert the opposite is to make the concept of rights useless. What is the use of saying there are property rights if people are allowed to steal without penalty? How can one say there is a right to life if a murderer may take lives while retaining his own? In order for rights to be observable and respected by other people there must be penalties for not respecting them. A robber gets time taken from him by being incarcerated; a murderer compensates with his life.

In the case of Israel and Palestinians, the Palestinians did not have a moral right to that land since they did not observe rights; therefore Israel was morally justified in its establishment.

3.) Who is responsible for the killing of innocents in war?

This is by far the biggest issue in the Gaza war and by far the most lazily treated by the public. The popular answer merely consists of “It is morally wrong to kill innocents in war” without further digging. We shall give this one a lengthy treatment, for not only is it the worst misconception but also the most damning one for Israel.

This is where is becomes evident that these “self-evidencies” are being asserted outside of context. Yes, it is true that killing innocents is wrong in war, but one must distinguish between the person(s) who physically carries out the killing and the person(s) that is responsible for it. Because of this failure to distinguish, people automatically assume that the responsibility of killing lies with the person who physically does it. In truth, the responsibility lays with those that have caused the situation to arise and force a person to act in such way. If Gaza had not been aggressing against its own citizens and against Israel then Israel would not have had to go on the offensive as it did, so therefore the government of Gaza is to be blamed for the casualties of innocents. To clarify our thinking for the future, do not equate killing with the notion of being automatically responsible for it, but do equate being responsible for murder as the same thing (in a moral sense) as having done the physical killing itself. To rephrase using these terms, Israel has killed civilians but the government Gaza is responsible for it in the same fashion as if its agents had done it.

But the public’s mistaken conception has done much more harm than merely misplacing responsibility; it has undermined Israel’s efforts and empowered the Hamas army. What the public failed to perceive is that some ideologies, evil ideologies nonetheless, maintain that the end being pursued is of such moral status that it becomes morally acceptable to use any means to acquire that end. As the familiar saying goes: “The end justifies the means.” Since both the majority of the United States and Israel accept the notion that the killing of innocents in war is wrong (in the context-dropping sense), Hamas is empowered by being able to exploit this ethical tenet. And so then we have the case where Hamas soldiers dress in civilian clothes, use children as helicopter spotters, and hide in civilian buildings. Israel was put in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation, for if they restrained themselves towards “civilians” Hamas got the upper-hand, and if they did not restrain themselves then Hamas would use the casualties as propaganda. Hamas succeeded in creating a situation where it was seemingly impossible to act morally.

Not only that, but this ethical tenet offers a deadly distraction. Consider this philosophical hypothetical:

Let us assume you are driving a trolley car. After a while on the trip, you come to three people tied to the track. You can save them by pulling a lever and changing track, but if you do that then you will set the trolley on course to where one person is tied. What should you do and why?

Nowhere in this hypothetical is there even so much as a passing mention of the person who is tying people to tracks. All the focus, and perhaps even blame, is directed at the poor soul driving the trolley, while the villain is forgotten. It works exactly in the same way in the Gaza war. By accepting that any direct killing of innocents in war is wrong, everyone has focused on how many civilians Israel has harmed while ignoring the people who put them in that situation, so Israel is blamed while Hamas is forgotten. To prevent such from happening again, we must always first ask as to why the situation has arisen to begin with instead of examining how the people have acted in it.

* * * * *

All of these questions which have been lacking serious debate have served to seriously harm Israel by retracting its efforts and eventually causing it to lose the war (explanation below). The confusion of how to gauge immorality and competence has allowed the Hamas army to grow with temporary impunity. The confusion of rights has lead to the belief that the aggression against Israel is justifiable and “understandable". The confusion of responsibility has made Israel reduce its efforts while allowing Hamas to intensify its own.

Israel withdrawing from Gaza was not ending the war in a stalemate, but in total loss. As I have written before, life is what makes the pursuit of values possible and must therefore be the standard of value, i.e., of morality. To be absolutely good is to be fit for existence; to be absolutely evil is to be dead. Evil brings nothing but destruction to itself and whatever it touches, so it has everything to gain from good. But good has nothing to gain from evil except loss. Hamas, in this case, has won an absolute victory in this war and will be encouraged to continue its aggression. Whether Israel will win its next wars (which are inevitable) or not all depends on whether or not we win the war of intellect here in America.


Leo said...

Thank you so much for explaining this. I appreciate it.

I find politics complicated, especially war politics. I have big gaps in my knowledge of History that I hope to correct in due time. When I was a pacifist it was never my intention to condone evil and I'm genuinely sorry if I ever did so in ignorance.

My perspective against mass retaliation always was the suffering and death of innocent people. Through empathy, I would put myself in the shoes of an innocent person in a war situation and imagine it would be terrifying, had I been born in a rogue country with no means of escape, having to anticipate brutal suffering and death for myself and my loved ones for the evil of other people around me, just because I happened to be living in the same area as them.

I now agree the moral responsibility is with those that initiated the violence and created the situation, but it was not easy for me to understand this at first. It wasn't self-evident. I don't think your trolley analogy is very helpful in explaining why either. As a person who was a pacifist and who is familiar with that kind of thinking, my guess is that people confused about this issue would respond that you should hit the breaks or jump off the trolley.

What helped me understand moral responsibility better in situations like these was a reality TV police show. It was a situation of an armed robbery. The thief shot at the shopkeeper, but the shopkeeper managed to crouch under the counter just in time to get his gun to shoot back successfully. The person charged for the thief's murder was not the shopkeeper but the thief's accomplice. In that situation I understood why. The thief and his accomplice had agreed to initiate force towards an innocent person and created the situation where the person had to use violance to defend his life. So now I can agree the government of Gaza is to blame for the murder of its people. I can also agree how shrugging off "butter knives" would be like ignoring a malignant tumour.

I still have a couple doubts, though:

1. Doesn't one have the moral responsibility to keep violence use to the very minimum violence to stop the enemy, especially when there are other people around who
might not be accomplices? It wouldn't have been acceptable for the shopkeeper to do a machine gun sweep and take all the customers with the thieves, would it? I do not know if this is a correct analogy for the Gaza situation, I just think that when people protest against unproportionate violence from Israel, they see the situation like my analogy.

2. How is it possible to stand for individualism and at the same time speak of a country as conscious entity, and as everyone living in its physical boundaries having to pay the price for the evil people who control arms in it?

Benpercent said...

In regards to pacifism, here is a good quote: "Were it true that that total defeat creates tomorrow’s attackers, we would today be fighting Japanese suicide attackers threatening nuclear bombs, while the Middle East and North Korea would be peaceful and prosperous. The facts are otherwise."-- John Lewis

You needn't ever apologize for your ignorance; not hiding it is a sufficient enough action on its own. To answer your points:

*I cannot claim credit for the trolley analogy. It is one of the popular or so ones that circulate university classrooms, philosophical discussions, and whatnot. What I wanted to point out is that popular hypothetical like this always tend to neglect taking into account who created the situation in favor of concentrating moral credit, blame, and pressure upon whomever is forced to act in that situation.

1.) Whether or not to use minimal force on an aggressor depends on the context. In your example of the shopkeeper doing a machine gun sweep to stop two robbers, yes, it would indeed be excessive and unnecessarily endangering others. A handgun or shotgun (for accuracy) would have been sufficient, though I don't anyone would try and purchase a machine gun for such purposes.

The answer is different, however, in the context of war. Using minimal force here would be either impossible to calculate or would lead to endless war. To bring back the WWII example, if America had decided only to bomb one of Japan's harbors in exchange for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an eye for an eye, then Japan would have simply responded with another attack and America would have responded with another attack and so on into infinity, or perhaps until Japan had develops a nuclear weapon. The nuclear bombing of two of Japan's cities ended the war by destroying Japan's will to fight (America's power was simply too overwhelming). So in this case the necessary amount of force is not a matter of using a sufficient amount to stop individual aggressors (as with the robbers), but rather a sufficient amount to sap the will of the aggressing collective. It is despairingly sad that innocent lives are lost in times of war, but since war is forced there is no other choice.

So to reiterate, let us remember to beat the drum to the tune of "context, context, context."

2.) This would be a difficulty in grammar on my part. I see now I was not entirely consistent. I know that it is inappropriate to put such words as Gaza in the possessive form ("Gaza's") since it is an inanimate object, but I did not want to sound redundant. But I was specific in points where it mattered such as when I said the moral blame for the death of innocents in war belonged to *the government of Gaza* (rather than saying just Gaza). I must take to my grammar studies harder!

Rational Jenn said...

Thank you for participating in the Objectivist Round Up! :o)

Michael Labeit said...

Rare epistemological-minded treatment of the Gaza/Israel fiasco.