“I think that philosophers (and other intellectuals and academics) can sometimes offer valuable contributions to public discourse. Still, I think this letter is a paradigmatic example of how not to do so.”
On October 20th, a group of scholars at the University of Oxford who work in political philosophy, ethics, political science, law, and other fields published an open letter to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer calling for “an immediate cessation to Israel’s morally disastrous attack on Gaza.”
In the following guest post, David Enoch, professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford and philosophy and law at Hebrew University, criticizes the letter. His primary aim, he says, is not to defend Israel, but, as he puts it, to “defend public discourse”. The post raises important questions about whether, and if so how, scholars should contribute to public discussions of political, legal, and moral matters that are fraught with complexity.
The post is part of the ongoing series, “Philosophers On the Israel Hamas Conflict.”
How Not To Intervene In Public Discourse
by David Enoch
Recently, a letter to UK political leaders has been made public, imploring them to call for an immediate stop to Israel’s “morally disastrous” actions in Gaza. The letter was signed by self-identified “academics who spend [their] lives thinking about events such as these”, including a leading moral philosopher of war (my colleague Jeff McMahan) and a leading political philosopher and public intellectual (my colleague Amia Srinivasan).
In an environment in which—perhaps especially among some pseudo-left-wingers in academia—much worse things are being said (for example, Judith Butler, no less, in a recent interview refused to call Hamas a terrorist organizations; suddenly, her views about massacres and mass rapes of civilians have become more nuanced, I take it), this letter is not remotely the worst we’ve seen. These academics do at least condemn the October 7th Hamas attacks. And their description of the horrible situation in Gaza and the unbearable loss of innocent lives there is, as far as I know, by-and-large loyal to the facts (other things less so; more shortly). And I think that philosophers (and other intellectuals and academics) can sometimes offer valuable contributions to public discourse. Still, I think this letter is a paradigmatic example of how not to do so.
Before explaining why, I want to make two preliminary points: About why it matters, and about my own place here.
It may seem that I’m defending Israel. I don’t think that this is my main motivation here, and not just because I very rarely do that, and much more naturally find myself on the side strongly criticizing my country’s actions and government. The main point is that I don’t think the academics’ letter (as I will call it) constitutes any kind of a risk to Israel, nor do I think that my intervention will constitute any heroic defense thereof. We are not, I think we should all realize, remotely as important as it may seem to some of us. Our effect in the world is at best limited. My point, rather, is to defend public discourse, and perhaps to improve the value of future contributions by philosophers to it.
Second, by way of full disclosure: as I said, the two first signatories to the academics’ letter are colleagues of mine. When I found out about this initiative (not from them), I wrote to them, asking to see the text, commenting on it, explaining my objections. Nothing of what I am about to say will come as news to them. (They even responded, to an extent). And even just among the versions I’ve seen, some significant changes have been made—for instance, there was an earlier version with no mention at all of the Israeli hostages in Gaza. The fact that some of the academics (who spend their lives, let me remind you, thinking about these things) were happy to sign such a letter without mentioning the hostages should itself be a sufficiently significant red flag, even if they were saved by others who apparently pushed them in the right direction with the final version.
Still, the published version is, I say with pain, both a moral and a professional failure. Let me say why.
The academics mention Israel’s right to take defensive measures. (They don’t mention Israel’s duty towards its citizen to defend them against what we now know is a horrendous threat. But I’m going to let this one go). Still, they say that this right cannot justify the use of force we’re seeing in Gaza now, and its (truly horrific) consequences. That is a possible view to have. But it is extremely complicated to defend. Whether Israel can indeed supply its citizens with the kind of defense to which they are entitled without causing death and suffering of such magnitude is an incredibly complicated empirical question. Tragically, it’s not remotely clear even whether exercising the right to self defense is consistent with ceasing fire now. I can’t for the life of me see what can possibly support the academics’ confidence on such matters. I’m not sure that having spent a life thinking about these matters can suffice here. (And when I asked for some evidence or support, or some argument, or perhaps some suggestions as to possible alternative strategies available to Israel, I did not receive a reply).
- Common sense morality, as well as international humanitarian law, distinguish sharply between targeting civilians (as Hamas clearly did) and harming civilians as a foreseen side-effect, or collateral damage, of attacks on legitimate, liable targets. Israel has clearly been doing the latter, but I have yet to see convincing evidence that it’s been doing the former. The sheer numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties do not suffice as evidence here, especially in an environment as densely populated as in Gaza, with Hamas deliberately placing its headquarters underneath hospitals and the like. The letter completely ignores this, strongly implying that Israel has been engaging in indiscriminate attacks. (And sure, perhaps some other time we can discuss the philosophical significance of the intending-foreseeing distinction and the Doctrine of Double Effect. I myself have questioned, in print, its ultimate moral significance. But the academics’ letter seems to rely on common sense morality and on international humanitarian law, not to challenge them).
- Proportionality considerations apply. But they too are complicated. And the relevant question to ask is not whether the harm Israel causes is proportionate to the harm it suffered, but whether it’s proportionate to the harm it’s intending to prevent. That harm, we now know, is of a different order of magnitude than we may have thought until 6:30 am on October 7th. The question of whether Israel’s actions have been proportionate is a very good one. The thought that academics can confidently answer it from their armchairs is embarrassing.
- Deterrence is a major part of the game here. It plays an important role in the way in which Israel exercises—and in all likelihood should exercise—its right to self defense. But deterrence is a cruel and complicated game, and it is always played with, and it is always played with blood. Here’s just an initial description of its complexity here. One doesn’t play deterrence against a single agent. Everyone is looking, so one plays deterrence against the field, which includes Hezbollah, Iran, and others. This means that the stakes—as relevant, for instance, for the morbid proportionality calculus—are even higher. Furthermore, an intelligence and operational failure such as that of October 7th diminishes Israel’s deterrence. As long as it is recognized that deterrence has to play an important role in the exercise of a right to self defense (do the academics who have spent their lives thinking about these matters seriously doubt that?), Israel has to compensate for this loss. It can only do so by demonstrating its firepower, and its willingness to employ it.
And there is, of course, so much more. The morality of war is about the considerations that should guide decision makers (like the ones the academics’ letter is addressed to), not about the one-liners that make academics who have been spending their lives thinking about these things feel or sound nice. That morality of war is—it sounds weird that this even has to be said—incredibly complex, and unbelievably cruel. Among other things, causing horrible harm may not be all things considered wrong.
All of this, I have to say, is basic stuff. Appreciating the points above, it seems to me, should be among the first steps of reflecting responsibly about such matters. I would certainly expect academics who have been spending their lives thinking about events such as these to appreciate these points, and how complex (and amazingly contingent) all of these matters are. But you will find no complexities in the academics’ letter, no intellectual or epistemic modesty, no admitting of ignorance or uncertainty. Instead, while ignoring all of this, these academics assert that their one-sided conclusions will, “in the fullness of history [!], be obvious to all”.
Either these academics genuinely don’t realize the points above (and many more of their kind), in which case they don’t understand the very first things about war and the moral norms applying to it (no matter what portion of their lives they have spent thinking about it), or they do, but choose to ignore these complexities in their letter, in which case they are in bad faith. Both options are depressing.
So do I think all is well with Israel’s response? Of course not.
First, and unlike those academics, I am willing to admit that there is a lot here I do not know; that I would have loved to have more constructive ideas, but I’m not sure that I do; that these things are complex, and depressing, and one of the depressing things about them is how complex they are, how high the stakes are, and that it’s possible that even horrendous effects on innocent lives can after all be morally defended.
I regret to say that I have zero confidence in the integrity of at least many of Israel’s decision makers. While I have not seen clear evidence of targeting civilians by Israel, I cannot rule out this possibility. I am not sure that Israel’s responses have been proportionate (but at least I acknowledge how hard it is to determine that one way or another). Some of the rhetoric coming out of Israel is utterly indefensible—some understandable, given the atrocities of October 7th, but in no way an acceptable basis for policy, let along for the use of deadly force—and I deeply but unconfidently hope that it is mere rhetoric, that it doesn’t affect policy.
Some of us are trying to fight these trends in Israel. The academics’ simplistic and one-sided letter will not assist in such struggles. Myself, in the past I have even gone as far as saying (in several texts in Hebrew, where it actually matters) that if the only way in which Israel can defend its civilians from the missile threat is by killing so many innocents in Gaza, it may be morally required to just tolerate that threat. On October 7th, though, we found out that the threat is of an entirely different kind and magnitude, and certainly one that no country can just tolerate (a fact that the academics entirely ignore).
Sure, you may think, things are complicated, but one can’t acknowledge all complexities in a brief, effective letter to political leaders! That is correct, but irrelevant. If there’s a point to intellectual interventions in public discourse, surely it is to help make people—perhaps including those who have spent at least some of their lives doing other things—appreciate the relevant complexities. The academics’ letter, however, plays a role in hiding complexities from plain view, in keeping public discourse (to which it hopes to contribute) simplistic. This is why it is such a good example of how not to offer an intervention in public discourse. As for the importance of brevity in order to have an effect in the real world—the academics’ letter will not make a practical difference, short and oversimplified though it is. Political leaders are not holding their breath to hear what us professors have to say. If we have a contribution, it is manifested in different ways. And it is not realized in this letter.
UPDATE 1 (10/31/23): Another response to the open letter, by six Israeli philosophers, was posted online yesterday. Authors Yitzhak Benbaji (Tel-Aviv University), Michael Gross (University of Haifa), David Heyd (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Saul Smilansky (University of Haifa), Daniel Statman (University of Haifa), and Noam Zohar (Bar-Ilan University) write:
We contest almost every aspect of the Open Letter, and propose therefore to carefully evaluate its claims. The main problem with this letter is that the passing remark about the Israeli right to self-defense is near meaningless given the absence of any recognition of the particular circumstances of the war in Gaza, of what they necessitate as well as of what is at stake for Israel, hence resulting in unreasonable moral standards which the letter goes on to stipulate.
The whole letter is here.
UPDATE 2 (11/3/23): An open letter from a group of philosophers, dated November 1, 2023, has been posted at a site called “Philosophy for Palestine.” It begins:
We are a group of philosophy professors in North America, Latin America, and Europe writing to publicly and unequivocally express our solidarity with the Palestinian people and to denounce the ongoing and rapidly escalating massacre being committed in Gaza by Israel and with the full financial, material, and ideological support of our own governments.
We do not claim any unique authority—moral, intellectual, or otherwise—on the basis of our being philosophers. However, our discipline has made admirable strides recently in confronting philosophy’s historically exclusionary practices and in engaging directly with pressing and urgent injustices. To this end, we call on our colleagues in philosophy to join us in overcoming complicity and silence.
The whole letter is here.
UPDATE 3 (11/6/23): Another philosopher, Peter Hacker (Oxford) responds to the Oxford open letter. An excerpt:
To call on Israel for an immediate cessation of hostilities is akin to calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities by Britain and the USA on the eve of D-day in order to avoid civilian casualties. For Israel to cease its war before eradicating Hamas and its infra-structure would be to perpetuate its rule, to demonstrate Israel’s inability to destroy it, and to invite it to regroup and try again in a few years’ time, as it has done in the past. Indeed, Hamas’s spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, speaking on Lebanon’s LBC TV on 24 October, said: “Everything we do is justified”, adding “The Al Aqsa Flood [Hamas’s name for their onslaught] is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth because we have the determination, the resolve and the capabilities to fight.”…
Hamas continues to shoot dozens, if not hundreds of rockets into Israel each day, directing them deliberately not at military targets, but at civilian population centres. This the Oxford Professors do not even bother to mention. All the Israeli towns and settlements in the vicinity of Gaza have been evacuated, and 200,000 Israeli civilians have been evacuated from northern Israel on the Lebanese border as a result of rocket fire from Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy. This the Oxford Professors do not appear to see.