How Not To Intervene In Public Discourse (guest post) (several updates)


“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).

Here are some of the relevant complexities (which I try to address, in a preliminary way, elsewhere, in English and in Hebrew):

  • 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. 


Also see: Israel & Hamas: Another Letter, Another Critical Response, David Enoch Arrested While Protesting Judicial “Reforms” in Israel, David Enoch on Israel and Gaza (2014)

 

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TakingLivesSeriously
TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

So, Justin didn’t like my original angrier comment. I’m sure when David wrote this, he knew people would be angry. Anyways, here is a less angry version:

Suppose someone advocated for a ceasefire, asked for freeing the hostages, and asked for a political solution (something that would stop putting an entire population of people in an open-air prison for two decades or so — nothing too radical).

Now, someone else comes and tells the first group: “let’s be epistemically modest. Maybe there is no political solution. Maybe all we can do is to kill 8000 or more civilians, including 3000 children. After all, how could we know if political solutions would work? It’s all tragic but also very complicated. Tell us what else could Israel do other than cutting power and water lines, and killing all these children? Proportionality is complicated. MAYBE if Israel doesn’t kill 3000 children, then Hamas will come back and kill 5000 more. Who knows? Though, we should remember that this is very tragic. I have said in print that this is tragic. Also, I don’t trust Netanihyou. Thousands of Israelis and I were protesting against his attempt to treat Gaza as an open-air prison just a few months ago. I would feel more comfortable if a centrist Israeli president was doing the bombardmnt. Either we will have to let Israeli citizens to die,r or someone should bomb Gaza. After all, what else could Israel do? Have some epistemic modesty — the Israeli army would know that there is no other solution.”

For my money, the second person is the one who is simplifying things. As Anscombe would put it, they’ve done too many consequentialist thought experiments, and their mind has been corrupted.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

Just narrowly on this:

Maybe all we can do is to kill 8000 or more civilians, including 3000 children.

As far as I can tell we have no reliable indication of how many civilian deaths there have been. Even granting the accuracy of Hamas’s casualty reports, and even stipulating that all those killed have been killed by Israeli action, we don’t know anything much about how many of the adults killed are combatants, because – for obvious reasons – Hamas isn’t telling us.

Of course it is clear that thousands of civilians, adults as well as children, have died. But I think it is of some importance in assessing the reported numbers that Israel, however much or little it’s trying to minimize civilian casualties, is actively trying to maximize Hamas casualties. That’s the whole stated point of their action.

JTD
JTD
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Yes, thousand of civilians in Gaza have obviously died as a result of IDF military action, but anyone who simply repeats Hamas’s casualty reports as fact is revealing their bias.

First, there is good reason to think that Hamas inflates the numbers. For example, they claim that 471 people died in the Al-Ahli Arab hospital blast yet independent analysis suggests this is very unlikely given the size of the car park and lack of structural damage to surrounding buildings and go on to suggest an upper limit of low hundreds. Investigation of Hamas casualty figures in previous wars suggests that this kind of inflation is common.

Second, we have good reason to think that they include casualties caused by their own military action. For example, they have included the victims of Al-Ahli Arab hospital blast in their tally, whose deaths were likely caused by a misfired Hamas, or other Jihadist group, rocket. Between 10% and 30% of the rockets they fire will misfire and land in Gaza, and they have fired several thousand rockets since the start of the conflict, so, beyond the hospital, there are likely to be many other casualties caused by their misfiring rockets.

Third, it is well established that they include combatants (i.e., military personnel from Hamas and other Jihadist groups) in their casualty figures. Given that the IDF are using precision munitions, it is likely that they have killed a significant number of combatants. Thus, combatant casualties will be a non-negligible percentage of the overall casualties. It is also worth noting that there are many 16 and 17 year old’s among the 30,000 fighters Hamas has in Gaza. So, even a non-inflated casualty figure for minors will include some combatants.

TakingLivesSeriously
TakingLivesSeriously
Reply to  JTD
5 months ago

Laudable epistemic confidence. It reflects exactly a degree of certainty proportional to the known facts. Thank you for correcting my epistemic arrogance and revealing its biases.

TakingLivesSeriously
TakingLivesSeriously
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

“As far as I can tell we have no reliable indication of how many civilian deaths there have been…. Of course it is clear that thousands of civilians, adults as well as children, have died.”

I get it. Epistemic modesty requires that we let the bombing go on until we get clearer on these exact numbers. Otherwise, calling for an immediate ceasefire would only show a moral and political failure. Things are just very complicated. I tend to simplify things and think there are other courses of action available to Israel. My bad.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

I made no point beyond “if you are going to quote a figure to support an argument, the figure ought to be correct”.

TakingLivesSeriously
TakingLivesSeriously
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

and I made no point beyond acknowleding the deep importance of ineaxctness of our figures about the exact number of civilians killed by the bombing. I think we should co-author a paper on this.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

If you don’t think the exact number matters, that’s fine. I think that’s highly defensible. But then don’t quote an exact number.

TakingLivesSeriously
TakingLivesSeriously
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Yes yes. The way that was written was totally suggesting an exact number.

I’m starting to think that I don’t love science and truth as much as I should. It clouds my judgment about asking for an immediate ceasefire.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

The way it was written suggested that you are using the Gaza health ministry’s latest statement, that “more than 8,000 people in Gaza” have been killed. It is misleading to quote that number as if it were an estimate of civilian casualties, even stipulating that it is accurate as an estimate of total deaths.

It isn’t possible to have it both ways: people can’t quote a figure to make a point and then, when the figure turns out to be unreliable, object that the figure wasn’t relevant in the first place.

If you actually had a reason for using the specific ‘8,000’ figure as an estimate of civilian deaths and weren’t simply quoting the health-ministry’s figure as if it was a civilian- rather than total-death figure, I’d be interested to hear it.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago
David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

The numbers might be reliable as an estimate of total deaths – I hear conflicting things there – but in any case my point is that the number of total deaths is not a reliable estimate of the number of civilian deaths.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

I would agree if you had phrased it as ‘the number of total deaths is not a reliable estimate of the number of combatant deaths.’ It is Israel’s responsibility – as I read international law that I’ve quoted elsewhere – to ensure that civilians are not harmed in pursuing military gains. So Israel needs to prove, in each case, the existence of combatants, especially in residential areas and hospitals.

If we conduct warfare by assuming the a combatant exists under every residence, inside all walls and under all rugs; we might as well claim that all civilians, including infants and children, are combatants.

Philosophy Bear
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Women and children make up a large majority of those killed. We can be confident it’s at least 80 percent civilians.

https://philosophybear.substack.com/p/on-palestinian-figures-an-absolute?utm_source=activity_item

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

Thank you for posting this source. I was mistaken earlier when I said that the track record of casualty reports from previous wars poor. However, the other points still apply as this AP article makes clear (https://apnews.com/article/israel-hamas-war-gaza-health-ministry-health-death-toll-59470820308b31f1faf73c703400b033). It discuss the issues with the Al-Ahli Arab hospital blast figures and then says:

The ministry never distinguishes between civilians and combatants. That becomes clearer after the dust settles, when the U.N. and rights groups investigate and militant groups offer a tally of members killed. The Israeli military also conducts post-war investigations.

The Health Ministry doesn’t report how Palestinians were killed, whether from Israeli airstrikes and artillery barrages or other means, like errant Palestinian rocket fire. It describes all casualties as victims of “Israeli aggression.”

TakingLivesSeriously
TakingLivesSeriously
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

OK. Sorry I’m being unhelpful. It’s an upsetting time to be an Arab from the middle east these days. Our Israeli friends were rightly upset that the left was slow in processing its reaction to the Hamas attack. I think I’m very upset to see this convoluted response from the Israeli liberals to the bombing of Gaza…

Anyways, I was paraphrasing a view from the Israeli side (It was in the quotation mark). It’s a view that says Israel has a right to self-defense, and the only way it can do it is to kill X number of civilians. Israel has no other way to defeat Hamas.

As far as I have seen from the people who support this claim, they don’t really care what X exactly is. (This was the point of my sarcasm in responding to you after your first comment). To be honest, I think the figure can be anything from 1,000 to 20,000 and many of these people would still believe the Israeli army that nothing else could be done. They show an amazing degree of epistemic trust in the Israeli government’s plan. (A plan that seems to have been formed within 24 hours of the Oct 7 terrorist attacks and these people are willing to accept as giving us the only way forward). Given the history of Israeli occupation, I find this degree of epistemic trust dehumanizing and offensive.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, for taking the time to write, even during such upsetting times.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

Thank you for this. I’m sympathetic with a lot of it, and in particular with the fear that there is no actually coherent plan here. I appreciate that it can be frustrating to get bogged down in what might seem like minutiae given the overall stakes of what is going on. I don’t begrudge you your sarcasm.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

It’s a view that says Israel has a right to self-defense, and the only way it can do it is to kill X number of civilians. Israel has no other way to defeat Hamas.”

So, your entire point is that Israel should either find a way to destroy Hamas without hurting the civilians, or simply give up and let the slaughter of 1400 its citizens and kidnapping of 200 go unpunished (and thus incentivize Hamas o do it again).

Since you know that the first option is a non-starter, you should admit it out loud that Israel should give up and basically do nothing about the October 7th attack.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

If you have a way of making the bombing stop, I don’t think epistemic modesty is relevant one way or another to that. But if you claim to *know* that a certain method is the wrong one, then epistemic modesty is relevant to that claim.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

No one’s saying, I think, that Israel’s states intention is not to maximize Hamas casualties. Much of the argument, after Enoch, is around whether Israel is justified in killing civilians en masse in residential areas. Enoch seems to think, yes, alas, no way around it. Many think otherwise.

Ter
Ter
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

For David Enoch: how many deaths, how much collective punishment will clarify whether a ceasefire is a good idea?

The choice is not carpet-bomb + collectively punish or do nothing. Israel need not carpet bomb entire neighbourhoods. It need not collectively punish 2m+ people. It has legitimate grounds to go after Hamas. Let it do so by sacrificing the lives of the willing (its soldiers), not the unwilling (the civilian population of Gaza).

James Hanley
James Hanley
Reply to  Ter
5 months ago

I agree Israel should target its response at Hamas as much as possible. How, in practice, can it do so?

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Ter
5 months ago

Enoch doesn’t seem to be saying anything much one way or another about whether a cease-fire *is* a good idea. What he is saying is that a bunch of academics who claim to *know* that a cease-fire is a good idea would do better if their claim addressed the complexities in *knowing* anything about whether or not a cease-fire would be a good idea.

Ter
Ter
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
5 months ago

Many political questions are complex, yet they can be answered nonetheless (think slavery, genocide, apartheid, etc—all of which typically result from ‘complex’ political realities, economic needs, social sensibilities, etc). What is your point? That the pummelling of Gaza by an occupying force is so complex that it should … do what to us exactly?

NA Knoller
NA Knoller
Reply to  Ter
5 months ago

Your premises – that Israel carpet bombs and (collectively) punishes – are not grounded in evidence. They are an interpretation, that needs to overcome the official Israeli version, according to which it conducts targeted and proportionate military operations against legitimate military targets, not in order to punish but in order to prevent both an ongoing threat to its citizens (rocket and other attacks) and future massacres of the type perpetrated on 7.10.2023. Israel is, furthermore, indeed sacrificing the lives of its soldiers and taking some risks to avoid foreseeable harm to Gazan civilians, but there is no injunction in law that requires it to risk its own soldiers’ lives to avoid civilian casualties at all costs, while Hamas intentionally “hacks” those rules by hiding under hospitals. The same standards should apply, and in fact while Hamas is evidently breeching all standards by design – there’s no other way to describe either the massacre of civilians on 7.10, the ongoing indiscriminate rocket fire at population centres or building 500km of tunnels loaded with munitions under densely poulated urban areas when there are open fields nearby – Israel, pending evidence to the contrary, appears to be making an effort to meet and exceed its legal obligations, by warning civilians well in advance to move out of harm’s way and by weighing military options with the goal of minimising harm to civilians being a weighty factor in the planning.

The moral outcomes are neverthless intolerably cruel and tragic. War is the worst solution, and a diplomatic solution needs to be reached. For now, we have to consider that the terrile outcomes are also the result of Hamas’ own blatant contempt for the rules of war and civilian lives on both sides. Israel cannot meet its duty towards its own citizens by unilaterally ceasing fire while Hamas continues to fire, and cannot unilaterally declare peace in the Middle-East to end a war that Hamas has started and does not wish to end untill Israel is destroyed. The alternative can only be a diplomatic and political solution between parties that minimally agree to recognize each other’s right to exist. Hamas is not such a party, which is why it needs to be removed. Unless Israel is offered an alternative way to achieve this necessary outcome – say, by the UN volunteering to run Gaza instead of Hamas, or even by Gazans taking responsibility for their own governance and toppling Hamas themselves, or simply by Hamas deciding to stop the war it has started and to voluntarily return Gaza to Palestinian rule – I too struggle to see a way to stop Israel’s military operation to achieve the outcome of removing Hamas from power.

Carl Dibble
Carl Dibble
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
5 months ago

The imagined revision is manifestly different in rhetorical style, of course. But that shouldn’t distract us. When we look beyond the rhetoric to the reasoning, it is evidently different in its premises and general outlook as well. It depicts not epistemic caution but thorough-going skepticism or cynicism. What it caricatures does not. So it falls flat both as reasoned argument and as satire.

Hector
Hector
5 months ago

Just a stunning asymmetry in concern for innocent Israelis and Palestinians. “The country” that must at all costs be defended here refers to a privileged and oppressive sub-group of the population. It’s a very ugly slave revolt, and it’s hard to be very sympathetic to estimates that it might after all be terribly expensive to the slaves to put it down.

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  Hector
5 months ago

Slave revolt??? You surely don’t mean by the Arabs who stole the land for jihad, culturally appropriated the holy sites, imposed dhimmitude upon the indigenous folks, etc.? You surely don’t mean the CURRENT Arab inhabitants of Gaza, since they’re neither slaves nor indigenous; they’re just subsequent Arab immigrants. Regarding the latter, the Hamas leadership itself admits as much. Hell, it’s current leader’s real surname, like much of Gaza’s inhabitants, is Al-Masri. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bd3tA_dAl-A&t=100s&gt;

Slaves, by definition, labour without remuneration. The Arabs in Gaza don’t. And it’s simply astounding how many people are able to get to and fro from the “open air prison” to mine and other Western countries. Perhaps, in the name of decolonization, they could immigrate to the land of their ancestors and decolonize Gaza?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Western media regularly translated the Arab press to see what these folks are REALLY fighting for (what they regularly, consistently, claim to be fighting for). Gee, if only that were somehow more readily available… 🙂

Western philosophers are going to be in a bit of a shock over the next decade or so as they’re shown to be on the wrong side of history: supporting Western imperialist legal norms and institutions; attempting to normalize a middle eastern imperialist apartheid cult; lustily trying to legislate for the entire world, all whilst presenting themselves to be anti-imperialist and anti-domination. With the pending collapse of the American empire, the Western Left is in for a rude awakening. The very legal standards by which they wish to castigate and delegitimize Israel are themselves nothing more than Western imperialist ones — not merely weaponized ones. The global intifada against this imperialist crap is already underway, and the West will lose.

Similarly, the pseudo-philosophical calculi about ethical or proportionate responses are of no value or worth whatsoever to anyone outside of philosophy departments. That’s because ethical philosophers, just like political ones, are pseudo-epistemic authorities who construct and defend spurious theories.

Things are going to change now in the West and elsewhere — whether many philosophers and others like it or not. People are going to have open and honest discussions about political and legal equality under sharia, i.e., how it has never existed. They’re going to talk about discourses of “decolonization” being promoted by people who have MOVED TO “white” settler colonies on stolen indigenous land. They’re going to talk about decolonization beyond the Western/White/European context as well and what the Daar al Islam really is. They’re also going to talk about the current colonization of Europe and America (this latter one is creeping into the mainstream press now, finally!). They’ll of course also talk about wide-spread child marriage, Bint ‘amm marriage & consanguinity rates, polygamy, and why efforts to normalize these things are going to completely fail.

Philosophy Bear
5 months ago

Much to say, and hopefully I will be writing a full response soon.

Let me begin by saying that philosophers can and should have plenty to say about ethical-empirical questions. “But that is an empirical question.” Has always seemed somewhat mealy mouthed from analytic philosophy but never more so than here. Ethical judgement can often give us a pretty strong prima facie sense of the ethical state of play even when there are empirical questions. This is especially true when philosophers are working with subject matter experts as the authors of the letter were. The world would be much worse if ‘expert’ moralists were silent on these matters.

Let’s consider part of the empirical questions you raise- the question of beneficent or otherwise motives. I think you are very right to worry about the motives of the leadership. I think there is basically no chance that Israeli decision makers are acting in good conscience. According to polling 83 percent of Israel’s Jewish population hold that Israel should consider Palestinian suffering in this conflict either “Not at all” or “Not so much”.

https://en.idi.org.il/media/21835/war-in-gaza-public-opinion-survey-2-data.pdf…

Unless you think the current (rightwing) government is more ethically fastidious than its people, the decision makers do not have the requisite motives to make good moral choices. That’s one empirical matter I think we can be pretty clear on, and it gives pretty strong support to the idea that morally we should try to pull Israel back, and hence to the letter drafters.

I note also that what we might call the various defences of expediency re: jus in bello – double effect etc. do not apply, or are only partially mitigating, where the state has created a bad situation through it’s own immoral actions and will not correct those actions, e.g. turning Gaza into an internment camp.

Ignorance
Ignorance
Reply to  Philosophy Bear
5 months ago

I agree: his claims about empirical stuff was perplexing to me. Maybe it’s because I had more evidence than him about the viewpoints of the politicians and the Israeli public. I’m not an expert in war stuff but I always try to find surveys about what people think about the people they are at war or tension with. He claimed ignorance and I wonder whether his ignorance was willful or accidental.

Epistemic humility does not require us to be epistemically naive. I’m sure Enoch is a good man and I’m sure he wants to extend grace to even politicians and soldiers. But without good reason or evidence, such grace is blind and at worst enabling evil. When third parties are involved we gotta be (more) rational and epistemically vigilant.

ImpartialityIdeal
ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

I have a question for David. Does it not follow from your own claims here that we should, in fact, *not* believe that Israel’s current military actions are justified? You say the evidence about what the policies in play are and what the long term outcomes will be is extremely unclear (incidentally, we should not forget that even if Hamas is destroyed, this is no way ensures that there will be long term peace in the region; something even worse than Hamas may replace Hamas), and that the current political leaders of Israel are not trustworthy, and you also acknowledge that we know thousands of civilians are dying. It seems like we ought to avoid concluding that the war, as it is actually being fought, is justified. Epistemic humility counsels restraint.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

I didn’t read David Enoch as saying that we have good reason to believe Israel’s actions are justified; I read him as saying that we do not have good reason to believe that they are unjustified.

ImpartialityIdeal
ImpartialityIdeal
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

It follows that we should not believe they are justified. Right? And what follows in terms of action? It can’t be that supporting acts that involve killing a large number of civilians is consistent with not believing that these acts are justified.

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

Enoch is not asking for people to write to the UK government, or do anything, in support of the invasion. You can think that you are not in a good epistemic position to support the invasion or to call for its end; this is totally consistent with Enoch’s position here.

ImpartialityIdeal
ImpartialityIdeal
Reply to  Sergio Tenenbaum
5 months ago

I am not saying that the mere *option* of not doing anything to support the invasion is what follows from Enoch’s claims. I am saying that at a minimum it follows from Enoch’s claims that one *ought not* engage in acts that count as supporting the invasion.

Last edited 5 months ago by ImpartialityIdeal
Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

I think he would agree.

ImpartialityIdeal
ImpartialityIdeal
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
5 months ago

So why didn’t he say something like, “It follows that we ought not engage in acts that count as supporting the invasion”? I do not think Enoch would accept this, and if he would, it is significant enough that he should have said it in his post. I hope he tells us whether or not he accepts it, and why he doesn’t, if he doesn’t.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

I don’t think he was talking about “acts that count as supporting the invasion”. He was talking about philosophical open letters for discourse, and I don’t think anyone was talking about a letter that supported the invasion. (His letter very specifically doesn’t seem to support the invasion.)

ImpartialityIdeal
ImpartialityIdeal
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
5 months ago

I don’t think that’s right, Kenny. I believe he does support the invasion, from what he has suggested elsewhere. It certainly seems to follow from what he says here that we shouldn’t support it, but there is an air of neutrality on this question in the post that seems to suggest we shouldn’t draw the conclusion. I am more than happy for David himself to declare here that he does not support the invasion and does not think any of us should. I predict he won’t.

Last edited 5 months ago by ImpartialityIdeal
Circe
Circe
Reply to  ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

Show receipts re: elsewhere or else stop smearing DE.

ImpartialityIdeal
ImpartialityIdeal
Reply to  Circe
5 months ago

I’m honestly not trying to smear anyone. I just want to know: (1) does Enoch agree that it follows from his own claims here that we should not support the present war?; (2) if so, why didn’t he draw that conclusion himself here?; and (3) if not, why not (how does he think he can block that conclusion, given what he says here)? I admire Enoch as a philosopher and I’ll be the first to say I’m happy if he says “of course I don’t support the present war, you fool!” But I don’t think he’ll do that.

Circe
Circe
Reply to  ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

No receipts then… Shocker.

ImpartialityIdeal
ImpartialityIdeal
Reply to  Circe
5 months ago

Yes, clearly that’s the morally important issue here. David Enoch is an adult academic who has replied to other comments here, on a piece that he authored, and he could easily clear this matter up if he chose to. And we are asking whether a war that is killing thousands should be supported. But, sure, whatever. My bad.

Circe
Circe
Reply to  ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

Still no receipts, whataboutery *and* attempting to claim the moral high-ground. Yet you wonder why Enoch doesn’t want to engage with you…

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

He may support the invasion, but if he hasn’t publicly made statements supporting the invasion, then there is nothing hypocritical about him saying that public statements by philosophers should be supported by philosophical arguments.

Circe
Circe
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
5 months ago

Indeed. That this needs pointing out on a philosophy forum is surprising…

ImpartialityIdeal
ImpartialityIdeal
Reply to  Circe
5 months ago

I wasn’t claiming he was a hypocrite! I was genuinely wondering whether he accepts that it follows from his claims in this piece he has written that none of us ought to support the invasion. If you go back to the top of this thread and reread what I said in my post, and everything that follows, it is clear that I haven’t wavered from thinking this is the central issue at hand. And it is also very clear that nobody in this thread has provided any reasons to doubt that it follows from the claims that I mention at the top of the thread that none of us ought to support the present war.

Last edited 5 months ago by ImpartialityIdeal
ImpartialityIdeal
ImpartialityIdeal
Reply to  ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

Below, Enoch himself now comments “I don’t think complexity counts in favor of ceasefire. Nor do I think it counts in favor of continuing with the use of force.” He chooses to answer a question by focusing on objective complexity, rather than on (his and our) epistemic uncertainty. Moti Gorin then asks him “why don’t you think the uncertainty speaks in favor of asking for or demanding a peacefire? … it’s true that some parties have more information than we do, but the question isn’t what they should do given what they know … it’s rather what we should ask/demand them to do given what we know and don’t know.” This comes after Moti made a similar argument to the one I advanced here. David hasn’t answered either me or Moti. My hypothesis is that he can’t without admitting that this is where his claims about the situation in Israel should take us and that this is why he is not answering our questions. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

Moti Gorin
Reply to  ImpartialityIdeal
5 months ago

David is very, very smart and is a far better epistemologist than I am. I would not assume he is embarrassed by my question or that he has no response. Rather I assume he doesn’t follow blog responses obsessively (like I said he is very smart).

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Moti Gorin
5 months ago

I need to work on that.

Ter
Ter
Reply to  Sergio Tenenbaum
5 months ago

This is quite incredible. 3,000+ child deaths, collective punishment of 2mn+ people, virtual carpet bombing of entire neighbourhoods—and the epistemic position is “We don’t know if a ceasefire is a good idea”? How many deaths, then?

More Serious CBA Please
More Serious CBA Please
Reply to  Sergio Tenenbaum
5 months ago

There doesn’t currently exist a coherent theory by which the siege, bombing, and invasion of Gaza improves Israel’s security position, though there are many reasons to think it worsens it, long-term.

I think it’s a reasonable, based on social scientific and historical evidence, to treat war as wrong unless there’s positive justification for it. So, absent a case for war improving Israeli security (one more serious than, “if we destroy Hamas, they can’t attack us again”), our default position should be that Israel’s war is wrong.

Ruth Worrall
Ruth Worrall
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Well said! The state of Israel’s first duty is to protect its citizens (a duty they failed spectacularly to achieve on the 7th of October). The Hamas is in charge in Gaza but rather than protect their citizens they deliberately position them near military targets they know Israel will have to hit. Maybe these clever academics can come up with a super smart weapon that will penetrate a mob but will immediately know who is a civilian and who is a terrorist.
Thank you David Enoch. A rare voice of reason in Academia

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
5 months ago

I’m puzzled by the author’s claim that he doubts the “philosophical significance of the intending-foreseeing distinction and the Doctrine of Double Effect” while relying on it so heavily in his argument.

David Enoch
David Enoch
Reply to  Another Philosopher
5 months ago

You may want to consult that paper of mine. I voice suspicions about it, but I qualify them, I note the prices of deserting the distinction, etc. And I am open to the possibility (as McMahan is, if I’m not mistaken) that the distinction doesn’t matter as a matter of ultimate morality, but very much matters for decision-making by politicians, for instance.

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

I will.

However, I will say, in the context of the current situation, I’m not so convinced that it is entirely relevant.

It seems to me that if the distinction is supposed to have moral significance, the agent must be acting in sufficiently good faith, and I doubt that the Israeli military is.

That is to say: It can’t just be a fig leaf where your actual motivation is revenge.

Last edited 5 months ago by Another Philosopher
Gabagool
Gabagool
5 months ago

I think it is illuminating, in assessing Professor Enoch’s arguments here, to note that they would be equally forceful *no matter how many Palestinian civilians were foreseeably killed in Israel’s military action*. They thus function rhetorically as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for the violent killing of Palestinian civilians.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  Gabagool
5 months ago

Succinctly put! As the letter says: “Tragically, it’s not remotely clear even whether exercising the right to self defense is consistent with ceasing fire now.” If so, there is or might be a “right to defense” argument to certain kinds of violence at certain times even if it’s certain that the violence is genocidal, regardless of intent.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Gabagool
5 months ago

That doesn’t seem to follow. There are military actions Israel could be taking that are demonstrably not attempts at targeting combatants: they could be launching rockets that can’t be targeted more precisely than a several-hundred-meter radius, for instance.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Not sure what you’re responding to. In any case, how’s does your example show a demonstrable attempt when an alternative to inaccurate rockets, say actively seeking out combatants, is available? Is the limitation of military ammunition an excuse for indiscriminate targeting of civilians? Doesn’t Hamas have an equally valid defense especially if they are using even more inaccurate ammunition?

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

You misunderstand my point. If Israel was using weapons that can’t be targeted accurately enough to pick out military targets, but were just being fired at cities as a whole, then we could know immediately that they were committing war crimes (as Hamas is fairly uncontroversially doing by using such weapons).

(I intended my previous post as a response to the idea that no matter how destructive Israel’s attack was, the ‘it’s complicated’ defense would be available. It is because Israel is using the sorts of weapons which can be targeted on individual buildings that there is space for complication.)

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

It should be the opposite, right? If Israel has more precise weapons that are meant to target combatants, it should be easier to demonstrate – not just argue – that civilian casualties were – not just can be – avoided. The fact that, so far, we only have evidence of dead civilians – since they were not proven to be combatants before or after being bombed in their residences and in hospitals – and scant evidence of dead combatants seems to belie the benefit of better bombs, and doesn’t help the claim that it’s complicated.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

I think determining whether a campaign waged with precision weapons is carried out legally is quite difficult, because you need detailed information about what the war aims were, how well they were achieved, and what the overall civilian casualties were. Even a legally-fought urban war is going to kill many civilians.

The reason it would be less complicated if you use weapons that are too imprecise to distinguish military from civilian targets is that even by using those weapons you’re violating the law of armed conflict.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

I think all those complication are available equally to Hamas, and doubly so since their resource constraints prohibit advanced weapons (of course, they can perhaps use this argument to also legitimately pursue advanced weapons). They can claim great complications and caution (so more resolute intention to avoid harm) precisely because of limited munition. I’m still not sure how Israel gets a pass here and Hamas does not.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

The law of armed conflict prohibits indiscriminate attacks on civilians: that is, it requires all attacks to be specifically targeted on (targets that a reasonable commander would assess to be) military targets. It does not contain a get-out clause where you are allowed to do it if you lack weapons precise enough to distinguish combatants from civilians. If you fire a rocket at a city, and the rocket is not sufficiently accurate for you to aim it effectively at a legitimate military target in that city, you are committing a war crime. I don’t think this is especially controversial.

If you want to advance the separate argument that it is *morally* acceptable to do so, and that international law places unreasonable demands on non-state actors, that’s a separate matter.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Yes, I agree: rockets or missiles, precise or imprecise, that hit civilians instead of military target constitute a war crime.

The precision of the rocket does not warrant the assumption that it is likely to hit a combatant if that wasn’t the intention in the first place. It is in this sense, that Israel does not any benefit of doubt (it’s complicated) since it’s less complicated to aim. If I suggested otherwise earlier, then I was wrong.

So, finally ,if civilians are being killed en masse despite this precision, that worse off for Israel’s intention without added assumptions about combatant existence that are Israel’s responsibility to prove.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

A final word on this odious topic of precision munitions:

If the intent for a combatant is to inflict harm regardless of whether that harm is to civilians or not, the precision of munition does *not* reduce harm. I think that this poll that someone shared earlier https://en.idi.org.il/media/21835/war-in-gaza-public-opinion-survey-2-data.pdf reflects a mindset that doesn’t care about distinguishing civilians from combatants, and that is what we see in the massive killing of Palestinians in their homes, in schools, and hospitals.

Gabagool
Gabagool
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

I don’t know what you mean by ‘that’, since I don’t recognize any claim I made to be challenged by the rest of your post.

Let me put it this way. Suppose Israel drops a bomb targeted at one Hamas terrorist foreseeing that it will thereby violently kill X Palestinian civilians. Professor Enoch’s arguments apply just as forcefully against a public letter of condemnation for this action whether X is 10, 100, 1,000,000, or more. “Foreseeing is different from intending!,” “Proportionality is complicated!,” and “Deterrence is tricky!” are not arguments sensitive to X.

My suggestion is that they are arguments which serve the rhetorical function of trying to draw attention away from X. Why might someone want to do that?

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Gabagool
5 months ago

Oh, OK: possibly I misunderstood your point.

But in this new way of putting it, I still don’t see how the argument works. Proportionality in David Enoch’s post means ‘proportional to harm prevented’ and it’s not even faintly plausible to imagine scenarios where killing thousands or millions of civilians for the sake of killing one combatant was proportional on that scale; nor would it be at all controversial under international law that it would be disproportionate in the legal sense.

Gabagool
Gabagool
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Professor Enoch’s arguments would function rhetorically in exactly the same way in the case you describe. You think they would be very implausible. I agree. I also think they are very implausible in the actual case, and for the same reasons. We are not trapped in some epistemic fog which prevents us from assessing whether forcibly displacing a million is a proportional response to the deaths of less than fifteen hundred.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Gabagool
5 months ago

I don’t agree, but this is close enough to the first-order ethics that I don’t think I want to respond further. Thanks for clarifying your position.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Gabagool
5 months ago

I don’t think Enoch says anything that says any particular violent killing is justified. What he is saying is that even people who are in fact doing grave moral wrongs are often not obviously doing grave moral wrongs, and even people who are not in fact doing anything wrong are sometimes doing things that appear to be grave moral wrongs, so people who want to use philosophy to make a claim that something *is* a grave moral wrong should be careful to note the complexities of telling grave moral wrongs from things that are not wrong.

(Also, I don’t think the arguments he makes are *completely* insensitive to the numbers. If *every* Palestinian had been killed, it would be very clear that Israel had done something gravely wrong, and if *no* Palestinian had been killed or injured or harmed, it would be very clear that it wasn’t.)

Gabagool
Gabagool
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
5 months ago

I didn’t claim that Enoch says that any particular violent killing is justified. I said that his arguments serve as a kind of rhetorical get-out-of-jail-free card for the violent killing of Palestinian civilians. While Enoch doesn’t pronounce on whether the copious Palestinian civilian casualties are justified (“We simply can’t know!”), there is one thing he is quite clear is not justified: writing letters condemning the copious Palestinian civilian casualties. Arguments that seek to show that no attempt to condemn X could be justified are arguments that serve as a kind of rhetorical get-out-of-jail-free card with respect to X, since their function is to silence those in the public sphere who would seek to hold the perpetrators of X accountable.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Gabagool
5 months ago

I don’t think he’s actually even criticizing the general act of condemning civilian deaths here. He is criticizing the use of claims of disciplinary expertise to do so in a situation where disciplinary expertise would seem to involve a deeper engagement with complexities of the issue.

Platypus
Platypus
Reply to  Gabagool
5 months ago

That’s not true at all! Enoch explicitly endorses a proportionality principle — the very opposite of a “get out of jail free” card.

Enoch’s real point is that we shouldn’t be calling things “disproportionate” from the armchair, since proportionality isn’t just a matter of counting past deaths: it has to factor in the potential lives saved via deterrence.

An example to illustrate: Suppose Country A’s army kills 10 civilians in Country B, then A’s army hides among human shields. If B’s army retaliates, they’ll kill 100 of A’s civilians as a side-effect. This seems disproportionate. But – this is Enoch’s point – it might not be. B might need to retaliate in order to deter A (and others) away from a further attack that would kill 10,000 civilians.

Pace Gabagool, Enoch’s argument would not entail that B may kill as many civilians as they like. The killings have to be proportionate to the number of civilian lives saved — so long as we include those saved through deterrence.

Gabagool
Gabagool
Reply to  Platypus
5 months ago

I don’t think you’ve understood the point I have been making.

Even if one explicitly endorses a proportionality principle, one’s argument can function rhetorically to exculpate a disproportionate response if one’s position is that we cannot know whether the proportionality principle has been satisfied in any realistic case.

In exactly the same way, one might pay lip service to the democratic process while claiming that we can never know whether the vote tallies in a presidential election are legitimate or not. That position, which is familiar to all of us, functions rhetorically to exculpate breaches of the democratic process.

Platypus
Platypus
Reply to  Gabagool
5 months ago

Even if one explicitly endorses a proportionality principle, one’s argument can function rhetorically to exculpate a disproportionate response if one’s position is that we cannot know whether the proportionality principle has been satisfied in any realistic case.

That’s not Enoch’s position! He says proportionality is “complicated,” not unknowable.

As for rhetoric, the “main point” of the piece isn’t to exculpate Israel’s response, but to warn against academic hubris. Enoch says this right near the start. He thinks the letter oversimplifies the issue, and that this is bad for “public discourse.” That’s a complaint about “armchair” objections, not all objections. I don’t see how you can construe that as a “get out of jail free” card for Israel.

Now, maybe you think Enoch’s not being honest here about the real “rhetorical function” of his piece. Maybe. But since he explicitly disavows the function you’re describing, the onus is on you to show that there’s some other implicit function there. But you didn’t even try to do that in your original comment. That’s part of why I found it unfair to Enoch.

Gabagool
Gabagool
Reply to  Platypus
5 months ago

As anyone who has studied ideology or political speech knows, the rhetorical function of a speech act is not determined by the intentions of the person producing the speech act. I don’t know what Professor Enoch’s intentions are. I just know that his arguments function to delegitimize criticisms of Israel’s military action in Gaza by setting an unattainably high epistemic standard for legitimate criticisms.

Platypus
Platypus
Reply to  Gabagool
5 months ago

Enoch argues that it’s hard to show a violation of proportionality. You then proceed to give no objections to this view, except to say that it has a nefarious function. How do you know it does? Direct quote: “I just know.”

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t find this kind of “ideology critique” very constructive.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

I appreciate your letter, and the letter that you’re responding to: they provide an opportunity for me to think better. As a Pakistani-American, as a non-practicing Muslim, the resurgence of Islamophobia and a strong desire to fight oppression concern me, and they’re perhaps connected with philosophical notions of identity and justice.

There are, I feel, inconsistencies in your letter that I, a non-philosopher, cannot wrap my head around:

1 Civilian Harm

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…

Why are you confident that Israel’s attacks – in particular bombing residential areas and hospitals – are “legitimate, liable” targets? What convincing evidence is there, presented before or after such an attack? Shouldn’t the evidence be presented in each instance of an attack on civilians to justify your claim that “Israel has clearly been doing the latter”.

To my limited knowledge, the international humanitarian law says something like:

If an attack fails to discriminate between combatants and civilians or would be expected to cause disproportionate harm to the civilian population compared to the military gain, it is also prohibited.” (source)

Since the clauses are connected by “or”, perhaps the law says that civilian harm is prohibited even if combatants were present but let’s assume that this is a gray area.

What would qualify military gain here to justify civilian harm? Would it be the number of dead Hamas members in the aftermath of a residence or a hospital that was bombed? Should Israel identify and count Hamas members among dead civilians, in each instance, to justify military gain? What ratio of dead Hamas members to dead civilians is an acceptable military gain so as to justify an attack on civilians? Given that it’s international law, perhaps the IDF alone cannot be the arbiter of military gain and so must present evidence to justify its attack on civilians.

2 Complications

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.

Proportionality considerations apply. But they too are complicated. 

But deterrence is a cruel and complicated game, and it is always played with, and it is always played with blood.

Somehow, I feel that there are greater philosophical and empirical complications when we are questioning a state’s ability to minimize harm versus a non-state actor. Hamas, it seems, should be able to take advantage of each one of these complications to explain away great civilian harm. Perhaps you feel that a state is necessarily more responsible than a non-state actor but then you also state that you personally have “zero confidence in the integrity of at least many of Israel’s decision makers.” Is Israel different from its decision makers? Are non-state actor necessarily and absolutely more irresponsible than a state, and hence a state can be given the benefit of doubt arising from greater complications?

3 Magnitude

You say:

“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).”

Is this threat of a different kind and magnitude because of the sheer number of deaths, or is there some other reason? It seems the former because it underpins arguments around proportionality. If so, why is it that you also say that the “sheer numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties do not suffice as evidence here, especially in an environment as densely populated as in Gaza“? Why is the tragedy of Palestinian civilian deaths also not of an entirely different kind and magnitude?

Stephen Turner
Stephen Turner
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

The Hamas killings were not incidental military deaths. They had no military value. They were simply acts of barbarism. Hamas does not have the protections of international law because they fail to identify themselves– they appear as civilians. They are simply criminals. There is no equivalence here. The tragedy is that innocent civilians will die. Because of criminals hiding among them. Proportionality does not apply. The initial crimes were not military actions in the first place.

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  Stephen Turner
5 months ago

So there is no limit on the deaths caused in an enforcement actions against criminals? That is surprising. Or did you mean something else?

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  J. Bogart
5 months ago

I took Stephen Turner to be replying to this statement: “Hamas, it seems, should be able to take advantage of each one of these complications to explain away great civilian harm.” The point (as I understood it) is that none of “these complications” are available to Hamas because their killings of civilians can’t be understood as incidental consequences of targeting combatants.

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Ah. Okay. Thank you.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

Given that it’s international law, perhaps the IDF alone cannot be the arbiter of military gain and so must present evidence to justify its attack on civilians.

I didn’t notice this previously, but perhaps it’s worth picking up on. It might be true in due course that Israel ought to present that evidence, but it’s not realistic to expect them to do so in real time because it would expose intelligence methods and endanger sources. No military is going to expose its intelligence to the enemy in that way, and I’m fairly sure international law recognizes that.

Billy
Billy
5 months ago

David, it’s not that Israel is dropping the bombs on buildings in Gaza, with the intention to hit civilians. I don’t think Israel is trying to hit civilians. It’s that, for the bomb-dropping to be permissible, they need to be aiming at Hamas buildings and then putting up with the deaths of any civilians nearby. But that isn’t what Israel is doing. They are dropping bombs on buildings, without knowing who is in the buildings (civilians or Hamas members or both). It’s the not knowing who Israel is dropping the bombs on that is impermissible. You’re not allowed to do that according to just war theory. Now, just war theory is deontological. But maybe deontology is false, and maybe what Israel is doing is justified if utilitarianism is true. I personally believe that utilitarianism is false, and I believe that what Israel is doing is wrong.

An alternative is for Israel to refrain from doing so much bombing ahead of time and simply to go in on the ground, searching building by building to see whether the people in there are civilians or Hamas members. Then they can kill Hamas members and let civilians live. This would be humane and decent. I know Israel won’t do it, because going this route would lead to lots of deaths for Israeli soldiers. But it would be way, way fairer to the Palestinian civilians.

I agree that the letter was stupid. Israel has every right to defend itself, and calling for a cease fire is not fair to Israel. But anyone being honest can see what Israel is doing: they are leveling entire neighborhoods (the pictures on CNN illustrate this), and Israel often does not know when they are dropping the bombs on buildings whether those buildings are Hamas-controlled or civilian-controlled or both. That is what is wrong.

My dad was in Vietnam, and he used to tell stories about how the Viet Cong were impossible to distinguish from the ordinary South Vietnamese civilians. This would sometimes lead to US soldiers getting angry and shooting people when they could not tell whether those people were Viet Cong or innocent South Vietnamese civilians. This was wrong. It was understandable, but wrong. It’s the same with what Israel is doing right now. They can’t tell ahead of bombing who is Hamas and who is innocent. And so they are bombing without knowing. It’s understandable, but wrong.

utilitarian
utilitarian
Reply to  Billy
5 months ago

Now, just war theory is deontological. But maybe deontology is false, and maybe what Israel is doing is justified if utilitarianism is true. I personally believe that utilitarianism is false, and I believe that what Israel is doing is wrong.”

I will just note that, to me, it is precisely utilitarian’s ability to straightforwardly condemn Israel’s action without running into all sorts of deontological pitfalls involving interpreting rights to self-defense, proportionality, etc., that attracts me to utilitarianism, especially at times like these.

Some might disagree with my claim about this being “straightforward,” but I think it would in fact be an excellent contribution to public discourse if someone could properly write up the utilitarian analysis here, as a counter-point to all the deontological takes we are seeing involving just war theory, colonialism, and so on.

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  utilitarian
5 months ago

A greater service would be for people to be shown precisely how and why ALL philosophical ethics is spurious nonsense, why all of it should be committed to the rubbish bin, and why a great many ethical philosophers are disingenuous, bad people for engaging and perpetuating such stuff.

Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
Reply to  Kriegsflaggesteinberg
5 months ago

You’ve just made a philosophical statement about ethics. Beware of recursion.

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  Mark Raabe
5 months ago

I’d worry about it were I looking at it solely from a philosophical point of view. To do so would be a silly mistake, though.

Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
Reply to  Kriegsflaggesteinberg
5 months ago

Alas, you’re going to force me to spell this out. “ALL philosophical ethics is spurious nonsense” is self-refuting in a manner similar to “This statement is false.” Point of view doesn’t change that.

All I’m suggesting is that you add a bit of nuance to your position.

Chris
Chris
Reply to  Mark Raabe
5 months ago

hmm. I guess now I have to spell this out: I don’t see why “All philosophical ethics is spurious nonsense” is self-refuting. for example, Kriegs.. is reasonably interpreted as meaning “All first order philosophical ethics is spurious” (not that meta ethics or all of philosophy is nonsense) which is not itself a first order claim in philosophical ethics. So it isn’t self refuting. Maybe that’s what you meant by “nuance”?

Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
Reply to  Chris
5 months ago

Not sure where you’re finding a limitation to only first-order ethics. The statement was pretty blunt.

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  Mark Raabe
5 months ago

Thanks for fleshing out why you’re wrong, Raabe. 🙂

I made a claim about philosophical ethics, which you then characterized as a “philosophical statement about ethics”.

For one thing, if someone (with good reason) thinks ALL philosophy is bullshit, then it’s not just a philosophical claim. There’s no recursion if you think all philosophy, and all philosophical propositions, are spurious. (Plug in Wittgenstein, or someone along those lines, here.) You’re just conflating (logical) statements with philosophical ones. Categorizing it as a philosophical proposition doesn’t mean it’s EXCLUSIVELY so categorizable; it’s equally understandable as a logical, sociological, and/or non-philosophical political claim (where, again, one thinks all philosophy is bullshit). So, can you see how a person who thinks philosophy’s entirely bullshit doesn’t have to worry about recursion at all?

For another, even if one does lend credence to at least some areas of philosophy, “all philosophical ethics” can be understood as a claim about about methodology/meta-philosophy, etc. There, too, one needn’t worry about recursion–IF you have good reasons for thinking that not all philosophy or philosophical propositions are bullshit, at least. So, yeah, its being understood as a claim about all “first-order” ethics being horseshit would suffice here, as an example.

As you can imagine, I’m not worried about this latter scenario personally… 🙂

Sorry, are you one of these folks who actually thinks there’s ANY value whatsoever in these armchair philosophical theories of ethics (utilitarianism, deontology, etc.) where one aligns oneself with a superficial speudo-theory that is TESTED AGAINST adherents and rivals’ intuitions–I.E., REAL-WORLD MORAL INTUITIONS, WHICH AREN’T GROUNDED IN THOSE THEORIES AT ALL–as bases for determining whether a given theory’s implications in test cases (trolleys, say) are indeed “moral”, or bullet-bitable, or “wrong”, etc?

Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
Reply to  Kriegsflaggesteinberg
5 months ago

No problem, … steinberg.

If your stance were simply that theorists are often obtuse, we’d agree. But you won’t retrench to that position, so I’m left to wonder if you think absolutism is somehow more compelling, or more sincere, or demanded by the gravity of what we’re witnessing. Or if coming on a philosophy blog to declare that all philosophy is bullshit accomplishes anything meaningful.

I’m sorry you don’t like my observation that you’re doing philosophy, and thus participating in the bullshit, by declaring that you’re not. Philosophy has this really irritating attribute: you can’t stop doing it unless you stop talking about it, stop thinking about it, stop judging it. I know that’s incredibly annoying. Ask any physicist who’s tried to declare that philosophy is unnecessary, only to be told that that’s a philosophical statement.

That may seem trivial, and perhaps not worthy of the seriousness of this thread, but it’s related to what seems like your more central point: that ethical philosophy and moral intuition are two completely separate things, and that only the latter is valid here. You seem unaware of the extensive history of ethical philosophers considering the role of intuition and often grounding their theories in it. Moral intuition is indeed (in my view) foundational, but intuitions need to be thought about and through, to be verified and have their limits tested. Are they based on facts and accurate mental models, or prejudices and propaganda? Are they extensible into the uncertain future? Are they shared, and if not, can they be, or must they simply be imposed?

That last question is really the crux here, and it shows the limitation of an anti-philosophical intuitionist view. We have multiple parties, each claiming primacy for its own set of moral intuitions. We also have a world of onlookers, many of whom are trying to form their own intuitions and are struggling. The situation doesn’t pose only first-order questions, but second- and even third-order ones. We can’t progress without applying philosophy to all of the intuitions involved. We must, however, do that with extreme care, and with clear, real-world awareness, and you are right to call that out.

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  Mark Raabe
5 months ago

“I’m sorry you don’t like my observation that you’re doing philosophy, and thus participating in the bullshit, by declaring that you’re not”.

Thanks for confirming once again that you’ve missed my point entirely…

One is “doing” philosophy from the philosophical point of view. From an alternative (indeed, larger) vantage, however, philosophy is nothing more than stipulative bullshit and pseudo-theorisation. Claiming that ‘one is still just doing philosophy, even then’ isn’t going to cut it.

And your attempts to salvage the particular forms of philosophising, such as first-order philosophical ethics, by appealing to philosophical ethicists’ work on intuitions (let alone baldly claiming that its “foundational”, is of zero value for enterprise salvation. Their work doesn’t, and cannot, make the work any less spurious.

Last thing. You claim “We can’t progress without applying PHILOSOPHY to all of the intuitions involved” (emphasis added). Actually, we can, and do. All you’ve done is beg the question.

Philosophy does not, and cannot, resolve ethical problems. What people can do, though, is call out crypto-stipulative, intuition-pumping bullshit when we see it. We can identify pseudo-epistemic and pseudo-moral authorities, like many of the participants on this blog and in philosophy departments generally, and put them in their proper place.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Kriegsflaggesteinberg
5 months ago

For one thing, if someone (with good reason) thinks ALL philosophy is bullshit, then it’s not just a philosophical claim. There’s no recursion if you think all philosophy, and all philosophical propositions, are spurious. (Plug in Wittgenstein, or someone along those lines, here.) You’re just conflating (logical) statements with philosophical ones. Categorizing it as a philosophical proposition doesn’t mean it’s EXCLUSIVELY so categorizable; it’s equally understandable as a logical, sociological, and/or non-philosophical political claim (where, again, one thinks all philosophy is bullshit). So, can you see how a person who thinks philosophy’s entirely bullshit doesn’t have to worry about recursion at all?”

If you do this without worrying about recursion at all, it basically disqualifies your view from being taken seriously, since you show that you have not come to it by any rational process, nor are you concerned with its truth or justifiedness

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Kriegsflaggesteinberg
5 months ago

I’d worry about it were I looking at it solely from a philosophical point of view. To do so would be a silly mistake, though.”

You cannot give philosophical statements on ethics without giving them from a philosphical point of view.

JTD
JTD
Reply to  utilitarian
5 months ago

I think it would in fact be an excellent contribution to public discourse if someone could properly write up the utilitarian analysis here, as a counter-point to all the deontological takes we are seeing involving just war theory, colonialism, and so on.

I attempted a short write up of a utilitarian take in a previously DN thread on this topic. Here it is:

Israel may well be the number two enemy of the people in Gaza. But it is pretty clear that Hamas is the number one enemy of Gazans. After winning power democratically they then killed off the more moderate opposition parties and have since ruled as authoritarians, refusing to hold any further elections and using extrajudicial killings, violence, and cronyism to suppress any opposition to their rule. Their conservative Islamist ideology leads them to violate many basic human rights of Gazans (women have an inferior position to men and homosexuality is outlawed).Their leaders live lives of luxury in Qatar, amassing tens of millions of dollars in personal wealth by controlling the flow of goods into Gaza and then taking a massive cut from this. Meanwhile the people of Gaza live in poverty. Furthermore, Hamas doggedly persists in trying to important weapons into Gaza, and using these weapons to attack civilian targets in Israel, even though the predicable response to this is that Israel and Egypt impose a blockade on Gaza that badly hurts the Gazan economy (even if you think the blockade is wrong, you must still admit that Hamas wrongs Gazans by pursuing immoral actions (targeting civilians) that will provoke this response). Hamas also intentionally embed their military assets in civilian areas, and launch attacks on Israeli civilians from those locations, resulting in the death and destruction of Gazan civilians and civilian infrastructure from Israel’s self-defensive retaliation (again, even if you think the Israeli retaliation is wrong, you must still admit that Hamas wrongs the Gazans by performing unjustified acts that will predictably result in Israeli strikes against Hamas targets that kill Gazan civilians). Hamas’ record of using Gazans as human shields shows an utter disregard for Gazan lives. Finally, Hamas continue to fire thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel even though between 10% and 30% of those rockets misfire and land in Gaza, leading to further civilian deaths and destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza. In fact, in recent years, for every one Israeli civilian killed by a Hamas rocket there are eight Gazans killed by Hamas rockets that misfire (showing that for Hamas one Israeli life is more valuable than eight Gazan lives).

In short, there is a massive toll of human suffering that Hamas has inflicted on Gazans in their 17 years of rule. It is very likely that, if Hamas continues to rule Gaza, a further massive amount of suffering will result. These are crucial facts to consider in assessing Israeli’s military response to the October 7 terrorist attacks. Israel claims that their aim is to eliminate Hamas from Gaza. If they can succeed in this, and the power vacuum in Gaza can be filled by more moderate groups committed to a two state solution (such as Fatah) then a tremendous amount of future human suffering could be avoided. The situation of the 2.1 million people in Gaza would be massively improved under moderate Palestinian governance. The situation of Israeli civilians, who have lived with the threat of, and died from, Hamas rocket attacks and terrorism in recent decades would also be improved.

Given this, the relevant questions to ask are:

  1. What is the likelihood that Israeli military action will succeed in eliminating Hamas from Gaza and replacing them with a more moderate group?
  2. What is the likely negative effects (civilian deaths, destruction of civilian infrastructure) of such military action?
  3. Given these likelihoods, does the expected value of Israel pursuing this military action outweigh the expected value of them not pursuing this military action?
  4. Even if the expected value of the Israel’s military action aimed at eliminating Hamas outweighs the expected value of them not taking such military action, among the various forms of military action Israel could take, are they taking the course of action which has the highest expected utility?

These are not easy questions to answer. Regarding (1), it seems to me that successfully eliminating Hamas and replacing them with a more moderate group that would significantly improve the lives of Gazans is unlikely. But I really have trouble saying anything more definite here. For example, are the chances of success here 40% or >10%?

Regarding (2), there would clearly be large negative effects, including civilian deaths in the tens of thousands.

Regarding (3), the future suffering that continued Hamas rule will cause is very substantial, so the good of eliminating them and replacing them with something more moderate would outweigh tens of thousands civilian deaths (compare the widespread acceptance of the moral justifiability of the battle of Mosul, where estimates of civilian deaths are between 5 and 40 thousand). However, once we add the likelihoods in (1) and (2) this equation becomes much more complicated. I’m inclined to think that the answer to (3) is “no”. But I think that no one can answer this question with confidence as there is so much we don’t know.

Regarding (4), I am confident that the answer is “no” simply because I don’t see how the human cost of cutting off electricity and water to Gaza is outweighed by the small military advantage that might bring. Assessing the way Israel is conducting the airstrikes against alternative ways of striking Hamas is much harder to do and I am not sure what to say about this.

Philosophy Bear
Reply to  utilitarian
5 months ago

The historical justice approach of the public declonial approach is a real bug bear for me. I cannot imagine anything less interesting than arguments about who is REALLY indigenous to the region. Palestinians are suffering NOW. A big dose of utilitarianism would be a breath of fresh air.

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  Philosophy Bear
5 months ago

Utilitarianism is a pseudo-morality and a pseudo-theory. How, then, could it be a breath of anything other than white phosphorus?

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Billy
5 months ago

“[I]t’s not that Israel is dropping the bombs on buildings in Gaza, with the intention to hit civilians. I don’t think Israel is trying to hit civilians. It’s that, for the bomb-dropping to be permissible, they need to be aiming at Hamas buildings and then putting up with the deaths of any civilians nearby. But that isn’t what Israel is doing. They are dropping bombs on buildings, without knowing who is in the buildings (civilians or Hamas members or both).

Is it obvious that’s what’s going on? The relevant questions are
(a) how much risk is Israel tolerating in its identification of which targets are miltary and which are not; and
(b) how tolerant is Israel of civilian casualties in strikes on military targets?

A lot of people (here and elsewhere) seem to think that it’s obvious that the answers are (a) “totally relaxed about risk, to the point of just picking targets at random”, and (b) “enormously tolerant, to the point of inflicting wildly disproportionate civilian casualties for minimal military gain”. And they might be right. But it’s not at all obvious to me, and (much more importantly) it doesn’t seem to be obvious to anyone commenting publicly who has appropriate expertise in modern urban conflict. Quite the reverse: the consistent line I hear from, e.g., people expert on the siege of Mosul, is that urban warfare is horrendously destructive even if you take great care with targeting and proportionality and stay well within what the law of armed conflict permits. (Though if people have appropriately-informed sources that take the opposite I would be interested to see them.)

Of course it is also possible to think either (1) that Israel has no realistically-achievable goal that justifies this level of civilian harm (say, because it’s not realistic to eliminate Hamas), or (2) that this level of civilian harm is unjustifiable whatever the goal (so that even if Israel could guarantee permanently eliminating Hamas, this would be an unacceptable price.) But that’s a different argument.

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

In the last few weeks, Israel has dropped more munitions on Gaza, an area the size of Manhattan, than the US dropped in the first year of the war in Afghanistan. What part of that seems anything other than cavalier?

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
5 months ago

In the first place, I think the brute numerical comparison is misleading. Israel is targeting a very urbanized area and is mostly, as I understand it, using relatively small munitions, around a 50kg-100kg yield. NATO forces in Afghanistan were fighting in much more open terrain and could afford to use smaller numbers of much higher-yield weapons, up to and including daisy cutter’ bombs that have a yield (I think) 50-100 times what an Israeli air-launched munition has. They also dropped over a thousand cluster bombs, which nominally have yields not much higher than Israeli munitions but are much more indiscriminately destructive. If the IDF drops cluster bombs or daisy-cutters on Gaza City I will be the first to agree that they are clearly committing war crimes.

In the second, the intensity with which a conflict is being pursued doesn’t say very much about the degree of care taken in its targeting (unless you think the tempo is too high to be compatible with the IDF’s target-identification process being done properly, in which case I’d want to see the details of the argument).

Finally, Israel says it’s dropped over 6,000 bombs, and Hamas says around 8,000 people have been killed. If both those figures are correct, the average Israeli airstrike is killing about one person. That sounds quite low compared to what you would expect if you just dropped 100-kg high explosives at random into an extremely densely populated area. That doesn’t establish that the IDF is being sufficiently careful with its targeting, but it’s some reason to think they’re not being totally cavalier about it.

Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

I’m not sure the low ratio of civilians killed to bombs dropped shows the Israelis are not being cavalier. The coverage I’ve seen by Channel 4 of the before-and-after of the bombing in Gaza City seems to indicate that the bombing was fairly indiscriminate: a majority of the city’s residential neighborhoods have been completely flattened. I think the main reason casualties haven’t been higher is that many Gazan civilians fled southward early in the war, because the IDF basically announced their intent to bomb targets Gaza City indiscriminately.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
5 months ago

That’s a good point.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
5 months ago

B’Tselem documented Israel’s bombing families at residences in 2014. https://www.btselem.org/gaza_strip/201407_families

No signs of combatants who died with those families. There’s a historic pattern to Israel bombing civilians.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

Am I misreading that link? It says, “In the months ahead, B’Tselem plans to further investigate the incidents, including confirming the identity of the individuals killed and whether or not they took part in the hostilities“. I don’t see anything on that page that answers it, and when I try looking up some of the names in B’Tselem’s database, I find a mixture of combatants and non-combatants.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Why are you assuming that families in residences constitute potential threat when it’s the responsibility of those claiming that they were a threat?

I cannot claim that they were all civilians though they were definitely entire families, including children, targeted in a bombing. But I also don’t intend to bomb them.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

I was just responding to your “no signs of combatants”. I wasn’t even making a point so much as wondering if I was misreading the site, since it seemed to be explicitly saying that they weren’t commenting there on who was a combatant.

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
5 months ago

The coverage I’ve seen by Channel 4 of the before-and-after of the bombing in Gaza City seems to indicate that the bombing was fairly indiscriminate: a majority of the city’s residential neighborhoods have been completely flattened.

I’ve seen similar images. But it is established that the IDF is not using carpet bombing, they are firing precision munitions. So, the explanation you seem to accept is that they are using these precision munitions to precisely target almost every building over a few blocks as a way of indiscriminately hitting Gaza City. That is a weird strategy (why “waste” expensive precision munitions in this way?) but may well be true. However, an alternative explanation is that in a first round of strikes they hit several building in those blocks that they judge to be military targets. Then, later intelligence indicated that Hamas military activity in that area had now moved to other buildings there that were not initially hit, so in later strikes they hit those buildings. The point is that we don’t have enough information at the moment to say which of these different possible explanations is the truth.

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  JTD
5 months ago

Some days ago I saw a news report (PBS NewsHour) showing a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza that had been hit by an Israeli bomb (or a piece of a bomb – it wasn’t entirely clear), killing 12 civilians who were sheltering there. The IDF was quoted as saying that the intended target was a Hamas facility nearby. I infer from this and other coverage that the precision munitions the IDF has been using are not perfectly precise and they cannot necessarily be targeted with pinpoint precision, perhaps especially under actual and not simulated conditions.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
5 months ago

That’s definitely correct. But law of armed conflict (as I understand it) recognizes this; it distinguishes between attacks that can reasonably be expected to strike at the intended target and not civilian targets in the vicinity (but which might sometimes fail) and attacks that can’t be targeted in the first place. The law recognizes that combat is messy and that things will sometimes go wrong.

Once again, I’m giving my (imperfect, lay) understanding of what international law says, rather than making a moral point.

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
5 months ago

the bombing was fairly indiscriminate”

How do you know this? To know this, you would have to konow that there were no targets of significant military value there. How do you know this?

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
5 months ago

I’m not sure how you aim to infer cavalier-ness from number. Do you have any established standard to compare to here?

Gorm
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
5 months ago

Jonathan
Check your facts – the area of Gaza is 365 km(2) … the area of Manhattan is 59 km(2).

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Gorm
5 months ago

if it wasn’t clear, by Gaza I meant Gaza City and its suburbs, but I don’t expect charity here

David Wallace
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
5 months ago

I take it that your statement about munitions dropped is also for Gaza City, not the whole of Gaza. Could you give a link? I’m not doubting your claim, just interested in the details of the comparison with Afghanistan given my previous comment.

Billy
Billy
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

But, David, when you read articles such as the two below, do you really think that Israel is taking great care with targeting and proportionality? Or, more carefully put, do you really think that those of us who are criticizing Israel’s methods should wait until more evidence comes in before we judge that Israel is not taking great care with targeting and proportionality?

https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/16/middleeast/israel-palestinian-evacuation-orders-invs/index.html

https://apnews.com/article/gaza-rimal-israel-hamas-incursion-war-0411aa82d51fc801c117213e508a1a1d

It’s not that I think Israel is randomly dropping bombs. I think they must have good intelligence info about general areas where Hamas is. But when it comes to particular buildings within those general areas, I think there is probably a lot of guessing being done, where Israel really has no idea who is in this or that particular building.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Billy
5 months ago

I’ve read those articles; they are difficult reading. But they don’t seem to me to establish very much on the issue at hand. Urban warfare against an opponent who hides among the civilian population is a brutal affair that involves (a) rapidly-changing intelligence as to real-time targets; (b) high-pressure, short-time-window judgement calls as to what to trust in that intelligence; (c) further judgement calls as to what infrastructure damage and civilian risk is acceptable. (Note that one of the questions is: to what extent is it legitimate to destroy largely-evacuated civilian infrastructure to deny the enemy a fortified position; this speaks to the second of the articles.) Sometimes, the intelligence will be faulty and/or the judgement calls will be wrong, and when that happens, innocent people will die and civilian infrastructure will be unnecessarily destroyed.

You can legitimately say, “this is why you should in no circumstance fight a war in a dense urban area, even against a nihilistic death cult”. I respect that view. But if you fight a war like this in an urban area, it is going to have horrible consequences even if you are conforming to the laws of armed conflict. Individual anecdotes are of quite limited use in judging whether the war is being fought carefully or not, because there will be awful anecdotes in any such war, however carefully it is fought.

The siege of (ISIS-controlled) Mosul is a good case in point, since in many ways it is quite similar to the Israel-Hamas conflict. It took 100,000 Iraqi and allied troops, with heavy assistance from western (mostly US) air power and special forces, nine months to defeat 3,000-12,000 ISIS forces. There are (as there always are) believable reports of isolated war crimes by the attackers, but I haven’t seen it plausibly argued that the attack on Mosul systematically violated international law. And yet it cost at least 10,000 civilian lives and left the city in ruins.

Perhaps it was wrong to invade Mosul, because the humanitarian cost was unacceptably high. Perhaps reasons can be advanced as to why Mosul is morally different from Gaza. And perhaps there are reasons that could be advanced as to why Iraqi/US forces in Mosul held themselves to a higher standard than the IDF’s current actions. But Mosul demonstrates the horrific cost of fighting wars in cities against opponents who flout the law of distinction, even when the attacker endeavors to conform to international law.

Billy
Billy
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

This is a fair response, David. I’ll think about it. I guess I just keep thinking that there has to be a way for Israel to fight back against Hamas (as Israel should be doing), but without inflicting so much death and suffering on Palestinian civilians. But maybe in thinking this, I am wrong. I once had a student who fought for the US in Iraq tell me that my views on war are unrealistic (because too idealistic). And maybe my student was right.

David Enoch
David Enoch
Reply to  Billy
5 months ago

I don’t know what you are basing our claims on. It would be nice to see evidence that Israel is just bombing buildings without any information about whether there are Hamas people there. I also have no idea why you think that sending units in will be much less harmful. This is true is more standard scenarios – of either bombing a specific location from the air, or sending a unit for a quick operation and back. The kind of full-on ground invasion that you seem to be recommending is likely to be extremely devastating in its own right. (For instance, because soldiers on the ground are likely to behave, when the going gets tough, as your father’s unit did.)

Billy
Billy
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

Thanks, David. Fair comments. You can see my back and forth above with David Wallace to see more of what I think here. And I’ll think about what you’re saying here about the ground invasion. My thought in that regard was that, if Israel were to go building by building on the ground, they could see which people have weapons and which ones don’t and then kill those with weapons, while refraining from killing those without weapons. And Israel could also take any weapons they find that are unmanned. Obviously a ground invasion like this would be brutal and lead to lots of deaths on all sides. But I think it would lead to fewer civilian deaths than the current bombing strategy is causing.

As a final comment, I want to be clear that I am in favor of Israel’s fighting back against Hamas. My concerns only relate to the methods that Israel is employing. And, as I said to David Wallace above, I’ll think about whether I have been too quick to criticize those methods.

TF Rector
TF Rector
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

David, what would qualify as evidence for the intention to kill, maim, and terrify civilians, for whatever reason (e.g. as punishment, to drive them out of territory to which many cabinet members believe Israel has superior claim)?

William Bell
William Bell
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

I believe there is empirical evidence of the indiscriminate bombing of buildings, unless Hamas exists in every house in several areas of Gaza… https://www.euronews.com/2023/10/27/northern-gaza-reduced-to-rubble-satellite-images-show-before-and-after-air-strikes

William Bell
William Bell
Reply to  William Bell
5 months ago

To build on my earlier comment, the pattern of areas completely bombed isn’t consistent with targeted bombing at all: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/10/07/world/middleeast/israel-gaza-maps.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare

William Bell
William Bell
Reply to  William Bell
5 months ago

Or to establish state of mind, we could look at the words of Israeli government officials… https://twitter.com/QudsNen/status/1720037533445238868

Daniel
Daniel
5 months ago

A small point. Or maybe not so small. I’m not sure how much importance we should attach to the distinction between harming civilians intentionally and harming civilians merely foreseeably. Apart from the low-hanging-fruit point that it’s cold comfort to the parent whose child was blown to pieces that their child’s death was foreseen—but not intended!—there’s a deeper point about the kinds of attitudes conveyed by the state of Israel’s response thus far which gets obscured if we frame the issue in these narrow just war theoretic terms.

 

Simply put, even if we magically start the clock on October 7, it’s impossible to observe the state of Israel’s response and see anything approaching a recognition that every human being living in Gaza is a person. Yes, we can argue all we want about which bombings fall on which side of the intended/merely foreseen distinction. Although the author doesn’t mention the blockade, we could also run parallel arguments about how to classify newborn deaths from defunct ventilators, avoidable cholera outbreaks, etc. etc. etc.  But the broader pattern of both statements (“human animals”) and conduct by the Israeli security apparatus expresses a clear judgment that Palestinian lives and interests are, at the very best, expendable and fungible. Their lives are expendable, in the sense that they can be taken in large numbers without taking meaningful due care beforehand and without any genuine regret or anguish thereafter. And their lives are fungible, in the sense that they are not the lives of individual human persons who are (among other things) Palestinian. They are just Palestinian lives, which exist only to be tabulated numerically and traded off against each other. Obviously, this conception of Palestinian lives as fundamentally expendable and fungible is part and parcel of running an apartheid regime.

 

None of this belies the obvious fact that Hamas’s attitudes on October 7 were odious and indefensible. But I don’t think that obvious fact excuses us from thinking hard and thinking slowly about what kinds of attitudes are expressed by the more powerful party’s response. On the contrary, what real attitudes are expressed about real human beings by all parties to a conflict is itself an important part of the morality of war. Yet focusing too much on questions of collateral damage, proportionality, deterrence, and the like obscures that aspect of the moral situation. Even worse, it risks unwittingly reproducing some of the dehumanizing attitudes which are flagrantly on display at the first-order level of war’s conduct.

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Reply to  Daniel
5 months ago

So, will you start the clock in the 7th century and run it into the 21st century? What will that tell you about the lives of dhimmis under Arab-Islamic rule (or, really, under sharia anywhere — let alone the lives of Buddhists, Hindus, and other non-people of the book)? What will that tell you about sharia and the Pact of Omar? When did apartheid really begin, and who imposed it? Whose lives were fungible? Whose land could be stolen? Whose holy sites? What about cultural appropriation and cultural erasure of the legally subordinate throughout that entire period?

What, on an HONEST, IMPARTIAL analysis, would that tell you about the relationship between sharia, apartheid, colonialism, etc.?

Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
5 months ago

Funny Mr. Enoch, because I happen to think your letter is a paradigmatic example of how philosophers should not to contribute to public discourse. When a military is dropping white phosphorous on crowded city blocks, calling on hospitals to evacuate so they can be bombed into oblivion, denying food and water to a civilian populace of several million, etc., only the most cold-hearted person would care about abstract nonsense like “proportionality” and “deterrence.” Also, you claim to not be defending Israel, but then repeat IDF propaganda (e.g., Hamas uses hospitals as bases) without batting an eye. This post is a shameful display.

ehz
ehz
Reply to  Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
5 months ago

Which hospital did Israel bomb into oblivion?

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  ehz
5 months ago

Notice I didn’t say that… The IDF have been calling all the hospitals in Gaza this week telling the staff to evacuate in preparation of bombing. Thankfully that’s yet to happen.

N.L
N.L
Reply to  Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
5 months ago

repeat IDF propaganda (e.g., Hamas uses hospitals as bases) without batting an eye. 

Yet you’re calling this propaganda without batting an eye, even though there’s evidence for this claim. This is what Enoch is talking about.

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  N.L
5 months ago

Evidence from *checks notes* the IDF. I’m not saying this isn’t true, but the IDF has a storied tradition of fabricating evidence to cover-up its misdeeds. Given that it may have (either accidentally or intentionally) dropped a bomb on the parking lot of a hospital a week ago, it has a vested interest in fabricating evidence to support this claim, and it has yet to provide compelling physical evidence beyond a supposed Hamas fighter’s confession to support its claim. Until verified by independent investigators or journalists, I think treating such reports from the IDF as propaganda whose veracity is questionable isn’t unreasonable.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
5 months ago

I can’t find any decisive reliable neutral source that backs up Hamas using hospitals as bases, but there seems to be extensive evidence, including UN reports, that they have used schools and mosques as fighting platforms and weapons depots. There are also Western news reports that make first-hand claims by reporters that they have been told by Gaza residents that various humanitarian facilities, including hospitals, are Hamas-controlled. Of course that does not decisively prove anything in this particular case.

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Those are fair points. Given Hamas’s complete lack of scruples, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were the case, but to reiterate my point I don’t think we should take the word of untrustworthy state actors at face value when they’re justifying killing non-combatants.

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
5 months ago

but to reiterate my point I don’t think we should take the word of untrustworthy state actors at face value

This is not quite what’s going on. They are not saying “take our word for it, we are are trustworthy”. Instead they are saying “here is a bunch of evidence including call recordings, and public statements from various people, including NGOs, confirm this”. You can see some of this evidence here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ggBF9rnBe0&ab_channel=IsraelDefenseForces

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNCzb8w2LjM&ab_channel=IsraelDefenseForces

Now, its possible that they have manipulated all of this evidence, taken quotes out of context, fabricated the call recordings etc. However, for a number of reasons, I don’t think that this is particularly likely. So I’m inclined to believe their claim, even though my credence would be much higher if I found an independent assessment by a neutral third party that reviews all of the evidence carefully before drawing this conclusion.

Matt Murphy
Matt Murphy
Reply to  N.L
5 months ago

Agreed. I’m shocked Justin has approved Mr. Kendrick’s comments. They have been absolutely childish.

Greg Guy
Greg Guy
Reply to  Matt Murphy
5 months ago

I’m so glad people like Kendrick get a chance to contribute their comments to this discussion even though their detractors are so infanitile.

Patrick Lin
5 months ago

The author seems to misunderstand how public discourse really works. As much as value reason, logic, clarity, intellectual honesty, etc. in philosophy, the rest of the world isn’t really moved by these things, at least as much as many philosophers think they might or should be.

The author says:

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.

First of all, don’t call me Shirley. Second, this isn’t the only point of intellectual interventions in public discourse. Sometimes it’s much more, such as strongly advocating for desperately needed change, not just teasing apart nuances as an academic exercise.

In public advocacy, reason is helpful and a noble tack, but sometimes you might also want to use all the tools available to you. Not saying it’s right, but in the real world, rhetoric works, too.

grateful
grateful
5 months ago

I was very surprised (though I suppose I shouldn’t have been) by the reaction to what I took to be a sensible piece by Prof. Enoch.

I think the title of his essay, and the thesis that comes from it, has been ignored by most commenting above. Most have been taking Enoch to be presenting a piece of political rhetoric. I fear that most are assuming that that’s all a piece of writing by a philosopher about the current crisis could be. Perhaps I’m being naïve. But I think what Enoch says is largely true, if one takes it as someone trying to say true things about a horrible situation. Many of the key empirical questions of the situation are terribly complicated, and we as onlookers are never going to be privy to much of the information that would be necessary to settle those matters. It’s tragic that those who do are people in whom we have very little moral confidence. And it’s tragic too that it’s impossible to say things like this without that speech functioning, if taken as mere political rhetoric, as a justification for atrocities. We might even restate the horror of the situation in this way: that there are no philosophical statements to make that wouldn’t function that way, if taken as mere political rhetoric for one side or the other.

I for one found Enoch’s piece helpful in sorting out some of my conflicting thoughts about the crisis, even if he and I have different primary sympathies with respect to it (and indeed it was probably more helpful because of those differences). Perhaps am I alone in this, but I mostly couldn’t care less what my fellow philosophers think “ought to be done” in Gaza, and find most of their statements about it impossibly self-aggrandizing. So it was refreshing to see a statement about it that was a bit more circumspect. Again I imagine I’ll be called naïve, that Enoch’s statement is positioned to appear more circumspect so that you don’t see that with the other hand he’s justifying his bloodlust. I don’t really know what to say to that other than to point out, as Enoch rightly does, that what we’re saying here matters almost not at all for what is actually happening in the crisis and what will actually be done about it by the people who have the relevant powers. Anyway, thanks Prof. Enoch.

JTD
JTD
5 months ago

I echo Enoch’s call for more epistemic modesty and admitting of ignorance and uncertainty. It is disappointing that so much of the strong, moralizing commentary one sees assumes things that we are not really in a position to know. Philosophers need to remember that humility stands alongside skepticism as one of our most important intellectual virtues.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  JTD
5 months ago

If we are not in the position to know, should we not try and know? Is is certain that every detail is needed to form a judgement, or to act?

Such a call to humility seems more like looking away.

Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

Epistemic humility or modesty is not the same thing as willful ignorance. To take one obvious example, the ongoing climate catastrophe has surely been worsened by calls to wait for “certainty,” but those calls were not motivated by any form of humility. Epistemic humility does not demand that we stop trying to know. Just the opposite.

It’s a difficult balancing act, but epistemic humility can (and must) be coupled with resolve. The goal is not less action, but better understanding of our actions and the uncertain premises on which they are based, so that we’re more open to taking wise risks and considering alternatives and course changes as we broaden and deepen our perspective.

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

If we are not in the position to know, should we not try and know?

We should be honest about the credences the available evidence warrants and act on those. If the available evidence you have suggests that there is a 60% chance that a particular airstrike was disproportionate and a 40% chance that it was proportionate then you should be honest about that rather then acting as if you know that it was disproportionate.

Such a call to humility seems more like looking away.

A call to humility can be used that way. However, look at how the people who are urging humility here are acting. They are not saying “no one knows for sure so let’s just move on to another topic and forget about this one”. Instead, they are continuing to engage with this topic, making earnest attempts to get clearer on the facts, and acknowledging the serious moral consequences that follow if a certain narrative of what is going on is correct.

Fresh on the market
Fresh on the market
Reply to  JTD
5 months ago

I’m not sure about the value of epistemic modesty, or what it would even mean to exercise it, in contexts in which there are so many sources of (mis)information muddying any evidential basis for firming up credences. This is complicated further by the need for expediency, and there is a real risk – a serious moral hazard for anyone encountering putative sources of evidence – of calls for epistemic humility to register as calls to look the other way.

Last edited 5 months ago by Fresh on the market
Moti Gorin
5 months ago

I think the Oxford letter was a good one. To my mind, the uncertainty Enoch describes so well speaks in favor of a cease fire, not against it. If the authors of the letter were to rewrite it, it seems to me they could cite Enoch’s claims about the lack of certainty regarding effective deterrence as well as uncertainty regarding the extent to which Israel is capable (given the leadership and the understandable emotions following the horror of 10/7, etc.) of respecting the principles of proportionality and discrimination and contrast this uncertainty with the certainty that many civilians will be killed in further support of their proposal.

James Hanley
James Hanley
5 months ago

“An alternative is for Israel… bombing ahead of time and simply to go in on the ground, searching building by building to see whether the people in there are civilians or Hamas members.”

I agree this would be preferable, despite the greater risk to Israeli soldiers, but is it even possible? Ought implies can, and as much as I’d like to believe Israel can distinguish between Hamas abs civilians, I think they’d actually be in the same situation your father was in in Vietnam.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  James Hanley
5 months ago

I think the eyewitness reports from Mosul, or the US counterinsurgency in Iraq, or indeed from Israeli forces in previous Gaza incursions, make very clear that fighting in close quarters by no means avoids civilian casualties. (This is why it is a war crime for Hamas not to clearly distinguish its fighters from civilians.)

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
5 months ago

Without fail, whenever I see academic philosophers (or anyone in the humanities) weigh in on any issue that is in the public discourse, it’s always pretty clear that they’ve started with the conclusion they want and have reasoned back to it. Many of the comments here support this kind of reasoning as well.

I don’t know what a good solution is to the situation in Israel/Palestine right now. I doubt anyone commenting on here knows either. The whole thing is a mess and there are lots of completely innocent people caught up in all of it who just want to live their lives in peace. But what I do know is that this comment thread provides far too much evidence supporting the claim that those of us in the humanities are trying to teach our students what to think under the guise of teaching them “how to think.”

It’s times like this that I’m reminded of Bas Van Der Vossen’s wonderful article, “In defense of the ivory tower: Why philosophers should stay out of politics” [https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09515089.2014.972353]. If Van Der Vossen is correct — and I believe he is — the answer for how academics should intervene in public discourse is “not at all.”

mario
mario
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 months ago

But if philosophers dont intervene, who is it that dominates public discourse, in the US for example? I mean I dont see anyone doing any better than philosophers. In fact, the flaws in the letter and the flaws in o.p. are much milder than the standard fare in the public discourse (at least in the US, which I am familar with). Who do you see not reverse-engineering desired outcomes to discourse? Pundits? Think-tankers? Lobbyists? Lawyers? Assorted cheer-leader organizations? What is actual alternative?

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  mario
5 months ago

Public discourse on these hot-button issues is a dumpster fire and wading into those discussions never accomplishes anything productive — we know that from the start. It’s the proverbial wrestling with pigs. So, even if our colleagues are good pig-wrestlers (and most of them clearly are not), they’re still going to leave these discussions covered in shit like everyone else. The only thing that accomplishes is making universities look bad and otherwise making it seem like academics are often engaged in punditry or worse.

The alternative is not to do anything and to try to have thoughtful and constructive discussions with students on our campuses, in environments that are actually conducive to having discussion and where we can somewhat control how that discussion goes. If an academic is genuinely interested in getting people to think carefully about one of these issues, they have a far greater chance of doing that in the classroom then in any of these op-eds or public letters.

David Enoch
David Enoch
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 months ago

From the fact that many philosophers comment so poorly on political and public affairs (though often not quite as poorly as many others), it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t do it at all. Rather, we should do it *well*.

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

David, have you read Van der Vossen’s piece on this? He argues, among other things, that participating in these kinds of activities make us worse at truth-seeking. If he’s right, it’s not possible for us to do it well, at least without compromising our ability to seek the truth (which we all should value more than participating in this public discourse).

GradStu
GradStu
5 months ago

I’d like to preface my comment by noting that I am very far from being equipped to take a first-order stance on the war. I just want to ask a question to see if I’m tracking the dialectic.

What I’m stumped by most is Enoch’s complaint in the second bullet point. In full: “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.”

One upshot of these remarks, I presume, is that we do not yet know whether Israel’s actions until now have been proportionate. This is one of the complexities which Enoch thinks cries out for epistemic humility. Yet Enoch seems to take this, in conjunction with other factors, as potentially counting in favor of Israel’s staying the course on its actions in Gaza. (If I am wrong, please let me know — and my sincere apologies.) But if we (where ‘we’ is interpreted broadly to encompass Israeli decision makers) do not yet know whether Israel’s response has been proportionate, this would seem to me to provide reason to pause the attacks in Gaza, insofar as is possible, to discern the truth rather than to plow ahead on a potentially disproportionate, and therefore morally disastrous, course of action.

(Of course, as Enoch rightly notes, the entire situation is incredibly complex. Perhaps the cost of a ceasefire to determine to the best of our knowledge whether Israel’s actions have been proportionate would be too high for Israel to bear. I’m not sure; again, I have few first-order beliefs about the war except that it is a tragedy.)

I suppose one way to turn this vague rambling into a clear enough question is the following: Given that this situation is every bit as complex as Enoch thinks, does this complexity itself not possibly count in favor of a ceasefire? Ruling that option out, as I suspect Enoch would like to do, would seem to require taking stances on these complex issues which are every bit as robust as those taken by the authors and signatories of the original letter. One might wonder, then, whether Enoch’s reflection offers any help at all. (I note that this may not have been its purpose, so it is unclear whether this would count against Enoch’s reflection here.)

David Enoch
David Enoch
Reply to  GradStu
5 months ago

I don’t think complexity counts in favor of ceasefire. Nor do I think it counts in favor of continuing with the use of force.
And the fact that you and I don’t have the relevant information doesn’t mean that the relevant information (or informed estimates) is not available to others, including to decision makers.
At times it seems you’re expressing an intuition in the vicinity of the need, in the face of uncertainty, to err on the side of safety. One of my points here is that when it comes to war in general, and to the situation we’re talking about in particular, there may not be such a side.

GradStu
GradStu
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

Thank you David, this is helpful. Lots to think about here. I think I agree with your overall point that the original letter lacked an appropriate concern for complexity. I’m also very sympathetic to the idea that philosophers and other academics occasionally have an inflated sense of our own importance.

Thanks for sharing this piece. It has challenged me to think about this all much more carefully, and I appreciate that.

Moti Gorin
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

David I’m curious why you don’t think the uncertainty speaks in favor of asking for or demanding a ceasefire. There is some certainty after all—more death today. It’s true that some parties have more information than we do, but the question isn’t what they should do given what they know that we don’t know. It’s rather what we should ask/demand them to do given what we know and don’t know.

Torsten Menge
Torsten Menge
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

You suggest that the relevant information may be available to decision-makers. Since it’s generally the case that in war, civilians and the general public do not have access to all relevant information, should they refrain from making moral judgments about the justice of the war and its conduct and defer to decision-makers?

Kaila Draper
5 months ago

I can’t possibly defend this point here, but I believe that the author is mistaken to think that commonsense morality supports the doctrine of double effect. As judged by common sense morality, that doctrine is vulnerable to counterexamples. Granted, there are a variety of formulations of the doctrine to choose from, and then there are all of the doctrine’s cousins: principles like the means principle and the restricted claims principle. I have yet to find one of these principles, however, that can claim the support of commonsense morality.

To oversimplify quite a bit, my own view is that the presumption against physical violence that foreseeably kills innocent bystanders in war is the presumption against murder. That presumption is very difficult to overcome. It is not met by who-knows-maybe-this-will-turn-turn-out-good speculations. Even if a large percentage of those who are being killed in Gaza are not innocent bystanders, I doubt that the speculative benefits of Israel’s actions can justify the murder of the remainder. Granted, maybe those benefits–a decent government in Gaza, the deterrence of Israel’s enemies, etc.–are not as uncertain as I am, in my armchair, judging them to be. Maybe they are large enough and certain enough to justify the mass murder. So, I concede that I could be wrong. If there is a case to be made, I am certainly willing to hear it. But my experience and the admittedly limited information I have suggests that Israel’s war effort, like most war efforts, is unjust.

Uri Eran
Uri Eran
5 months ago

Thanks for this important contribution. A few thoughts:

1. Regarding the charge of hiding complexities: is the charge supposed to be (a) without presenting all the reasons and evidence for the claims in the letter it would not have the desired impact on public policy? Or (b) even if it would have such an impact, this is not what academics should be aiming for – they should rather be aiming at a more nuanced and complex public discourse?

If (a) is the point, then that’s a questionable empirical prediction (for which Enoch provides no evidence). If (b), then I think it is false. Sometimes there’s not enough time or space to get into the details, and sometimes doing so is a way of evading hard truths. Enoch’s criticism of Butler for refusing to call Hamas a terrorist organization suggests that he too realizes that complexity and nuance are sometimes a distraction. 

2. Regarding the charge of lack of evidence for targeted killing of civilians: I am not sure what evidence we might expect to get other than number of causalities and public statements by Israeli officials (which do not bother to hide their vindictive agenda, saying that gloves are off, that Israeli must settle the score, etc.). The pertinent military protocols are confidential, and the decision to target civilians might have been an unofficial, undocumented decision. Besides, although it might makes sense to ask about the causalities of a particular military strike or operation whether they were intended or merely foreseen, I’m not sure it makes sense to ask this about the causalities of a war or a military campaign, because it is not clear who the agent behind them is, and what determines its intentions. 

3. I admit that I was surprised by Enoch’s reaction to the letter. It seems to me that he would have been much more supportive (or at least would not feel the urge to criticize it) if it were signed mostly by Israeli citizens. I say this not by way of criticism, but rather because I think many Israelis these days think it’s important to keep our criticism of Israel to ourselves, and to oppose any outside criticism. In view of the rise of anti-Semitism, they may be right.

Laura
Reply to  Uri Eran
5 months ago

I’d like advice, if anyone has it, about the most accurate sources of information about casualties and events. I think it’s my duty to have basic information for students, as accurately as possible, and I don’t know what sources to trust here.

Vipul Vivek M-D
Vipul Vivek M-D
5 months ago

In the spirit of this piece, isn’t it also an empirically complex claim that “Political leaders are not holding their breath to hear what us professors have to say” and therefore, in the spirit of the piece, without adequate evidence philosophers should not be making?

This piece seems to assume that only writing in Hebrew matters; that writing in English to political leaders of an English speaking country has no role whatsoever to play in backing Israel receives. Has this piece given us evidence for these claims?

Victor Tadros
5 months ago

David, you’re right, of course, that empirical questions in armed conflict are often difficult, and philosophers are not well placed to assess them. But in this case, why can’t we be confident that the response is disproportionate on this basis. The 7th October attack was by far the most deadly and horrific attack Hamas has ever perpetrated, and it is doubtful that with enhanced security in the light of that attack it is capable of a repeat. The response is proportionate only if the number of innocent people killed is significantly smaller than the number of people saved (assuming DDA, which philosophers are well placed to defend). Already, the number of deaths of innocent people is far greater than the number of people killed in the most deadly attack perpetrated, and that’s not even including the deaths that will be caused by displacing over one million people and destroying much of the infrastructure in Gaza.

You then point to deterrence, but deterrence involves intentionally harming people to influence others, and only those who perpetrated and supported the attacks are liable to deterrent violence. Deterrence achieved through harming innocent people is prohibited by the DDE (you have some scepticism about the DDE, but 1) many who reject it defend principles that would rule out deterrent violence inflicted on innocents, and 2) the philosophers who signed the letter are well placed to defend it from the armchair).

It is also hard to believe that the harms currently inflicted can be justified without a significant plan for what to do afterwards to secure peace, involving Palestinians at the heart of that plan, to give them confidence that their interests will be properly respected. Palestinians have no reason whatsoever to conclude that the Israeli government takes their interests seriously, and the current violence only erodes that confidence still further. Nothing has been done to assure them, let alone to involve them in decision-making. No one would believe that Israel would kill thousands of its own citizens and displace 1.2 million without aid in response to these attacks. If that is right, we can only conclude that it is less motivated to protect the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. And that is also clear from government statements. Indeed, there is no reason to think that the current government is even trying to abide by principles of proportionality, so why would you think that just by chance it will? These dehumanising attitudes to Palestinians will only lead to the escalation of violence. And the rhetoric only contributes to the disproportionality. So you have no reason to doubt that the response is disproportionate.

The view that this response is proportionate can, I think, only be premised on the idea that innocent Palestinians should count less than innocent Jewish people in the proportionality calculation, and need not be involved in decisions about their own fate, even though there are many Palestinians in Israel and outside who could have been involved in decision making. This view, though, is not defensible.

Finally, as I pointed out in my earlier post, the way to assess proportionality is not to consider what Israel is permitted to do on condition that it continues with the status quo, but what it is permitted to do were it to respond appropriately to unjust treatment of the Palestinians since its inception. And it’s hard to believe that the deaths currently being inflicted can be justified against that moralised baseline. And this government has no intention of improving the political and material conditions of the Palestinians, yet what response is proportionate depends on that.

Overall, then, the idea that there is some significant reason to doubt that the response is disproportionate cannot possibly be defended.

David Enoch
David Enoch
Reply to  Victor Tadros
5 months ago

OK, several things.
First, your comment presupposes, at several crucial points, that a state should be neutral between harm to its own civilians and to the civilians of its enemy. I think that this presupposition is false as a matter of morality (and I also think, though I’m not sure, that it’s false as a matter of international law as well). I don’t think, of course, that a state should accord *absolute* priority to its own civilians over those of the enemy. But this just gets us back to touch proportionality questions.
Second, you severely underestimate the dangers (to Israelis and others, by the way). An all-out war with Hezbollah, and certainly with Iran, will result in harm to civilians (and others) that will make the horrible things we’re seeing now pale by comparison. Different order of magnitude.
Third, deterrence and DDE – that is actually a delicate philosophical issue, I think. Targeting civilians in order to deter would be a clear DDE violation. But raising the tolerance to collateral harm (while only targeting legitimate targets) is at best a borderline case. I think that it may be a third category, what Kamm calls a condition of action, perhaps. (I’ve written about this in a different context, ages ago. I’ll add the link below). The main point here is that a lower tolerance for collateral harm will significantly – and given what we know about Hamas and Hezbollah tactics, quite devastatingly – reduce the deterrence effect.
Fourth, I agree with you that Israel is to blame for its general treatment of Palestinians, and also for how they are treated even now. For instance, what is going on in the West Bank is appalling these days. I hope that President Biden will continue with the requirement for making progress there as a condition (perhaps) for American support. Still, the thought of involving Palestinians now in decision making seems entirely divorced from the facts, perhaps chief among them are those of Palestinian politics. (Do you think the Palestinian Authority is a fan of Hamas? In the opposite direction, do you think they want to be perceived as those cooperating with Israel even while thousands of Palestinians die in Gaza?)
Finally, the question (at which you hint here and in your post) of how the bigger picture affects what can be done now is also important, and I’m not sure how to answer it in detail. But it has nothing like the implications you think it has. With the past as it is, even with future plans as indefensible as for this government they probably are, Israel still owes its citizens a defense of their most basic safety. And we now know – perhaps better than ever before – how urgent this need is, how weighty this duty is. This duty survives a lot of the context, perhaps all of it.

David Enoch
David Enoch
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

Sorry – that link:
https://philpapers.org/rec/ENOEMS

Ian Douglas Rushlau
Ian Douglas Rushlau
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

You note the international community does not consider it necessary that ‘a state should be neutral between harm to its own civilians and to the civilians of its enemy’.

I haven’t seen anyone articulate this fraught aspect of military conflict in this way, so I’m appreciative that you highlight it.

I am unable to arrive at a general principle that suggests a combatant nation may take less care with ‘enemy’ civilians than with their own. I’m struggling for two reasons- 1) if killing any civilian is a moral harm (I think it is), then valuing the life of a person who lives among adversaries any less than one I consider (by whatever arbitrary distinctions I apply) a compatriot seems difficult to defend, even if one is acting in response to (for the sake of argument) an entirely unprovoked attack; 2) it is increasingly difficult for me to distinguish between a ‘combatant’ and ‘participant in concerted armed action’ or ‘participant in organized violence’.

I’ll elaborate on this second concern, but I think these two concerns are at odds with each other in a way that leaves me unable to arrive at anything approaching a clear moral standard.

I’m not a military historian, but my impression is that limiting who is considered a participant in organized violence (whether by states or groups of varying degrees of association with a specific population) to those who both wear uniforms and carry weapons is insufficient, because often people dressed in civilian garb are active in, if not indispensable to, maintaining military operations. Partisan militias notwithstanding, should a ‘non-military’ individual providing logistics support be considered a participant in combat? How about a local resident knowingly consenting to offer food and shelter to an explicitly identified combatant? How about locals engaged in intelligence gathering?

I’m not sure where the distinction is to be found, but I find myself focused on whom we consider a participant in organized violence, and who is not.

Is condoning the armed action sufficient to say one is a participant? I don’t think so, but much of the intensely vitriolic castigation expressed in the past few weeks includes statements to that effect. As an example, I have been characterized as ‘pro-genocide’ by advocates from each side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If I did encourage genocide (I don’t think that’s my position) might I be justifiably targeted for violence?

To complicate matters further, I am decidedly not a pacifist. If I am certain of anything, it is that pacifism has never, and will never, prevent those willing to use violence to accomplish political ends from doing so.

The situation in Ukraine is illustrative, I think. Putin’s motives for the mass killings he has ordered are irrelevant, and the justifications for the incursion are as morally despicable as the killings themselves. Partly out of limitations of materiel and strategic purpose, Ukraine, and its Western allies, have not engaged in reprisal attacks against civilian enclaves in Russia. But if NATO so chose (and were willing to ignore Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation), Moscow could be readily attacked, and the Kremlin leveled in fairly short order. Is forbearance by Ukraine and its allies required morally, given the documented atrocities committed by Russian soldiers, especially the Wagner group? If we leave aside concerns about Russia’s potential response to direct military attacks against its major cities, should Ukraine show any compunction about targeting military warehouses that are situated next to apartment buildings?

To return to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I will simply observe that there are opposing views (to put it mildly) as to which side is the aggressor, and how broad of a context might be reasonably utilized to arrive at such a determination.

I view the containment of the Palestinians in purposely impoverished cantons utterly morally indefensible. I think Likud’s policies of land-grab settlements is morally indefensible. I think Hamas’ use of simple murder and kidnapping morally indefensible, and I think the context that they receive support from Iran, Syria and Russia (and were assisted by Likud as well) is highly relevant to evaluating not just Hamas, but any among the Palestinians who support them. I believe the stance of the Gulf Arab states towards Israel, and their evident indifference to the welfare of Palestinians, are primary contributing factors to the cycle of violence, and a purposeful impediment to resolving it.

Many people, far removed from Gaza, seem quite comfortable with asserting a degree of moral clarity I am unable to locate.

David Wallace
Reply to  Ian Douglas Rushlau
5 months ago

“ But if NATO so chose (and were willing to ignore Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation), Moscow could be readily attacked, and the Kremlin leveled in fairly short order.”

That parenthesis is doing quite a lot of work…

Ian Douglas Rushlau
Ian Douglas Rushlau
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

I was hoping you might address whether we should consider Ukraine or NATO morally justified attacking targets in densely populated civilian areas, and not get derailed by postulating Putin’s next move…

Alas.

If Ukraine/NATO yes, is Israel similarly justified, or not?

Ukraine/NATO yes, but Israel no?

Both no?

I can see you’re expending a substantial amount of time with this conversation, perhaps you might spare a little more explicating how you decide to draw the lines you draw.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Ian Douglas Rushlau
5 months ago

I have rather carefully not been commenting on what I think morally (for lots of reasons, not least that I’m not sure why anyone would care). Keeping the discussion at the level of the legal and practical:

1) No combatant is legally justified in attacking civilians simply as *reprisals*, or indeed actively targeting civilians at all.

2) For NATO to attack targets, military or otherwise, in Russian cities would be militarily absurd. If NATO wanted to get directly militarily involved in Ukraine it would almost certainly do so by applying massive concentrated airstrikes against Russia’s front lines and logistic systems, something that is far easier to do while managing risks to the civilian population. The reason it has not done so is almost entirely about the risk of nuclear escalation and has nothing to do with legal or ethical concerns.

3) Precisely because it would be militarily absurd for NATO to attack cities, it is very hard to see how it could be legally justified for them to do so.

4) The whole reason this issue is complicated is that Hamas is fighting from within a very densely populated urban area and doing so while flouting the law of distinction, indeed actively using civilians and civilian infrastructure to shield itself. Nothing similar is going on in Russia/Ukraine and so I am very skeptical that much can be learned from the comparison.

Ian Douglas Rushlau
Ian Douglas Rushlau
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

I’m trying to distinguish moral considerations from tactical prudence or strategic aims in this discussion, if for no other reason than I would want the moral considerations to precede, and influence, tactical advantage and strategic aims.

Accordingly, with regard to (3), the questionable military value of attacking Moscow cannot be the basis of doubting its legality under international law. If this were the case, all someone like Putin, or Netanyahu, would need to establish is that a particular military action advanced their stated goals in a substantive way, and therefore is legal and moral.

As to (4), Russia is very much using the occupied population of Crimea in the way Hamas does with the residents of Gaza. Also. Russia is systematically razing entire towns, and using crimes against humanity (rape, torture, summary execution against civilians) to further their goal of simply annexing Ukraine as a whole.

The differences between to two conflicts might help establish moral reference points. Given Russia’s record of atrocities in the Ukraine, are there any moral constraints with the Ukrainian’s response?

From such an analysis, can we establish what moral constraints might apply to Israel’s response to Hamas?
If there are fewer constraints on Israel due to particulars that entail a different moral calculus, we should identify them. If Gaza is different, how so?

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Ian Douglas Rushlau
5 months ago

As to (3): it isn’t a sufficient condition to carry out an attack that it is done to carry out a legitimate military objective, but it is a necessary condition. If there’s just no good military reason to attack any targets in Moscow, you can’t attack Moscow. Article 52 of the 1977 protocol to the Geneva conventions: “Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.

As to (4), you say: “Russia is very much using the occupied population of Crimea in the way Hamas does with the residents of Gaza. Also. Russia is systematically razing entire towns, and using crimes against humanity (rape, torture, summary execution against civilians) to further their goal of simply annexing Ukraine as a whole.”

I don’t think the first of those claims is true: Russia is fighting its war in a brutal way and committing many war crimes, but I have not seen evidence that they are hiding their forces among civilians, using human shields, etc. If you think that’s wrong, I’d be interested in a link. The second claim is true but I don’t see why it’s relevant to my (4), which was not about the overall wickedness of Hamas but about the specific complications that arise in war when one side is conducting its war within a dense urban area and actively concealing itself among civilians while doing so.

As to your broader question: “Given Russia’s record of atrocities in the Ukraine, are there any moral constraints with the Ukrainian’s response?” Again, I’m not commenting on the moral situation, but as I understand it international law is fairly non-reciprocal: with Russia as with Hamas, the general wickedness of their actions are not relevant to how their enemies are legally permitted to attack them, but the detailed way they are fighting their war is relevant.

That’s why (to close the circle) I want to reject the idea that legal (and I think also moral) considerations can be weighed independently of tactical or strategic prudence. To go back to your original example: I think it would be grossly immoral for NATO to level the Kremlin because any reasonable assessment of the strategic situation would tell us that it would be quite likely to lead to nuclear war.

Jean Kazez
Jean Kazez
Reply to  Ian Douglas Rushlau
5 months ago

“You note the international community does not consider it necessary that ‘a state should be neutral between harm to its own civilians and to the civilians of its enemy’.
I haven’t seen anyone articulate this fraught aspect of military conflict in this way, so I’m appreciative that you highlight it.
I am unable to arrive at a general principle that suggests a combatant nation may take less care with ‘enemy’ civilians than with their own.”

Isn’t this simply implicit in the “right of self defense”? Say you are being attacked by 10 innocent people who have been programmed to kill you, and there’s no place to hide. If you have a right of self defense, you can kill all ten, rather than giving equal care to them, which would mean letting them kill you. When people (like the letter writers) grant that Israel has a right to defend itself, they are granting this sort of prioritization of self over other. That doesn’t mean proportionality is out the window entirely, but it does mean it can’t be assessed using an impartial calculus where each death is given exactly the same significance. This is in no way is based on some absurd idea that Palestinians are lesser people, it is based on the fact that Israel came under attack from people within Gaza. When arbiters (like the Oxford letter-writers) grant Israel a right of self-defense, aren’t they all implicitly acknowledging that it doesn’t have to be neutral as to Israeli deaths vs others?

Ian Douglas Rushlau
Ian Douglas Rushlau
Reply to  Jean Kazez
5 months ago

‘Isn’t this simply implicit in the “right of self defense”?’

I don’t think self-defense is without constraint.

While I’m not sure what it would mean for someone to be programmed to kill and still innocent (I think people make choices), I think the scenarios under discussion involve the killing of people who do not, and would not, represent a threat, but are simply around or in front of the people who are a threat.

‘aren’t they all implicitly acknowledging that it doesn’t have to be neutral as to Israeli deaths vs others?’

That was one of the questions I raised– Should we grant greater moral value, and so greater protection from violence, to those we consider compatriots, than to those who reside among adversaries?

What is the basis for this distinction beyond simple affinity?

How is that logic different from that of Hamas, who consider all Israelis legitimate targets for violence?

By that logic, if my family and community will fare well for centuries to come under the effects of climate change, should I ignore the millions of strangers around the world suffering and dying? I should only care about strangers if I have reason to be worried for myself and those I know?

I’m not comfortable elevating personal preference and self-interest to the sine qua non of moral evaluation.

I’m struggling with these questions, and I have yet to hear anyone, anywhere, articulate a formula that amounts to anything much different from personal preference and self-interest, and I find that deeply troubling.

Jean Kazez
Jean Kazez
Reply to  Ian Douglas Rushlau
5 months ago

The point of the scenario was not to offer an analogy with the situation in Gaza, but to respond to your assertion about the need for one nation to have equal concern for citizens of another nation. My thought experiment seems to show that the right of self defense entitles a nation that’s defending itself to care more about “self” than “other.” It doesn’t need to offer a strong analogy with the current situation in order to show that. As to how people who are threats can be innocent–you have to imagine children being trained to kill, or people getting implanted with a chip that makes them kill. If you’re mobbed by a bunch of killer-innocents, your right of self defense lets you have greater concern for yourself than for them. If that general principle is correct, I see no reason why it shouldn’t apply in a situation where instead of killer-innocents, there is a killer using a group of people as innocent shields. There’s still the intuition that I don’t have to let the mob kill me, out of commitment to the equal value of all lives.

Ian Douglas Rushlau
Ian Douglas Rushlau
Reply to  Jean Kazez
5 months ago

‘the intuition that I don’t have to let the mob kill me, out of commitment to the equal value of all lives’

How many of the mob am I entitled to kill so as not to be killed? All of them? From a distance with chemical weapons? Locking them in a building and setting it on fire?

My modifications to your hypothetical scenario bear more similarity to what occurs in state-level violence against combatants mingled with civilians, which is to say what we are witness to in Gaza right now, or Syria, or Ukraine, in reality, right now, than any purely abstract thought experiment.

The generic statement ‘I can defend myself and my family’ leads to no intuitive, self-evident moral standards of what is permissible, and I’m not happy with relying on what has been deemed permissible under international law, since I’m skeptical that nation-states and political power brokers will recognize moral considerations in any consistent way.

To determine who can claim to be defending themselves from ‘a mob’ already implies a framing of cause and effect, who is the original aggressor, and who the aggrieved party. There is certainly no consensus on these definitions. So, whose definitions of ‘defending myself’, ‘aggressor’, ‘justifiable response’ should we credit? Can we arrive at a method or set of standards that would allow us to?

We’re back to preference and alignment, which I, as I said in a previous comment, is a problematic basis for a moral philosophy. Because everyone has preferences with regard to ‘some lives more valued than others’.

That I do value my own life and those of family and compatriots more does not inevitably lead to the conclusion I *should* value my life and theirs more than any other. Such premises have historically led humans in very dark directions, and especially if ‘all lives have equal value’, those of ‘the mob’ need to be factored in as well, it would seem.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

To back up a point Victor makes… David, you mentioned a few times now that Israel has a duty to defend its own citizens. But occupying powers also have a duty to protect the civilians of the territory they occupy. I made this point a while back in a Law and Philosophy piece:

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10982-012-9142-5

Though I overstated the argument there, I think the general point still applies. Israel has a special duty toward Gazan civilians that can compete with the special duty Israel has toward its own civilians.

AVK
AVK
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

Civilians in Gaza are civilians occupied by the party using force, to whom that party thereby has obligations, morally and legally speaking. Simply being Palestinian does not make them ‘enemy civilians.’

More Serious CBA Please
More Serious CBA Please
Reply to  David Enoch
5 months ago

Again, the baseless assumption that the Israeli government’s Gaza campaign can be reasonably expected to make Israelis more secure. In my view, the preponderance of evidence clearly supports the view that this war goes against the insterests of the Israeli state and Israeli people, much as the Iraq War did for the US and the US state. But setting that aside, I continue to marvel at how scholars of proportionality bracket virtually all geostrategic and geopolitical dimensions of the war, even when these are directly relevant to their own formulations of proportionality principles. My advice for engaging in public discourse on the topic would be to stop approaching it in such a blinkered way.

Last edited 5 months ago by More Serious CBA Please
Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Victor Tadros
5 months ago

At several points Victor’s understanding of just war proportionality is very restrictive. There are less restrictive understandings which some of us find more attractive (which isn’t to say they support a different conclusion than Victor’s about this particular case).

As David points out, Victor denies that a state may give any more weight to its own citizens’ interests than to those of enemy civilians it collaterally harms, which many will deny, and also (bizarrely to my mind) denies that deterrent effects can count on the positive side of a proportionality assessment. But there’s another issue.

In his earlier post Victor endorsed the view, which he’s defended in print, that if the civilians harmed by an attack on a military target were placed near it by the enemy, who was then wrongfully using them as shields — which is a war crime — then the weight of those harms in an assessment of the attack’s proportionality is unaffected, i.e. is the same as if the civilians weren’t being used as shields.

My memory is that this is not at all the view of the Israeli government and military, which is that harms to civilian shields are entirely the responsibility of the enemy who placed them in harm’s way. I may even have heard Netanyahu say this on television yesterday. If that is their view, however, then it bears on the question of whether Israel is intentionally targeting Gazan civilians, at least through its bombing. Because the explanation of the large number of civilian casualties it has caused may be, instead, that it doesn’t include those casualties in its assessments of the proportionality of its bombing.

If that is indeed the Israeli view, then I agree with Victor that it’s unacceptable. As many have said, the assignment of responsibility isn’t zero-sum, so even if Hamas is entirely responsible for the shields’ deaths, Israel can also be responsible and can need to take those deaths into account in its assessments. But I’m not persuaded by Victor’s opposite view, that harms to shields have completely unreduced weight. An intermediate view says these harms have somewhat reduced weight, i.e. count somewhat less against the proportionality of an attack. And I note that an analysis of the international law of war by the legal branch of the UK military took this intermediate view, i.e. that the proportionality constraint is somewhat, though not entirely, weakened when the collateral harm will be to shields. At the least, it’s arguably a relevant fact about the current situation that many of the civilians being harmed in Gaza had military facilities wrongfully placed near them.

I don’t say I accept the intermediate view — I find the whole issue very difficult. I just note that this is another place where Victor’s understanding of proportionality is more restrictive than some and makes his conclusion that Israel’s current actions in Gaza are disproportionate easier to reach. Again, this conclusion may be supported by less restrictive understandings too. But the more restrictive one is at several points controversial and shouldn’t be just assumed.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Tom Hurka
5 months ago

For those who want to examine my arguments for the view that deaths of human shields don’t count for less in the proportionality assessment, see ‘Permissibility in a World of Wrongdoing’ in Philosophy and Public Affairs in 2016. As Tom suggests, not everyone holds this view; the intermediate view is frequently asserted in the literature too. All I’ll say, though, is that since writing that piece I think it’s fair to say that there has been no progress in defending the intermediate view; or at least I’ve seen nothing. It sometimes continues to be asserted, but with no substantial argument.

On the question whether states are allowed to count deaths of other citizens less than deaths to their own citizens in the proportionality assessment, here is the state of play as I see it. The view that this is right is normally defended on based on agent-relative prerogatives. The majority in the field, though, think that those prerogatives make a difference in saving cases but not in killing cases, so do not support the view under consideration. There is a minority view that they do count – Jon Quong and Kit Wellman, for example. If the minority is right, to defend the view under consideration something more is needed – a defence of the view that citizen bonds are strong enough to make a difference in these cases. I find that extremely hard to believe. And finally, it would also have to be shown, in this context, that Palestinians in Gaza don’t count in the way that Israeli citizens do. Given that Israel has exercised substantial political control over their lives, this is by no means easy to show. So the view that Israel is permitted to count deaths of Gazans less than deaths of its own citizens in the proportionality calculation is extremely hard to defend. For me, it’s just a non-starter to try to defend proportionality on this basis.

On deterrence, I just don’t see how David’s argument is supposed to go once we accept the best reading of DDE. The additional deaths that cannot be justified by appealing to preventive harm have to be justified somehow. If the defence is that their deaths will contribute to the deterrent effort, their deaths are used to achieve the deterrent result, and the DDE is straightforwardly engaged. Appealing to Kamm’s ‘on condition’ thought just isn’t going to help here (and, by the way, the argument that there are no intentions in Kamm’s cases is not plausible anyway, nor is the view that these cases are different with respect to the DDE best understood; I won’t elaborate here as it’s too distracting from the main arguments).

On engaging with Palestinians, are you really saying, David, that nothing more can be done to ensure that Palestinians are assured that their interests are taken into account? Surely not! You just assume the status quo where there is no serious commitment to radical political reform in Israel in a way that can secure political equality for Palestinians. That view is not morally defensible. And reform is surely the best way to meet the threats faced. Political solutions like that are the only real way out of a cycle of violence.

And on the long term consequences of not responding; you give no evidence for the view that escalation is needed to prevent confrontation with Iran, for example. Surely if anything the opposite is true; this very violent response is an escalation and is much more likely to stimulate further escalation than to prevent it.

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Victor Tadros
5 months ago

Just about deterrence:

Victor, you assume that the deterrence is achieved in part via the civilian deaths but that’s not necessary. Imagine that Hamas (in the future), Hezbollah and others are deterred only by the destruction of Hamas’s military capability and not at all by the accompanying civilian deaths — they don’t care about those. Then the benefit of the deterrence can count on the positive side of a proportionality assessment of the destruction, and weigh against the civilian deaths, without any violation of the DDE. There’s no reason to suppose that the deaths must be “used to achieve the deterrent result.” That result can follow just or largely from the destruction of the military target and, to the extent that it does, there’s no objection to counting it on the positive side of a proportionality assessment.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Tom Hurka
5 months ago

I agree Tom. As I pointed out in my previous post, those who perpetrated the 7th Oct attacks are liable to punitive harm, and as you know I think that deterrence is central to the justification of punishment. It’s hard, but perhaps not impossible, to justify killing people for reasons of deterrence. If that can be done, and if killing the perpetrators would deter future attacks without the deaths of innocents,, then preventing those future attacks could contribute to the proportionality calculation. Furthermore, if it is permissible to kill current Hamas fighters eliminatively, and this will have deterrent effect, deterrence can be part of the motivation of these killings.

Depending on difficult empirical questions, this kind of deterrent argument might have justified some military intervention in Gaza (subject to there being no better way of meeting the threat, which as I point out in my previous post is doubtful – David’s claim that the wider context is irrelevant because of a state’s basic duty to defend its citizens is, I think, indefensible; that duty can only be understood by considering its duties to others, as I showed in my previous post).

But this is not plausibly what is going on in this conflict, and David rightly didn’t rely on it. He sought to rely on the deterrent effect of what is happening to the population in Gaza, and not to what is happening to Hamas fighters. And that is clearly what the Israeli government relies on.

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Victor Tadros
5 months ago

I don’t see anything in the discussion of deterrence in David’s original post that refers specifically to deterrence through effects on the Gazan population. It’s just about deterrence more generally. That specific reference is one you introduced in your first comment. And if deterrence isn’t through effects on the population, it can count towards the proportionality of attacks that, as well as furthering deterrence and other just aims, cause some collateral harms to civilians.

And in this specific context, are Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, etc. really likely to be deterred by effects on Gazan civilians? To me they’re much more likely to be deterred, if they are, by the destruction of Hamas’s military capabilities, killing of its leaders, etc. To repeat, though, I’m not defending a position on the proportionality or otherwise of Israel’s current actions, just discussing the more philosophical question of what the best understanding of proportionality is.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Tom Hurka
5 months ago

There’s no substantive philosophical disagreement about this between us. Perhaps a disagreement about who said what. David suggested the view that the proportionality threshold is more relaxed if deaths to innocents would have a deterrent effect in his third response to my first comment.

There is then a question about the extent to which killing those who pose threats is sufficient for deterrence without deaths to the wider population. It’s hard to know. I doubt that deaths of civilians are ineffective as a deterrent though. Even if Hezbollah and Iranian leaders are indifferent to the fate of the populations they control or govern, they rely on popular support to maintain control, and they risk destabilising their power if they believe their local populations will be attacked by Israel.

At any rate, I think it pretty clear that the suffering of Palestinians is in fact part of the plan of the Israeli government to achieve deterrence; their public statements certainly suggest it. And that is the relevant question for assessing whether the actual response is justified, rather than some possible response.

Pete Graham
Pete Graham
Reply to  Victor Tadros
5 months ago

One very small comment about shields. One relevant factor to the permissibility of killing human shields is whether they are *morally innocent*. If I strap myself onto the front of your tank intentionally in order to act as a human shield, then surely it is just as permissible for others to destroy your tank in self defense as it would have been had I not strapped myself on the front of it. (My death in this case would not enter the moral equation in anywhere near, if at all, the way the death of an innocent bystander would enter the equation.) This could be relevant to the situation in Gaza–but which, in the end, I don’t think (for reasons to be explained below) it is–if the shields of threats were not morally innocent (i.e., they intentionally shield those whom they shield). Now, it may be that some civilians in Gaza want to be shields of the threats to Hamas militants and are intentionally doing that. (Not that all of, or even many of, them are, of course.) Here’s why I don’t think, in the end, this makes the killing of these shields any morally different than the killing of innocent bystanders, though: another requirement for the permissibility of killing a shield is that the shield could, in the morally relevant sense, avoid the harm in question, and in my view, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the harm to them is avoidable in the relevant sense only if they could morally reasonably avoid being a shield (i.e., they could morally reasonably move away from where they are being a shield) and its just not true for the Gazan civilians that they can morally reasonably avoid being shields, whether they intend to be shields or not, because their morally reasonable options are so limited because it is either actually impossible for them to leave the area where they are a shield or though it is possible for them to leave, the cost to them of doing so would not be morally reasonable for them to have to bear.

(All of that said, I also do not uphold the intermediate view that Tom mentions, and Victor rightly in my view says is seemingly very hard to defend. I’m inclined, I think to the view, which I believe seems to be Victor’s, that the deaths of morally innocent human shields and human shields who cannot morally reasonably avoid being shields should have the same weight in moral calculations as do innocent bystanders.)

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Pete Graham
5 months ago

In the case where human shields act voluntarily, an alternative explanation why their deaths might matter less (though how much is a tricky question) is that if their presence restricts the ability of others to defend themselves, the shields will be responsible for the harms these others suffer. This idea has similar implications to the view you suggest Peter, but I think that it the better explanation. Glad you’re on my side against the ‘fence sitters’!

Pete Graham
Pete Graham
Reply to  Victor Tadros
5 months ago

Interesting. I should, and will, think about your proposal more. At first blush, though, I don’t see that your proposal and mine need be in conflict. They might both be true!

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Pete Graham
5 months ago

If you’re interested, I argue for the view I outline above, and raise doubts about the one you suggested in To Do, To Die, To Reason Why ch.7. But you’re right that these views are compatible with each other, and could each contribute to the conclusion.

Pete Graham
Pete Graham
Reply to  Victor Tadros
5 months ago

I’ll definitely check that out. And if you have any interest, I argue for and defend the moral importance of a notion of avoidable harm in “Avoidable Harm” (PPR).

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Pete Graham
5 months ago

Thanks Pete; look forward to reading this too.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  Victor Tadros
5 months ago

I appreciated your article, Victor, for helping me make sense of how to understand and respond to violence, and really appreciate your comments here.

Victor Tadros
Reply to  Umayr Hassan
5 months ago

Thanks Umayr, and congratulations for being the first person ever to write something nice on a blog!

TF Rector
TF Rector
5 months ago

What would count as clear evidence that those ordering the attacks on Gaza intend to kill and terrorize civilians? Not the sheer number of civilians killed. Not the bombing of schools, hospitals, and residential buildings. Not the air strikes on civilian convoys, fleeing south along a route the IDF instructed them to take. Not the IDF’s record of targeting Gazan civilians in previous operations, as documented by the UN and various human rights groups. Not the public statements of political leaders. (Here’s a sample: The Israeli President claims the entire population of Gaza was “aware” of, and is “responsible” for Hamas’ crimes. The Minister for National Security says that Palestinians need to be “crushed one by one.” The Finance Minister says that Palestinians are “not a people”, and argues for Palestinian towns to be “erased”. The Deputy Speaker of the Knesset says the goal should be a “second Nakba.” According to the Defense Minister, they are fighting “animals.” The Foreign Minister says that UN calls for a humanitarian cease-fire are “despicable”…not, you know, unpersuasive all-things-considered, but despicable, deserving of hatred and contempt.) Is it really so difficult to infer intention from all this?

Greg Guy
Greg Guy
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

In case you haven’t noticed everyone here is too busy being epistemically humble to bother with pesky facts like those…

I agree
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

I agree with this comment. This information is clearly available in plenty of English language sources. And then of course there’s the blockade of food, water, and fuel that everyone seems to be completely ignoring, and the fact that under international law, Israel is an occupying force in Gaza and has a duty of care to the civilians in that territory. And then there’s what’s going on in the West Bank. Surely I’m not the only person who has seen the pictures of Ben Gvir arming settlers or who is following the death count and ethnic expulsions throughout the West Bank, an area that isn’t controlled by Hamas.

I understand that emotions are high, but the gaslighting and denialism are really getting to be too much. People are dying. In huge numbers. It’s time to face the music about what’s really going on here.

Castorp
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

I am so appreciative of this comment. Thank you.

Umayr Hassan
Umayr Hassan
Reply to  TF Rector
5 months ago

Thank you for saying this.

Sara Aronowitz
Sara Aronowitz
5 months ago

I can’t read this and not comment. In the original post and in many comments, the distinction between civilians and combatants is made much of. But even if you believe this distinction is morally significant (I do not, and there is of course a long philosophical tradition behind this side as well even though it is a minority opinion), that does not mean that actors in conflicts should not be answerable for the deaths of human beings in either category. Combatants, however we want to define them, are real human persons who have a perspective on the world, their own character traits and relationships, and whose deaths leave behind destitute and heart-broken families and friends. Their lives are not meaningless. A person or state who murders them has taken something of immense value from the world and at a minimum owes an answer as to how this could be justified. The debate over how many of the thousands of dead Palestinians are “innocent” implies that the weight of these lives, the lives of the