“The absence of moral guidance by philosophical condemners conveys that they do not think of Israelis as friends whom they want to morally improve. Perhaps, worse, it reflects the sense that there is something morally improper about providing Israelis with guidance and advice…”
The following guest post is by Daniel Schwartz, associate professor of political science and international relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of, among other works, Aquinas on Friendship.
It is part of the ongoing series, “Philosophers On the Israel-Hamas Conflict“.
Condemnations, Moral Guidance, and Gaza
by Daniel Schwartz
Among the many causes of frustration with recent reactions by moral philosophers and other experts to the war in Gaza there is this: they consist basically in condemnations (short introductory condemnations of Hamas, more textually extensive condemnations of Israel). These texts do not aim to provide us, Israelis, with advice or guidance as to what would be the best thing for us to do (other than to just stop fighting).
By “condemnations” I do not mean calls for Israel’s unilateral ceasefire, considered as such. There are many different possible grounds for unilateral ceasefire calls, and not all of them rely on the moral condemnation of Israel. For instance, compassionate concern for the suffering of Palestinian civilians does not commit one to think Israel is in general acting unjustly. In practice, however, calls for ceasefire tend to conflate compassionate concern for Palestinian civilians with moral condemnation of Israel’s actions, i.e. declaring them unjust.
Some philosophical responses (such as this one by Victor Tadros) do delineate (if vaguely) the limits of what Israel could be morally entitled to do. But the purpose of such delineation is really to show the magnitude of the Israeli excess in relation that moral baseline, not to show Israelis how to scale back their response to the moral baseline (which, in Tadros’s case, would leave many Israelis unprotected).
Perhaps the lack of guidance and advice has to do with the way moral philosophers conceive of their professional duties: their business is just to judge whether actions being taken are morally permissible or not, merely to provide a moral diagnosis.
What about some moral guidance, though? What about instead of just condemning Israel, suggesting courses of action capable of providing maximum defense for Israeli citizens consistent with morality? Yes, this requires knowledge in the field of tactics, strategy, political science and international relations, and perhaps other fields. But condemnations, such as those issued recently, are also based on such purported knowledge and conjectures about the future, insofar as they include assertions on the disproportionality of the Israeli response based on assumptions about the prospective number of Israelis that would be killed in a counterfactually future Hamas attack.
The empirics necessary for a justified condemnation are not so different from the empirics necessary for moral guidance. Condemners should, in principle, believe themselves capable of giving the moral guidance that they fail to give. Indeed, this is all the more so in the case of the Oxford Open Letter, the signatories of which appeal to their authority as ‘scholars of political science, political philosophy, ethics, history, geography, law and the Middle East’. Surely the signatories’ wide range of expertise qualifies them to provide sound empirically-informed moral guidance.
So it is not for lack of relevant empirical knowledge that condemners fail to provide advice, and this brings me to what I really find disturbing about the lack of provision of moral guidance.
When see someone as a friend or someone you care for, you are willing to provide them with moral guidance; you care for their soul and you want them to be good. The absence of moral guidance by philosophical condemners conveys that they do not think of Israelis as friends whom they want to morally improve. Perhaps, worse, it reflects the sense that there is something morally improper about providing Israelis with guidance and advice, as it would be perhaps morally obscene for a priest taking confession to give to moral guidance (even the right moral guidance) to an abominable active Nazi war criminal.
If you have a pre-existing friendship with someone, regardless of whether it is acceptable to have that friendship, and you think that the friend did something morally wrong, your first duty is not to publicly condemn, but rather to provide moral advice. Admittedly, this cuts both ways: perhaps Hamas would have a valid complaint against Qatar, if Qatar had publicly condemned its actions before privately criticizing them and offering moral advice (perhaps Qatar actually did so). And this may be so even though Qatar’s friendship with Hamas is perverse. It is also, of course, true that if a friend becomes a moral monster or a beast (or turns out to have been so all along, unbeknownst to the friend), then the friendship is over and so are most of the duties that come with it.
Clearly the fact that issuing mere condemnations violates friendly duties (as well as professional duties, as argued below) does not imply that everyone should be a friend of Israel. The argument applies only to those who up to now been or seen themselves as friends of Israel. These include at minimum those who wish well to Israelis, care about them, and empathize with their present predicament.
They may also include those who see themselves as friends of the Palestinian people, too, and so face conflicting friendship duties. There is no contradiction between offering moral advice to Israel and at the same time seeking help for Palestinian civilians (as well as providing moral advice to Palestinian non-Hamas collective agents). In fact, concern for Palestinian civilians goes hand in hand with trying to get the Israelis to abide by the relevant moral constraints, which is naturally part of what moral advice amounts to. Moreover, friendship towards Israel is a lever that can and is used at the diplomatic level (by the US and Germany, for example) to encourage Israel to exercise moderation in the pursuit of any just aims it has, and to do so in part for the sake of its friendship with these countries, in a way that alleviates the suffering of Palestinian civilians.
Just to make clear, these points do not aim directly to elucidate the nature of general friendly duties as concern this conflict, but to rescue the spirit in with which we as moral philosophers should behave when acting in this capacity (for example when, writing open letters qua moral philosophers). We should aim to improve those whom we address, just as a friend would. This was the original intent of one of our philosophical exemplars: Socrates. Why—asked Vlastos—did Socrates roam the streets of Athens “forcing himself on people who have neither taste nor talent for philosophy” rather than sticking to “congenial and accomplished fellow-seekers after moral truth?” The reason was that he took it as his duty to improve the souls of his fellow citizens, particularly those whose soul was in the worst health.
In short, it is for judges to condemn and it is for philosophers is to talk, even—or rather, particularly—to the morally flawed.
It could be objected that Israel has shown zero good will to become morally better, so it would be naïve to address it with moral advice. Doing so might also be thought reprehensible because it would make Israel respectable by misleadingly portraying it as in possession of moral capacities it lacks. The right thing, it may be thought, is to condemn it publicly. Note, however, that Israel is not an ideological movement with fixed pre-defined goals, in contrast to Hamas (which takes as a goal the destruction of Israel). Even though historically speaking Israel is the product of Zionism (just as say modern unified Italy is historically the product of Italian risorgimento ideology), Israel, being a state, does not suffer from the rigidity and obdurancy of an ideological movement. While Netanyahu’s ears may be morally deaf (both to advice and condemnations) there are many Israelis who are now trying to figure out what is the morally acceptable way of defending the country and ultimately themselves and their families. There are many Israeli soldiers who need to be reminded of what they may and may not do and must be guided as to how to deal with battlefield moral dilemmas. Moral advice to Israelis is far from being a naïve waste of time.
Condemnations are also morally problematic when considered from the point of view of professional ethics. A physician should not simply produce a diagnosis but also a prescribe a treatment—so long as she has reason to believe that the patient in interested in health. Moral philosophers and political scientists must surely appreciate how complex the situation that we Israelis are facing is. We are facing the sort of problems experts in many various fields have trained themselves over decades to be able to help with. But, again, guidance is withdrawn, perhaps to avoid any suspicion of complicity. You don’t want to be the doctor advising the torturer on when to pause the interrogation just to let the victim recover enough before the start of the next round of torture. But what if you can offer an alternative to torture to achieve the defensive purposes that were sought by using these means? This analogy is of course—intentionally—a gross misrepresentation of what is going on. But it captures the suspicion that perhaps the reason some of the experts issue condemnations but refrain from providing guidance is not, or not only, that they object to Israel’s ius in bello conduct in Gaza but also, and perhaps principally, because they do not morally identify with Israel’s chosen defensive goals (the destruction of Hamas), and think Israel does not have a just cause for going to war.
Even if many of the condemners do not feel this way, at bottom, condemnation in the absence of moral guidance comes off as callous because it conveys that, while the condemners acknowledge that finding a morally acceptable way of defending of Israeli civilians from Hamas is a problem, it is not, despite their expertise, their problem—and that’s bad for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.