Israel, Hamas, and “Blowback” (guest post)


“The proportionality constraint is backward-looking in the following sense: to determine how bad a prospective harm is for a potential innocent victim, we sometimes need to look at what that victim has suffered in the past, and whether we’re responsible for what they’ve suffered” as well as “whether we should have acted differently in the past thereby avoiding the need to inflict that harm now.”

In the following guest post, Saba Bazargan-Forward (UC San Diego) argues that these backward-looking elements imply that “we should not adopt an ‘ahistorical’ approach when adjudicating proportionality in Israel’s war against Hamas”

It is part of the ongoing series, “Philosophers On the Israel-Hamas Conflict“.

* * *


[Paul Apal’kin, “Invasion”]

Israel, Hamas, and “Blowback”
by Saba Bazargan-Forward

Hamas’ attack against Israeli civilians on October 7th, 2023 was not just an act of terrorism but an act of genocide, and should be condemned as such. The brutal attack was shocking in its scope and sadism. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that attacks from Hamas are generally foreseeable consequences of unjust policies Israel has imposed upon Palestinians in Gaza over the past few decades. This supposition, even if true, does not lend moral legitimacy to Hamas’ terrorism. Nor does it mitigate the culpability of Hamas’ leadership. But it does raise this question: if Hamas’ terrorism is “blowback” from unjust Israeli policies toward Gaza, does this affect how Israel is permitted to fight back? Here, I address this question.

War ethics, both in its canonical form and in its more recent revisionary derivations developed since the turn of the century, tends to focus on “the moment of crisis”—the point in time at which a state is seriously considering a resort to war. The problem with assessing the morality of war at the moment of crisis is that sometimes the state considering a resort to war is partly responsible, by having committed past wrongs, for creating the situation in which a resort to war becomes necessary in the first place.

It seems to me that there are at least two special moral considerations restricting how these “blowback” conflicts should be fought, which, in turn affects whether such conflicts can be fought. (I discussed this issue in an article where I focused on the relevance of compensation; here, I consider other factors.)

The first moral consideration relevant to evaluating “blowback” conflicts is this: if Israel has unjustly immiserated Gazan civilians in the recent past, then the collateral harm Israel inflicts in its current war against Hamas harms civilians in Gaza twice over. This is relevant to the comparative weight that these harms should receive when deciding whether to inflict such harms. It is relevant because harming people whom you have already wrongfully harmed is harder to justify than harming people you have not.

To see this, imagine that Rescuer can prevent Innocent from being murdered only by collaterally breaking another innocent person’s arm: person A or person B. They’re identical, except that Rescuer wrongly broke A’s arm last year. If Rescuer chooses the action that collaterally harms A now, she will have thereby infringed A’s rights twice, whereas if she chooses B now, she will have thereby infringed B’s rights once. Since the former is morally worse than the latter, it seems Rescuer should choose B over A. There is a way out: Rescuer could permissibly flip a coin in deciding whom to choose, provided she will compensate A for the independent past harm. But assuming Rescuer won’t compensate A, it seems to me that A has a stronger claim than B against being harmed. A corollary to this claim is that the harm averted to Innocent must be greater to justify breaking A’s arm than B’s arm.

Some might demur. To see why, consider a variant of the case in which the details are the same, except there’s no person B. So, the only way to rescue Innocent is by collaterally harming A. It might seem strange to think that Innocent’s claim to be saved can depend on whether Rescuer unjustly harmed A in the past. After all, Innocent didn’t have anything to do with Rescuer’s past mistreatment of A. Yet it now seems that Innocent must bear the costs of that mistreatment! That seems unfair. It’s true that Innocent’s claim to be saved does not depend on whether Rescuer unjustly harmed A in the past. But it’s also true that Innocent’s claim does indeed depend on the weight of the prospective harm Rescuer will collaterally inflict on A. And I’m suggesting that Rescuer’s past mistreatment of A can affect how we should weigh the prospective harm that Rescuer will collaterally inflict on A in saving Innocent. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that Rescuer shouldn’t save Innocent. Rather, it means that Rescuer’s past mistreatment of A is morally relevant in the decision whether to save Innocent by harming A.

Let me clarify what I’m not claiming. I am not claiming that we always have decisive reasons to prefer harming those we haven’t unjustly harmed in the past over those we have unjustly harmed in the past. There are all sorts of factors that might outweigh or override the relevance of past harms. Rather, I am claiming that past unjust harms can be morally relevant in evaluating prospective harms. I am also not claiming here that past unjust harms for which you’re not responsible are relevant in weighing prospective harms. Though I do certainly think such harms can be relevant, I am not leaning on such a claim here.

This simplistic example in which you must choose between A and B is not meant as an analogy of the situation between Israel and Gaza. Rather, its purpose is more general. It suggests that the proportionality constraint is backward-looking in the following sense: to determine how bad a prospective harm is for a potential innocent victim, we sometimes need to look at what that victim has suffered in the past, and whether we’re responsible for what they’ve suffered. If Israel has indeed unjustly immiserated Gazans over the past few decades, this makes it harder for Israel to satisfy the proportionality constraint now in its current conflict in Gaza.

The second moral consideration relevant to evaluating “blowback” conflicts is this. Assuming Hamas’ terrorism was a foreseeable consequence of unjust Israeli policy toward Gazans, Israel bears some responsibility for the fact that it needs to resort to self-defense now. (Again, I am not claiming that responsibility is zero-sum—Israel’s responsibility for its situation does not diminish Hamas’ responsibility. Nor am I claiming that they are equally responsible, or that they are the only parties responsible). This means Israel bears more responsibility for the deaths of Gazans it collaterally kills than it otherwise would. To see this, imagine you have a neighbor who for no reason at all unjustly attacks you with the intention of breaking your arm. You can defend yourself, but only by engaging in an action that collaterally harms his young child. Now compare this with a nearby case. Imagine you have a neighbor whose car you unjustly vandalize. You suspect, prior to doing so, that in response he will unjustly attack you with the intention of breaking your arm. Again, you can defend yourself, but only by collaterally harming his young child. Holding all the harms fixed in these two cases, it seems that the harm to the child in the second case should be weighed more heavily than the harm to the child in the first case. This is because you can be morally expected to have avoided the harm in the second case but not the first.

Again, this simplistic example is not meant as an analogy of the situation between Israel and Gaza. Rather, it suggests that the proportionality constraint is backward-looking in the following sense: to determine how bad a prospective harm is for a potential innocent victim, we need to look at whether we should have acted differently in the past thereby avoiding the need to inflict that harm now. If this describes Israel’s situation currently, it makes it all the more difficult for Israel to satisfy the proportionality constraint.

The moral is that we should not adopt an “ahistorical” approach when adjudicating proportionality in Israel’s war against Hamas. This is because the proportionality constraint includes important backward-looking elements. If Hamas’ terrorism is “blowback” from unjust Israeli policy toward Gaza, then Gazan lives should be weighed especially heavily. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for Israel to satisfy the proportionality constraint in its conflict against Hamas.


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Python
Python
5 months ago

Great post Saba. Thank you for the interesting points you raise about blowback. I agree with your suggestions

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Python
5 months ago

Thanks!

Israeli Student
Israeli Student
5 months ago

I have a question.

Does “blowback” have a cutoff? If so, when\where\who, and why?

To pose this question in another way, consider a Hatfields-and-McCoys situation, where there’s a cycle of injury between the parties (Shimon Ploni shot Reuven Almoni that shot Levi Ploni that…). Can we then say that deed-such-and-such is exempt from blowback – because it was done by a specific someone, because it’s so far in the past, because of another reason?

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Israeli Student
5 months ago

Great question! So my initial thought is this. You can say that someone’s else’s response to your past wrongdoing is blowback. But you can’t say that your own response to someone else’s past wrongdoing is blowback. The thought here is that you can treat others as part of the causal backdrop*, but you can’t treat yourself that way. So, when tracing the causal history to determine what is a blowback to what, it would only go so far back as the your own most recent voluntary wrongful action — you can’t treat that wrongful action as itself blowback to how you were antecedently treated.

*though perhaps with partial discounting due to agential mediation

ECD
ECD
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

Doesn’t that just result in a uniform result of ‘increase the weight given to your opponent’s lives over your own people’?

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  ECD
5 months ago

No, since there are other factors relevant to weighing lives, potentially including associative duties to your own people.

ECD
ECD
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

Okay, so it’s a fully universal argument for, ‘you should increase the weight given to your opponents’ lives’?

Or, I suppose not fully universal as in the event of genocide or some other means of totally and permenantly destroying your opponent’s means to respond, blowback is not a concern (but neither is proportionality, as we’re already in ‘illegitimate goal’ territory).

Israeli Student
Israeli Student
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

Thank you for answering.

I am, however, still somewhat confused.

Why shouldn’t I take the whole causal history into account? If someone is threatening to break my arm because I broke his leg, whether I broke his leg just because or because he was kicking my ribs seems morally relevant (since self-defense is (more) justified than violence for no reason).

Also, I am not familiar with the term “agential mediation”, can you please expand on it?

Jean Kazez
Jean Kazez
5 months ago

By the same token, Israel’s unjust treatment of Palestinians is also “blowback”–partially explainable by Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians prior to that treatment. So on your analysis, I guess that makes the Hamas attacks extra disproportional because Israelis were twice harmed in the way you’re saying Palestinians are being twice harmed. The only difference is that the Hamas attacks are so overtly sick and sadistic that nobody wonders whether they were disproportional. But if they did wonder, your analysis would apply to those attacks just as much as to what Israel is doing in Gaza. Right?

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Jean Kazez
5 months ago

Agreed. Proportionality only applies given a just aim (at least on my view). If Hamas’s aims were unjust, the issue of proportionality doesn’t even apply.

Kaila Draper
5 months ago

I think your arguments are excellent, and I am convinced that both considerations can be relevant to assessing proportionality. Two points, however. First, I think it is important to bear in mind that, even if the October 7th attack was not blowback, Israel’s ongoing mass murder in Gaza is obviously a disproportionate response to the threat posed by Hamas. Second, applying the historical approach in a balanced way would also require investigating the number of non-Hamas Palestinians who bear some responsibility for the October 7th Hamas attack. 

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Kaila Draper
5 months ago

Thanks. I agree that Israeli’s response in Gaza is disproportionate even if Oct. 7 was not blowback. And re the second point, even canonical McMahan-style reductionist individualism deems responsibility relevant to “moralized” proportionality; I don’t think the point you’re raising is limited to the historical approach!

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

I’m not sure I understand your response to the second point. (No doubt that’s my fault–I don’t know what “moralized proportionality” means.) But I should probably not have focused on the potential partial responsibility of non-Hamas Gazans. That could make them liable to defense in which case proportionality considerations don’t necessarily apply (I realize even that is complicated.) Perhaps a better issue to raise is that, if many non-Hamas Gazans had harmed Israel (e.g., by voting for Hamas) then perhaps that would cancel out to some degree the blowback consideration based on Israel’s having harmed them.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Kaila Draper
5 months ago

Agreed.

Ray V
Ray V
5 months ago

I am confused by the ‘arm breaking’ example.

Isn’t the point that the change in proportionality is due to responsibility for the circumstances that caused the harm/attacks?

So would the situation would be more like this situation: ‘I advocated for Fred not to be expelled, even though he was a bully. Fred tormented and broke the arm of Jed, turning Jed into a bully. Now I have to break Jed’s arm again to save Ted (fromm Jed I guess?).

So I am partially responsible BOTH times.

Jed’s aggressiveness is the blowback.

I think I am missing something about your point. Can you clarify? Maybe I don’t understand what you mean by ‘blowback.’

As an aside, I don’t get why you so confidently state the Hamas attacks are genocidal. This is simply not clear at all. No genocidal intent was stated, and if it is mainly the brutality of the attack on a group of people because they were members of that group, it could possibly make all terrorism against a group genocidal.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Ray V
5 months ago

So, the first example (with the rescuer) was supposed show that past rights-transgressing harms we inflicted on a victim can be relevant to how we weigh prospective rights-transgressing harms on that victim. Put differently, the first example isn’t about blowback itself, but about the past harms that prompted the blowback. The second example (with the neighbor) was supposed to show that at least sometimes we should weigh more heavily rights-transgressing harms to innocents where our past unjust conduct necessitates inflicting that harm. Your bully example combines these two considerations which I tried to exemplify separately, because I think they can potentially operate independently, or otherwise combine for a double-whammy.

Re genocide. Basically, the 1988 Hamas charter makes clear that Hamas’s war is against the Jewish people as such, worldwide. (Much of it could have just as well been written by the Nazis). That being said, there are questions whether and how we should apply a 35 year old document to Hamas’s current attacks, especially because their 2017 charter backs off from earlier antisemitism by repairing to anti-Zionism instead. Notably, though, Hamas’s leadership, even after adopting the 2017 charter, refused to repudiate the 1988 charter. The 2017 charter supplements rather than replaces the earlier charter, as I understand it (even though the two at points are mutually inconsistent). In addition, remarks from Hamas leadership subsequent to the 2017 charter re-affirmed many of the antisemitic talking-points characterizing the earlier charter. For these reasons, I tend to think Hamas’s leadership intended the terrorists on Oct. 7 to attack Jews qua Jews, rather than “merely” qua Zionists.

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

How do you view the fact that Hamas on Oct. 7, in addition to killing some 1200 Israelis, also killed, according to the Thai government, 39 Thai migrant workers and took 32 of them hostage?

I think one could argue that that suggests Oct. 7 was a terrorist rampage, directed mostly against Jews to be sure, but one in which the perpetrators killed anyone they felt like killing and who was, so to speak, in their path, rather than an act of genocide under the definition of the Genocide Convention. This is however a close question, I think, and there are reasonable arguments probably on both sides.

That said, the practical impact of the argument over the definition of genocide and its application here is likely, for various reasons, to be small to none.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
5 months ago

It’s possible that Hamas had multiple aims. “Kill all Jews” as well as “Kill all those who are working with the Jews.” But I agree, there are possible non-genocidal interpretations of Hamas’s actions. We have to choose among them based on our best theory of action, and based on the criteria established in identifying past genocides.

Scott Paeth
Reply to  Ray V
5 months ago

I initially had to blink at the baldness of the statement that the attacks constituted not only terrorism, but genocide. However, the 1951 Genocide Convention does state that acts of killing done “ with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” which does seem to describe the October 9th attacks. Scale doesn’t seem to enter into the equation.

Of course the obvious follow up is whether, on the same grounds, Israel’s war on Hamas is also genocide, and it’s hard for me to see how it is not.

andy
andy
Reply to  Scott Paeth
5 months ago

The definition is deliberately broad so as to leave less weasel room based on denial of intent or on failure to complete the task, but this obviously has problem of its own. If Hamas’ attack qualifies, then the act of a single racist mass shooter can technically qualify as genocide too.

I think the key here is that intending is different from wanting. Intent implies capacity (more strictly, it implies believing that one has a certain capacity). Hamas does not have/does not believe it has the capacity to destroy all Israeli Jews or destroy Israeli Jewishness as a cultural reality, so its actions don’t really fit the definition even if we believe it *desires* these things ideally.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  andy
5 months ago

The capacity-based view has to be false. Suppose a racist group knows that it can destroy only 90% of an ethnic minority the total population of which is 10 million. It is incapable of destroying the other 10%, since they’re too well protected. On the capacitarian view killing 9 million wouldn’t count as genocide. That strikes me as a mistaken view.

Last edited 5 months ago by Saba Bazargan-Forward
Scott Paeth
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

Well but on the other hand, another aspect of the genocide convention is the intent to “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” which would seem to capture your counter-example.

andy
andy
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

Isn’t that covered by “in whole or in part”?

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  andy
5 months ago

But if you bring in “in whole or in part”, then Hamas’s attack would once again count as genocide, since it did indeed have the capacity for physical destruction, in part. Including the “in part” proviso largely neuters the capacitation condition.

andy
andy
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

Well, I sort of took it as read that ‘part’ meant ‘substantial part’—of course that has to be specified further but it’d have something to do with partially destroying the viability and coherence of the group qua that group.

There’s a lot of existing casuistry (the good kind) trying to deal with these limitations–how do you exclude things like a mass shooting without excluding too many things, how do you deal with an intent that couldn’t be fulfilled, etc. I’m not really up on it, though. But there also won’t be a definition that, just by force of its precision, presolves all questions of judgement about particular instances.

(I know this all tangential to your argument, by the way, which I appreciated.)

Scott Paeth
Reply to  andy
5 months ago

I think your point about the mass shooter scenario is a good one. A racist shooter attacking an ethnic group violently would probably not be considered an act of genocide, even if the shooter’s ideology was described as “genocidal.”

Though the intent issue is the crux of the matter with regard to Israel. They keep saying they aren’t intending to commit genocide, but again scale has to factor in, given the sheer numbers of casualties, and the mass displacement, there certainly seems to be an intent to engage in genocide, their words notwithstanding.

It would be kind of strange if the only thing that one needed to do to avoid being accused of genocide was to insist that you weren’t doing it all the while you were fulfilling the definition. It’s a bit of a “stop hitting yourself” kind of argument.

andy
andy
Reply to  Scott Paeth
5 months ago

There is a kind of language being used by Israeli officials that strongly suggests genocidal intent: characterizing people as vermin, characterizing them all as criminals, terrorists, or not innocent, negotiating to expel them from the territory, and so on. There doesn’t need to be an explicit declaration of genocidal intent as such.

The legal thinking about this also concludes, I think correctly and in accord with common sense, that intent can be inferred from the structure of actions itself. That may not be so important in this particular case.

I’m actually not convinced it’s a great idea to go around accusing Israel of genocide right now, but that’s a separate issue.

CHEYNEY RYAN
CHEYNEY RYAN
5 months ago

Saba – I am not sure why the relevant precursor to Hamas’s actions is Israel’s treatment of Gaza. My impression is that Hamas regards its actions as prompted by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians generally. NYT: “Hamas has said it was motivated to launch the attack essentially as the culmination of long-building anger over Israeli policy, including recent outbreaks of violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, but more generally over the treatment of Palestinians and the expansion of Israeli settlements.” Further, I think this is what informs the response of others as well. That is, they do not say that the issue is Gaza, but the issue of Palestine. I am not sure how this specifically impacts your proportionality argument, I suspect it muddies an issue already so muddy that quests for precision are ill-conceived.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  CHEYNEY RYAN
5 months ago

Thanks for this. Here’s why I focused on the Gazans specifically rather than Palestinians more generally. I presented two reasons why past conduct might be relevant to proportionality now. The first was the “harming-them-twice” reason. The second was the “this-could-have-been-avoided” reason. You’re right that the second reason applies to Palestinians more generally: if Israel had refrained from mistreating Palestinians in the past, Israel might have avoided blowback from Hamas now. But it’s less obvious that the first reason applies to Palestinians more generally since Israel’s current campaign is in Gaza specifically: the civilians Israel is harming twice right now are the Gazans.

You’re right though: I should have been more accurate in describing the supposed precursors of Hamas’s attack in discussing the “this-could-have-been-avoided” reason.

Skeptical
Skeptical
5 months ago

To see this, imagine that Rescuer can prevent Innocent from being murdered only by collaterally breaking another innocent person’s arm.”

There’s an interesting and sophisticated philosophical literature on proportionality. Most of it seems to have to do with these kinds of tradeoffs between a worthy goal and civilian casualties, as in, perhaps, Allied bombing on Nazi Germany during WW2.

As interesting and sophisticated as this literature on tradeoffs is, I think philosophers have been applying it way too single-mindedly and obsessively to this issue. I see no reason whatsoever to think that there’s a tradeoff between a worthy goal and civilian casualties in this case. It’s at least as likely that Israel’s war will hurt Israel, making it less secure, as that it will help it, as it causes massive civilian casualties. I’m not saying the *possible* tradeoff between protecting Israelis and killing Gazans shouldn’t be discussed. But given that there’s no evidence it’s real, it shouldn’t occupy virtually all of our philosophical attention.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently said that Israel “risks strategic defeat” by killing so many civilians:

https://thehill.com/policy/defense/4339335-lloyd-austin-israel-risks-defeat-if-civilians-not-protected/

If he’s right, then Israel’s campaign will do nothing to protect Israelis and could easily make things worse (much worse) for Israel.

I would also recommend this article by John Ganz:

https://www.unpopularfront.news/p/israel-has-already-lost

And what has all this death and destruction accomplished for the stated goal of destroying Hamas. Embarrassingly little: “Israel’s military estimates it has killed between 1,000 and 2,000 Hamas fighters out of a military force it believes is about 30,000 strong.” So, at the cost of between 12,000 and 14,000 civilians they have barely hurt Hamas. This is an inexact calculation obviously, but, if they are serious about destroying Hamas, and the rate of death remains comparable, then we would be looking at hundreds of thousands of deaths. At that point talk of “genocide” starts to sound less like rhetoric and more like reality. Some callous or cruel people may be able to say to themselves, “Well, they have it coming” or “This is war,” but that “message” is unlikely to resonate with the world public.

Now, you might object, “Well, it’s unfair that Hamas hides among the civilian population.” Sure, but it must be admitted that this is apparently an effective tactic. As they intended to do from the beginning, they have forced Israel into a compromised position. They knew that Israel, based on its military doctrine and domestic politics, would embark on a campaign whose brutality would quickly eclipse October 7th in the world’s eyes. And, yes, the blood of Palestinian children is also on Hamas: they are intentionally sacrificing them as part of a military and political strategy. “Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs,” as Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas political directorate told Lebanese TV last month.

Israel’s choices seem to be as follows: continue in a slaughter that will permanently damage or destroy its international reputation and perhaps trigger a wider international crisis or give up on its stated goal to defeat Hamas and thereby face humiliation, domestic turmoil, and the appearance of vulnerability. Perhaps there are other options, but the leadership of Israel is completely bereft of imagination. Their society is reeling and on the verge of breakdown. They are lead by settler thugs and their enablers. Even the centrists and moderates are all too IDF-brained to think up anything except, “Tank. Bomb. F-16.” Everything Israeli politicians say and do appears hamfisted and stupid. They are supposed to be the sophisticated, modern, “Western” power but they are completely losing the propaganda war and have walked directly into the trap that Hamas set for them. Israel’s once-formidable public relations operation now just looks like whining while bombing. Again, is any of this “fair?” This is war — It’s not fair. It’s about lies and murder: You tell the right lies and kill the right people. And right now, Israel, supposedly a devious master in the arts of war and politics, looks totally lost.

I recognize the importance of bracketing various complexities of situations in order to isolate a specific philosophical issue. But that’s important for articles in philosophy journals that aim for general, philosophical innovation. If philosophers want to write stuff that’s relevant to major ongoing issues, I think they need to resist some of their instincts to bracket so much. Forever setting aside key issues in order to get to what we’ve focused on in our journals is no way to prove the importance and relevance of what we do, nor is it a useful way to contribute to public debates.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Skeptical
5 months ago

Your post is premised on this very controversial claim: “I see no reason whatsoever to think that there’s a tradeoff between a worthy goal and civilian casualties in this case.“ Many will disagree with this claim. My piece is directed to them.

Last edited 5 months ago by Saba Bazargan-Forward
Skeptical
Skeptical
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

If your article is directed to people who believe in a tradeoff, I think it should at least say so, and point out that the assumption is questionable. It’s standard practice to do this kind of thing. A canonical example of this is Judith Jarvis Thomson saying, in “A Defense of Abortion,” something to the effect that, “I find the premise that a fetus has a right to life highly questionable, but I’ll assume it for the sake of argument.” You can do this kind of thing even if your article is intended only for people who believe in the reality of a tradeoff.

The reason to do this are obvious and I discuss it in my post: if people writing on a topic always take a key claim for granted, this makes it harder to see that it can be questioned.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Skeptical
5 months ago

I’m not assuming that Israel has a defeasible reason to target Hamas in Gaza “for the sake of argument,” in the way that Thomson is assuming that a fetus can have rights “for the sake of argument”. Rather, I’m assuming as much because I happen to believe that it is a plausible claim and because I’m addressing interlocutors who agree on that limited point.

But going back, yes, maybe I should have said explicitly: “I am assuming forthwith that Israel has some reason — albeit a defeasible one — to target Hamas in Gaza.” Sheesh.

Last edited 5 months ago by Saba Bazargan-Forward
Skeptical
Skeptical
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

My point is about whether Israel’s actual war involves a tradeoff. This is the question you’re asking at certain points in your OP. I wasn’t talking about all conceivable ways of “targeting Hamas.” In relating their ideas about the proportionality of tradeoffs to the actual war, I’m claiming, philosophers should point out that they’re assuming such a tradeoff and that there are at least very good reasons to doubt it.

Maybe “targeting Hamas” was your way of referring to Israel’s actual conduct of the war. In that case, I’ll just note that these “interlocutors who agree on the limited point” that Israel’s actual war makes Israelis more secure are pretty much uniformly unwilling to defend their position and instead propose to bracket it in perpetuity. Again, I think I’ve explained my problems with this.

I would also point out that it’s a good idea, and also common, to state one’s key assumptions, even if one believes them to be plausible. (In fact, I’d go further and say that it would be a good idea to state them even if one could give an argument for them.)

Finally, I should have said this sooner, but I think your post makes an excellent point.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Skeptical
5 months ago

This will be my last reply to you, because I feel like we’ve reached an impasse.

In my piece, I presented two reasons why past conduct might be relevant to proportionality now. The first was the “harming-them-twice” reason. The second was the “this-could-have-been-avoided” reason. I’ll call these the “Two Reasons.”

Your point, as I understand it, seems to be this: Israel’s war in Gaza is unlikely to achieve good outcomes in the first place. So there are no significant goods to weigh against the very significant bads of such a war. So proportionality, and with it, the Two Reasons, don’t event seem to apply.

I have two responses to this.

First: even if this is true, you’re assuming that the Two Reasons is limited to an evaluation of Israel’s actual war in Gaza. But I’m not limiting myself that way. Imagine Israel launches instead a “Save the Hostages” ground invasion. Or imagine that Israel launches a more limited, surgical strike against Hamas in Gaza. The Two Reasons would apply in those counterfactual conflicts as well. Put simply, I’m making a moral point about all the military options Israel has against Hamas that would harm Gazans collaterally. The Two Reasons do not apply solely to the actual conflict. In fact, they reveal the sense in which Israel, due to its history, is morally “stuck” militarily, in that any military option that harms Gazans is problematic.

Second: you say it’s a good idea and also common to state one’s key assumptions, even if one believes them to be plausible. Frankly, I find the remedial tone of this advice a bit condescending. And I believe it’s bad advice in any case. There are dozens of suppressed premises I make in my piece that many might disagree with, including assumptions about: the permissibility of killing innocents collaterally, Israel’s right to exist, the aggregability of harms, the moral difference between terrorism and war… I could go on. People are going to reasonably disagree about which assumptions should be made explicit and which shouldn’t. A writer is always going to have to pick and choose. You made a case for thinking that I should have been explicit about one particular presumption. Fair enough. That would have been fine. But then you said that neglecting to do so “is no way to prove the importance and relevance of what we do, nor is it a useful way to contribute to public debates.” I find your self-assured tone here remarkable against the backdrop of the aforementioned reasonable disagreement over what premises should be made explicit.

Again, this is the last post I’ll make about this. You can have the final word, if you wish.

Last edited 5 months ago by Saba Bazargan-Forward
Skeptical
Skeptical
Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
5 months ago

I’ll say two things.

First, I understood your point, didn’t suggest it was limited to the actual war, and agree with it. It’s the point that I said was excellent.

Second, my original criticism was of philosophers’ general tendency to assume a tradeoff, so as to be able to apply research on proportionality in interesting ways. I wouldn’t say this means “proportionality doesn’t apply” (I think it does, but vacuously). And I haven’t argued that individual authors shouldn’t bracket the question whether there is such a tradeoff and argue that Israel’s response is or isn’t disproportionate. to make the assumption for this purpose. My concern is that the a general tendency to write as if there’s a tradeoff–to say things that encourage this assumption, whether it be an argument that assumes it, examples that suggest it, or something else. If in my replies to you, I turned this into a criticism of your article specifically, that was my mistake. It’s this general tendency, which I think derives from a desire to apply the philosophical tools developed in our specialized research, that I think hinders contributions to public debate. The desire to do this isn’t totally wrong in itself, I just think there’s a mean between excess and deficiency here, and as a community, we philosophers haven’t found the mean.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Skeptical
5 months ago

In support of Professor Bazargan-Forward’s basic approach (and the more general content of discussions on Israel/Palestine here): lots of interest has been written in the wider media on Israel’s war aims, the plausibility of it achieving them, and whether its overall geopolitical position will be advanced by achieving them, ranging from cautiously-optimistic through best-of-a-bad-lot to total-catastrophe. But I wouldn’t naturally go to a philosophy blog to get insight on that topic: the relevant expertise in history, international relations, urban warfare, and more doesn’t overlap much with philosophers’ core skill sets (notwithstanding a few people in philosophy who in fact do have some parts of that expertise). If philosophy qua philosophy can contribute anything to this topic, it’s going to be in the space of philosophical contributions. (And even if someone in philosophy wants to contribute to wider public understanding of the issues by a philosophical contribution, an in-house philosophy blog is a bad place to do it.)

CHEYNEY RYAN
CHEYNEY RYAN
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

I don’t see why the philosopher war should know any less about war than a philosopher of, say, law, should know about law, or a philosopher of physics know about physics. I went to law school because I couldn’t in good faith call myself a philosopher of law without knowing anything about law. I would have never pursued philosophy physics because I could never imagine knowing enough about it. True, a lot of philosophizing about war is hypothetical or anecdotal, and has tended to lapse into trolly-ology. But not all of it. One of the best books about war by philosopher remains Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century, which is deeply informed by work in history and social sciences; recently, some of the best working just war theory has been sociologically/psychologically informed work on soldiering, e.g. how people become soldiers, how they experience moral injury etc. If a philosopher wants to talk about the Israel/Palestine conflict, they should educate themselves about; if they want to talk about war generally, they should educate themselves about it—the same as they do in other fields.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  CHEYNEY RYAN
5 months ago

I think that, if you want to understand the ethics of war, you have to do the trolley-ology. Avoiding that is lazy. This is not to deny that knowing a lot of the history, politics, psychology, sociology, etc. about war os also useful.

David Wallace
Reply to  CHEYNEY RYAN
5 months ago

I don’t (think I) disagree. There is some expertise among philosophers of physics about physics, and there are a few philosophers of physics whose judgement on physics I treat as comparable to the best physicists; nonetheless, on a first order physics question I think a philosophy space – even a philosophy of physics space – is a poor place to look compared to asking physicists directly.

At the risk of seeming obsequious, I should add that one of my criteria for assessing the expertise of philosophers of physics on physics is, ‘is this person in frequent dialog with physicists?” Partly, but not wholly, on the analogous principle, I have been taking your comments on this situation very seriously.

Last edited 5 months ago by David Wallace
Skeptical
Skeptical
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

I’d be interested in hearing the analyses of the war that are cautiously optimistic for Israel. I’ve searched and haven’t been able to find that. I would add that I think the existence of a small minority of such analyses is compatible with what I’ve written.

Whether philosophers’ contributions must be in the space of philosophical contributions depends on the demarcation of that space. I wouldn’t want to put too much of a limit, in advance, on what we can contribute, though. Throughout history, philosophers have made fundamental contributions to understandings of political phenomena (Bentham, Kant, Mill, Marx, Heidegger, Arendt, Scruton…). It’s true that 20th Century contributions seem more narrowly “philosophical” than earlier contributions. Part of that is presumably that the social sciences have separated from philosophy. I don’t think that’s the only reason, though. I think we’ve chosen to narrow our sense of what we can contribute. To give an example off the top of my head, I suspect that a philosopher with the right background in political science could contribute meaninfgully to the debate about which ideologies are driving the war and what their causal roles might be. I don’t mean that they’d construct some kind of fully validated political science survey, but rather that they could use their analytical skills to critique existing presuppositions and to characterize the relevant ideologies more rigorously, as a prelude to a full empirical analysis.

David Wallace
Reply to  Skeptical
5 months ago

“I’d be interested in hearing the analyses of the war that are cautiously optimistic for Israel.”

FWIW: it’s scarcely a systematic trawl, but I was thinking of pieces by Yossi Klein Halevi, David French, Dan Drezner, and various pieces at War on the Rocks. (I don’t particularly want to have a discussion about the virtues and vices of their arguments; I’m just replying to your request.)

It’s perhaps telling that I know no-one whose cautious optimism doesn’t include optimism about removing Netanyahu!

Last edited 5 months ago by David Wallace
Skeptical
Skeptical
Reply to  David Wallace
5 months ago

Thanks. I probably shouldn’t have an extended discussion about virtues and vices of their arguments either, for time management reasons. I’ll look up War on the Rocks and Haley.

I will just say that I’ve read French’s piece drawing the analogy between Israel’s war and the US operation in Fallujah, if that’s what you’re talking about. I think the analogy is a bad one, but more importantly, I don’t think it addresses many of the key questions about Israel’s odds of success.

There is a bigger point here that’s the kind of thing I’d like to see philosophers engage with. Let’s stick with the Iraq War analogy. US killing of Iraqi civilians was a major problem with its occupation. But it was far from the only one. And it would be perverse to restrict our philosophical analysis of the Iraq War to the morality of such killings. (But this is what philosophers mostly seem to be doing regarding Gaza, with their almost exclusive focus on proportionality.) The US failed in Iraq primarily because it’s very hard for militaries to construct states in distant countries, and the US military didn’t think very seriously about how to solve this problem. The US and NATO obviously faced similar problems in Afghanistan. Not only is its inability to construct a state the main reason the US failed in Iraq–it’s also the greatest cause of death and suffering in the country, as it led to civil war and various other long-term problems throughout the region.

In short, one of the greatest moral and political problem raised by the Bush administration’s wars is the the chaos that’s unleashed when a state is destroyed without an effective replacement.

There are many other issues with the Iraq War, of course, and analogously, with the Gaza War.

French’s analogy to Fallujah seems relevant to the narrow question whether Israel can defeat Hamas. I don’t see how it addresses the more complex question of whether it can turn such a military victory into an improvement in Israel’s security situation for a meaningful length of time. Maybe someone’s addressed this concern. I just haven’t seen it, but I have heard multiple reports that the Netanyahu government didn’t even have a plan for post-Hamas Gaza as of a couple weeks ago.

I’m not seeing how Drezner gives any reason for optimism on Israel’s behalf. Here’s the conclusion of one relevant piece: “I think I can see what Israel is trying to do in Gaza. Given how much everyone in the region dislikes Hamas, it might not lead to as much blowback as observers fear. But it is hard to believe it will actually work.”

https://danieldrezner.substack.com/p/heres-the-thing-about-israels-grand

Last edited 5 months ago by Skeptical
Jeff McMahan
5 months ago

I haven’t had a chance to read all the discussion so apologies if what I write here has been anticipated. I think the main points Saba makes have to be correct in some way but I have one concern. Suppose that, because Rescuer 1 has harmed A in the past (whether unjustifiably or perhaps even on the basis of a lesser-evil justification), he cannot now proportionately inflict the harm on A that would be an unavoidable side effect of saving Innocent. It seems, however, that Rescuer 2, who has not harmed A in the past, can proportionately and thus permissibly inflict on A the same harm as a side effect of saving Innocent. This seems questionable. It could be avoided by making Saba’s claim agent-neutral rather than agent-relative — that is, by claiming that what it can be proportionate to inflict on A now depends on how much harm A has suffered in the past. This claim could be limited or restricted in various ways. How much harm it might be proportionate to inflict on A now might depend just on how much harm A has suffered in the past irrespective of its cause, how much harm she has suffered from the action of others, or how much harm she has wrongfully suffered from the morally unjustified action of others. All of these possibilities, however, can be challenged and are certainly epistemically demanding.