“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“.
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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.