Moral Philosophy as War Propaganda (guest post)


“The hellish reality of this war is transfigured by philosophers into abstract thought experiments and technical prose.”

The following is a guest post by Tena Thau, a postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Law at the University of Oxford.

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

*  *  *


Moral Philosophy as War Propaganda
by Tena Thau

Over 25,000 people in Gaza have been killed so far in this horrific war. Of those killed, 70% are women and children. Some children have been rescued from under the rubble—only to discover that all of their family members are dead. Children are having their limbs amputated without anaesthesia, because the last functioning hospitals have run out of supplies. Hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza are currently starving. If this war continues on its current course, close to a quarter of Gaza’s population—nearly half a million people—may die by the end of this year.

Israel is killing Palestinian journalists in what appear to be targeted attacks, and blocking international journalists from entering Gaza, in an effort to conceal the horrors of this war from our view. But day after day, more harrowing reports are coming out: news of yet another mass killing at a refugee camp or hospital, images of yet more children wrapped in body bags, and their grieving parents’ arms. Journalists in Gaza are making the most powerful moral argument for a ceasefire—by simply showing the world this war as it is.

I am not sure what there is for philosophy to teach us about the ethics of Israel’s assault on Gaza that the facts above do not already make clear. I also think that philosophical work on this war can sometimes function (however unwittingly) as a kind of pro-war propaganda, even in cases where the author adopts an anti-war stance.

The main problem with philosophical writing is that it is devoid of images, video, or graphic description of its subject matter. The hellish reality of this war is transfigured by philosophers into abstract thought experiments and technical prose. In their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argue that the most powerful form of propaganda is not falsehood but omission. And by omitting any visual depiction, or vivid description, of the war’s consequences, philosophers invite us to think about the war in Gaza the way that Israel wants us to: as a sanitized abstraction, rather than the bloody horror that it is.

The second problem I’ve noticed is that is that philosophers tend to concede too readily (and thereby give credence to and amplify) the empirical premises of this war’s proponents, even when there are compelling reasons to reject them.

For example, many philosophers have argued that this war is unjustified on the grounds of proportionality. In making this argument, they generally do not challenge, and sometimes take as fact, the premise that this war benefits Israelis.

It is of course understandable why philosophers do this. The conclusion that the war in Gaza is unjustified is not contingent on overturning the premise, and it is standard practice for philosophers to avoid wading into empirical debates. And there is also nothing philosophically interesting for us to discuss, if the war in front of us is just a senseless bloodbath that benefits no one.

But I think it is important to unsettle and push back on the assumption that this war benefits people in Israel. First, there are very good reasons to think that the assumption is false: because the war is likely to make more people want to use violence against Israel in the long run (as Muhammad Ali Khalidi has argued on this site); because it is now becoming a wider regional war that poses arguably a much greater danger to Israel than Hamas (as Jason Stanley has pointed out); because it imperils the lives of the hostages in Gaza (as former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has discussed); and because Israelis degrade themselves morally by participating in mass killing. Second, this line of argument (and the hostages argument in particular) is what is most likely to increase support for a ceasefire among Israelis—who are unfortunately not particularly moved, at the moment, by appeals to compassion for Palestinians.

I’ve also noticed that philosophers will often take at face value, and repeat, the IDF’s claim that Israeli airstrikes always target Hamas, and that the civilians killed in them are unintended collateral damage that the IDF very deeply regrets. Sometimes this is offered up as a (depraved) moral justification for the airstrikes, though in other cases philosophers will go on to argue that the strikes are disproportionate. Either way, they are amplifying a piece of misinformation: According to an investigative report by the Israeli magazine +972, Israel routinely bombs targets for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population of Gaza. A tenuous link between the targeted site and Hamas is often just a fig leaf used to justify these terror attacks.

As much as I hated David Enoch’s essay (and support the letter he criticized), I agree with him about one thing: I do not think moral philosophers have any particularly strong claim to expertise on the ethics of this war.

I think that most people outside Gaza, philosophers included, will simply not come anywhere close to grasping the magnitude of the horror that the people of Gaza are currently experiencing—so far removed, as it is, from our own experience and sight. (The best way to try to rectify this, I think, is to follow the reporting of Palestinian journalists. Please look at the horrors that they are documenting.)

If you do not grasp, and severely underestimate, the hell that is currently being inflicted on the people of Gaza, then it doesn’t matter how well you know the ‘just war theory’ literature, or how great at deductive reasoning you are; you are liable to arrive at the wrong answer to the question of whether this war is justified. This is especially so if you are also insufficiently critical of the empirical claims asserted by this war’s proponents, such as the assumption that this war promotes Israelis’ safety. (Such assumptions pervade political discourse in the US and UK, the two biggest enablers of Israel’s onslaught, and also the countries where most academic philosophers happen to be.)

For people in Gaza, the question of whether or not Israel should continue to slaughter them is not the head-scratching conundrum that some philosophers here consider it to be. Any random child in Gaza is able to see the moral reality of this war with more clarity, and speak about it with more sense, than most of us are able to muster. As one 12-year old girl, badly wounded in an airstrike that killed both her parents and two of her siblings, said to a journalist: “I only want one thing: for the war to end.”[1]

Moral philosophy is not just superfluous in this case, it can overcomplicate and sanitize what should be morally unthinkable.

[top photo via Eye on Palestine]


[1] Several weeks after being interviewed, this child, Dunia Abu Mohsen, was killed by Israeli tank fire during an attack on the hospital in which she was recuperating.

[Dunia Abu Mohsen. Photo via Defense for Children International.]

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Rich Norton
Rich Norton
28 days ago

I suppose one of the obvious follow-up questions to ask is if similar principles apply to other pressing ethical debates. Take abortion: if philosophers do not widely circulate images of tens of millions of mutilated fetuses and their dismembered body parts at the hands of abortion doctors, is their discussion merely a “sanitized abstraction, rather than a bloody horror?” And if so, is it possible that sometimes sanitized abstractions (in this sense) are okay?

Of course, there are differences between the abortion vs. just war debates (everyone agrees that the casualties of the latter are almost all moral persons, etc.), but I’m not sure why this should matter. Both involve a truly grotesque human toll that one side claims is ultimately acceptable in light of all the facts, even if regrettable, which the other denies. Why should we not insist on sharing images that the latter side believes to illustrate the strength of their case in the most vivid, visceral terms?

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  Rich Norton
28 days ago

I’m not so sure. Looking at pictures of “mutilated fetuses and their dismembered body parts” might influence me emotionally in such a way that my views on abortion changed. That’s not out of the question.

But that would entail that some belief I have about abortion would as a consequence change, for example about the moral status of fetuses. This is as I said, not out of the question: I might have that emotional reaction.

But I don’t think the author is saying that this is what is at stake here. I read her as saying that if people really saw what was happening in Gaza, their views about what is actually happening would change, and a consequence, their view on the war.

Their views on just war theory (which is the analogy to views on abortion) might stay exactly the same.

Rich Norton
Rich Norton
Reply to  Another Philosopher
28 days ago

I completely agree that looking at fetuses should not impact your view of whether or not they are moral persons. But I disagree that anyone – or at least, anyone intellectually sober enough to be debating this issue in an academic philosophical setting – thinks Gaza is not currently being reduced to rubble, or that there aren’t subsequently many innocent Palestinian civilians (including, inevitably, lots of children) who are suffering horribly or straight-up dying, in all the violent ways one might imagine. So I don’t think this is a case where such images will meaningfully change beliefs about what is happening. Rather, I suggest these images would function to produce, as you say, an emotional reaction, one that might color whether or not you think Israel inflicting these immense human costs is justified given the hostages or the security concerns or whatever.

(Also, not that you suggested otherwise, but I should also say I’m not trying to defend Israel here.)

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  Rich Norton
27 days ago

I take the author to be making a distinction between understanding the propositional content of “Gaza is being reduced to a rubble” or “children are being killed en masse” and consequently accepting that those propositions are true on the one hand, and really grasping what is going on, on the other.

I’m not so sure that everyone in this debate really understands it in the second sense. I’m not sure I do.

In general, I would say that emotional reactions are very often proper when making ethical judgements—and if the author is right, that we are insulated from the reality in Gaza, then that is a problem.

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
Reply to  Rich Norton
27 days ago

The “obvious follow-up question” is to change the subject to abortion? Really? How about “what can I do to help stop this mass murder?” “What can I read and publicize that will get others to do so?”

Well, I guess obviousness of follow-ups all depends on what your goals are.

Rich Norton
Rich Norton
Reply to  Mark Lance
27 days ago

Yes, it’s indeed very common in philosophy (and beyond) to ask if an argument for X should also apply to more cases, including ones that the presenter might be inclined to disagree with.

This is a discussion forum about philosophy, not activism, BTW. (Or not *just* activism.) You’re not getting a veto any more than the anti-abortion activists are, who are convinced that global abortion rates are a vastly worse atrocity than any war. Moreover, making a hasty blog comment here does not preclude action elsewhere.

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
Reply to  Rich Norton
27 days ago

Thanks for clarifying what is common in philosophy.
You know what is also common? Deflecting from issues that you’d rather not confront.

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Rich Norton
27 days ago

Here’s one important difference between the two cases. Showing people images of mutilated fetuses *carries* a significant risk of leading people to *overestimate* the moral gravity of what’s going on. Showing people images of mutilated children in Gaza *mitigates* a significant risk of people *underestimating* the moral gravity of what’s going on.

The consensus view among medical practitioners (e.g., the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) is that the neural basis of sentience does not arise until quite late in pregnancy, around 24-25 weeks at earliest, which is after the vast majority of abortions are performed. [I hereby bracket foundational skeptical problems about the problem of other minds]. However, fetuses *look like* actual babies at a much earlier stage of development. As a result, if you show people pictures of a dismembered 15-week old fetus, you’re likely to trigger an emotional response which will lead people to think that what they’re being shown is the result of an excruciatingly painful experience for the fetus–when in fact, it’s probable that the fetus experienced little if any pain. It’s precisely this divergence between our best understanding of when fetuses experience pain and what images of mutilated fetuses may lead people to conclude that makes the dissemination of such images nakedly manipulative.

The opposite is true here. In the affluent West, “we” tend to see Israeli lives as unique, precious, and irreplaceable–as are all human lives. By contrast, “we” tend to see Palestinian lives as dispensable, collateral damage, “just numbers,” etc. So when we hear that on average over 100 Gazan children have been killed every day for the past three and a half months, “we” don’t register what’s going on morally and experientially. To that extent, graphic imagery can be an important *corrective* to an ideological blindness which leads “us” to profoundly underestimate the moral reality of what Israel and its Western patrons are doing right now as we type away.

Rich Norton
Rich Norton
Reply to  Daniel
27 days ago

I fully agree that gruesome images of aborted fetuses would cause people to overestimate their lives’ value. But that’s because I firmly come down on the pro-choice side of the debate: I don’t consider fetuses moral persons in any sense, and don’t think they’re more intrinsically morally valuable than comparably intelligent animals. An anti-abortion advocate, by contrast, would of course never grant any of this; he or she would say that such images also mitigate risk of underestimating the value of those human lives. Indeed, it’s difficult to see how pro-choice advocates such as myself could intrinsically value fetuses less.

If it’s your position that the profession of philosophy should treat the ethics of abortion, or at least the most fundamental parts of it, as a completely solved issue on which further debate is unnecessary, then it would be understandable if you think there’s an asymmetry. If, however, you think that the profession should aim to take a slightly more neutral stance that does not foreclose on the possibility that the anti-abortion side is correct, you’re still left with some amount of symmetry.

That said, I don’t mean to caricature you and understand you’re saying something more than this – you’re arguing in part that images of aborted fetuses would give people purely factual misunderstandings, based on the fact that they “look” sentient (or whatever) in these images much earlier than they actually are. This seems problematic to me. First, the estimated date of sentience you give (24 weeks) overlaps with countless abortions, so we could simply choose to restrict our gruesome images to those of the many thousands of 24-week abortions worldwide. Second, and much more importantly/generally, arguments against abortion don’t necessarily rely on the sentience of fetuses. Many anti-abortion advocates think it’s morally horrifying to dismember an innocent human life full-stop, whether or not they can feel anything. They might liken the situation to a bomb that dismembers Palestinian children, or collapses heavy buildings on top of them, instantaneously in their sleep.

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Rich Norton
26 days ago

Let’s step back for a moment. I didn’t take the original poster to be advancing the general principle that whenever philosophers (or others) debate the morality of a certain practice, they ought to spend time looking at graphic images of the harmful consequences resulting from that practice. If that were the claim at issue, then of course it would be appropriate to test it against practices other than Israel’s campaign against Gaza, such as (perhaps) abortion.

But I don’t think that’s what the author was defending and certainly not what I’m proposing.

Here’s what I’m proposing.

(1) Palestinians have been dehumanized in Western media and society for decades.

(2) Because of this history of dehumanization, there’s a powerful psychological tendency for people in Western societies–particularly those with no cultural or familial connection with Palestinians–to seriously underestimate the moral importance of individuals Palestinians’ lives and interests.

(3) As a contingent psychological fact about human beings, one way to appreciate the full weight and importance of the interests of members of a dehumanized group is to confront visual imagery of what’s actually being done to members of that group.

(4) No moral evaluation of Israel’s campaign against Gaza–whatever its final verdict–will be justified if it proceeds from false assumptions about the weight and importance of Palestinians’ (or any involved parties’) interests.

(5) Hence, there is a (pro tanto) reason for those of us in Western societies to confront visual imagery of what’s actually being done to Palestinians, insofar as this will advance an accurate appreciation of the weight and importance of the relevant interests.

Of course, this argument is framed specifically in terms of Palestinians, but it applies whenever visual imagery can serve the corrective function asserted above. That might have been true, for example, with respect to the suffering of Vietnamese civilians, or police brutality against Black Americans, or any other number of examples.

As far as I can see, none of these premises depends, in some objectionably question-begging way, on any substantive normative conclusions about what the final verdict on Israel-Gaza should be, as you suggested might be the case with respect to certain arguments regarding visual imagery of abortions.

Further, I take (1) and (2) to be uncontroversial as a matter of empirical fact and (4) to be uncontroversial as a matter of moral methodology. I also take (3) to be true, obviously, though I acknowledge it might be false. Maybe looking at pictures compounds dehumanization rather than mitigating it. I don’t know. Nevertheless, I’m wagering that in this particular case, more good than harm would result from privileged Westerners taking a moment to *sit with* the material reality of what’s being done in Gaza. This includes confronting visual imagery of what’s being done in Gaza.

If this is the proposal being advanced, it’s not clear to me how the abortion case is particularly responsive or relevant. On the contrary, it seems to divert attention away from the central questions at issue (most importantly what should all of us be doing as a practical matter given what’s being done in our names as we speak). But perhaps I’m missing something.

Rich Norton
Rich Norton
Reply to  Daniel
26 days ago

I agree that backing up a bit here is a good idea. I fully concur that it’s appropriate in general to share images of wanton destruction in order to drive home how bad it is, and that it’s easy for many people to overlook the latter without such images.

What I question is that this is a good idea in a philosophical context, among professional philosophers. My argument was a kind of reductio. There is a *vastly* more dehumanized population out there – unborn fetuses – that is subject to *vastly* greater violence. The dehumanization of Palestinians you speak of is implicit, something all agree to be shameful if it can be demonstrated definitively. The dehumanization of fetuses, by contrast, is something one side of the abortion debate (or at least, among many members of that side) upholds explicitly and unashamedly. And that even includes me! I *explicitly* dehumanize fetuses, and I *explicitly* endorse certain kinds of painful deadly gruesome unprovoked violence against them, at the merest whim of the mother.

So every point you raise in your last comment should apply to the abortion debate, arguably even moreso. Nevertheless, most of us intuit that trying to correct this massive, intellectualized dehumanization effort – forcing us pro-choice people to truly “sit with” what we’re advocating for, to use your language – by asking bioethicists or bioethics journals (or whatever) to start circulating more abortion images would be a kind of attempt at emotional manipulation in this debate. Yes, these pictures are incredibly ugly, but how do they substantively rebut the arguments put forth on the other side, arguments which purport to take into account how ugly the phenomenon is and demonstrate its acceptability anyway?

Now, in spite of the dark connotation of the term, “emotional manipulation” isn’t inherently intellectually dishonorable. However, in this case, I think the charge applies. Bioethicists are smart and well informed enough to already understand the case, presented by anti-abortion advocates and ugly-image-mongers, that abortion has a Holocaust-level moral gravity. They simply don’t need these kinds of reminders.

I think something similar applies in the case of innocent victims of Israel’s war, or really any war. There are assuredly lots of frothing hawks out there for whom enemy populations register merely as an abstraction or an inconvenience, kind of like enemies in a video game. But I deny that professional ethicists or just war theorists or the like are suffering from the kind of cognitive dissonance you describe. They genuinely already know, in their heart of hearts, that Palestinian children have equal moral worth to Israeli children. Maybe you have substantially less faith in these colleagues, but I don’t. The source of their disagreement lies elsewhere… and, truth be told, I’m not convinced all that many of them even do disagree to begin with.

OnePhilProf
OnePhilProf
Reply to  Rich Norton
27 days ago

Firstly, let me express my position that I support Palestine and always have for decades. Israel is perpetrating a wrong more egregious than Hamas had even if the World Court declined to call it a genocide.

Despite that, it is clearly right for philosophers to ask whether a
principle applies to other seemingly analogous cases as a test of the
principle’s limits, relevance and consistency. We should be sceptical when someone tells philosophers to stop doing philosophy. For many interlocutors on this excellent site, philosophy is our job and literally how we pay rent and put food on the table, not marching in the streets as some interlocutors believe we should all be doing.

In the name of doing my job, I would also pose the question of whether we need to include images of crime victims in a debate about capital punishment. The debate continues in some parts of the world such as the US where for the first time a prisoner was executed with nitrogen gas.

The interlocutor Daniel suggested a difference in the analogy between the Gaza and abortion debates, that images are valuable when we are morally underestimating an issue but not when it inflames passions on an issue we are morally overestimating. This is a chicken-and-egg problem: how are
we to know when we ought to include images in a debate until we have decided first whether we are morally underestimating or overestimating an issue? Can
this really be determined through non-rationale means such as how appalled we are by said images?

If the principle is sound that we ought to include images in discussions about war to remind how horrific war is, does that extend to the Russian war on Ukraine? Should we keep in front of us images of dead Russians or dead Ukrainians or both, and how are we supposed to determine which way is proper? I assume it’s not that if you want to win a debate, you should hurry
out appalling images to sway sympathies to your side. Is it possible to determine first or a priori which side is unjust and should not be supported with emotional images, i.e. images are not necessary to the determination?

Another interlocutor bemoaned that many of us are pushed to comment
anonymously here. It’s easy to see why when philosophers from prestigious universities such as Georgetown, in a position to hire you or not, are intimidating anyone who disagrees with them as if we should all stop doing philosophy and become activists. If the discussion was conducted more civilly, we would not fear retaliation or bias from those who have influence over our futures.

Historians and other scholars too are commenting on Gaza with their
disciplinary expertise. Should they also stop their academic work and take to the streets, or is it only the philosophers who are failing their duties here? There is value in philosophy just as there is value in other disciplines. It is fine for any of us to be outraged and protest Israel just as it is also fine for scholars to
contribute to the world by doing their jobs.

A charitable assessment is some interlocutors here are not virtue signaling but genuinely believe their positions. They appear to be swept up in a moment and are so outraged over Israel that they would turn against their professional colleagues and from the profession itself. Perhaps that’s understandable
from how human emotions work but there are other global emergencies and greater existential threats that also warrant our attention and outrage. There will be more such emergencies and alienating one’s fellow philosophers, fracturing the profession, is not productive here nor for the future.

Philosophy is already losing its power worldwide and we don’t need to help our misguided critics. God willing, there will be a future. If there is not, I would be sceptical that it is the fault of philosophers who fail to be adequately outraged.

🙏🙏🙏🙏
🙏🙏🙏🙏
28 days ago

I am a bit afraid to reveal my name, but I couldn’t easily find your email online, so I just wanted to say thank you so much for this post, Tena. It’s both brave and says something very important that philosophers, unfortunately, often overlook.

Yazan Freij
Yazan Freij
Reply to  🙏🙏🙏🙏
28 days ago

Imagine the pathetic state of Western philosophy where people are forced to hide their names out of fear, and philosophers who state the obvious are considered brave. (Of course, Tena is brave, but it is sad that it has come to this).

Last edited 28 days ago by Yazan Freij
James
James
Reply to  Yazan Freij
28 days ago

I agree that this is sad, but I suspect that, currently, at least within philosophy (and perhaps in academia, or at least in the humanities), those who feel the most pressure to hide their names are not the ones arguing, for example, for an unconditional ceasefire

Yazan Freij
Yazan Freij
Reply to  James
28 days ago

And that’s thanks to the steadfastness of the Palestinian people and the direct action of people around the world over the last three months. It has nothing to do with some moral triumph that Western philosophy (as racist and Imperialist as ever) has achieved through reasoned debates or arguments.

Kaila Draper
28 days ago

I agree with you that, if one has no emotional sensitivity to the horrors of the violence in Gaza, that can certainly interfere with one’s moral reasoning about war. But everyone who doesn’t live in a box has seen the pictures and yet still many support Israel’s war efforts. Almost every moral philosopher who does just war theory, on the other hand, has come to the right conclusion that that effort is an obscene injustice. Indeed, I can’t name a single just war theorist in philosophy who would now say that Israel’s war effort is just. And in making the case that the war effort is unjust, philosophers have not conceded to the defenders of Israel that the war will benefit Israel. Instead, as part of the case that the war is disproportionate, they have pointed out how speculative the alleged benefits of the war effort are. The assumption that the war promotes the safety of Israelis may pervade the political discourse in the US and the UK, but the American and British philosophers doing just war theory that I know haven’t unthinkingly bought into that assumption. As for your suggestion that philosophers often take at face value the claim that Israel’s attacks only target Hamas, I don’t know how many philosophers have made that mistake. But it is not a mistake that philosophers would be particularly likely to commit.

Making vivid the horrors of the October 7 attack and the current horrors still unfolding in Gaza is important to good moral reasoning about the conflict. But I see no reason to think that sensitivity to those horrors coupled with rigorous moral reasoning is problematic.

BLW
BLW
Reply to  Kaila Draper
28 days ago

I can’t name a single just war theorist in philosophy who would now say that Israel’s war effort is jus

Does Michael Waltzer count? E.g., here – https://quillette.com/2023/12/01/gaza-and-the-asymmetry-trap/

Kaila Draper
Reply to  BLW
28 days ago

Not a philosopher.

exhausted.
exhausted.
Reply to  Kaila Draper
23 days ago

Not a true scotsman.

TakingLivesSeriously
TakingLivesSeriously
28 days ago

On the other hand, the other day at the main campus in Columbia, a 19-year-old was shouting, “From river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” I asked them to change it to “From river to the sea, Palestinians will be free,” but they didn’t do that.

How can you ask for a ceasefire now?

grad student
Reply to  TakingLivesSeriously
28 days ago

I cannot quite tell if this is ironic, but I suspect not. Care to elaborate?

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
Reply to  grad student
27 days ago

It is sarcasm.

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
28 days ago

“The main problem with philosophical writing is that it is devoid of images, video, or graphic description of its subject matter.”

The complication here, as I see it after having followed events and various discussions closely, is that people’s ideological/political/moral commitments shape the meanings of the images, video, etc. People will see a video of dead children being pulled from the rubble in Gaza and respond, “This is monstrous. Look what Hamas has brought upon the children of Gaza. They must surrender immediately and put this horror to an end.” Then, invariably, someone will respond to note that “history didn’t start on October 7” and then we are off to the races: 1967, 1948, the Second Temple, misinformed statements of the principle of proportionality and other principles of just war theory, etc.

This is just one among countless examples of the truism that theory informs perception. Show a Nazi a pile of Jewish corpses and he sees the solution to a problem.

Philosophy not rhetoric
Philosophy not rhetoric
28 days ago

Philosophers are not well equipped to debate factual claims, particularly ones that are widely disputed or difficult to independently verify. We are not experts in that area, rather our expertise is with conceptual claims.

Additionally, it is an effective and devastating strategy to accept *all* of an interlocutor’s claims and show why he’s still wrong. Every philosopher knows this or should know it.

Regarding the inclusion of images: apart from whether they inappropriately heighten emotions in a reason-based debate, i.e. what philosophers do in contrast to rhetoricians, images can help or hurt both sides depending on what is selected. Why not also select images of the Israeli rape and murder victims of the initial attack by Hamas? This appears to be cherry picking and unhelpful to a reasoned debate.

The OP appears to believe we should stop being philosophers but rhetoricians. This is a low view of the value of philosophy.

Yazan Freij
Yazan Freij
Reply to  Philosophy not rhetoric
28 days ago

I wonder why “reasoned debates” in “high-value philosophy” only ever take place over the piles of bodies of non-White/non-Western people. Our dead bodies are not up for your pathetic debates.

Last edited 28 days ago by Yazan Freij
Mark Lance
Mark Lance
27 days ago

Thank you for this. As the discussion makes clear, there will be a segment of the philosophy world who will resist, and continue to treat the deaths of tens of thousands – deaths they are paying for (at least if they are in the US) – as a great occasion for “being a real philosopher” ie fussing about abstract conceptual arguments. But for all that, there are some who will listen. And that is good.

Justin Kalef
27 days ago

The ‘Brain in a Vat’ philosophy program on YouTube has a recent episode on the ethical question of Israel’s actions in Gaza. It provides a number of empirical and theoretical considerations that so far seem to be missing from this discussion, rightly or wrongly. Why Israel’s Response to Hamas Was Justified | Natasha Hausdorff (youtube.com)

Really?
Really?
Reply to  Justin Kalef
27 days ago

It’s disappointing to see Brain in a Vat publish a fawning interview with a propagandist–the head of UK Lawyers for Israel–while Israel stands credibly accused of genocide.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Really?
27 days ago

The terms ‘propagandist’ and ‘credibly’ are question-begging here until some responses are given to her arguments that the genocide charge is bogus.

AGC
AGC
27 days ago

I’m very puzzled by this post. You mention Chomsky and Herman’s book, in which they argue that

the most powerful form of propaganda is not falsehood but omission.

This post strikes me as a paradigm of this kind of dangerous omission. It reads as if Israel has launched its attack out of the blue, for no reason at all. While this doesn’t mean Israel’s response is justified, of course, it is extremely salient and relevant here. It is very puzzling that a post encouraging us to attend to the realities of the horrors of this war says nothing at all about the October 7th atrocities and what one may learn from attending to them as well.

To stress again: this doesn’t settle anything, not for me, and I believe not for any reasonable person, regarding the justification of Israel’s actions. However, this cannot and shouldn’t be ignored and omitted from this discussion in the way this post does.

TF Rector
TF Rector
Reply to  AGC
27 days ago

Your reply reads as if Hamas launched its attack out of the blue, for no reason at all. While this doesn’t mean Hamas’ actions were justified (obviously they were not) the pre Oct 7 circumstances are extremely salient and relevant here. It is very puzzling that a post encouraging us to attend to the realities of the horrors of Oct 7 says nothing at all about the sorts of political and material conditions that might lead to the emergence and action of radicalized violent groups, and what one may learn from attending to those conditions as well—how they came about, and who is imposing them.

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  TF Rector
26 days ago

It’s ironic that one must apparently be very sensitive to the Oct 7 attacks when discussing the current carnage being inflicted on Palestinians (and there is nothing wrong with that, it was a horrible atrocity) but at the same time, one must not take a single step further back than that!

Junior Faculty
Junior Faculty
Reply to  Another Philosopher
25 days ago

How far back is one allowed to go? If a conflict has been continuing on and off for a thousand years, can an incident 500 years ago really be relevant to the morality of a current crisis?

There is no statue of limitations in war, but it doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable to limit one’s self to incidents that have a direct and immediate bearing on the current crisis, namely the incidents that can justify a counterattack in self-defense. Incidents from long ago are not ‘supreme emergencies’ because the emergency has passed with time, and a counterattack so long afterwards would be an immoral act of revenge, not self-defense.

andy
andy
Reply to  Junior Faculty
23 days ago

I think it’s important to bear in mind that Israel’s current project is *retaliatory*, not *defensive*. The October 7 attack already happened, it’s over, there is no way to defend from it anymore.

andy
andy
Reply to  andy
23 days ago

E.g. the US attack on Afghanistan was of course not purely aggressive–in the sense that it was not unprovoked–but it was not a defensive war, as if they were repelling Al Qaeda from their borders.

exhausted.
exhausted.
Reply to  andy
23 days ago

So the US’s attack on Afghanistan was (partly) defensive (i.e., “not purely aggressive”), whereas Israel’s counterattack against Hamas is “not *defensive*.” Surely you don’t believe this. The US was “repelling Al Qaeda from [its] borders,” but Israel is not doing anything comparable regarding Hamas or Arab League militias? You must be joking.

andy
andy
Reply to  exhausted.
23 days ago

You misunderstood my comment. I don’t think the Israeli attack is purely aggressive, either. It is in response to a provocation. I wasn’t trying to distinguish between the two examples in that regard; they are similar. The US was *not* repelling Al Qaeda from its borders, as I said.

Last edited 23 days ago by andy
exhausted.
exhausted.
Reply to  andy
23 days ago

Although the day 10/7/23 has passed, Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel, hold Israelis hostage, and reject ceasefire deals. The notion that Israel has not been defending itself and, more to the point, its citizens—which is not to say that it’s not also engaged in morally questionable retaliatory action—is a product of (easily remedied) ignorance or (likely less easily remedied) dishonesty.

andy
andy
Reply to  exhausted.
23 days ago

Strictly speaking, Hamas has repeatedly–like, many times–offered to return hostages, but Israel usually rejects the offers.

The idea that Israel’s main objective here is to recover the hostages is just laughable, and I hope I don’t need to describe why. In any case, it stretches the meaning of “defensive” to describe an incursion to recover hostages that way. Had Hamas tried to break Palestinians in administrative detention out of Israeli prisons it would not be realistically characterized as defensive. I just think the semantics here are important because “defensive” implies that Israel has no choice in its course of action, which is plainly not the case.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think the rocket fire began until after Israel retaliated for the 10/7 attack.

Last edited 23 days ago by andy
Dan
Dan
Reply to  andy
22 days ago

You are wrong. The October 7 attack began with thousends of Hamas rockets fired into Israel. (Wikepdia: “At around 6:30 a.m. on 7 October 2023, Hamas announced the start of what it called “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood”, stating it had fired over 5,000 rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel within a span of 20 minutes.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel%E2%80%93Hamas_war

But why does that matter? Were you trying to suggest that Hamas’ firing the rockets was retaliatory too (or perhaps would you say “defensive”)?

Also, you say

I think it’s important to bear in mind that Israel’s current project is *retaliatory*, not *defensive*. The October 7 attack already happened, it’s over, there is no way to defend from it anymore.

I wasn’t completely sure if you’re being serious here or not. Sadly, Israel cannot now defend itself from the October 7 attack. But it can defend itself from the next one(s). The fact that the past is already gone doesn’t mean we cannot do things regarding the future. And learning about what had happened in the past can give us indications of what might happen in the future. I hope this helps.

Tena
Tena
Reply to  AGC
24 days ago

My focus, in the essay, on Gaza did not come from any place of indifference to the horrific atrocities committed on October 7th.  I fully agree with you that we should have empathy for the victims on both sides of this war. I recognize that Israelis, too, have suffered enormously.

The main reason for my focus on Gaza is that the horrors being experienced there are ongoing and can be stopped with a ceasefire. Every day that we allow this war to continue on, 100+ children in Gaza are being violently killed. I think it is appropriate to focus one’s moral attention more on *stopping* an *ongoing* atrocity than on reflecting on a past one. (Of course, the plight of the hostages is ongoing, but as I point out in the essay, this provides us with a further moral reason to support a ceasefire.)

Second, there is of course the difference in scale. Close to half a million people in Gaza may die by the end of this year.

Nick
26 days ago

I actually think this author’s principle is correct: if your gaze is systematically directed away from the actual phenomena about which you are moralizing, you cannot be a trustworthy moral informant. I absolutely agree that pro-choicers should be able to look at pictures of dismembered fetuses. If you support factory farming, you should be able to walk around a factory farm and continue your support. None of this is a sufficient condition for moral understanding but it is definitely a necessary one.

The devil is in the details: which pictures are we to be shown? For most global conflicts, someone will be able to haul out an image of several dead children, and for this conflict, as others have noted, the archive of photos from both sides stretches back a century. In such cases, how do we adjudicate between the warring emotional reactions we will have? The theoretician has an easy answer: retreat to the numbers and the principles. But since this author doesn’t want theory, I wonder: from where does she draw her moral confidence? Personally, my confidence is bolstered by such principles as: defensive violence must be proportionate, which Israel seems to be violating, horribly.

Any random child in Gaza is able to see the moral reality of this war with more clarity, and speak about it with more sense, than most of us are able to muster. 

And the child in Israel, still mourning her parents killed on Oct 7? If she says “kill them all!” is she “speaking with sense”? If not, why not?

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nick
26 days ago

Since the principle, ‘Defensive violence must be proportionate’, is meant to be crucial to your thinking, I think much more needs to be said about it.
 
Suppose we have two nations, A and B. A launches a brutal terrorist attack within the borders of B, in which n civilians are targeted (chosen more or less at random from other civilian targets) and brutally murdered. A makes clear that it will
repeat these attacks indefinitely, with the aim of wiping out B entirely. Moreover, A has taken several hostages from B, making the need for B to respond especially urgent. A also sends missiles into B, more or less indiscriminately.
 
B then sends forces into A. But the fighters in A openly take refuge in densely-populated areas, including hospitals and schools, in violation of international law and just war theory. This greatly increases the number of civilians on the A side
that are killed in the fighting.
 
Now comes the question about the defensive violence being proportionate. A has already committed an act of extreme violence against innocent civilians of B, and has sworn to repeat these attacks indefinitely. Let’s say that the total number of B civilians A killed in that terrorist attack is n. Well, at a certain point in the ensuing fighting in A, under the circumstances I have described, the reports (by A) of the A people killed has now reached n. By this principle of
proportionality, what has to happen? Do the soldiers of B now need to stop all hostilities and return to B, where everyone must sit and wait until A carries out the next promised massacre? If so, then why is this the principle? It seems
very strange to me, and I’ve never heard of such a principle before.

Or is the idea instead that there is some multiple of n – maybe 2n or 7n or 20n – of people who may legitimately be killed under such circumstances under the rules of proportionality you are invoking, after which everyone has to
immediately pack up, return to B, and hope for the best? If so, then how do you arrive at this multiplying number, and what happens if (say) A is under the power of a force that doesn’t care much at all about the welfare of the people of A, and is ready to sacrifice any number of As if it means they can destroy more Bs? In that case, the leadership of A just needs to engage in a way that maximizes fatalities to its own civilians, after which it can point out that the multiple has now been reached, and send the B soldiers back home until the
As are ready to launch the next attack against B civilians? This would be a very easy system for a truly evil regime to exploit.

Or do you mean something else by the principle that defensive violence must be proportionate? If so, then what, please?

Really?
Really?
Reply to  Justin Kalef
26 days ago

It’s incredible to me that we can get this far into a discussion of what’s going on without saying one word about the occupation. 

Indeed, Justin’s summary explicitly misrepresents the reality of Israel-Gaza by describing what’s going on as a war between “nations.” No, it’s not a war between adjacent nations. It’s a war between an occupied population and an occupying force. And frankly, it’s not even clear to me that what’s going is a “war”–let alone a “defensive” one–as opposed to a campaign of gratuitous retribution against a trapped and essentially defenseless population. 

Look, 10/7 was an anomaly. It was only possible because of a massive intelligence failure on the part of the Israelis which, I daresay, they are unlikely to repeat. Rhetoric notwithstanding, I see no reason to think that Hamas is *currently* in a position to repeat 10/7. In particular, I see no reason to think that purely defensive measures–such as restoring and fortifying the Gaza border, actually paying attention to intelligence reports of Hamas military rehearsals, etc.–would not suffice to reduce the risk of a repeat attack to something negligible. At the very least, the contrary assumptions need to be defended. It simply will not do to accept as gospel truth that (1) Hamas *currently* poses a non-negligible risk of killing large numbers of Israeli civilians, and that (2) only large-scale violence within the interior of Gaza can reduce that risk to an acceptable level. 

What would this discussion look like if we took seriously the reality of the 56-year occupation and the profound asymmetry of power between Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and the occupation forces arrayed against them? I presume this would not disturb deontological judgments about the categorical impermissibility of 10/7’s atrocities. But I also suspect that some forms of resistance, even through force, would appear justified on the part of the Palestinians. And I suspect that it would appear much more plausible that the people most trying to defend themselves in this story are the A’s.

Really?
Really?
Reply to  Really?
26 days ago

PS. And please don’t repeat the line that Israel stopped occupying Gaza in 2007. The consensus view of people who’ve looked into this is that Gaza remains under de facto Israeli occupation. That’s why it’s counted as part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/gaza-israel-occupied-international-law/

And this isn’t just an appeal to authority. As we all know, Israel has maintained control over the airspace above Gaza, the waters adjacent to Gaza, and the entry and exit of people and goods to and from Gaza. They wouldn’t be able to do what they’re currently doing if those forms of control were not already in place.

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Really?
26 days ago

I think bringing up the occupation is important in assessing the conflict as a whole, and what should happen going forward. But I am unsure how relevant it is for the points Justin has made, regarding Israel’s current war as being a war of self-defense and perhaps (he suggests) a justified one.

Even taking into account Israel’s occupation, Israeli citizens—especially, or perhaps only those who live within the 1948 borders, such as the ones who were attacked on Oct 7 and who are threatened by Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza—have a right to be protected, and Israel has a right, and probably a duty, to protect them. This seems me true regardless of whether this is a conflict between nations or between an occupying force and an occupied population.

In other words, if your (1) and (2) are true, i.e., if it’s true that

(1) Hamas *currently* poses a non-negligible risk of killing large numbers of Israeli civilians, and that (2) only large-scale violence within the interior of Gaza can reduce that risk to an acceptable level. 

then I think Israel is justified in launching a large-scale war campaign, even if the West Bank and Gaza are occupied territories. (I’m unsure that the emphasis in (1) on *currently* is crucial—what if Hamas poses a non-negligible risk of killing large numbers of Israeli civilians within a year or a decade? While the timing of the future attack might have some weight, it doesn’t seem to me a decisive factor here.)

So I think everything hinges on these empirical questions (regarding (1) and (2)). These seem to me like very difficult questions.

Regarding (1), as of October, Hamas has been estimated to have 25,000-40,000 militants. (For the lower estimate, see here: https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/12/26/a-future-look-back-at-israels-war-on-hamas/ ; for the higher estimate, see here: https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/how-hamas-secretly-built-mini-army-fight-israel-2023-10-13/.) These numbers are more than ten times the number of militants involved in the Oct 7 attack. These numbers are not enough to militarily defeat Israel, of course, but they can still pose a non-negligible risk of killing a large number of Israeli civilians, on the magnitude of Oct 7 or even larger. Restoring and fortifying the Gaza border, and paying attention to intelligence reports of Hamas military rehearsals are of course things that Israel should do. But it’s very difficult to assess whether it’s enough. Israel has been fortifying the Gaza border these last few decades and had some intelligence reports on the attack. But as we all know, this wasn’t enough. Who can guarantee this—or something of larger magnitude—won’t happen again? And I don’t know if Israel’s population can stand, economically and socially, the costs of putting tens of thousands of troops on the ground for decades on the Gaza border (and this is without mentioning the possibility of conflicts in other areas).

I’m personally more pessimistic regarding (2). It’s
unclear to me whether Israel can win this war by using force and significantly de-arm Hamas and the other militant groups (though I’m no military expert by any means). Israel said it killed roughly 10,000 Hamas militants by now (8,000 as of a month ago, e.g., here: https://www.skynews.com.au/world-news/global-affairs/around-8000-hamas-fighters-killed-in-gaza-war-says-idf-spokesman/video/1bc009f0e121da67ff8671cebe72c1e0). But I don’t know how productive this is, given that Israel’s actions in Gaza will likely lead even more civilians to join the armed groups.
It’s also unclear whether, even if it could have succeeded, using such a force was the *only* means Israel had for ensuring its citizens’ security. Though, regrettably, Hamas’ actions have boosted its support within the Palestinian population, both in Gaza and even more so in the West Bank. So it’s hard to assess how this might be resolved in one peace effort or another, given that Hamas is strongly committed to eradicating Israel, opposes the two-state solution, and has threatened to repeat Oct 7 over and over again.

All of this is to say, this seems to me like a horrible and extremely complicated situation, highly dependent on difficult empirical questions that I don’t think can be settled so confidently and easily. And this while acknowledging Israel’s occupation and its duty to end it.

Really?
Really?
Reply to  Phil
25 days ago

Phil, thanks for engaging with the substance of the post. You’re certainly right to point out that both (1) and (2) are contingent empirical claims, and that at least with respect to (1), there are reasons to think that Hamas might indeed have the capacity to harm more Israeli civilians in the near future. (Regarding “currently,” I take risk to be future-directed such that if there’s a non-negligible chance of a brutal attack in a year then there’s currently a non-negligible risk of a brutal attack).

Admittedly speculating, I find it much less plausible that massive violence within Gaza is either necessary or for that matter sufficient to reduce the risk of another 10/7 to an acceptable level. Not necessary for the reasons given, and not sufficient if for no other reason than that it will give a whole generation of Gazans psychologically compelling reasons to hate Israel.

The more general point I was trying to get at was about the framing of the issue. I think one contribution philosophers can make to these discussions is to point out when substantive normative conclusions get into the discussion by way of presupposition when in fact they should be explicitly asserted and defended. In particular, I think philosophers should challenge the presupposition that what’s going on falls under any plausible conception of the right to self-defense, and indeed whether what’s going on is even accurately described as a “war” in the first place, given the scale and asymmetry of the suffering caused by this campaign.

andy
andy
Reply to  Phil
23 days ago

I do think in this context that it’s important to differentiate between preemption and defense. Israel’s actions are not defending against the October 7 attack–that already happened and they failed to defend against it. Engaging in military activity to preclude *possible future* attacks is simply preemption. What Israel is doing right now can be described as preemptive or retaliatory, but not defensive.

There are arguments justifying retaliatory or preemptive attacks. But the right to defend against actual, imminent violence is different from a theoretical right to preempt broadly possible future violence.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Kalef
26 days ago

I deliberately did not day anything about the nations or people involved. I called the two parties A and B. If you think that A and B, as I have described them, do not adequately represent Israel and the people of Gaza, that’s fine: I said nothing about that empirical question. I deliberately bracketed the empirical question so that I could ask about the principle of proportionality that was invoked. Could someone please explain that principle by answering my question about the case I gave involving A and B?

Really?
Really?
Reply to  Justin Kalef
25 days ago

False. The first statement of Justin’s hypothetical is: “Suppose we have two nations, A and B.” I take this statement to imply that A, which is the intended stand-in for Gaza, is a nation.

But Gaza (A) is not a nation. It’s a territory that’s occupied by another nation–namely Israel (B). And although there is a spectrum of reasonable views about how Gaza’s status as an occupied territory impacts the moral assessment of what’s going on, no reasonable view would hold that it makes no difference to the moral assessment whether we’re dealing with a conflict between two sovereign nations or between a territory occupied by a sovereign nation and the sovereign nation that’s doing the occupying.

Sorry, but the reality of the occupation isn’t something you can just “bracket” as an “empirical question.” And it’s certainly not something you can stipulate out of existence by falsely characterizing the current campaign as a war between nations. Try again.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Really?
25 days ago

“Try again” — how utterly arrogant.

I’ll repeat myself. What I gave is an abstract case intended to give people room to provide the details of the principle that is meant to be at play here in a way that is plausible. Once again: i have not said that two parties here are Israel and the people of Gaza. I am deliberately abstracting away from the empirical details here so that the ethical question can be addressed.

The entire point of ethical or political philosophy is to critically explore the normative principles that apply in such cases, so that we can address practical cases in a principled way — a way that doesn’t require us to answer the question “Would this be just?” by first peeking out from under the blindfold to see which side we want to come out on top.

Really?
Really?
Reply to  Justin Kalef
25 days ago

I will try to explain, at a lower temperature, what the objection is. I do apologize for the last remark, which was uncalled for.

The objection is two-fold.

First, if we assume that “the ethical question” about Israel’s campaign in Gaza is what principle correctly identifies the conditions in which defensive violence is proportionate and justified, what we are implicitly presupposing is that Israel’s campaign in Gaza is plausibly characterized as “defensive violence.” If Israel’s campaign in Gaza is not plausibly characterized as “defensive violence,” then it is irrelevant to the moral evaluation of that campaign what principle identifies the conditions in which defensive violence is proportionate and justified. Further, I claim that it is not at all clear that what Israel is doing in Gaza can plausibly be called “defensive violence.” At the very least, this is a characterization needs to be argued for. It cannot be presupposed as a starting point of the discussion.

Second, understanding that you don’t intend the A-and-B story to capture *all* the empirical details of Israel and Gaza, if you treat–as an “empirical detail” which can be “bracketed”–the fact that Gaza has been subjected to a military occupation by Israel for 56 years, you are not just leaving out an important and morally relevant aspect of the situation. You are also, in particular, omitting from the discussion an aspect of the situation that seriously calls into question the presupposition that Israel’s violence against people in Gaza is really “defensive.”

In other words, the assumption about what moral principles are relevant and applicable to Israel-Gaza, and the characterization of the abstract case in terms that either negate (“nations”) or omit to mention the fact of the occupation, work in tandem. Together, they important by presupposition a substantive normative characterization of what’s going on which needs to be made explicit and defended, because there are good reasons to think it may be false.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Really?
25 days ago

Thank you for the apology.

While there are many things here (like the claim that Gaza is now under an ‘occupation’) that are at the very least contested, none of that has to do with what I’ve been asking about.

What I’m asking about is a clarification of the principle of proportionality that is apparently meant to do so much justificatory work here. I still don’t see that clarification anywhere.

Really?
Really?
Reply to  Justin Kalef
25 days ago

Thank you. And I have explained why asking when defensive violence is proportional is simply asking the wrong question, if the Gaza campaign is not a defensive war in the first place, but rather–as it would appear to many people–a massacre of a trapped and largely defenseless population. I would also add that Gaza’s status as occupied, while contested, is not credibly contested, and I have given sources in support of that claim.

Having said all that, I agree with you that–putting aside Israel-Gaza for a moment–it is indeed an interesting philosophical question under what conditions defensive violence is proportional. And certainly, anyone who invokes that principle, in whatever context, needs to explain what they mean by it.

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Justin Kalef
25 days ago

To Justin K.:
It is not a question of simply comparing numbers of civilians and combatants killed on each side. The more relevant question is: does a brutal terrorist attack on country A morally permit A to enter militarily the territory B from which the attack came, and create an enormous humanitarian catastrophe that has effectively shut down even basic medical care and is threatening famine, has destroyed much of the housing stock in B, has displaced close to 2 million people, in addition to killing and wounding large numbers of civilians, and has likely seriously scarred every child in B, even the ones who have avoided physical injury?

To put the same point differently: the terrorist attack on Oct. 7 and the way in which Hamas embeds itself in the civilian population do not allow a response of the kind the IDF has mounted, not mainly because that response is “disproportionate” but because its character, to use an old phrase from customary international law, shocks the conscience. So did Oct. 7, but one cannot respond to one set of actions that shock the conscience with another set of actions that do the same, and on an even larger scale.

P.s. These remarks may lack, in your view, philosophical rigor, but I think that quality, when it comes to making judgments about certain situations, is somewhat overrated. (And since I’m not a philosopher, I can say that without fearing collegial disapproval.)

Emeritus
Emeritus
26 days ago

If Hamas wants an immediate ceasefire, Hamas needs only to return the hostages. But they don’t want to because they don’t want to interrupt the global protests directed against Israel. If Palestinians want an immediate ceasefire as they should, they should pressure Hamas to return the hostages and stop allowing Hamas to conduct terrorist operations from their civilian quarters. But Palestinians are supporting Hamas in greater numbers now and defying Hamas can’t possibly result in more suffering than what they are experiencing now.
 
Returning hostages is a much more plausible action than waiting for Israel to pack it up and go somewhere else, as if they have anywhere else to go to, or even to write off their hostages as lost. However for Hamas and the Palestinians, apparently their losses haven’t been so great that they would do this one extremely simple thing of returning hostages who’s lives don’t mean anything to them. They would rather have the publicity.
 
No doubt the hostage return would not end the conflict dating back for decades and even centuries. The conflict is too long to examine every skirmish in its history in an attempt to determine which side’s turn it is to retaliate. Retaliation isn’t even morally permissible under any reasonable theory of war, only self defense in the service of military objectives and while success is still possible. It also matters little that one side was a moral innocent at the beginning of the conflict hundreds of years ago when both sides now have bloody hands.
 
But first things first, we need a ceasefire that is not conditional on having some grand plan to achieve a sustainable peace between these ancient enemies. True peace is a much tougher feat for another day and we need to stop the bleeding now. Everyone admits that Hamas was in the wrong in its October 7 terrorist attacks, therefore it shouldn’t be controversial to call for them to return their hostages. Even if Hamas doesn’t believe a hostage return will stop Israel’s aggression, it is worth a try if they truly value Palestinian lives.

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Emeritus
26 days ago

I agree with most of what you’ve said, but I have one small correction: Hamas does seem to be willing to return the hostages (and get all of the Palestinian prisoners in return) in exchange for a ‘permanent’ cease-fire and the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from Gaza (as it was up until Oct 6). It’s Israel that is reluctant to do so while insisting (quite understandably, I think) that Hamas’ leadership should be surrendered, exiled, and removed from power. In general, such an exchange of hostages for prisoners is traumatic for Israelis, as Yahya Sinwar, one of the Hamas leaders said to be responsible for planning the Oct 7 attack (along with around a thousand militants/terrorists), was released in such a deal in 2011 in exchange for Gilad Shalit. However, Israelis now seem to be willing to pay this price, but only if this deal also includes the removal from power of the Hamas leadership (which Hamas, of course, rejects).

So, paraphrasing you, I would say that since everyone agrees (or should agree) that Hamas was in the wrong on its Oct 7 attack, it shouldn’t be controversial to call for them to return the hostages *and remove themselves from power*. Even if Hamas doesn’t believe this will stop Israel’s aggression, it is worth a try if they truly value Palestinian lives (which, as they unashamedly admit, they don’t, e.g, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdmtfRj6KX0).

Junior Faculty
Junior Faculty
Reply to  Phil
25 days ago

I agree that those involved with the Hamas attack on October 7 should give themselves up, but they can hardly be expected to do so. Hamas has already paid a heavy price that may be equivalent anyway.

It’s similarly unrealistic to expect that Hamas can demand anything else from Israel beyond an immediate ceasefire after returning hostages it had taken on October 7. To stop the bleeding as it were, a rational actor would *surrender* this particular battle, but not necessarily the war, in the face of its heavy losses. They’re so heavy that Israel was charged with genocide!

I don’t know if Israel said it would stop its indiscriminate retaliation if hostages are returned, but it’s an interesting idea and does appear to be worth a try for everyone’s sake. Israel would face even greater international pressures if it doesn’t stop after getting the hostages back. Its losses have long been eclipsed by the amount of innocent Palestinian victims, meaning its desire for revenge should be satisfied after the hostages are returned.

Matt Murphy
Matt Murphy
Reply to  Junior Faculty
16 days ago

Firstly, Israel was never “charged” with genocide. Secondly, they are not “indiscriminate[ly]” retaliating. They are at war and conducting military operations in a warzone. Surely, when the Russians entered Berlin, they were not “indiscriminately” retaliating. Hamas is trying to blend in with citizens, which is something that the international community has determined to be unacceptable on several occasions.

Lastly, the blood of all these Palestinians is on Hamas’ hands. My second point is one reason, but at the end of the day, the real reason is because of what Hamas ordered on October 7th. Citizens worldwide have rejoiced and, in doing so, have shown us the true face of their home countries (and perhaps Islam itself).
The first point you made seems to overlook all of this. How does it make sense to say that they have already paid too great a cost when hundreds of the perpetrators are still out there? Surely, the wrong people have paid the cost, but again, that is precisely what Hamas wanted.

It is very sad to see Philosophers not consider the ramifications of wars they are commenting on. For instance, suppose Hamas won the war. The saying “If Hamas laid down their weapons, there would be peace; if Israel laid down theirs, there would be no more Israel” is assuredly true (assuming Israel never picked their weapons back up), but that doesn’t even capture the full picture of what would unfold. What would happen to the Israeli Arabs? Surely they would not suffer the same fate as Israeli Jews (death, torture, rape, etc.)
So, I ask you to take some time to reflect and ask yourself which side is the one supporting genocide.

CHEYNEY RYAN
CHEYNEY RYAN
26 days ago

I think that Tena Thau overgeneralizes somewhat about the abstractness of today’s philosophical writing on war. For example, the work of many younger scholars today influenced by feminism speaks directly to the firsthand experience of war, especially of the most vulnerable; see, for example, the work of Regina Surber, Lea-Ann Chae, and Graham Parsons. At the risk of self-promotion, I would reference my own recent article “The Lament of the Demobilized” in How To End a War: Essays on Justice, Peace, and Repair (Cambridge U Press), where I introduce experiences of war in graphic detail in part to raise the question of the philosophical force that such appeals to graphic experiences should possess. Any approach, like war-as-trolley-problems, can be taken too far; but war is such a multifaceted phenomenon that it requires multiple approaches to capture its full evil.

Mehrdad
Mehrdad
25 days ago

I think there is something good and something bad in the argument.

The good part is that reiterating false empirical claims, such as the claim that Israel faces an existential threat, or omitting important empirical truths, makes a philosophical discourse harmful for the general culture. This point is very important. Another example that comes to my mind, are a plethora of philosophical articles defending parents’ right to circumcising their children. None of the authors of these articles show any sign of having met ten adult males who were circumcised as an infant and nowadays are very angry about this and go through very lengthy and hard processes to “restore” something resembling their lost foreskin. Philosophers who omit this crucial empirical fact help sustain a wrong framing of the issue (and thereby wrong male infants and male adults who experience dysphoria in result of their postnatal circumcision), although qua philosophers they may argue that they didn’t intend to adjudicate facts of the matter and only wanted to add some philosophical remark based on a set of presumed empirical facts.

The bad idea is the part about pictures. Pictures and vivid descriptions are not guides to moral truth. As other people have mentioned in the comments, both sides to this conflict have a century of pictures. It is principles and arguments that can adjudicate the matter, not pictures.

Chris Bertram
Chris Bertram
25 days ago

Thank you Thena Thau. It may be of interest that the central thought of this essay was anticipated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his unpublished essay “Principles of the Right of War” (also sometimes translated as “The State of War’), particularly in its opening paragraph.

Daniel
Daniel
25 days ago

In the spirit of the original post, I would recommend this essay to anyone who has a few minutes. An analytical assessment of what’s going on in Gaza, from a Palestinian-American perspective, which also attempts to do justice to the phenomenology of living there now. (From late October but very much still relevant).

https://www.nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/no-human-being-can-exist/