Moral Equivalence?

The other day, I was having dinner with several friends. Two of them, call them Bill and Joe, were having an argument. Bill said, “Joe, your position is wrong! It implies that there is a moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians.”

I think Bill went seriously astray in his statement. Since he is a smart man and since his mistake seems common, it may be fruitful to examine it more closely.

The first problem is that the phrase “moral equivalence” is itself empty of meaning. There is no measurable amount of immorality that allows us to decide when immoral acts are equivalent. Of course, Bill might protest that he was only speaking loosely, and that even if we can’t measure immorality, we can judge some acts worse than others.

We can grant the argument while noting that it is quite beside the point. Let’s say that my neighbor hit my kid with a shovel. In revenge I hide in the bushes and throw a stick at his kid when he passes on his bike. (Perhaps my neighbor is armed and generally violent, and I’m afraid to confront him directly.) We might judge that my action was not as bad as my neighbor’s was. But so what? What I did was still wrong, and no sort of moral calculus can make it right. The point of moral reasoning is to arrive at the right thing to do, not the “less wrong than the other guy” thing to do.

Similarly, we can utterly condemn suicide bombings, perhaps even asserting that they are worse than any Israeli actions, while at the same time pointing out that it is wrong for Israel to hold the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank prisoner in response. Just retaliation must come against one’s attackers, not against anyone who happens to be ethnically, geographically, or politically associated with those attackers. To contend otherwise relies on a collectivist notion of guilt and punishment. The people who put forward such a notion with respect to residents of other countries would never suggest that the same kind of logic be applied within their own country. The folks who argue for nuking Mecca in response to a terror attack never, to my knowledge, called for nuking Montana in response to the Unabomber’s attacks.

A red herring sometimes brought forward to counter the above argument runs as follows: When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, should we have retaliated only against the particular pilots who had undertaken the attack, and not the entire Japanese military/country? Well, there are two separate questions packed in there, and it is important to unpack them.

The Japanese military forms what Michael Oakeshott calls an enterprise association – a group formed around a common purpose to achieve specific ends, and in which one must either work to achieve the stated ends or cease to be a part of the group. (E.g., in the case of the Japanese military, one end to be achieved in 1941 was the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. No Japanese soldier could maintain that he didn’t want to take part in conquering East Asia, but would still like to remain in the army, please.) Further, in so far as an individual is acting under direction of the enterprise as a whole, whether that direction is arrived at by a vote or by command from the top, the entire enterprise is responsible for the action taken. Only if the Japanese military had immediately denounced the pilots as traitors and offered the US compensation would the attack not have been the responsibility of the entire organization. Thus, the US military was entirely justified in attacking the entire Japanese military, not just the specific pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor. (I’m deliberately setting aside the controversial issue of whether the US government goaded Japan into attacking.)

However, an entire society, like Japan’s, is not an enterprise association, but a civil association, united not by a single common purpose but by adherence to a lex, a system of law. It is an error to ascribe to the entire society blame for some particular activity undertaken by a group within that society. Even if support for Japan’s military conquests was widespread in Japan, it certainly was not universal. Retaliation against those not in the military, such as the bombing of civilian targets, ignores this important distinction.

However, we can go even further in rejecting much of what passes for foreign policy wisdom today. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we were to accept the collectivist idea of retaliation. Surely we would at least demand that the retaliation dealt out to people who just happen to be from the same area as a group of aggressors should be effective. However, as Eric Margolis points out, it is quite likely that our attack on Afghanistan has made us more, not less, susceptible to attack. A similar bit of fishy reasoning I’ve seen several times since 9/11 is that the US must adopt Israel’s hard-line stance for dealing with terror. Say what?! The US suffers a few terrorist attacks a decade. Meanwhile, Israel gets attacked every week or so. So we should adopt their policy?

Clear thinking isn’t always easy in a crisis, but there’s no time when it’s more important.

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives