The Moral Equivalence Fallacy

Mike Liccione has a good post up at Sacramentum Vitae on the war in Israel and Lebanon. I've never fully understood why it is that some folks are more than willing to heap all sorts of opprobrium on the Israelis while saying nothing at all about the doings on the other side (or worse, making the other side out to be the only victim), but I suspect that Keith Burgess-Jackson has isolated at least one reason: anti-semitism is more popular with leftist academics than s'mores at a Scout camp. Now, the blame-Israel-first tendency does not always signal anti-semitism, and of course one is not an anti-semite merely for disliking a particular policy of a particular government in Israel, but when it is as unrelenting as one finds in certain quarters, it is rather difficult to come to any other conclusion. If we combine this with curiously intense disquisitions on the "true nature of Islam" and on the disconnect between today's Israelis and the "Hebrews" of the Old Testament, well, the plot thickens.

The idea that there is some kind of moral equivalence between the state of Israel and Hezbollah is risible, and yet this is an idea that appears to underlie most of the thinking about what ought to happen next over there. The facts are rather simple: Israel, a sovereign state, was unjustly attacked by a radical group of terrorist thugs hiding behind human shields in foreign territory. That Israel should do nothing is not just silly, it is dangerous, since it only encourages further attacks. Much has been made of the disparity in the casualty rates in Lebanon and Israel, but it seems rather out of place to judge the ius in bello by such a measure. The Germans, after all, suffered far greater civilian losses during World War II than did the allies (though not for lack of trying on the part of the Germans), but it would be unreasonable to suggest that for that reason the allies were unjust in their prosecution of the war. This is not to suggest that civilian casualties are acceptable tout court, only that they must be balanced against the intentions of the agents who cause them and the proportionality with the end(s) sought. According to Humanae Vitae it is never acceptable intentionally to do a wrong, even in order to bring about some good; but when all courses of action have some negative effects, the principle of double effect can be invoked.

Calls for a cease-fire seem to presuppose that there is some good end to be gained either by negotiating with terrorists or by appeasing them. Since it is no secret that this war was underwritten by Iran, whose president has called for the "annihilation" of the state of Israel, the initial U.S. policy of giving Israel some time to inflict some damage on Hezbollah seems reasonable. But this policy, as reasonable as it is from the point of view of justification of tactics, will nevertheless backfire in the end. Mike puts it succinctly and well, as usual:
By adopting a military stance that interweaves combatants and their weapons among civilians as well as buildings designed for peaceful purposes, Hezbollah makes it impossible for Israel to fight for victory without killing civilians—many of whom are innocent—and destroying Lebanon's infrastructure. Israel has not let that stop her, of course; nor could she, if she is to achieve anything useful. The result: many innocent civilians are dying and Lebanon is being set back decades. That makes Israel, even more than Hezbollah, seem cruel and immoral—even though Israel would rather not kill civilians and uses precision bombs in an effort to avoid such deaths while Hezbollah, having no such scruples, fires volleys of rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian targets. Thus is Hezbollah winning the propaganda war among the constituencies it most cares about: the Arab "street" and the Left around the world, on whom it's counting to help bring the IDF to heel via the White House.
It's too bad the Left is populated by so many suckers, but it's not all that surprising, given their track record.


Apollodorus said…
According to Humanae Vitae it is never acceptable intentionally to do a wrong, even in order to bring about some good; but when all courses of action have some negative effects, the principle of double effect can be invoked.

Part of the principle of double effect, if I understand it correctly, is that the foreseen negative effects of an action should be proportionate to the good. I don't know all the details of every bomb that Israel has dropped, but I very seriously doubt that the evil they are causing is proportionate to the good. If nothing else, we can point to more than 600 dead civilians in Lebanon, with more than 500,000 displaced, and note that Hezbollah seems to have been more or less completely unaffected by these 'strategic' bombings. So the good that has come about from their bombs is, well, obscure at best, and it's hard to see how it would be proportionate to the evil that the bombing has directly caused. Furthermore, I don't think that the principle of double effect could legitimate a course of action when some other course of action which would involve less harm was available; I don't know exactly what that might have been in this case, but I really doubt that much of this bombing has been the only realistic course of action for Israel to take.

Nobody should claim that Israel and Hezbollah are morally equivalent. Nobody should claim that Hezbollah's actions are acceptable. As far as I can tell, Hezbollah actually admits to directly targetting Israeli civilians, and I can't imagine very many scenarios in which that could even begin to seem like an acceptable move. But accusing those of us who find Israel's actions unacceptable of being anti-Semites is just a tired way of avoiding any direct defense of the legitimacy of Israel's actions. I could just as easily write a bunch of stuff about how all you conservatives are just so in love with Israel and the Jews that you've given them a free pass to do anything whatsoever, and even if that were true, it would be irrelevant to the question of whether or not their actions are in fact acceptable. You may be right in your claim that negotiating with terrorists is probably not a good course of action, but that fact, if it is one, fails to address the problem which motivates calls for a cease-fire: the Israelis aren't just attacking terrorists, they're attacking a nation and its civilians who are connected to the terrorists less directly than the Israeli civilians are connected to the Israeli government.

So, on all the non-essential points, you're right. On the one big essential point about whether Israel has acted legitimately and whether they should be called upon to stop...well, you've said nothing to persuade me that even the questionable principle of double effect justifies all of Israel's attacks on Lebanon. The issue isn't whether Israel is as bad as Hezbollah; it is whether Israel is acting appropriately or not. For all I can see, the mere fact that Israel would supposedly 'rather not' be killing civilians only makes them less wicked than Hezbollah, but it certainly isn't sufficient to make their actions just.
Lisa Carson said…
Apollodorus, read Charles' Krauthammer's column on the question of proportionality:

He makes it pretty clear, if it weren't already, that Israel is indeed held to a different standard than other countries.

Read around and you will see that people do not so much claim Israel and Hezbollah are morally equivalent as that they make it clear they think Israel is morally inferior. Hence a letter to NPR complaining that NPR stories described Israel as "attacking" Lebanon while Hezbollah was described as "launching rockets into" Israel. And we've seen quite a bit of coverage of civilian casualties and displacements in Lebanon; when have you seen the same in coverage of Israel. It's old news there. Plus it's Jews. Sorry, but it's so. Study the history of Israel's treatment by the UN and it is very clear that that august institution panders to its anti-semitic members at every opportunity.

I confess to feeling that it is very tiresome to see Israel constantly reviled. That is what Scott it talking about.

Another blogger worth reading on this subject:

Mark Steyn also has intelligent things to say about such matters, always, at

Lisa Carson
Apollodorus said…
Krauthammer hasn't answered my objections any more than anyone else has, I'm afraid. I realize that plenty of people are throwing around the term 'proportionality' in a loose sort of way, and though I don't think Krauthammer has answered them effectively, he hasn't even attempted to answer my complaints about proportionality. My objection is based on my understanding of the principle of double effect as it has been developed and taught by the Roman Catholic Church and by thinkers outside the Church, both secular and religious. An essential part of that teaching is the insistence that, in order for an action that has some forseen negative effects to be morally permissible, those negative effects must be proportionate to the good that is intended in that same action.

Most people who claim that Israel is acting 'disproportionately' mean to imply that its response has been too severe in comparison to what Hezbollah has done. My objection, however, has nothing to do with any comparison between Israel and Hezbollah; the relevant comparison is between the unintended but forseen negative effects of Israel's actions and the intended good effects of those very same actions. My claim is that, so far as I can see, whatever limited good has been done by them has been nowhere near proportionate to the evil that they have caused for people who are not only civilians, but civilians with no immediate link to Israel's enemy. I also suspect that Israel's actions, or at least some of them, have been unjustified because they did not represent the only reasonable course of action that Israel could take to achieve their admittedly justified goal of self-defense. I can not specify exactly what alternative courses of action Israel may have taken, but I am extremely skeptical that there existed no alternatives with fewer harmful effects for innocent people.

I should add now a third objection, also a part of the principle of double effect: it is not morally permissible to choose evil as a means to a good end. In at least some instances, it seems to me that the Israeli's choice of targets has violated this provision. Bombing Lebanese dairy factories, for instance, in the hopes that harming the economy of Lebanon will eventually harm Hezbollah seems like a fairly clear instance of choosing to perform an action which itself does nothing but harm as a (merely probable) means to some good end. Even if some respectable defense may be made of these actions on the basis of the intended/forseen distinction, I doubt that even these will pass the test of proportionality.

Note that all of my objections rely on elements the principle of double effect. That principle is rightly understood to be a powerful one, because it can justify many actions which would otherwise be impermissible; in fact, I would venture to say that without the principle of double effect, the only justifications for modern methods of warfare would be those made on the basis of national self-interest or utilitarian principles. I find both kinds of considerations highly problematic, and so the distinctions on which double effect is based are attractive. There have been very many sustained arguments made against those distinctions, though, and if they are not sound, then there is probably no moral defense to be made of Israel's actions. I am not entirely confident that the principle of double effect is sound, but an argument based on it which shows that Israel has acted wrongly would still amount to a very strong a fortiori argument even if the principle of double effect were rejected as unsound. Perhaps more importantly, there are other arguments based on other considerations that one might make, but I have not made them here because it seems sufficient to argue on the basis of shared assumptions.

As for the complaints about anti-semitism, I can not really judge the truth of your claims. They really are irrelevant, though, when it comes to evaluating Israel's actions. I would of course prefer if there were no anti-semites in the world and if the U.S. media were more impartial about the subjects it reports on, but I find that it is easier to seek balance by reading multiple sources, and so I have been reading Haaretz (Israeli) and the Daily Star (Lebanese) in addition to the reports from AP and Reuters. I have paid little attention to CNN and the NY Times and the like, though one reason why there may be more coverage of Lebanese civilian casualties than Israeli is that there have been about 900 or so civilian casualties in Lebanon, and about 30 in Israel.

I appreciate your impatience with seeing Israel reviled, but everyone should recognize (as Scott explicitly admits in his post) that a criticism of Israel's actions and decisions is not the same thing as anti-semitism or generalized anti-Israelism. My objections are not based on anti-semitism or on an anti-Israel ideology. I admit that Israel's behavior is more frustrating, but that is precisely because it is a sovereign nation which ought to be held to higher standards. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, and virtually by definition fails to meet any moral standards. I don't remember when I was naive enough to expect such people to observe the principles of justice in war, but I am trying very hard to maintain enough naivete to insist that Israel, a sovereign nation and a fully fledged member of the international community, should be called upon to observe those standards. I'm not quite naive enough to believe that they will, but I can still hope that thoughtful people like you and Scott can be persuaded by honest arguments that they ought to.
Scott Carson said…
I'm not altogether sure why there need by any insistence on the principle of double effect--it is not an official teaching of the Catholic Church at all, and it is not a particularly important moral rule, it is merely a useful hermeneutic for the examination of morally problematic actions. I mentioned it in my blog only as one possible method of analysis among many (note: I wrote that it can be invoked, not that it must be or even ought to be). In some cases it may provide some guidance, but I doubt that it will work in every kind of case.

The problem here is rather obvious: Israel has killed more civilians than has Hezbollah, and this is what people claim they are pissed off about. But I have my doubts that this is really what motivates the animus against Israel. The civilian death toll in Lebanon is not a function of the intentions of the Israelis, since they do not intend to kill any civilians, whereas Hezbollah, apparently, intends to kill only civilians. If we were to apply the principle of double effect, then the Israelis would get off pretty easily, since the PDE says that foreseeable harms must be proportionate to the good to be achieved, and yet nobody could foresee very many civilian deaths given the advance warnings, precision weaponry, and just plain common sense exhibited by most people living in a war zone. The difficulty, of course, is that Hezbollah hides behind civilians and the "civilians" in many parts of Lebanon have no intention of making things easier for the Israelis by finding good hiding places.

While it is true that we may never choose to do evil even in order to bring about a good, there is no reason why we may not choose to do the least evil thing when we are in a situation in which we absolutely must do something and all of our choices involve some negative effect. In the present situation, one can imagine many different possible actions on the part of the Israelis: they could, of course, do nothing at all, or they could continue living their lives as they always had done, relying on international diplomacy etc etc.; or they could do what they are doing now; or they could do something military but not so extensive. I'm sure the list goes on and on. All courses of action may very well involve some negative effect--I doubt that we have any reason to suppose that there is any one course of action that involves only positive effects.

So, let us suppose that whatever we do, there will be somebody somewhere or other who thinks that the effect of what we have done is negative. We have no way of knowing, with any kind of certainty, that the consequences of what they are doing now are in fact the worst possible consequences. We know that civilians are dying, and that is undesireable; but civilians may have died, perhaps even in greater numbers, if the Israelis had done nothing at all and Hezbollah had been more careful aiming their missiles. But we do not know that a certain number of civilian dead is absolutely the worst thing that could possibly happen. The problem here is that the enemy is irrational and unpredictable, and the ordinary rationalizations often employed in "just war" discussions simply do not apply here. Fewer Israeli civilians are dead, but again we have no way of knowing that things would be otherwise had the Israelis acted differently, since the enemy here can do literally anything--they do not see themselves bound by anything so prosaic as moral principles, whether of double effect or any other kind.

You say that Israel should be held to a "higher standard" and I'm sure the irony is unintentional. In point of fact, Israel (and the US, usually) has always been held to a higher standard than any of the other parties in the middle east. No matter what they do, even when what they do is identical to what their own enemies do, they are criticized, while their enemies are portrayed as helpless victims of selfish aggressors. It is true enough that when a pizza parlor is blown up in Israel we will hear about it in the news, but if you really want to hear some caterwauling just wait until Israel decides to do something about that pizza parlor.

It is difficult for me to find fault with the Israelis, who have waited for years and years for the international community to actually do something about the unenforced UN resolutions designed to give them some sort of peace of mind. Instead I am supposed to feel sorry for a nation that has harbored terrorists for years, giving them a platform from which to attack and whining when their victims fight back. I saw a rather telling interview on CNN the other day. A Lebanese blogger calling himself "Muhammed" was talking about how most Lebanese did not sympathize with Hezbollah at all, and that now they do because of what Israel is doing. It's the same old story we heard after 9/11, that it is somehow the fault of the victims, that we somehow bring these terrorist attacks on ourselves. It's interesting to me that he referred to Hezbollah as "our people" and blamed Israel, rather than Hezbollah, for what is going on in Lebanon right now. If the Lebanese people were to decide one day to stop helping Hezbollah and instead to start arresting them and turning them over to the Israelis, I wonder how many Israeli bombs would be falling in Lebanon right now. But of course they can't do that, because they have acquiesced in the arming and strengthening of Hezbollah for many years, and now Hezbollah holds more power in Lebanon than any other single group. But this war is still the fault of the Israelis, somehow.

Well, sure enough, you can't argue with logic like that.
Apollodorus said…
...the PDE says that foreseeable harms must be proportionate to the good to be achieved, and yet nobody could foresee very many civilian deaths given the advance warnings, precision weaponry, and just plain common sense exhibited by most people living in a war zone.

Scott, Israel has been targetting dairy factories, fruit warehouses, and buildings that sit right in the middle of cities. If you really think that the deaths that have resulted from those bombings were not forseeable, then I seriously question whether or not you have retained any capacity for impartiality in this matter. When you decide to bomb a target which contains civilians or is in the middle of an area which contains civilians, then the deaths of those civilians are forseeable. Your faith in the 'advance warnings' sent to poor villagers in a country whose roadways Israel has destroyed strikes me as naive at best, and I honestly hope that you are not seriously trying to suggest that the civilians in Lebanon have been responsible for their own deaths by failing to exhibit 'common sense.'

All courses of action may very well involve some negative effect--I doubt that we have any reason to suppose that there is any one course of action that involves only positive effects.

This response misconstrues my argument, and so fails to meet it. My claim was this: even when an action has forseen negative consequences which are proportionate to the intended good, that action will not be justified when some alternative course of action is available with less severe negative effects. That claim does not entail that there is any alternative course of action which has no negative effects at all. You've taken essentially the same position I have by claiming that the 'least evil' course of action is acceptable. I fail to believe that Israel has taken the 'least evil' course of action available to it, and I am generally far from convinced that Israel's decision to bomb targets with so many forseeable civilian casualties was made in a good faith effort to avoid harming the innocent except when truly unavoidable.

We have no way of knowing, with any kind of certainty, that the consequences of what they are doing now are in fact the worst possible consequences.

You are no doubt fully aware of the difference between consequences and effects. When I bomb a dairy factory which contains civilians, the deaths of those civilians are not consequences of my action, they are effects. Considerations about what could and could not be known about the consequences of actions may be relevant in other ways to determining the legitimacy of certain courses of action, but on an analysis which takes intended and forseeable effects as the primary points of relevance, consequences are not what is at stake. My claim has been that, in light of PDE, the good intended in at least some of Israel's actions has not been proportionate to the forseeable evil effects. Criticisms of consequentialism will not touch that argument.

Furthermore, the principle of double effect is not as dispensable as you have suggested, at least not for someone who claims to respect Humanae Vitae's prohibition on intentional harm. If it is never acceptable to cause harm intentionally, then the only way that any action that has forseeable harmful effects will ever be justifiable is on the basis of the distinction between intended and forseeable effects. David Oderberg's defense of PDE in Moral Theory makes clear how crucial the insistence on proportionality and the prohibition on doing harm as a means to a good end are if PDE is to escape the objections that have been levelled at it; without those qualifications, PDE quickly comes to appear implausible. If you want to respect the claim of Humanae Vitae without becoming a pacifist, you will need PDE; if you want PDE, you will need to accept the proportionality and anti-consequentialist qualifications.

For good measure, I should say again that, so far as I am concerned, comparisons between Israel and Hezbollah are irrelevant. The deaths of innocent people that Israel has caused will not suddenly become justifiable because Hezbollah's actions are extremely bad. Likewise, your criticisms of the discourse in the media and the UN, about the logic of the increasing support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, or about what allegedly 'really motivates' the argument against Israel's actions are all beside the point. Those complaints have absolutely no bearing on the justice of Israel's actions. I have my suspicions about people who seem to resist every argument offered against war when it comes to their particularly beloved nations, but I don't pretend that those suspicions constitute anything remotely resembling an argument against war.

If, in the end, you are offended by the suggestion that you should 'feel sorry' for innocent people whose lives are being taken from them without justification, then I'll just leave you alone. If you would prefer to argue explicitly that the foreseeable (and in many cases actually foreseen) deaths of innocent civilians caused by Israeli bombing have been justified, then I'm all ears...or eyes, as it were.
Scott Carson said…
You seem to me to be equivocating on the term "foreseeable". You seem to want it to mean not only that deaths will be foreseen, but that the precise number of deaths will be foreseen as well, but that does not seem to me to be necessary.

Granted, one can foresee that civilian casualties will occur when one fires weapons into a city, but one may have every reason to believe that those casualties will be severely limited when one takes certain precautions, such as:

1. use of precision weaponry
2. warnings to civilians to clear the area
3. assume that people are reasonable and will attempt to leave a war zone.

Israel has taken all of these precautions, so when civilian casualites are higher than foreseen one has to wonder why Israel, rather than Hezbollah or the civilians themselves are principally to blame.

There is a difference between saying that civilian deaths are justified as opposed to merely foreseeable, of course--I think you do yourself a disservice to constantly interpret my argument in the worst possible light. But that, too, has been, at least in my personal experience, a trait of those who insist on blaming Israel for everything negative that happens in the middle east.

You claim that I have misconstrued your argument and thus failed to meet it, but as far as I can see you have not actually made an argument, you have merely made unsubstantiated assertions. If you are prepared to show that there are alternative courses of action that will in fact have less negative consequencs, I, too, am all ears. But so far you have just asserted, without argument, that the consequences that we have seen are certainly the worst we could have expected, and that is precisely what I am not convinced about. Please note that saying this is not to say that civilian deaths are any more or less "desireable" or "foreseeable" than any other consequences.

It sounds to me as though the principle issue for you is the deaths of civilians. That is certainly a fine thing to be worried about, and I don't fault for that. I agree that civilian casualties are unacceptable. I am not convinced, however, that there is any reason to believe that more acceptable consequences would necessarily follow upon any other course of action. If you believe otherwise, I suppose there's not much that I can do to dissuade you, but please don't pretend that your point of view is empirically obvious and that the burden of proof necessarily falls on me.
Apollodorus said…
Well, if I haven't been making arguments, then I don't know what you would call your own posts.

Now, I don't think that it should be necessary to be able to determine the precise number of deaths that will come about because of a given action, but precision is hardly necessary in order to assess the proportionality of the negative effects of a proposed action. My primary concern has not been with actions that may possibly have a number of civilian casualties depending upon a number of factors outside of an agent's control. In that sense, it is easy for anyone to 'foresee' that bombings will have negative effects. My concern, rather, is with particular actions that can be foreseen by their agents to cause an identifiable range of negative effects. I am not so much troubled by instances where Israel might kill a number of civilians because those people happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as I am troubled by those instances in which Israel's decision to bomb particular targets (civilian or otherwise) has been or could have been accompanied by a clear recognition that bombing that target at that time would certainly or almost certainly kill or severely injure a number of civilians that is disproportionate to the good served by destroying the target. The difference here should be fairly clear. Rather than holding Israel morally responsible for effects which, so far as they could see, may or may not have occured because of some action, I am claiming that they are morally responsible for effects that could be seen to be unavoidable as they set out to take an action. If Israel knows that there are a good number of civilians in a fruit processing plant that Hezbollah is also using to store weapons, there is no need to get a precise count of the number of civilians working at the plant on Tuesday afternoon at 2:14 PM in order to assess the proportionality of destroying Hezbollah's weapons and killing civilians who are trying to process fruit. A general idea of how many civilians are working at the plant should suffice.

Contrary to your suggestion, I don't need to show in any particular instance what alternative actions might have been available in order to show that a particular action was disproprortionate. In any case in which the negative foreseen effects of an action are disproportionate to that action's intended good, there will always at least be the single alternative of refraining from that particular action. It is up to military strategists, and not to graduate students in classical philology, to come up with alternative courses of action which will both achieve the desired end and meet the requirements of proportionality.

Finally, your refusal to take the distinction between effects and consequences seriously baffles me. My argument has to do, as I have said, with the foreseen effects of Israel's actions, and not with the variously predictable or unpredictable consequences of those actions.
Marty Eble said…
It seems to me that appollodorus is making the point, referencing the original post, that it would indeed be reasonable to suggest that the allies were unjust in their prosecution of the war. Specific acts that were unreasonable would include:

- the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo

- the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

- the execution of prisoners in both the East and the West at various times

Similarly the laying waste to entire city blocks of Beirut, or the destruction of every significant bridge, is hardly justifiable as a "defense".

Double effect doesn't enter into it. Some of the Israeli actions are per se illegal and immoral regardless of the reasons given for doing them, just as the warfare against civilians in WWII was per se unjust.
Lisa Carson said…
I continue to be unconvinced by Apollodorus’ arguments. Israel seeks to protect itself from terrorists who are attacking it. These terrorists choose to hide their rockets and themselves among the civilian population. The civilian population welcomes or tolerates the presence of the terrorists and abets their actions. In seeking to destroy both arms and terrorists Israel goes for the necessary targets. The rest is predictable, if depressing. I continue to see Israel acting in self-defense and as humanely as can be expected.

Unimpressed, too, by the arguments about antisemitism. While it may not be relevant to your analysis,
Apollodorus, it is relevant to mine that most of the Muslim world and of Europe cares less about dead Jews
than about other deaths. This has been the case for a long time, and it must figure into the calculations of a people who have always had few friends and many bloodthirsty enemies.
Marty Eble said…
It’s hard to see how Israel is protecting itself from terrorists who are attacking it by destroying every bridge that connects Lebanon with the outside world, every airport, and blockading every port.

Nor is there any evidence “the civilian population welcomes or tolerates the presence of the terrorists and abets their actions” beyond what anyone would expect towards an organization that provides food, medical care, and education - something that the US and Israel have not provided Lebanon. If that civilian population did, as at least a significant minority of the American population did the rebels during our own Revolution, that would not make their homes, persons, and chattel legitimate targets of a bombing campaign.

The evidence that “Israel goes for the necessary targets” is slim. Those “necessary targets” have included trucks filled with food, workers unloading produce, women and children in automobiles.

If there are rules, they apply to all, or they apply to none.

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