Sunday, July 16, 2006

"Self Defence" is not a Blank Cheque

It says something about the state of public debate in this country when newspapers report the Prime Minister's position on the Lebanon crisis as simply: "I believe that Israel has the right to defend itself." Is Howard's position really so simplistic, or do the press simply refuse to engage normative issues in any depth? (Perhaps both.) Either way, there are some painfully obvious points that need to be made here.

Quite simply: there are limits to how much harm and violence can be justified by appeal to "self-defence". Perhaps Israel would be safer if it nuked the rest of the Middle East out of existence. The plain impermissibility of such action indicates the need for more considered reflection on the moral status of specific Israeli retaliations than merely asserting, "I believe that Israel has the right to defend itself."

As RadGeek writes (in response to an IDF commander's claims that "we are here to show that if, God forbid, any of us is captured by the enemy, the army will do everything to secure his return"):
The murder of civilians by Palestinian or Lebanese terrorists is criminal, and those who committed the murders can be stopped from committing further crimes through the use of violence, if necessary. But the right to use force against someone does not mean the right to use any amount of force necessary against anyone at all in the process of stopping her. It’s true that if you really are willing to do everything in retaliation for the kidnapping of a soldier, or attacks on your forces, or attacks on civilians, then this is included. Any atrocity at all is included in doing everything, and that is precisely why the willingness to do everything in retaliation for an attack, no matter what the cost to innocent third parties, is a moral crime of the first order. Destroying the lives and livelihoods of scores of innocent people in the process of trying to stop the murder of one or two other innocents is criminal. Destroying the lives and livelihoods of scores of innocent people in the process of trying to avenge the death or capture of a handful of soldiers in combat — the primary justification given by the Israeli government for these campaigns — is nothing less than an atrocity.

Alonzo Fyfe insightfully argues that the right to "self-defence" is better understood, not in retributive terms, but more broadly as "a right (and perhaps a duty) specifically to defend the innocent from those who do harm to the innocent." He continues:
[W]hen we define the “right to self-defense” as Israel is seeking to define it [this leads to...] a state of perpetual war with competing sides both claiming the the right to kill the other in the name of defending their own.

We get something entirely different if we define the right of self-defense as “the right to protect the innocent from those who would do them harm.”

Not, “the innocent Israelis from those who would do them harm.” Not, “the innocent Americans from those who would do them harm.” But, “The innocent.” Period. Full stop. From those who would do them harm.

Applied to the current crisis:
On this standard, the deaths, injuries, and economic and psychological harm inflicted on many of the people in Lebanon are moral failures. Many of those being made to suffer are innocent. Under the principle, “Protect the innocent from those who would do them harm,” every bit of harm suffered by the innocent is a moral failing. It can never be defended as truly good. It can only be defended as a lesser evil.

Only, in this case, there isn't anything "lesser" about it.


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14 comments:

  1. as a consequentiality I would say they have an obligation to do what is required to defend themselves without causing more harm than would have been caused by the thing they are trying to prevent.

    If in defending yourself you cause more harmthan the other side, it becomes a legitimate response for someone else to say they are defending themselves from YOU.

    OR a little more charitably
    Take the path that causes the least amount of harm of those options we could reasonably have expected you to take.

    So I might say - yes I have no ability to make you self sacrificing, but I can expect you to be at least a bit considerate.

    Either way flattening a country is not an appropriate response to kidnapping a soldier.

    In fact it is probably deeply counter productive

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  2. Doesn't Israel have the right to either eliminate Hezbolla as a threat or come to some sort of peace accord? Hezbola doesn't exactly appear to be willing to concede much. They've been making attacks on and off for years and were the aggressor here. Short of an agreement by Hezbola to cease attacks what can Israel do but neutralize them militarily?

    If you have an other alternative I'd be interested. But it sounds like you are saying that Israel should just let it self be attacked by rockets and such and never do more than shell back but is not allowed to eliminate the threat.

    I'm all for a peace and if one is offered and Israel rejects it then I'm with you. But that simply hasn't happened yet.

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  3. "If in defending yourself you cause more harmthan the other side, it becomes a legitimate response for someone else to say they are defending themselves from YOU."

    Certainly that is a valid concern. Witness some of the reaction to the United States foreign policy.

    However it seems like it is very easy to get one into a situation where there are no easy answers. I actually think Hezbolla wants a war and I'm not entirely sure Israel was wise to give them what they wanted. But on the other hand when people hide rockets in houses controlled by an other government with no intention on cracking down on the perpetrators, what choices does one have beyond sitting back and letting people lob rockets at you?

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  4. I don't know enough about what alternative strategies were/are open to them. But something which doesn't involve killing scores of innocent people would be good. (Doing nothing at all is better than random acts of violence. Finding a way to target the terrorists and only the terrorists, would of course be even better. Easier said than done, granted. But I share Alonzo's sentiments: they should act so as to protect the most innocent people -- Israelis and Lebanese alike. Their current actions don't plausibly meet this standard.)

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  5. I dont think israels actions can plausibly destroy Hezbolla - they are at the nasty side of the continum of non productive actions that involve lots of killing but only "piss off" the enemy.
    what it would take to destroy Hezbolla would be somthing more like a regional war followed by a brutal occupation (ie REALLY brutal).

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  6. Richard, why do you say, "their current actions don't plausibly meet this standard." Do you say the same of Afghanistan where arguably tens of thousands of people died because of 3,000 in the US?

    Once a war starts the fact is that there are collateral casualties. While I think there is a lot one can blame Israel for the fact is once the war starts there isn't the possibility of a clean fight like you suggest. So we're back to square one. Israel has, in my opinion, shown quite a bit of restraint while rockets have been fired with immunity over the past few years. Then Hezbolla, effectively a state within a state, launches an attack on Israel that can't be seen as anything but an act of war. You can't have the de facto government of a nation launch an attack and then complain when people strike back. Especially when Hezbolla has no intention of stopping rocket attacks directly aimed at civilian centers.

    One can't simply say, "I can't think of anything better" and then simultaneously say, "their current actions don't meet the standard of restraint." That's just a cop out. Sort of like someone saying free will and determinism are compatible in an argument but being unable to explain why.

    Now I think there are some ethical issues Israel violated, but that's because I tend to reject utilitarianism. (Although as I've often said I'm anything but up on ethical theory) Still, it seems these sorts of "army within the populace" situations are deeply difficult for utilitarians to explain. In effect unless one is cagey with the calculus one is left with the answer that you have to sit back and let the terrorists attack your civilians because any reprisal will likely kill more of their civilians than they will of yours.

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  7. Genius, I don't think Israel really thinks they can destroy Hezbolla. What they want to do is make things difficult enough that Hezbolla loses political strength (doubtful in my opinion), get their soldiers back (plausible with an eventual prisoner swap), and force Lebanon to put Lebanese troops on the border and displace Hezbolla. (Which frankly has been planning this for a while - lots of blogs had been predicting a major Hezbolla push this summer for months) The difficulty is doing this without pissing off the world and allowing the war to spread to Syria and Iran.

    I'm not sure this is wise and further I think Israel could have done a whole lot PR wise that they haven't done. But the Israeli government is weak, has been facing a scandal, and doesn't have a lot of experience in military matters. (Neither the PM nor defense minister have military experience) So thus, in part, the overreaction. I think Israelis are also fed up that after Israeli pullbacks in Lebanon and Gaza that all they got for their trouble was people lobbing rockets with little control on it. One can only take falling rockets for so long.

    I hate to say it but as democracies both the people of Lebanon and Palestine have to foot a lot of the blame. (Just as Americans have to accept the blame for George Bush)

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  8. Clark,
    as to your post to me, I just nod in agreement.

    As to the post to Richard
    I agree

    > One can't simply say, "I can't think of anything better" and then simultaneously say, "their current actions don't meet the standard of restraint." That's just a cop out.

    But I think utilitarianism can deal with it and deal with it better. In this case the utilitarian position is probably to "not let them get to you" I.e. not over reacting. Two kidnapped soldiers isn’t even in the league of what it would take to cause you to start a war.

    There utilitarian government will sometimes react with an iron fist (if there is no better option), although more often than an Israeli sort of government it will show restraint. EVEN IF it totally discounted the enemy as "non persons" (like some might say about a foetus) it would probably STILL show more restraint than the Israeli sort of government because Israel seems to be punitive.

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  9. Genius: as a [consequentialist] I would say they have an obligation to do what is required to defend themselves without causing more harm than would have been caused by the thing they are trying to prevent.

    Consequentialism does entail this standard, but I think that that's a good reason not to be a consequentialist: the standard is too lax about murdering the innocent. It excuses (in principle, if not in fact) all kinds of retaliatory violence, even terroristic violence, against people who have done nothing to deserve it. If the Israeli army could save the lives of 100 Israeli civilians by murdering 99 Lebanese civilians in retaliation for an attack, I think they would still be wrong to do so, even though there's a decrease in the net body count. Reason being that the 99 Lebanese civilians (ex hypothesi) didn't have anything to do with the threatened murder of the 100 Israeli civilians, and other people's lives are not yours to volunteer for that kind of sacrificial duty. This connects up with a more general problem I have with consequentialism in the theory of justice: it suggests that the primary demand of justice on you is that you take steps to minimize the amount of net evil going around in society. Not so: the primary demand of justice is that you must be just.

    Clark: Doesn't Israel have the right to either eliminate Hezbolla as a threat or come to some sort of peace accord?

    Sure, but not by any means necessary. They have no right whatsoever to inflict massive and disproportionate human costs on the lives and livelihoods of civilians in Lebanon in order to "eliminate" Hizbollah or to force their hand diplomatically (or to do the same thing, mutatis mutandis, in Gaza, to eliminate or force a settlement on Hamas). After all, the Israeli government could do all kinds of things to eliminate the threat from Hizbollah; they could, for example, firebomb all the cities in southern Lebanon until everyone in the area was dead, or they could threaten to use nuclear weapons on Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, etc. These would be far more effective at the task of restraining or destroying Hizbollah than the current military strategy is; I leave it up to you and your God to judge why it is that they are not appropriate responses to the death or capture of a handful of soldiers, or the threat posed to civilians from ongoing poorly-aimed rocket attacks.

    Clark: Once a war starts the fact is that there are collateral casualties. While I think there is a lot one can blame Israel for the fact is once the war starts there isn't the possibility of a clean fight like you suggest.

    This is not an argument in favor of so-called "collateral casualties" (that is, killing or maiming innocent people). If it's an argument against anything, it's an argument against going to war.

    Clark: One can't simply say, "I can't think of anything better" and then simultaneously say, "their current actions don't meet the standard of restraint." That's just a cop out.

    Oh yes one can. If you can't figure out any way to achieve your aims without doing evil to innocent third parties in the process, then your aims had jolly well better go unachieved; it is better to do nothing than to do evil.

    I would like to be able to suggest something that the IDF could do that would not be evil and that would be better than doing nothing at all; attacks on Israeli civilians are criminal and should be stopped where possible. But I'm under no obligation to come up with that constructive advice for them before I condemn immoral policies that they're presently engaged in: they are obliged to stop doing evil immediately and completely, whether or not anybody has thought of any better way to accomplish their professed goals.

    Clark: I hate to say it but as democracies both the people of Lebanon and Palestine have to foot a lot of the blame. (Just as Americans have to accept the blame for George Bush)

    Oh, bullshit. What blame should I accept for the policies of a ruler that I never voted for, never supported, and have no effective control over whatsoever?

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  10. One theme I have noticed in this discussion is the idea that the conflict started because of the capture of a handful of soldiers. This claim is similar to saying WW1 was started by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdiand. If Hezbollah appeared out of nowhere and captured a couple soldiers Israel would certainly be overreacting. However, Israel has a lot more history with Hezbollah. It has been a powdercake ready to explode over there for well over a decade. The soldiers were really the straw that broke the camel's back.

    Why did the capture of the soldiers hit Israel so hard? Israel's one main strength and advantage against terrorists has been its highly trained military. Israel has some of the best special forces in the world and their general military, while small, is still one of the better trained militaries certainly superior to any other country in the region. The fact that Hezbollah could mount a raid that could take a couple on duty soldiers right from their noses scared them. It demonstrated to Israel that Hezbollah has the power to aggressively attack Israel. Keep in mind, Israel is a very small country, war in any part of Israel would have horrible effects on Israels population. Israel, believing that war is inevitable because Hezbollah is going to attack in the near future starts the fight in Lebanon instead.

    IOW Israel belives Hezbollah is going to start a war. From their point of view, war in Lebanon is better than war in Israel. Basic military strategy, don't fight in your own cities if you can avoid it because you are killing your own citizens and disrupting your own production/money. The result is unfortunate for the Lebanese but imagine you were an Israeli and your entire family was in Israel. Would you choose war in your own country where your family would be the casualties or go over the border and let the Lebanese deal with the consequences? On a strictly academic ethical study of the situation it might be better to let your family take the risk but in the real world what soldier would choose some Lebanese civilians over their own family? Can you seriously expect Israelis to give Lebanese civilians equal importance as their families? Given the choice of saving a dozen people I don't know or my wife I would choose my wife. I wouldn't care how unethical it was.

    This brings me back to why capturing the soldiers hit Israel so hard. Soldiers fight for two reasons
    1. To protect their families/country

    2. Because their fellow soldiers are counting on them.

    To build a strong military it is crucial for individual soldiers to feel like they are part of something bigger. That their comrades will die for them and in turn they are willing to die for their comrades. If a country lets its soldiers be captured and does not attempt to get them back, it seriously harms morale. That is why the US military often sent out rescue teams in Afghanistan and Iraq when soldiers were captured even if the result was more soldiers actually dieing than if they just let things be or dropped a large bomb killing the enemy and our captured soldiers. Soldier morale is crucial in wartime and a soldier that knows his army will back him up can find more bravery than one that believes he will be abandoned.

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  11. Will: Can you seriously expect Israelis to give Lebanese civilians equal importance as their families?

    That depends on what context you're speaking in. Importance for what?

    If you mean, "Should Israelis give innocent Lebanese strangers as many birthday presents as they give their own family members?" then of course the answer is no.

    If you mean, "Should Israelis feel the same urgent need to rescue innocent Lebanese strangers from danger as they feel towards their own family members?" then the answer is probably still no, but less obviously so.

    If you mean, "Should Israelis be willing to actively go out and ''slaughter'' innocent Lebanese strangers in order to protect their own family members from danger?" then the answer is no, they should not. Murder is wrong.

    Will: Given the choice of saving a dozen people I don't know or my wife I would choose my wife. I wouldn't care how unethical it was.

    We're not talking about a situation where Lebanese civilians just happen to be in danger, and Israelis have to choose between "saving" them or saving their family members. We're talking about a situation in which the IDF is rolling out, professedly in the name of ordinary Israelis, and actively killing innocent Lebanese civilians, supposedly in the process of trying to damage or destroy a guerrilla army (Hizbollah), which many of those civilians are not members of.

    So the "choice" you pose here is a weak analogy at best. The proper question to pose to yourself is: would you be willing to go out and murder a dozen people you don't know in the process of saving your wife from some unrelated menace.

    I wouldn't. And if you would, then you're a fucking sociopath.

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  12. > It excuses (in principle, if not in fact) all kinds of retaliatory violence

    Each theory will always look a little strange evaluated from the other theory's perspective.

    For example
    >I have with consequentially in the theory of justice: it suggests that the primary demand of justice on you is that you take steps to minimize the amount of net evil going around in society. Not so: the primary demand of justice is that you must be just.

    No I think it is more fundamental, I care less about whether I am just than the amount of net evil in society. I find it hard to conceive of where I would be confident these were in conflict though.

    Anyway the implied perspective seems to me a bit absurd (you HAVE to make choices and consider consequences in many situations).

    > Other people's lives are not yours to volunteer for that kind of sacrificial duty.

    I would not be the decision maker so it wouldn't be "me" sacrificing them.

    > But I'm under no obligation to come up with that constructive advice.

    It is a bit hard having this debate with a person who doesn't consider consequences of actions to be important compared to the "moral value" of those actions!

    > If you mean, "Should Israelis be willing to actively go out and ''slaughter'' innocent Lebanese strangers in order to protect their own family members from danger?" then the answer is no, they should not. Murder is wrong.

    The problem here is the “can you seriously expect part. Yes we may evaluate their action as morally wrong BUT similarly acting in self defense and killing a person may also be morally wrong (depending on how you look at it) but telling someone not to do it is just wasting your breath – one’s time would be better spent on more productive arguments.

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  13. Rad Geek: Oh, bullshit. What blame should I accept for the policies of a ruler that I never voted for, never supported, and have no effective control over whatsoever?

    That's the problem of a democracy. But in this case most of the southern Lebanon are pretty supportive of Hezbolla. Even now.

    Rad Geek: We're not talking about a situation where Lebanese civilians just happen to be in danger, and Israelis have to choose between "saving" them or saving their family members.

    That's exactly what we are facing. Hezbolla is lobbing rockets via remote control into Israeli population centers. What the consequentialist of a certain sort demands is that until Hezbolla kills enough people Israel has to set back and take it. And that is clearly non-sensical.

    The consequentialist view of ethics intrinsically favors terrorists since all the terrorist has to do is hold enough "hostages" (whether friendly or otherwise) so that any attempt to stop them kills or injures more people than they do. Until that point the consequentialist has to let the terrorist kill with immunity.

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  14. Will (The bleeping sociopath)2:21 pm, July 19, 2006

    >I wouldn't. And if you would, then you're a fucking sociopath.

    I love that one. I guess I am a little sociopathic by your definition. I would go fight a war in another country in a heartbeat to protect my own especially if there was a real possibility that war would be fought in my city if I didn't. I'll admit that my family is more important to me than anyone else and if I had to kill someone to protect them I would although I might not enjoy it and might even feel guilty afterwards.

    Now as far as "murdering" or "slaughtering" civilians...the IDF has made attempts to minimize the killing of civilians. (We can argue all day about whether they have made enough) If Israel didn't care about civilians they are perfectly capable of completely paving Lebanon. However, in war civilians will die. That is part of what makes war horrible and should be a last choice. Technology has its limitations and no military is capable of fighting a war with zero civilian casualties. However, if Israel took no military action, more of their own civilians would die (eventually all of them if Hizbollah had its way).

    I see a huge moral difference between a military that kills some civilians by accident and technological limitations and one that specifically aims for civilians. While we may critisize Israel if they fail to take steps that would minimize collateral damage, I think it is clear they carry far less moral blame than Hizbollah which has actively targeted civilians for years. Note, I am not claiming Israel has perfectly clean hands and if we find cases where civilian deaths could have been avoidable we should call them on it.

    War by its very nature is immoral, it is killing and destroying on a massive scale, but sometimes it is the lesser of two evils. To do nothing would eventually result in the destruction of Israel and the death of many civilians on their side. My point stands that I can't blame Israel for choosing to have the battle on foreign soil to protect their own people. Even if that means they kill civilians in Lebanon. Hizbollah has put Israel in a position where they don't have a good or moral choice that wouldn't result in their own destruction. If I was an Israeli, I would do the same thing in a heartbeat.

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