Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Evil Intention versus Firepower, Redux

The sense of deja vu is incredible. In this war, as in the last, Israel is pounding its neighbor to smithereens while a hidden antagonist fires aimless rockets to terrorize Israelis. But even more similar are arguments in defense of Israel, which sound so similar then and now that one could simply replace Hezbollah with Hamas and Lebanon with Gaza and reprint the arguments without further change.

There is no moral equivalence between Israel and its adversary, goes the argument then and now. Israel's adversary is deliberately firing rockets with the intent to kill and terrorize innocent civilians. (The fact that those rockets are of such poor quality as to cause minimal damage goes unmentioned). Israel is retaliating against solely military targets. The fact that its far heavier fire power is causing collateral damage is the fault of its adversary for hiding its military infastructure among civilians.* The intent to kill civilians is what really matters. The fact that Israel has, in fact, killed a great many more civilians than its adversary is a trivial detail.

Well, I am no philosopher or theologian, but it is my understanding that this set of priorities is contrary to traditional Jewish ethics. In traditional Jewish ethics (as I understand it), when there is a discrepancy between an actor's subjective motives and the actual objective results of that actor's actions (meaning the immediate, highly predictable result and not some remote and highly contingent result happening in the distant future), the actual objective results are the more important. Hence, as I understand Jewish ethics, if an enemy intends you mortal harm but lacks the means to act on that intent, you have to take that lack of means into account. And if you are retaliating with heavy firepower, not intending to kill any civilians, but using your firepower in a way certain to do just that, you get less credit for not wanting to kill civilians than blame for the civilians that you actually (and most predicably) do kill.

And even if I am mistaken about the traditional rules of Jewish ethics, these seem like pretty good rules for public policy.

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*More on that in my next post.

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