Saturday, 6 September 2014

Losing one's moral bearings in the Middle East

The Israelis and Palestinians have just suffered another round of self-inflicted horror and injustice, with both sides claiming a rather dubious "victory." Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris weighed in on the conflict, and both came to relatively similar conclusions which I found disappointing. That they treated the topic as fundamentally a moral issue rather than a practical one got my attention, and I want to address problems with their arguments and conclusions.  Briefly put, they argue that the Palestinians are morally inferior to Israelis, and suggest this has some meaning in how we ought to handle criticism of either side. They also view the conflict between these two groups as parallel to the situation Western nations face with the growth of militant Islam.  I think they lost their way on their moral mapping expeditions, perhaps in part because their moral compasses are errantly fixed on Israel as if it were true north.

Before people assume what my position is, let me start by saying that this essay is intended to deliver an unconventional perspective or mindset on that conflict and the larger problem of militant Islam.  I am not in any sense going to argue for moral equivalence, or that Palestinians are somehow superior to Israelis. My take on the nature of moral judgment precludes such concepts. So I hope readers will stick through until the end, even if it seems in parts to be rehashing familiar debate.

l. Sam and Jerry 

Jerry Coyne was on the issue from the beginning, with a post addressing the murder of three Israeli teens presumably by Hamas [1]. In a rather short-sighted move his first post criticized President Obama for urging "restraint on both sides", while dismissing any potential response by Israel as part of a "cycle of revenge". Surprisingly he did not admit his error even when announcing the (sadly foreseeable) revenge murder of a young Palestinian boy that ultimately set the wheels spinning on that well-used cycle of revenge [2]. Jerry's outrage at the boy’s killing rang a bit hollow as it ended in sustained criticism of Palestinians, gilded with Israeli apologetics. In a recent post, suggesting Western media has become a mouthpiece for Hamas and inherent Western anti-semitism, he starts by explicitly stating the takeaway message from his previous essays [3].
"Most readers know that I feel Israel, vis-à-vis its conflict with Palestine, has been given a raw deal in both world opinion and the world press. They also know that I don’t think that the country is blameless in the Middle East fracas (the settlements, for example, are unconscionable), but that they hold the moral high ground over the Palestinians, who are sworn to extirpate Israel and determined to kill civilians directly. [3][my emphasis]"
Israel is not blameless, commits unconscionable acts even, but holds the moral high ground.  Indeed, Jerry is so intensely invested in this concept of moral superiority that he totally blew a gasket when he mistakenly thought I was arguing Israelis and Palestinians were morally equivalent [4]. 
"Same level of hatred? Really?… This false "equality" is ridiculous… This kind of touting of false equality, which flies in the face of all facts, is ludicrous… Get real, please. It's amazing that people can convince themselves of an equality of immorality that flies in the face of all facts. Are you really that obtuse?[4][my emphasis]"
The emphasized words reveal the equivocation he introduced in his zeal to root out and destroy any idea that Israelis might somehow be morally equivalent to Palestinians.  I had not yet realized the problem I was facing when I answered, giving sufficient counter-evidence and asking him to retract his incorrect conclusion [5].  I thought that would be the end of it.  A simple miscommunication, over.

I was wrong. Rather than admitting his mistake, he ignored all counter-evidence and doubled down on his initial error, attempting to hang his hat on the single tiny phrase: "same level of hatred" [5].  He argued that means such hatred must be promoted by the Israeli government (when I said the exact opposite in the very reply he was criticizing) or that such anger must be held by the same number of Israelis as Palestinians (which did not fit with my prior comments).  

That is a lot to unpack from those four words, and the passion with which he insists those are my only options suggests it comes from his baggage, not mine. Most important, he repeated his original, erroneous conclusion:
"You are touting moral equality of Israelis and Palestinians, and don't pretend otherwise.[5][my emphasis]"
I replied with what I had assumed was obvious.  Hatred is generally not considered equivalent to intentions or actions and so not open to moral judgment.  For example slaves can hate their masters and that would not make them less moral. Jerry clearly hates arguments that Palestinians are morally equal to Israelis, and that does not make him less moral.  Hatred is a sentiment or emotion, and lacks moral dimension.  It is what one does with that hatred that opens the door to moral evaluation.  So even if I was arguing a quantitatively equal level of hatred across both Israeli and Palestinian populations (which I was not), that would not say one thing about their relative moral states. 

Unfortunately that reply never saw the light of day as Jerry had already banned me from his site. No warnings or explanations were given though I clearly hadn't broken any of his "Roolz".  He wouldn't even respond to email. The silent treatment. The refuge of pouty children. Brilliant. This move left me sorely disillusioned, and to be honest a bit creeped out.  

I leave it for Jerry to defend (or wrestle with) his inability to deal with his mistakes or miscommunications in a reasonable manner. The reason I bring it up is to show how emotionally invested Jerry is in moralizing the conflict, such that discussions of practical facts get translated into large scale moral judgments. And if the "resulting" moral judgment of his favored actor is "incorrect", according to his a priori position they are superior, those facts and any criticisms based on them are reduced, rejected, or purged.  Am I wrong in thinking this is not useful in reaching rational conclusions?

Sam Harris entered the scene well into the conflict. After a particularly disproportionate military response to Hamas provocations, Sam wrote an essay explaining why he won't criticize Israel [6]. Andrew Sullivan critiqued Sam's essay, noting in particular its internal inconsistency [7]. Sam claimed that Andrew misunderstood his position and asked for a dialogue. A transcript of the the resulting conversation was posted on both of their sites [8,9]. Andrew certainly came off (to me) as the more rational voice in that dialogue. Since then, Andrew's site has published further interesting and eloquent articles on the conflict by Freddie deBoer [10,11,12]. A large difference between Sam's position and theirs is that they retain consistency by largely sticking with an analysis of on the ground practicalities rather than abstracted moral judgment driven by hypotheticals using assumed intentions. Statements throughout Sam's original essay explicitly describe Palestinian moral inferiority as obvious and how readers might reach similar clarity on that issue.:

"The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions towards them…  
… this gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies… To see this moral differenceyou have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it… 
… you have to ask yourself, what do these groups want? What would they accomplish if they could accomplish anything?[6][my emphasis]"

So to Sam it is the extreme disparity between their intentions, and not the real life consequences of their actions that really matter here. This appears to be in direct conflict with his oft-stated position of being a consequentialist [13, 14]. However, I will let that slide to address the methods and conclusions of his newfound moral theory.  Clearly he agrees with Jerry that there is a moral distinction between Israel and the Palestinians, based on the latter's genocidal intentions, and that this should lead us to some different treatment of Israel when assessing the consequences of her actions. 

With these moral distinctions set, Sam and to some extent Jerry employ the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a proxy for the state of the world, staging a "clash of civilizations" style drama with Israel as the stand in for “us” (secular, democratic nations) and the Palestinians for “them” (militant Islamic organizations). The sense they are attempting to convey is that, like Israel, we are "surrounded" by enemies that want nothing more than to kill us all. This point was driven home in the (unintentionally ironic) conclusion of Sam's original essay.:
"The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.[1]"
I say ironic as only within the borders of that metaphor would most of this planet ever be welcomed by Israel to consider themselves "living in Israel."  

ll. Israel and Palestine

Their moral evaluation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict contains five flaws.

1) Our inability to apply comparative moral labels to groups.  

As a moral skeptic and anti-realist I find the use of generic moral labeling of individuals, or generic comparative assessments between people (equivalent, superior, inferior) meaningless and boring. If you find moral philosophy itself meaningless and boring you can skip this point as the others are sufficient to make my case. 

Certainly descriptive moral statements can be generated about particular actions (by groups or individuals).  For example, torturing everyone in the neighboring village for sport was a cruel and unjust act to those villagers. If we must simplify language to express our distaste for these kinds of acts we can say they were "bad". 

One can also produce a generalized description of an individual's moral character based on the body of their actions.  For example, it may be said that a person has usually acted honestly or justly toward others (in simple terms "good"). But such labels are not wholly intelligible. The person may have been good towards some and bad towards others.  In that case is their character based on the quantity or quality of the (in)justices they do?  And how is this measured over time?   If a person kills someone, and so does something sufficiently "bad", is it once a killer always a killer? 

With these inherent limitations, abstracted labels give us little to no added information that we can use.  They do not tell what the person will do now, or in the future.  You say that person is "good"?  So what?  Tell me what they have done in this specific type of situation before and then I might have an idea what they will do now. 

With this in mind, generating a generic moral label for a group (that can be compared in some equal fashion with another group) does not seem plausible. For example, we cannot say that Israelis as a whole "are morally superior" to Palestinians as a whole. This is because spread over time and individuals moral labels begin to lose any possible "hitching posts", being abstracted beyond the point of practical utility and perhaps impeding our ability to judge the morality of their actions. What if the majority of these populations are just but varying quantities of minorities within them are unjust, inflicting varying levels of injustice on others?  How do we evaluate all of these variables in a coherent fashion? 

As it happens, nations and their supporters will arguably rest on the laurels of past "good conduct" to excuse all sorts of "necessary evils" to protect or advance their "goodness", while rejecting any evidence of outright "bad conduct" as not truly representing themselves.  This is usually where "buttering" comes in handy.  For example Sam argues that Israel should not exist as a Jewish state (making it such was wrong), it has committed war crimes, and its settlement policy is terrible, "but…" and then one's initial moral read on those acts is shifted through buttery excuses until the moral compass reads "good" once again.

If there is any sense that I am arguing for moral equality it is that groups are best considered equally undefined moral entities, since there are no realistic abstracted moral labels that can be compared in some 1 to 1 sense.  However, this is not to say that specific acts (or intentions regarding specific acts) cannot be described in a way that can be compared.

To be fair, Sam and Jerry are pressing the case that we focus on a very specific set of intentions and so presumed specific sets of actions. If artificially restricted to a moral evaluation of simply "genocide v. good neighbor" it is obvious that one would be considered "morally superior" (i.e. preferable by most people's tastes) to the other. I would argue that this is a crass oversimplification of intents, and the problems I raised here about how generalized labels are applied to groups can be seen haunting their evaluations of both Israelis and Palestinians. I don't think they have a solid answer to these problems, except to create ad hoc defenses to retain their initial, over-simplified positions.

2) Israeli intentions are not so clear cut. 

In building the superiority of Israeli morality, Sam argues Israel simply wants to live in peace, suggesting that most of the activities for which Israel is criticized can be blamed on Israeli extremism (which he downplays as small) or as legitimate security responses to Palestinian extremism.  In fact, Sam went so far as to claim:
"Absent Palestinian terrorism and Muslim anti-Semitism, we could be talking about a “one-state solution,” and the settlements would be moot.[1]"  
That statement reveals a lack of familiarity with the situation, as well as the whole point (and history) of Israel’s emergence as a Jewish state. He would be wise to research Israeli fears of the one-state solution, as well as Palestinian support for it [15, 16]. Ironically, a law professor has recently argued that Israelis should stop fearing a one-state solution, so they can take that "weapon" away from the Palestinians and turn it back against them [17]!  The title of his lecture on the topic was “Who is afraid of a one-state solution?” and the rather obvious answer was both, with Israelis fearing it more than Palestinians at the moment. And this is not due to fears of violence, but (in addition to religious concerns) ensuring the majority voting power of a specific ethnic group. 

Leaving that issue aside, Sam gives support for his claim regarding Israel's benign intentions.:
"What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could do anything they wanted? Well, we know the answer to that question, because they can do more or less anything they want… Now, is it possible that some Israeli soldiers go berserk under pressure and wind up shooting into crowds of rock-throwing children? Of course... But we know that this isn’t the general intent of Israel. We know the Israelis do not want to kill non-combatants, because they could kill as many as they want, and they’re not doing it.[1]"
The idea that we "know" what Jewish-Israelis would do to Palestinians, if they could do anything, based on what they have done so far is patently false.  Israel certainly has the physical capacity to do what it wants with the Palestinians, but it cannot exert such power in the face of the rest of the world.  Israel relies heavily on US support as well as relative inaction of the international community. As Sam recognizes himself, Israel stands to become a pariah if it acts too strongly. Since Israel does not have carte blanche, its actions (and so our knowledge about possible intentions based on them) are limited to what Israel can get away with. 

And to her discredit, pushing that envelope appears to be exactly what Israel does, consistently. This latest altercation is a suitable example, where Israel killed over 2000 Gazans, and displaced over a quarter million, mostly civilians [18]. Even if we take the most favorable estimates to Israel cited by the IDF, over half were civilians and nearly 25% children, and they hit UN shelters whose positions they were alerted to many times. They even shelled a house killing a family related to a hero decorated by Israel for saving Jews during WW2 (clearly no terrorists there) [19]. 

Did they intend to kill/maim/displace all of these civilians?  Was that their specific goal? Probably not, but they held the initiative and did not have to engage in the acts that made such things a possibility. Since they went ahead with such actions, that means their intention (at best) was to achieve military objectives regardless of cost to civilians, except where hurting civilians would bring actual repercussions. It may very well be that the Israeli military doesn't seek opportunities to kill civilians, but the results look a heck of a lot like they don't care much if they do. And the sad truth is indifference to others in the pursuit of one's ambitions can lead to just as much cruelty and injustice as intentionally malevolent acts.

Sam also gave a complete skip on the subject of collective punishment.  Whether or not Israel's current military activity constitutes collective punishment, Israel has openly engaged in such acts against the Palestinians, particularly razing houses and destroying agriculture [20]. Collective punishment inherently targets innocent individuals. Perhaps such acts are not designed to kill, but they have destroyed lives and livelihoods. That these kinds of "punishments" happen to coincide with and aid Israeli (extremist?) designs for the region should raise additional red flags. 

In fact, the Israeli government just announced a major land seizure that would support settlement growth in the West Bank, with their only explanation being that it is a "response" to the killing of the three Israeli teens months ago [21]. This is despite the fact that they pinned that on Hamas, which led to the operations in Gaza which one might consider more than sufficient as a "response". This appears much like a government version of the "price tag" attacks by settlers, who while describing their acts as "responses" openly admit are collective punishment and support their ultimate goal which is to remove Palestinians [22]. This raises questions for Sam's original statement that settlements would be moot in a one-state solution.  How would that be the case, when the settlers would still intend to continue their expansion to the exclusion of Palestinians?

So, given what Israel has already done under intense public scrutiny, it is hard to accept Sam's glowing answer on what Israel would do if it was allowed to do anything it wanted. 

Alternatively, we might look at what Israelis say about the Palestinians in order to better gauge true intent. In his dialogue with Andrew, Sam admits some Israelis do suggest ethnic cleansing and even genocide [3]. His only response is to suggest (not prove) through a Rorschach style hypothetical that such ideas are held by a minority of Israelis. It is not clear how that thought experiment undercuts the fact that some Israelis can or do hold genocidal intentions (even if less quantitatively).  How does that not reflect on the moral character of Israel when these people hold high ranking positions? That means they can't be fringe elements, right? 

It is the fact that Israel has the physical capacity to do what it wants with Palestinians, that creates a greater need in divining her purposes (immediate and longterm) in order to assess and deal with (i.e. criticize, punish) its actions towards Palestinians.  A few high placed extremists in that government (or aggressive minorities shielded by the government) have the ability to cause more damage in time through military/economic/social policy than thousands of extremists on the other side limited to guns, rockets, and bombs.

3) Palestinian intentions are not so clear cut. 

Sam and Jerry's main argument for the nature of Palestinian intentions appears to be a guilt by association fallacy.  I am not disputing their idea that militant Islamic organizations such as IS have anti-Israel or fully genocidal intentions.  While Hamas is not one and the same as these other groups (who have said as much themselves [23]), I am willing to agree that their long term intentions are similar enough to be treated as indistinguishable for this specific debate. The problem is that Sam and Jerry routinely treat the Palestinians as if synonymous with these militant organizations. It is likely Sam would point to passages where he explicitly states that not all Palestinians are militant extremists, or hold such extreme views.  However after sufficient "buttering" all of them are.:
"What do we know of the Palestinians? What would the Palestinians do to the Jews in Israel if the power imbalance were reversed? Well, they have told us what they would do. For some reason, Israel’s critics just don’t want to believe the worst about a group like Hamas, even when it declares the worst of itself…  
…There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel if they couldWould every Palestinian support genocide? Of course not. But vast numbers of them—and of Muslims throughout the world—would. 
…Again, I realize that not all Palestinians support Hamas. Nor am I discounting the degree to which the occupation, along with collateral damage suffered in war, has fueled Palestinian rage. But Palestinian terrorism (and Muslim anti-Semitism) is what has made peaceful coexistence thus far impossible.
…Yes, I know that not every Palestinian supports Hamas, but enough do to have brought them to power. Hamas is not a fringe group...
The Palestinians are trying to kill everyone. Killing women and children is part of the plan… [1][my emphasis]"
Jerry's post on Sam's original essay emphasizes this same connection, and so our "knowing" the intentions of Palestinians [24].
"It is now clear that Palestine will sanction only a solution that will destroy Israel—by insisting on the “right of return” that would flood Israel with Palestinians and turn it into an Arab state... 
… My take, which you’ll know if you’re a regular, is that the sworn intention of Palestine as a nation is to destroy Israel as a nation.This is no secret, nor is it a matter of dispute. If you doubt it, I strongly urge you to read the Hamas Charter...
Do you think that Hamas isn’t serious about their own charter? And remember that the Palestinian Authority is now allied with Hamas.
The extreme exponents of Islam, as seen in Hamas and even more radical groups, want nothing more than the imposition of their faith on the entire world, and the total extirpation of the Jews. [24][my emphasis]"
As can be seen in the emphasized portions, not only does Jerry engage in linking Palestinians to militant Islam through Hamas, but also treats a possible democratic loss of power by Jewish Israelis to Arabs as nearly synonymous with ethnic cleansing and genocide!  That last point further underscores Sam's lack of familiarity with the who's and why's behind the nonexistence of a one-state solution.  

Contrary to claims made by Sam and Jerry, the Palestinians as a whole do not hold a dogmatic Islamic genocidal agenda. In fact, there are even Xian Palestinians, making their contention that Palestinian intentions equal militant Islamic intentions appear painfully ignorant [25]. It is true that Hamas and other (even more militant) groups exist within the Palestinian territories and are made up of Palestinians. It is also true that Palestinians elected Hamas into power (in a single election where the other major party was in disgrace, thanks in part to Israel). Those facts do not signify that the totality of Palestinian interests can be found within the Hamas charter or its methods, just as the election of George Bush (2x) did not indicate that the interests of all US citizens could be found within the statements and actions of neocons. It was an election, under specific circumstances. The violence required by Hamas to stay in power, and the fact that they do not control the West Bank, suggests equating the Palestinians (as a whole) with Hamas is deeply flawed [26]. 

It is also disingenuous to suggest that a joining between Fatah's Palestinian Authority (PA) with Hamas in a unity government acts as some sort of alliance toward militant Islamic goals.  After their repeated failure to make a coalition work and the blood spilled between the two for control it is clearly a product of temporal political expedience (if nothing else to stop killing Palestinians). As it is, PA's Mahmoud Abbas stated that they remained committed to a two-state-solution [27].  And it is only Benjamin Netanyahu who forced the false dilemma of peace with Israel, or peace with Hamas. Intriguingly Israel itself uncovered a recent plot by Hamas to stage a coup against the PA in the West Bank indicating they are not one and the same [28].  Moving beyond evidence, as a matter of logic alone, one is forced to ask why it must be seen as the PA abandoning its goals, rather than Hamas. And if sharing power means alliance with the most extreme group's goals, what does that suggest about the Israeli government which contains parties of Jewish extremists? 

I hope it is clear then that Sam and Jerry's line of reasoning linking the Palestinians as a whole (or even a majority) to the intentions of Hamas, much less to more militant Islamic organizations like Islamic State, is severely flawed.

But let's assume for the moment that a vast majority of Palestinians have at least sympathetic feelings toward such militancy, and are willing to allow the targeting of civilians or the possibility of gratuitous civilian casualties. 

Sam argues that when Israel inflicts massively disproportionate civilian casualties it should be chalked up to their "brutalization" [1,2]. Israelis have been made brutal by their circumstances. Inexplicably he does not argue that same sort of understanding for the Palestinians. Have Palestinians not been brutalized, enduring warfare as well as daily hardships that average Israelis do not have to experience?  

This is not to argue we get into bean-counting the infliction or experience of suffering on each side.  The point is that if Sam can recognize that brutal conditions can set people into mindsets and actions which are themselves brutal, it would be useful to spread that insight to all players in this conflict.

To read Sam and Jerry, it is as if the Palestinians showed up on Israel's doorstep out of nowhere with some ideological grudge against Israel, or Jews as a whole, and that's it. The fact is that after being disenfranchised, the Palestinians have been living in incredibly poor conditions for decades. Their ability to move and live within their own areas are heavily controlled by Israel, and direct interactions with the outside world severely limited.  These long term "refugee camps" have been likened to open air prisons, depriving them of any credible sense of autonomy or responsibility. 

It is no wonder then that the tone and nature of what passes for Palestinian government often resembles the volatile power structures found within prisons.  By nature of the system they are forced to live in, criminal and violent factions are more likely to thrive and gain power. Well meaning people would be forced to become harder, more ruthless to protect themselves from thuggish elements, as well as learning to skirt legal restrictions to provide for themselves (especially under blockade). And it is not like innocent people have the option to simply move away from these pressures. In that trapped, humiliating environment it seems likely that some of the most radical, violent, racist elements would find support among its general population.

With this in mind, it is a bit of blaming the victim to compare (and demand sympathy for) the actions and stated ambitions of an established, functional government that enjoys a normal standard of living and overwhelming military capability with the actions and fever-dream rhetoric of splintered organizations that claw their way to power within what amounts to a crippling prison compound overseen by that same government. 

One is reminded of the saying "created sick, then commanded to be well." If Israel wants a better set of organizations to deal with (less radicalization), perhaps it should rethink the brutal living conditions they have chosen to set on the Palestinians.  It is argued this is necessary for Israel's security, but (ignoring legal and moral arguments against collective punishment) lowering their quality of life is unlikely to produce less aggressive intentions or behaviors. Given that it can do what it wants, Israel should arguably set the conditions that allow for the flourishing of qualities that it would like to see in their neighbors, and seek out partners which could undercut (by populism not bullets) factions like Hamas.  

This point is reinforced by a poll of Palestinian opinions that Jerry discusses in his latest essay on the conflict [29, 30].  It suggests that the war in Gaza has shifted sentiments away from moderate elements in the PA towards Hamas.  While ignoring the obvious fact that (particularly pre-war) Palestinian support for Hamas was not all consuming, Jerry uses this agreeably disappointing shift in Palestinian interests towards Hamas and violent action as a retroactive justification for his Palestinian = Hamas argument.:
"Some readers have maintained that Hamas doesn’t represent a majority of Palestinians, even in Gaza. That doesn’t seem to be the case: Hamas is a big favorite among all Palestinians, even more so in the West Bank! (Note that residents of both Gaza and the West Bank were surveyed.)[29]"
Other than the observation that Hamas's handling of the war with Israel, in contrast to the PA, has led to an unprecedented shift in their favor, Jerry's analysis is a serious over-reach from those statistics. Indeed, there is not much discussion of statistics contrary to the genocidal intentions put forward as inherent to Hamas (62% favor popular nonviolent resistance? 24% a one state-solution?).  His post makes it sound like he was right all along. This is the exact wrong message to take from these statistics which suggest that Israeli strategy is making things worse.:
"Findings of this special Gaza War poll highlight dramatic changes in public attitudes regarding major issues. It goes without saying that the war was the major driver behind these changes. As expected, and as we saw in previous instances during and immediately after Israeli wars with Hamas, findings show a spike in the popularity of Hamas and its leaders and a major decline in the popularity of Fatah and president Abbas.  But, as in previous cases, these changes might be temporary and things might revert in the next several months to where they were before the war.[30]"
4) Intentions - means = fantasy. 

The potential for one's enemies to carry out intentions is an important criterion when judging the legitimacy of an armed response. That's because capacity to actualize intentions is what separates plans from fantasies. Otherwise, Sam and Jerry's argument, based solely on intentions, justifies the paranoid's threat, "If you dare dream of killing me, you better wake up and apologize or I get to kill you, and anyone that gets in the way can have a piece of the action!"

Proportionality is the next important criteria. When Hamas began firing rockets, it is obvious that Israel had a right to respond in some way.  That is not the question.  But were those rockets really intended to wipe out Israel?  That was a physical impossibility, so suggesting we take into account Hamas's theoretical longterm genocidal intentions is ridiculous when clearly these rockets were intended to do no such thing.  

That there was little chance of their inflicting mass casualties at all, means the nature of Israel's return fire, which clearly would (and did) result in mass civilian casualties, was grossly disproportionate. It may not have been intended to kill innocent people, but with the knowledge that it could cause such damage when it was not necessary makes it blatantly negligent. Israel's moral failing then was not genocidal intent, but callous indifference in pursuit of military objectives.

That doesn't make Israel THE bad guys, but it definitely makes them a crucial group (in this moment) to criticize regarding errant methods. Demanding sympathy for disproportionate attacks and its inherent collateral damage, based on the fantasy hypotheticals and impotent attacks of one's enemies, is something which is not necessary and, if anything, counterproductive to reducing or eliminating such fantasies and future attacks.

5) We don't have to choose between the two. 

Does that mean I am arguing we should side with Hamas?  The Palestinians?  Unfortunately the nature of Sam and Jerry's narrative traps us into the previously mentioned false dilemma of having to choose between Israel and Hamas (arguably not the Palestinians).  

As an outsider evaluating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I see no reason that we should have to choose a "side."  They could both be "wrong". Perhaps one is more "wrong" than the other, or has more people doing more wrong things (I am not in any sense arguing moral equivalence). None of that prevents us from criticizing them independently for what they get wrong, and lauding them when they get something right. 

Contrary to Sam and Jerry's script, my position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it is possible to step beyond "us and them" and choose a third side, the side of peace. That is even if we happen to prefer the lifestyle, or sympathize with the plight of, one group more than the other. 

If peace is desired in that conflict, it would seem to me that the role of outsiders (particularly public intellectuals) must be to stop feeding any self-defeating emotions (even where wholly valid) and instead reinforce those that build toward a practical, viable future.  We must be above this situation, to keep those involved fixed on a real goal, like someone guiding moths away from the flame.  

Indeed I would raise the question if atheists, skeptics, scientists, etc who are not directly involved can't aim for something more useful than moral name calling, or choosing tribal associations?  I realize this would be hard.  It is easy to get sucked into the very real emotional issues inherent to a decades long tragedy.  I have admitted my own attachments in noting the compelling nature of Andrew and Freddie's essays. But we of all people should know that this is not going to help us find solutions for the future.  It is a diversion of attention and energy.  

Could we not frame and limit our narratives of the conflict, using our moral compasses to seek out desired moral states that we would like to occupy, moral actions that we would like to be synonymous with, rather than finding which way to point our finger at the bad guy?  For example, if Israel does indeed hold the "moral high ground" we might ask if any specific act was consistent with or helped maintain that position, could another act have improved that position?  

And perhaps most important in a conflict like this (unless you plan to kill everyone on the other side) did this act raise elements of your enemy to higher ground than they occupied before?  After all if you want peace through negotiation that is exactly what must be fostered, everyone moving toward higher moral ground.  This is the kind of talk (particularly with such landscape-like terminology) I had hoped to see from Sam, but was sadly disappointed.

Perhaps I am mistaken, but isn't it possible to switch moral dialogue from a dead-end blame-game to "yes these people did this or that, but... over here is the viable future we can all work toward and the things we can do from now on to create it"? In other words use morality, like science, to solve problems?

lll. Western nations and militant Islam

Thankfully western nations are not in a position of having to settle on a division of shared territory with militant Islamic organizations like IS.  We also do not have an angry captive population which we must care for, fight, and negotiate with all at the same time. That means our narrative is completely different from, and we don't need to end up in the same state as, the Israelis and Palestinians. 

This does not mean things will be easy. We might avoid moral name-calling, but we don't have a choice regarding tribal associations.  I am part of a tribe supporting limited, secular representative government, and on top of that a hedonistic atheist who promotes expansion of freedom rather than allowing restriction to the dictates of singular cultures.  Militant Islam is opposed to this and I would not fare well or long in an Islamic State. That means I need to champion within my community the qualities and actions that are likely to achieve the preferred goals of my tribe, which includes long term peace and prosperity. 

That is why, more than Sam's errors regarding Israel-Palestine, I was deeply shocked and disappointed by his grandiose "clash of civilizations" rhetoric.:
"This is the great story of our time. For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way.[1]"
It is possible that strains of militant Islam will rise to power and be with us for generations.  Or they may not. Either way, one does not need such suspiciously glorified predictions of longterm conflict to confront the extremist movements currently gaining power. One consistent problem created by such an outlook is that it artificially magnifies the problem while perpetuating the search for an enemy to fight, as opposed to keeping a cool head and identifying friends or willing partners (we don't always have to like each other) to create solutions. With that fatalistic mindset, we miss opportunities to change the environment and so grow "our side" to defuse situations. The results of failing to do so are clearly visible in all the missed opportunities by Israel, and yes the Palestinians too. 

Right now, like Israel, we control the initiative and overwhelming military capabilities.  We should be using this position to avoid using (where possible) military solutions, which we already know spread the seeds and strengthen the roots of the problem we face. While a serious concern to be sure, militant Islam is not even the "greatest" concern facing our societies.  These organizations are a regional threat and not an existential one. Unless we really drop the ball, they are unlikely to become more than that any time soon. Indeed, in recently denouncing philosophy and chemistry as "opposed to God" the Islamic State has just declared war on an enemy they will surely never beat, and in this case the enemy of my enemy actually is my friend [31].  

Let's be honest, the story Sam is plugging isn't new. It's been with us from the beginning, and has always been a footnote to the real history of human achievement. All of it low points dragging our energies away from peace and prosperity.

Sam says it's "the great story of our time"?  It's a shit read if you ask me. 

To my mind the "great story" of our time is the discovery of DNA and the technologies allowing us to understand and manipulate genetic material to improve our lives, it is the recent advances in neuroscience which have greatly expanded our knowledge of the brain and its connection with thought and behavior, it is the work which has allowed everyone to see further into the Universe than anyone before (in space and time), it is the large-scale efforts allowing us to detect and manipulate the smallest particles of matter and antimatter, it is the unparalleled advance in human communication which has removed prior physical limits for the spread of information, it is our increased computational capacity allowing us to analyze data and express ourselves in ways never before possible. For the first time in history we have voyaged beyond the confines of our home planet, and hopefully will again before I am gone.

All of these narratives are the ones that are changing the course of human life as we speak.  It is an exciting time to be around, to witness such a dramatic change in our capacity to understand and control the world in which we live.  These are our great stories. 

P.S. ---

It seems a bit sad for someone to be distracted by and engrossed in the same old ethnic and religious hostilities.  If for personal reasons someone prefers apocalyptic, all-or-nothing narratives driven by sudden, horrific violence, such that one must be recommend as the "great story" of our time… well… 

I vote for Game of Thrones.  


13) The Moral Landscape (2010), by Sam Harris, Free Press

1 comment:

  1. Sad on both Harris and Coyne. But, not really surprising.