Ethics in Gaza

Philosophers have been writing a lot lately about Israel's military campaign in Gaza.  Francis Kamm writes on proportionality in the Boston Review; Peter Singer is critical of Israel in this essay; and Jeff McMahan also discusses proportionality in Prospect magazine.   I find Singer's essay illuminating, Jeff McMahan's not so much, and Kamm...well I haven't finish it yet. 

McMahan's main claim is that too few deaths of Israeli civilians will be prevented by Israel's campaign, considering the cost in Palestinian civilian deaths; this is largely because Israel's anti-missile system is already preventing Palestinian missiles from killing civilians.  There's therefore a problem of disproportionality.

As plausible as that conclusion is, it's strikingly unpersuasive how McMahan gets there. He proposes to start with ordinary, personal self defense:
Suppose your life is threatened by a culpable aggressor but your only effective means of defence will kill an innocent bystander as a side effect. Most philosophers believe that it would be impermissible to save yourself at the cost of killing this innocent person.
Is that what "most philosophers" believe?  I'm not sure, but I think McMahan is surely wrong about why they believe it, if they do.  Here's his proposed explanation:
This is mainly because the moral reason not to kill a person is stronger than the reason to save a person. It is therefore generally impermissible to kill one person to save another, even if the killing would be unintended.
This can't be the whole story about bystander deaths, because this story also implies that it's wrong to kill an attacker in self defense.  Suppose someone is aiming a missile at my house and I (an innocent civilian) can't escape.   All I can do to save myself is fire back, killing the attacker.  This would be a case of saving a person (namely me) by killing another.  Should I stop and think "the moral reason not to kill a person is stronger than the reason to save a person"?   No, so the ''better not to kill than to save" principle, so simply stated, isn't tenable and probably also isn't what most philosophers believe.

McMahan actually aims to discuss proportionality as it pertains to unintentionally killing bystanders, not attackers, in a self defense situation, but it's interesting first to notice how little we care about proportionality when it comes to attackers.  Suppose it takes 10 people to operate my attackers' rocket launcher, while mine is a solo model.  I don't have any reluctance to say I can fire back and kill 10 to save just one (me). If it takes 100 to operate their rocket launcher, I may kill 100 to save myself.  People trying to kill me can't undermine my right to fight back simply by piling on!

McMahan asks how many bystanders you may unintentionally kill, if you're killing an attacker in self defense.   His answer is simple:  not even one innocent bystander may be killed to save yourself.  That follows from the "better not to kill than to save" principle.   Sticking with that analysis, his objection to Israel's campaign will be that there are more bystanders being killed than civilian deaths being prevented.   But McMahan takes on board what most people think: that there is some special prerogative to preserve yourself, permitting one bystander to be sacrificed to save yourself from an attacker.  How about two?  Maybe, he says, but not three!  From that standpoint, McMahan judges that Israelis should be killing at most 2 Palestinian civilians to save 1 Israeli civilian.  And then the problem is that the actual ratio is far from that:  there have been over 1800 mostly civilian deaths in Gaza so far and perhaps only a handful of Israeli civilian deaths have been prevented, considering that Israel does have an anti-missile defense system already protecting civilians.  
These numbers--1 or 2 bystanders may be unintentionally killed to save yourself, but not 3--have nothing but intuitiveness going for them, but do they have even that?   Again, 10 guys are operating a rocket launcher and I'm on the verge of firing back with my solo launcher to save myself.   Let's suppose (contrary to the simple "better not to kill than to save" principle) that I'm entitled to kill the 10 guys.  So the issue is only about bystanders.  It's part of the 10 guys' strategy that they will keep some children close by while firing at me, knowing I'll be  reluctant to fire back under those circumstances. McMahan gives me, at the outer limit, the right to cause two bystanders deaths, but not three.  If I happen to have my own child in my house with me, then to save the two of us, I get, at the very most, four bystander deaths. If there are five or more kids in the attacker compound, morality requires me to succumb to the attack, along with my two kids.  Obviously, we're being offered just an illusion of precision here. There really isn't an answer to how many bystander deaths are tolerable. The real intuition most of us have is that there shouldn't be gross disproportionality!

But perhaps we have other thoughts about this as well.  It seems different that the attackers are deliberately using the children as innocent shields, compared to a situation in which, by sheer accident, there happen to be children nearby.  We might be inclined to say, in the first case, that if I exercise my right to preserve myself, the deaths of the children will on my attackers' conscience, so to speak.  In the second case, they've got to be on my conscience.  We care not just who causes which deaths, but who is to blame for which deaths.  Assessing causality is just part of assessing blame.

McMahan highlights something I do find morally perplexing:  Israel does have an anti-missile defense system already in place, so the number of Israeli civilians saved by the Gaza campaign cannot be great.  That does make the number of Palestinian civilians killed seem troubling. But you can say why without even mentioning proportionality. It's a truism that if you can kill fewer rather than more to achieve the very same goal, you should.  Killing the larger number makes you guilty of gratuitous killing.  Granted, we do have some moral intuitions about proportionality too, but they're very imprecise (contrary to McMahan's pretend moral math).  There's nothing imprecise about the prohibition against gratuitous killing.


Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Nicely put. This also shows why this kind of thinking, which attempts to reduce moral decision making to a sort of calculus, is so alien to real life moral assessment. Moreover, McMahan's assumption stands on a belief that a missile defense system is sufficiently reliable to never let anything serious through and to stand up indefinitely without eventually being overwhelmed, failing or simply superceded by a different technology or approach. War, as undesirable for most of us as it may be, is simply not predictable in terms of outcomes and collateral effects. Like everything else in our lives it's a matter of trial and error and a degree of luck. No calculus, moral or otherwise, can take that uncertainty away.

Aeolus said...

The Kamm piece is worth reading; among other points, she addresses the oft-made claim that Israel does not target civilians. My own view is that if one is deliberately targeting areas known to be heavily populated by civilians (specifically, non-combatants) with a level of violence that will inevitably result in massive civilian casualties, then it is nothing but hair-splitting sophistry to excuse such attacks with "We don't target civilians." (Hamas, of course, doesn't even pretend not to target civilians -- but two wrongs don't make a right.)

As Kamm points out, there arguably could be situations where (what amounts to) targeting civilians is a regrettable necessity. I don't for a moment believe that Gaza is such a situation.

Unfortunately, the current Israeli government shows no sign of willingness to take meaningful steps toward a two-state solution (including such steps as could be initiated unilaterally without endangering Israel's security). Reports indicate that progressive Israeli voices for peace have become marginalized in recent weeks; I can only hope that the futility of the present course of action will make those voices louder.

s. wallerstein said...

You cannot understand this situation in ethical terms unless you understand the historical and political background.

While it no longer occupies Gaza, Israel controls and blockades Gaza illegally against international law.

Hamas is not just a group of thugs (although they may be thugs) shelling Israeli civilians, but the elected representatives of the people of Gaza who are shelling Israel to force Israel to end the illegal blockade.

By the way, some say that Hamas does not use the people of Gaza as human shields, but that Gaza is so crowded that from wherever you fire a rocket, there will be civilians nearby.

So we have an original wrong, Israel control and blockade of Gaza, which Hamas responds to by committing another wrong, firing shells at Israeli civilians (and possibly by using their own people as human shields) and finally, still another Israel wrong bombing children in Gaza.

A mess. In addition, that the children of Gaza are killed by Israeli bombs makes victims of the Palestinians and most of us, myself included, pay attention to their plight when normally we pay no attention to it (Hamas knows that this will happen). So Palestinians only get the publicity that they need to end the Israeli blockade when they are being massacred. Very sad.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

"Hamas is not just a group of thugs (although they may be thugs) shelling Israeli civilians, but the elected representatives of the people of Gaza who are shelling Israel to force Israel to end the illegal blockade."

No, they are shelling Israel to drive the Jews out. If they weren't shelling (actually lobbing rockets at) Israel, the Israelis would have no reason to go in. Moreover, if they weren't building up an arsenal of rockets and other munitions to "shell" Israel, the Israelis would have no reason to blockade their ports and otherwise restrict access in and out. (What the Egyptians will have reason to do is another question.)

Israel is not culpable for your "original wrong" since it vacated Gaza and turned the place over to its inhabitants who could have pursued a peaceful path but chose not to do so.

This isn't about an initial "blockade" at all. However, the larger question here is how does one do a moral calculus in such a situation and I would say one cannot although one can decide that one side or the other is right based on factors like you suggest, i.e., who really started it, who refuses to settle it, etc. On the other hand, the question of collateral damage to civilians in wartime is more complicated and, I would say, not itself amenable to resolution by calculus.

s. wallerstein said...

Stuart Mirksy,

I guess the original wrong goes back to 1948 and depending on whom you believe (I believe Ilan Pappe and Edward Said), it lies either with the Israelis or the Palestinians.

I'm not sure how to do a moral calculus and I'm not much of a utilitarian anyway.

As a Jew, I feel that my fellow Jews, that is, the Israelis, should take the first step and maybe the second step towards peace in this tragic situation. That is, stop bombing Gaza and
end the blockade.

In general, I expect more scrupulous ethical conduct of myself and of those close to me, in this case, my fellow Jews, than I do of humanity in general.
I realize that most people expect more scrupulous ethical conduct of others than they do of themselves or of those close to them, but I speak for myself as a Jew.

What I've learned from all this mess is that power and privilege corrupt and that the Jews, who when they were powerless, were relatively innocent in ethical terms, when in power, behave like everyone else. I should have known that all along of course.

If you permit me to be a bit preachy, I'd like to cite the only bit of ethical wisdom I retained from my largely unsuccessful Jewish education so many years ago: Rabbi Hillel's remark that the whole Talmud is summed in the maxim: "what is hateful to you, do not do unto others".

If the Israelis applied that bit of Jewish wisdom, the situation would be very different.

s. wallerstein said...

Hillel's comment sums up the Torah, not the Talmud. Sorry.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Yes, it was the torah. You wrote:

"As a Jew, I feel that my fellow Jews, that is, the Israelis, should take the first step and maybe the second step towards peace in this tragic situation. That is, stop bombing Gaza and end the blockade."

I would agree if the result was likely to be anything better than increased terrorism against people in Israel but there's plenty of evidence that it won't be so why should they take the chance and risk committing national suicide? We don't expect that of others, why of them? The original wrong may well go back to '48 though I'm not sure it was entirely wrong since nearly every country and nation in today's world is built on land wrested from others. That's as true for the U.S., England and the Arab states as for Australia and New Zealand where the settlers displaced a relatively small population to make room for themselves. The problem isn't going to be resolved by bemoaning what happened in 1948 but by dealing with the facts now.

For there to be peace both sides have to want it. Right now only some do and they're all on the Israeli side. Anyway, my interest in the posting that started this is less to do with the Gazan situation except as an example of how moral judgments work and, in this case, it seems pretty clear that trying to make a calculus of it simply doesn't get to the heart of the matter.

Faust said...

Singer's comment:

"These incidents are reminiscent of past NATO operations in Afghanistan, in which there was manifestly less care taken to safeguard the lives of local civilians than there would have been if the lives of NATO troops, or their civilian compatriots, had been at risk."

this aligns with my thinking on this matter. It seems just obvious to me that if the UN buildings were staffed by Israeli's they would never have been hit. Of course, if they had been staffed by Israelis they would have been attacked/taken hostage by Hamas and/or other militant Palestinians.

Or to put it another way, following Jean's discussion - if the 10 guys firing a missile at me also happen to have MY child (not just any child) in the building with them - then all this self-defense mumbo jumbo goes out the window anyway - they have my kids hostage and I'm pretty unlikely to be firing back - even if I would be theoretically justified in doing so.

The talk about "human shields" is nonsense - mostly because not all of us are equally "human" insofar as "human" functions as a placeholder for "high moral worth." If Hamas was able to obtain some Israeli hostages, THEN they would have some human shields. As it is - not so much.

None of the preceding should be taken as a particularly strong commentary Israel per se. Hamas pretty clearly is utterly indiscriminate in how it is proceeding. The would be (I assume, based on their behavior) very happy to hit a bunch of civilians.

My main point is just this: we should be honest about the fact that we do not all really regard each other as equally "human" morally speaking. That fact is as much to the point as the assertion that all those "human" shield casualties are the fault of Hamas.111

s. wallerstein said...

"OK" was a test.

Anyway, if what you're saying, Faust, is that one Israeli life is worth more than one Palestinian life in the real world, I agree with you and that fact must be one of the reasons behind the at times seemingly irrational Palestinian rage and resentment.

Faust said...

Worth more on the world stage? Definitely. But why?

Because there is a difference between the question:

Is it OK for an [innocent bystander] to be killed in my pursuit of self-defense

and the question:

Is it OK for [someone I care about] to be killed in self defense.

The problem with discussion on this issue is that it pretends that the answer to the first question will be broadly motivating, when it is manifestly obvious that whatever the answer to the question is, it is clearly NOT motivating. What IS motivating is what is already pre-supposed by our behavior - i.e. what we ACTUALLY care about.

This is a general problem with ethics discussions. At the end of the argument, once we make our determination of what we "ought to do" or "what is just" or what have you, THEN we are supposed to care on the basis of that argument and that conclusion.

But rather clearly people START with what they care about, namely THIS group of people rather than THAT group of people (and sometimes THIS religion rather than THAT religion, or THIS set of ideas rather than THAT set of ideas) and then they proceed.

And that original decision to care about THIS rather than THAT is, generally speaking, a contingent fact - it's based on where I was born, who I was born to, where and how I was educated, and so on.

I'm not saying that the first argument can't be motivating. But it will only be motivating to people who are already motivated to find their motivation in the conclusion of that kind of argument and its presuppositions.

For example "no one in this situation is innocent" is a belief the would eliminate the first argument. But no argument is likely to unseat my passion for the people I already care about.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

This is a very good point, to differentiate on the basis of motivational power. It stands to reason that we just will care about some things and some people and not about others. That's just how we are as creatures in the world. The truly moral question, though, is whether we should care about some things and people and/or not about others. Motivation comes from caring, from identifying with, from wanting, desiring, etc. So is there any argument that can move from 'this is how things are' to 'this is what we should care about with regard to those things'? Can a moral argument be adduced which offers reasons (that can be argued for/supported) to care differently than we may happen to care at any given moment?

s. wallerstein said...

Maybe from a virtue ethics standpoint, you can posit models of virtuous conduct who are caring in general: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Buddha, even Jesus (not deified) etc.

You could then ask why we see them as models of virtuous conduct, but it's a start.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Yes, models, but why are they more to be emulated than a Hitler, a Stalin, a Pol Pot? What is it about their behaviors that we are moved to praise, admire, wish to emulate? Why the ones we call saints rather than the sinners?

s. wallerstein said...

Good questions, but we, human beings, seem to be constituted so that most of us admire Buddha and Martin Luther King more than we do Hitler and Stalin.

It's part of the nature of most of us (genetic, I suppose). I don't think that a clever group of priests has brainwashed us with the idea that compassion is better than cruelty.

Compassion or at least concern for others seems to be a constant in most major religions, ideologies and philosophies and not only compassion for those close to us, but compassion for strangers too. (I don't know much about Islam, so I leave that out and there are philosophies such as a simplified version of Nietzsche and that of Ayn Rand which scorn compassion.)

We're contradictory creatures and the same person who believes in Christian compassion may also follow Ayn Rand in her praise of selfishness, but as one reflects more and more, one becomes a bit less contradictory.

Now since we're contradictory creatures, in certain situations, out of fear or moved by a demagogue or by a fanatical ideology, lots of us are capable of great cruelty or of complete indifference to the suffering of others, especially others whom we don't identify as being like us.

What's more, a certain percentage of the population are sociopathic or semi-sociopathic and just don't care about others.

But, most people, if asked, if they'd rather be seen as Martin Luther King or as Hitler will pick the first option and I don't think that that's just conformism or fear of showing their secret aggressive tendencies.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

I think your assessment is right vis a vis our own society and those like it. And you may also be right concerning our species-specific predispositions. I also agree that there are some within our species and social groups that don't share the same general traits most others exhibit. All that said, it seems to me that none of this leaves us enough to provide a reasoned basis for moral claims, whatever the specifics of such claims turn out to be.

If someone is a sociopath, we cannot offer reasons against his being that, on such a view, nor can we blame him for his inclinations. On a less radical level we can have no argument against those making particular choices we take to be wrong, on a case by case basis, or blaming them for proceeding with such choices even if their decisions are within what we take to be a more normal framework.

If we can't blame or guide the sociopath with reasons, we can't do that for anyone else either. And that makes moral reasoning, directed at establishing basic moral standards at least, pointless. But if it is, relativism follows and relativism sounds the death knell for moral judgment.

If we cannot believe that something IS the right thing to do, for some reason, then we can have no reason to do it except the motivation of a momentary preference, prompted by our natural or socially instilled inclinations. Moral judgment stands on reasons and moral reasoning requires a basis for, as Brandom would put it, taking some statements as implied by others and seeing that these implied statements themselves also have implications. The moral game is about giving reasons

s. wallerstein said...

Stuart Mirsky,

I agree with most of what you write.

There's not much that I say to convince a sociopath or a Taliban or a consistent follower of Ayn Rand that my ethical options are right. They function with different ethical paradigms and they have no reasons to accept my
egalitarian human rights paradigm.

Never argue when there's a genuine disagreement, as the saying goes.

From that it does not follow, as you say, that I have nothing to say to someone about their ethical options within my own ethical framework or paradigm. In that case, I can point out that their reasoning is not consistent with the basic principles of the paradigm.

The moral game, as you say, is about giving reasons, but it seems that we always start with some basic principles or assumptions and from there, we build reasoned arguments.

I don't know why the fact that we start with some basic principles (for which there are no reasoned arguments or only circular reasoned arguments) sounds the death knell for moral judgment. Judgments are still possible, but within the paradigm or framework or community and after all, we all live in communities (at times spiritual or political or ethical communities rather than physical communities).

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Yes we CAN still argue about consistency as you say and we can argue to even better effect when we have shared underlying beliefs/premises. Within a community sharing "values," argument can often be effective, though it's also true that it's very hard to convince others, in fact. People tend to fight very hard over the "rightness" of their beliefs though none of that undermines the possibility of reasoned argument per se. The problem arises for moral discourse, I think, when we get down to basic standards.

There are sometimes very different basic beliefs at work between cultures. One society may sanction infanticide or revenge killings or cannibalism or lying while another may not. If there is nothing to help us navigate between such conflicting beliefs, then moral relativism is the case. And if it is, then it will also obtain within society once individuals see that the only standards on which to rest moral claims are arbitrary to the society. Similarly, if it's nothing more than our inherited nature that underlies our "moral" beliefs, then there's no basis to praise, blame or advise others at the foundational level of moral belief.

Moral argument is relatively easy when foundational beliefs are shared, which they often are. It's when they're not, though, that such arguments really matter.

s. wallerstein said...

We're not going to go back to the moral consensus of the Middle Ages or even of the 1950's without a theocratic authoritarian state, in which neither of us would last 15 minutes.

Internet makes it possible for me to google "Death to Jews" (I just did) and discover that there's a Facebook group for me, approved by the Facebook Corporation, paradoxically controlled by Mr. Zuckerberg, a Jew. Didn't Lenin say that the capitalists will sell you the rope to hang them with?

In the world of internet you can't avoid relativism, because all possible good and bad ideas are available in less than a second. What's more, the 60's liberated a lot of things that needed to be liberated, like being gay or woman's rights, but they also liberated lots of negative energies and projects, which, once of the bottle, are here to stay. For example, you see a lot of overt misogyny
these days which I don't recall from my youth (I'm 68), when males, although sexist (and often chivalrous), were not as openly misogynous.

In our diverse and multicultural world then, arguments between paradigms become political rather than strictly philosophical. They are about hegemony, that is, about who defines the dominant discourse in any given community or society.

Thus, if a group is openly misogynous, I would take a political approach towards them, work on those who convictions are weaker, try to influence their women, try to influence gay members of the group (who may be closeted), but no, there is no reasoned argument that I can think of that I could use against people who are openly hostile to women.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Again we agree to a point. My view, though, is that there is a way to achieve a kind of moral objectivity though it's not some simple thing like invoking a Kantian categorical imperative or a Moorean claim about intuited goodness. Nor do I think it's enough to suppose that it's all cultural or all biological although some of it manifestly is. I'm just not sure that, if all of it is, moral valuing can work as it's supposed to (as those who use it expect it to), in which case either there is some area in which relativism plays second fiddle in our judgment making or moral judgments lose their claim on us entirely. That is, I don't think we need to deny relativism entirely in order to accept some area(s) of judgment in which relativism is discounted.

But yes indeed, the world of today that you describe does tend to make value claims seem relative in general. In that case, of course, why should you think that it's necessarily a good thing to work against misogyny or other practices that just happen to seem abhorrent to us? If it's just a political fight then a view like ours is no better than theirs at bottom, in which case they win anyway. If moral judging stands on giving reasons then propagandizing or political efforts aren't going to do anything more than convince someone else of something we don't, ourselves, have a reason to accept -- other than the fact that we do happen to accept that thing. But then we could just as easily have accepted something else.

s. wallerstein said...

Why do I oppose misogyny?

Because it's stupid, in bad taste, because I generally identify with women, because I always side with the oppressed.

That's sufficient justification for me. I don't need any transcendent or metaphysical justification.

Could I have just as easily taken another position, as you suggest?

Not really. Everything about me, my character, my education, the books I've read, my friends, my social circle, indicate that I'm the kind of person who opposes misogyny.

Could I perversely become a misogynist to spite myself?

No, I'm not that perverse.

Maybe at age 14 I had the option of becoming a different type of person, one who would become an active and conscious misogynous, but the friends I had, the teachers I had, my experiences, etc. worked so that by age 18 I had more or less the same values, in their adolescent version, as I have today.

Is there any merit in my not being misogynous and should we blame someone for being misogynous?

I think that we should praise those who are not misogynous and criticize those who are, because praise reinforces positive behaviors, etc.

That's what praise and blame are, in my opinion, manners of reinforcing positive behaviors and of un-reinforcing (whatever the technical term is) negative ones.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Indeed, neither trancendant nor metaphysical can be justified. Still why do you think misogyny is "stupid," "in bad taste" and so forth? Why should anyone care that you feel this way? Why should those, standing in an entirely different culture than you, care? Or be moved by any assertions of yours based on the fact that you care? Perhaps in their view the very term you choose doesn't make sense to them? Is it stupid or in bad taste to dominate one's domesticated animals? Well, it's not the same, right, because women are humans like the men in the culture who would dominate them? But they're not men after all and the sacred book that defines the culture's norms specifies how they should be treated by men. Why should members of that culture question such teachings or opinions on your say-so? But if you don't think the should, then you can't blame or condemn them for such behavior. You can't accuse them of behaving stupidly or in bad taste (which, itself, seems a rather thin argument to level against such behavior).

And how do you know that, in another cultural milieu, exposed to and indoctrinated into other norms, you would not have been different as you say? Yet if you're so sure you would not have been different, why would you think others could be if it happened that you were able to enforce your norms on them instead of vice versa? Or successfully re-educate them? And if you COULD do it to them, why shouldn't they do it to you?

I do think you're right, that we CAN re-educate, even brainwash others to get them to behave in ways we find more appealing. But if we can, they can. And why shouldn't they if we can? This is why I suggest that such a view, even while surely containing some truth, as I think it does, ultimately sounds the death knell for the moral game. Relativism undermines moral reasoning and moral reasoning is the basis of this game.

s. wallerstein said...

First of all, I'm very much a product of my circumstances, so it makes no sense to ask how I would be if I had been raised in another culture. Obviously, I would have been different if I had been raised in a different culture. There is no "I" or self which is independent of culture and circumstances.

Misogyny is stupid because it prevents misogynists from getting to know one half of humanity, women. You can't get to know women if you approach them with prejudices, such as those which a misogynist has. I think that a person who is willfully blind to one half of the human race is stupid.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

The argument for stupidity you cite takes us beyond your earlier position that it's just what our cultures inculcate in us. Asserting misogyny's stupidity presents a substantive argument that purports to undermine relativism. A morality based on such claims might work. On the other hand one can imagine the misogynist cultural representative responding that there are enough differences between the genders to warrant different treatment in which case perhaps it's not so stupid as we think. Or perhaps there is no clear benefit in getting to know half the human race in the same way as you assume. And then the anti-misogynist has to say why there aren't such differences or why such differences as there are don't warrant the difference in treatment or why there really are benefits to an open and equal society.

The point I'm trying to make is that assuming morality is entirely a function of personal or cultural preference (or genetic predisposition) must lead to relativism which undermines moral valuation. But we don't need "transcendental" or "metaphysical" claims to avoid relativism. There ARE other bases for arguing inter culturally and even intra culturally. It's a false choice to suppose it's between transcendental and metaphysical, on the one hand, and nothing, on the other.

There really does seem to be a basis for arguing for some cultural norms and against others.

s. wallerstein said...

Some cultures see stupidity as more negative than do others. I assume that willful stupidity will be very negatively considered by people who participate in philosophy blogs, but actually, in my general community (I live in Chile), asking too many questions is much more frowned upon than willful stupidity. So, I'm not at all sure that condemning something as willfully stupid will have any force in all cultures.

Anyway, your point is that there is a basis for arguing for some cultural norms and against others.

I'm eager to hear your explanation of that basis.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Thanks, I appreciate the challenge. I'll offer an answer in parts because of limitations here:

Well, I have a proposal at any rate. My thinking runs like this: "Moral" claims come in a number of flavors, some being a matter of cultural practice and tradition, some being genetically built into creatures like ourselves. We justify arguments about such claims in a variety of ways but if you dig deeply enough, you come to one or the other. However, such moral claims fail to provide a basis of argument re: certain kinds of questions and it's there where this lack matters.

I think if we look at moral practices across cultures we find some similarities in the different traditions and we can boil these down to a question of concern for the other's interests. Most valuing that we do concerns the valuer's interests but an important segment of moral valuation claims that we make rests on suppressing the valuer's interests in favor of that of another.

But what can get anyone to that point? Why should we ever be motivated to act in another's interest if and when it conflicts with ours? And even if it doesn't, what's in it for the agent? I think you can get there by considering what valuing in the moral case amounts to. To cut to the chase (necessarily leaving out some details here, I'm afraid) I think the form of moral valuing which fits the bill I've described involves the case in which we look at an action in its entirety, i.e., from intention to implementation to outcome. Indeed, the outcome is already contained in the intent (which is just what we think we are bringing about when we act). Valuing actions in this way means valuing intent, i.e., the intentions that underwrite the act.

But intentions aren't real things. You can't find them in the world. They have no delineated borders, no mass, extension and so forth. In an important sense intentions are just conceptual constructs, convenient talking points for us when describing actions. So what are we talking about when we speak of intentions? My view is that we're speaking about the state of the agent him or herself. The broader state, his or her character, of which any particular intention is just an aspect, a momentary expression. To give a satisfactory account of moral valuing I think we must have a robust account of the mental. On this view, valuing any act in this particular moral way, is to put a value on the agent's mental state. His or her intentions just being a continuation of that state, consisting of the things he or she believes, expects, wants, etc., from the action in question.

But what sort of mental state might be better, what kind worse? And on what basis can we argue for, and conclude that, this or that particular intention is best in any given case? I propose that the mental state to be achieved is one of empathy.

More later.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...


Empathy is the state or condition of standing in the other's shoes, because we can imagine ourselves as the other. And it is this state or condition that underlies the claims we make which favor others' interests, e.g., things like not doing harm to another, treating others fairly, and, of course, more specific things like seeing that one oughtn't to treat women as if they are less than men (and vice versa). A whole slew of these sorts of claims, I would suggest, can be boiled down to having empathy.

One problem with this is the supposition that you can't really give yourself, or another, empathy, that we either have it or we don't, in which case there's no point in arguing for it, or supposing it can serve as a basis for urging certain kinds of behaviors on others (or ourselves). If empathy is something you have or don't, then it's outside the reasoning game and, to the extent the moral game stands on reasoning, it can provide no basis for certain kinds of moral claims. We can probably produce it in others by training but that possibility isn't conducive to a claim that we can, or should, arrive at an empathetic state by reasoning.

Still, I think it's pretty clear that we can, and often do, adopt certain behavioral dispositions for reasons and that the dispositions we undertake foster in us (or in others) the feelings we commonly associate with motivation to action. That is, we are not merely the victims of our feelings but can and do shape them by the behavioral choices we make.

If so, then empathy, too, can be adopted by choice and we are not just the passive victims of our passions but their guides. But why should we take empathy to be a good condition in which to be or think we should adopt it if we don't already feel it?

I'd argue that empathy is part of what it means to be a subject in the world (which is what we manifestly are). Subjects are distinguished by having a mental life, an array of experiences, thoughts, beliefs, memories and so forth that constitute intentionality and intentionality, in the sense of being about things, is the foundation of having intentions in our behavior (acting to do something). Intentionality implies a mental life in the entity.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

(The limitations of this site oblige me to post this response in sections.)

The kind of subject we are, because there are others within the hierarchy of living things of course, has, as a part of its mental life, the capacity to recognize other subjects, i.e., we recognize intentionality in other entities when they behave in certain ways.
Thus, we choose to be empathetic towards others, or not, when we see certain kinds of behaviors from them.

Of course we don't have to be empathetic. We can choose to be shitty towards others, too. That's where the moral issue comes in, I would say. Why should we choose empathy over disregard, or worse, towards others? I would suggest that it comes down to recognizing what we are.

As subjects we recognize subjectness in other subjects when the right behaviors are present, and choosing to disregard that aspect of the other, when its behaviors warrant such recognition, leaves our own intentionality unrealized because we have then failed to fully exercise our own subjective condition. We have acted in a way that does not fully express subjectness. Acting with disregard of other subjects' intentionality impairs our own intentionality because subjectness implies reciprocal recognition.

If we recognize subjectness in the other, part of that recognition is the realization that the other recognizes subjectness in us, too, that it has a mental life as we do (which includes the same recognition of the other that we have). But just paying lip service to this fact of reciprocal recognition doesn't amount to recognizing it ourselves.

To do that we have to treat the other subject as a subject, as having a mental life, as being like we are. We must behave towards it in ways that acknowledge its mental life. That implies being empathetic.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

So I would say that the basis of moral claims involving concern for others' interests (and I've already granted that those aren't the only kinds of moral claims we can make) can be derived from the nature of the valuer itself. It takes a subject, with a certain sort of mental life, to value anything and being that kind of subject means exercising the reciprocal recognition that amounts to empathy.

But there is a problem with this. Why should anyone care if they are fully exercising their subjectness? Why shouldn't any of us simply treat the other without regard to his, her or its own subjectness? Why shouldn't we ignore the suffering that may attend the other's mental life if treated in a way that does not acknowledge it?

I don't think there's an argument of the categorical imperative sort at the bottom of this but only one of realization, i.e., it's as if we open our eyes suddenly and realize something about ourselves, that we are like them just as they are like us. If one gets to that point (and moral argument, is often about trying to bring the other to that point, then it makes sense to choose the behaviors in the relevant situations that empathy implies. But we don't necessarily start at that point and not all of us really seem to get there much of the time.

That's why I think the idea of moral valuing has for so long been closely intertwined with notions of religiousity and spiritual search. Realizing something about ourselves is akin to the self-realization that such searches imply. It doesn't follow, of course, that any particular religious teaching offers the best account but only that the same sort of thing seems to be going on in certain kinds of religious claims and the kinds of moral claims under discussion here.

In both cases we are being asked to stop for a moment and consider what we actually are and how we fit into the world in which we find ourselves. Once someone is brought to the point of recognizing that he or she (or it) is a subject (i.e., once they come to think about what it means to be that in the world), and see that being a subject implies recognition of other subjects (as seen through their behaviors) and that "recognition" is more than just what we say about them but what we do with and for them, then I think an argument can be made which crosses cultural bounds for certain kinds of behaviors (those expressing concern for others' interests) which seem otherwise to be unmotivated in any other way.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

So bringing this back to the subject of this thread, how does what I have written address "Ethics in Gaza"? First I'd say that the issue is whether or not we should care about the situation and suffering of the Gazans and the answer is yes because they are human beings, subjects, as we are. We should seek to understand their plight (from their perspective) and try to mitigate any suffering they are experiencing. However, the Israelis also face issues demanding they act. Does the imperative to be empathetic remove the imperative to act in one's self-defense? I would say not.

What about the demand for restraint, for so-called proportionality? I think that empathy requires that to the extent we can manage it. That is, the Israelis would be wrong to carpet bomb or nuke the Gazans. That would be more than defending themselves in this situation. Consistent with recognizing the others as subjects, too, they should also do everything they can to reach out to and protect the Gazans. However, this is mitigated by the fact that 1) the Gazans have empowered Hamas which is pushing the fighting by continuing to attack Israel and calling for its destruction and 2) the Gazans remain intertwined with Hamas, partly by Hamas' own doing and partly by their own failure to "throw the bums out" (though admittedly that would be hard and dangerous for the Gazans to accomplish at this time.

Nevertheless it seems to me that in this circumstance the argument for empathy doesn't also imply an argument for self-abnegation, but only for recognizing and treating, to the best of their ability under the circumstances, the Gazans as fellow human beings as themselves. Beyond that the issue of invoking a moral calculus to settle this strikes me as unrealistic. No one can know the future but we still must act in our own defense when presented with situations calling for that and that's what the Israelis must now do.

However, they should also find a way get a rapprochement with their fellow human beings in Gaza and the rest of Palestine. But this latter is not a reason to suppose that they haven't a right to defend themselves, as carefully as they can, now.

s. wallerstein said...

Stuart Mirsky,

Thank you for your very complete answer. It will take me some time to digest, but I'll try.

I'm not a professional philosopher or even philosophy student and it would be worthwhile to hear the opinions of those professional philosophers who follow this blog.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Yes, I agree, which is why I decided to respond to your question with as detailed an account as I could manage on this blog. There is a long history in philosophy of trying to account for our ethical judgments. Hume's challenge to such judgments, which asserted that such judgments can be no more than expressions of sentiment, remains powerful, even today. Kant's response was to seek to establish a rational basis for ethics by proposing that one could, by reason alone, arrive at the core ethical position from which other judgments flow. He proposed that we understand ethics in terms of duties rather than goods and that our obligations of duty can be grounded in universalizing our principles, i.e., that a rational being must not only reason according to rational standards but act in accordance with them. And such a core standard for rational agents would be that of acting only when doing the action could be consistent with every other rational agent doing it.

A rational agent, on this view, has a rational will and to remain rational he or she can only act in accordance with it (or forefeit rationality). So a truly rational creature would also be a perfectly moral one. But some of the implications of this run counter to actual moral intuitions, e.g., never lying because if everyone lied then there could be no truth and we'd all be at risk, etc., leads to the Kantian principle that, if a known killer seeking his or her victim were to ask you for directions to the person, then it would be wrong to lie to protect that person.

Kant's approach while interesting has never been fully embraced because of such problems. Later attempts included Mill's utilitarianism (good=the greatest happiness for the greatest number); Moore's intuitionism ("good" designates a non-natural quality akin to colors like yellow only not discoverable in the world but known when we see it); the logical positivists' claim that "good" and similar terms lack cognitive content and are really expressive of our feelings; to Hare's prescriptivism ("good" is a commendatory term which has logical implications applied based on the conjunction of factual premises with premises reflecting some action principle to which we adhere.

I read your recent comments here initially as reflecting a non-cognitivist account as elaborated by those who, more recently, have argued that we can restore some cognitive content to value terms if we recognize their grounding in shared sentiments held in common within particular communities (see the "sentimentalism" of Jesse Prinz). But your later move to an argument re: the wisdom of certain kinds of behavior (what's not "stupid" vs. what is), suggest, to me at least, that you're not entirely comfortable with a non-cognitivist account, even of the sentimentalist variety. Still I agree with your rejection of metaphysics and trandscendentalism which are often invoked when something seems unexplainable in any straightforward sort of way.

s. wallerstein said...

Stuart Mirsky,

You've been so generous of your energy and learning that I will answer part of what you write.

By the way, I don't agree with what you say about Gaza, but the subject has been overargued by now all over the internet.

Anyway, I agree that empathy is crucial to morality, but it's not enough in itself.

Let's say Phil comes home from a tiring day at work and finds his wife Sussy conversing in Facebook with a male friend and in addition, dinner is not ready yet.

Hungry and jealous, Phil breaks two of Sussy's ribs as well as her nose.

Empathy allows me to understand Phil's reaction as well as Sussy conversing in Facebook instead of making dinner and Sussy literal physical pain and probably psychological trauma.

Empathy does not allow me to understand the rights and wrongs of the situation.

In fact, Phil, if he comes from a different background than I do, may see the rights and wrongs as completely different than I do, not because he lacks empathy, but because he reads what he learns from his empathy (which you define as the ability to put oneself in another's shoes) completely differently than I do.

So, Sussy conversing with a male friend in Facebook for me may be interpeted as making use of her right to socialize, for Phil she may be committing the sin of
virtual adultery (or something like that). Phil and I both are capable of putting ourselves in Sussy's shoes as she converses in Facebook, but how we interpret that in moral terms is not the same.

Who is right about whether Sussy has the right to converse in Facebook instead of preparing Phil's dinner, Phil or I?

My opinion is the product of my cultural background, of my political options, of my identification with feminist struggles, etc. Phil's is the product of belonging to a fundamentalist church of some kind.

Neither Phil nor I lack empathy. We just come from different viewpoints and which viewpoint prevails in any given society will depend, as I've said before, on a political struggle.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

I see your point about Phil and Sussy but the issue isn't empathy as a means of understanding thembut the role of empathy in motivating actions. Phil is wrong, whether or not we feel empathy for him (though how we could, given your scenario, seems quite a reach) because Phil failed to feel empathy for Sussy in his actions when he inflicted pain and suffering on her. Our assessment of Phil's act (or of our own in comparable circumstances) hinges on the capacity of empathy we have, and reveal, in our behaviors not on whether we feel some understanding for either or both parties.

Empathy allows you to understand the rights and wrongs of a situation if you use it (not to merely understand why another did this or that but) to motivate your own behaviors and look for it when you judge the behaviors of others. If their behaviors express empathy for others with whom they are interacting then those behaviors count as morally good on this view. If they fail to express empathy, not just in terms of how someone feels toward them but in terms of how they act toward them, then their actions lack moral goodness and could, if they disregard the other's subjectness, count as morally bad.

Certainly Phil, coming from a different society and having been inculcated with different notions about what's right and wrong, may not see wrongness in his treatment of Sussy. But that is the point of thinking of this in terms of empathy. The idea is to find a way to bridge the conceptual gap between different cultural outlooks, to offer a means of saying that it doesn't matter what you have been brought up to think. What matters is the state of your mental life, how close you are to understanding the sort of creature you are, a subject in relation to other subjects. The point is to say that, even if you have been raised to think maltreatment of women is a good thing or at least acceptable, it's not and here's why.

The point is to move away from the moral relativism that arises when we think the only basis for moral claims are the standards we happen to believe thanks to our upbringing within a particular cultural milieu.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm not sure that Phil lacks empathy for Sussy, if we define "empathy" as "standing in the other's shoes", as you do.

Sussy may see herself, as Phil sees her, as being sinful and deserving of punishment for conversing in Facebook instead of preparing Phil's dinner. Thus, Phil may perfectly stand in Sussy's shoes and understand her state of mind.

What Phil lacks is concern for Sussy and respect for her
possibility to grow as a person.

If we add concern and respect for the possibility that others grow as people (which is hard to define) to empathy, we're closer to a basis for how to treat others.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Phil lacks empathy for Sussy to the extent he imposes pain or suffering on her which cause her anguish, etc. You may empathize with Phil or not and he may even understand Sussy's motives. But those aren't the issue. What is is how he behaves toward her, as in what intention on his part is being expressed. If it's an intention to make her suffer or diminish her, etc., then it's a non-empathetic intent, in which case it's morally bad on my view.

Sussy's self-image isn't relevant to judging the quality of Phil's act -- except insofar as he is responsible for bringing it about and having it is harmful to her.

"What Phil lacks is concern for Sussy and respect for her
possibility to grow as a person."

Phil's act is morally wrong to the extent that that lack you find in his thinking about her causes her suffering, diminishes her, etc.

"If we add concern and respect for the possibility that others grow as people (which is hard to define) to empathy, we're closer to a basis for how to treat others."

I'm of the opinion that empathy can be understood as the most general form of relation between one person and another which these others you mention boil down to. Because I think an argument can be made for having empathy, I think that it can be understood as the basis of an important class of moral judgments (those assessments of goodness in actions which hinge on the subordination of the acting agent's interests to interests of others).