Reflections on Kant and Moral Equivalence

by MICHAEL NEUMANN

Michael Lerner is typical of those who require everyone to condemn the attack on the Metzer Kibbutz, where a Palestinian went out of his way to kill two children being shielded by their mother. In between references to his own integrity, Lerner assures us that there can be no moral equivalence between one murder and another:

“There are people who say, “Yes, but there is greater violence being done to the Palestinian people by the Occupation–and Palestinian children killed in their beds by Israeli bombs from the sky are no less victims than Israeli children killed by terror.” But this is a crazy and sick way to think. I hate it when a similar argument is made by Jews (“the killing of those Palestinian civilians by Israeli planes and bombs is not morally equivalent to the acts of Palestinian terror.”). THERE IS NEVER ANY MORAL EQUIVALENCE BETWEEN ONE ACT OF MURDER AND ANOTHER–BECAUSE EACH ONE IS A UNIQUE TRAGEDY IN ITSELF, AND NOT TO BE EXPLAINED AWAY. HUMAN BEINGS ARE CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF GOD, THEIR LIVES ARE SACRED, AND IT IS IMMORAL TO TAKE SOMEONE ELSE’S LIFE TO ACHIEVE YOUR POLITICAL ENDS. Period.” (Tikkun.com)

One one level, this is just silly. Suppose two acts come from equally bad intentions, violate equally weighty moral laws (or maybe even the same moral law) and have equally bad consequences. Why shouldn’t they be equivalent? What would be ‘explained away’, and why couldn’t each still have uniquely tragic qualities? But Lerner is talking about two children being shot dead. Perhaps he’s just looking for a fancy way to say that he really, really doesn’t like that.

Lerner is good-hearted. We think that people’s goodness of heart does them credit, but not everyone has thought this. Kant held that to act because of one’s feelings for others was no more than an exercise in self-gratification: acting from good-heartedness, for him, was simply satisfying certain emotional urges. Kant felt that truly good acts were those taken simply because they were right, not because of how you felt about doing them. He might not have been impressed by Lerner’s reactions.

We needn’t be as puritanical as Kant. Perhaps Lerner’s problem is not that he feels too much, but that he feels too little. We all do, because we can’t feel everything we should feel for everyone in cases like this. If we can ever do so, it is only after we understand what is involved, and looking for moral equivalences is one way of trying to understand.

Take the claim that shooting children at point-blank range is morally equivalent to bombing them from a great height. You might object that the latter, as practiced in, say, Afghanistan, is accidental. But it isn’t quite. Certainly the people who planned the campaign in Afghanistan knew that children would be killed with as much certainty as the attacker at the Metzer Kibbutz knew this. Or, as the Michael Lerners of the world might put it, they knew with certainty that innocent children would be blown apart, torn limb from limb. They did not want to kill any particular child, but they intended to do something they knew full well would kill children. Even from an ivory tower, that doesn’t seem so different from intending to kill the kids.

I respect hesitation about such ugly events. I don’t presume to come to conclusions about their moral equivalence. But I do want to ask: what is going on when the equivalence of such acts is debated? Perhaps a bit of history is unfolding.

‘Our’ morality, we are told, has a Judeo-Christian heritage. That’s true, but not entirely wonderful. We’ve been trained to place great moral weight on the condition of people’s souls, not least because of a self-interested preoccupation with salvation. Even hard-core atheists are not immune from this influence. They don’t want to be cold-hearted bastards who couldn’t appreciate how awful it was to kill a child. They would want to feel even worse when the killing was so in-your-face, so intimate and deliberate, as at Kibbutz Metzer.

There used to be a good reason to make people feel that way. In the early Christian era, killing was up close and personal. That meant it could happen only when the killer had hardened his heart. In warfare, this didn’t change much until the emergence of air power. Even an artillery-man in World War I lived in his own hell. He saw, heard and smelled the effects of shelling on a daily basis. He too had to harden his heart.

What about the people who sent others to war? Even for them, things only started to change around the 18th century. Louis XIII of France, no great warrior, still had to command his troops from the outskirts of the battlefields. He saw the suffering he inflicted. As for the French people, they really had no role in sending others to their deaths. France was hardly a nation, much less a democracy, and the French had not even an indirect say in war and peace.

We know things are different now, and that today, leaders and many soldiers can kill from afar. We are less ready to acknowledge that we too can do this. Voters do have a say, sometimes a decisive say. We can demand the death of innocents, and elected officials do listen: such are the joys of democracy. We get out there and support our candidates. We stand tall. Often we happily back military actions which we know, with absolute certainty, will kill children–not all such actions, just our favorites. And, just like Michael Lerner, we all do this full of good-heartedness, full of love and compassion. Today, you don’t have to feel like a bastard to be one.

We should take this into account when comparing acts. The morality which emphasized the bad-heartedness of the killer, the brutality in his soul, was appropriate for a time when killing without brutality was all but impossible. Now we can and do kill even when seeped in squishy love for others. So maybe making equivalences between high-altitude bombing and ground-level shooting isn’t just a left-wing canard. Maybe today, common decency requires us to wipe away a suspiciously fine distinction, and to recognize that what you do with full foreknowledge of its effects is as bad as what you do directly intending those effects.

In that case, killing children from the air, unenthusiastically but with full foreknowledge, is no better than shooting them from three feet away. That the pilot and the commander are full of love for children, and couldn’t bear harming them, is not good. It’s bad. It means that these killers have found in their feelings a way to believe themselves much better than they are. And this goes not only for the commanders and the pilots, but also for the kind-hearted voters who put them there. (And please, let’s not exaggerate our kindness. We love it when our side wins, and we don’t cry about the bodies it has blown apart.) Today it may be more dangerous to tolerate nice killers of some invisible child or other down there, than to tolerate the killers whose child victims cower before them.

So maybe there is, in some cases, a moral equivalence between the American and the Palestinian styles of child-killing. But this is no cause for smug leftist satisfaction. Moral equivalence cuts both ways. It needn’t be the case that both acts are wrong. Maybe both acts are right.

Make no mistake: if we approved of modern warfare against a Hitler or a Pol Pot, or wanted ‘more vigorous’ intervention in Rwanda, we approve of American-style child killing in some cases. Why then shouldn’t we approve of Palestinian-style child-killing in some cases? If America’s self-defense requires children’s deaths, why shouldn’t the Palestinians’? Was the Taliban really more of a threat than the Israeli government, which rages and brandishes the power of life and death over every single Palestinian inhabitant of the occupied territories?

Of course it is not just the threat that counts; it’s your alternatives in responding to it. What should the Palestinians do? March? Strike? Vote? Pray? Negotiate? Dialogue? Reach out? Been tried, got nowhere. Take on the Israeli army with slingshots? Been tried, got nowhere. Wait for world opinion to turn the tide? World opinion counts for less than nothing without US opinion, that engine of compassion which sputters while peoples go down to destruction.

Of course we can say, there must be something else they can do. What? The Palestinians cannot rely on theoretically possible, unspecified alternatives. They must have real ones. We can be too high-minded to calculate a response; the Palestinians can’t afford this. And each of them calculates, not for himself, but for all.

The calculations are not difficult. All the Palestinians can do–not for themselves, but for one another–is to hit back at Israel any way they can and to shrink at nothing that will hurt their enemy. To do otherwise would be as if one woman, fighting off ten men, felt herself obliged first to wallow in the voluminous outpourings of moral anguish about violence by those who never have to deal with it.

So the Palestinians fight back. A kid–God knows how–gets through the dense, tightly focussed security of a major military and technological power. His objective is not to kill children. It is to kill as many people as he can, as quickly as he can, to hurt Israel as much as he can, before he is cut down: that he should escape is so unlikely as not to figure in his thinking. This is not the act of a pathological killer, driven by delusions and hallucinations. It is not the act of a cynical kidnapper, out for gain. It is not an act of ethnic cleansing. (Rather it is Israel’s settlers who are out to cleanse the occupied territories of Palestinians.) It is not even the act of someone trying to survive–quite the contrary. It is an act of resistance against a state which prefers relentless, bloody territorial expansion to peace. It is the act of someone who wants his people to have some tiny chance of survival, of something better than utter despair. And his fight carries with it a simple, salutary message: don’t push people too far.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada and the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca

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