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Being ethically responsible to see ethical complexities: What Israel can teach us about ethics

As I write this, at least 1,474 people have died in the recent outburst of violence in Gaza. A vast majority (1,410) of those are Palestinians. Throughout the last weeks, those of us who are open-minded enough to consume different types of news will have read very, very different assessments of what is happening. Some express the in other contexts quite popular opinion that we don’t measure ethics by counting dead bodies. A group of medical doctors published an open letter in The Lancet denouncing the aggression in Gaza by Israel. Washington Post published an opinion piece with the title “Moral Clarity in Gaza” which proclaimed that the situation is very clear: it is Hamas’ fault, and Israel is only exercising its rights. The New York Times made an attempt at being impartial by letting three experts on each side publish their views of what goes on. A group of prominent International Law experts wrote a joint declaration calling the international community to, among other things, use its power to stop the violence, and encouraged the UN Security Council to exercise its responsibilities and refer the situation in Palestine to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. And so on. The disagreements run abysmally deep. Imprudent as it might feel to open ones mouth about a topic as infested as this, as someone working on ethics, I feel compelled to think about what ethics can do in this situation.

The conflict is often most treated as political, religious, and legal. Essentially, however, it is a catastrophe much of which has been created by human beings, and as such it is more than anything an ethical issue. It seems obvious, and we should be able to unite around at the very least this. It furthermore seems to follow that ethics should be able to tell us something about this. When young children are dying, when individuals who have never harnessed an intention to harm anyone live in fear, when men are treated as means and not as ends, we want ethics to help us. International law, it appears, is often evoked as a normative authority in this context, but law is by no means ethics, and laws do not inherit ethical legitimacy even if they rely on certain ethical principles. Ethics should be able to say something about this apart from referring to international law. Indeed, what is the point of ethics if it cannot help us in situations such as this one? But a troubling question immediately arises: What can ethics do? What could it say?

Let us consider some ways to address the ethical dimensions of the conflict, by which, I should add, I don’t only mean the current outburst of violence. I am interested in, mainly, what ethical standpoints revealed in the discourses of the different sides are consistent with ethical theory, and in extension conflict-improvement. I am not an expert on either Israel or Palestine, and so I need to rely on what media reports, and what the different parties say. Facts are in this situation contested, but I believe that it is most fruitful to accept that the different, competing discourses all have some merit, especially if we compare it with a stance according to which we need to settle what the one and only truth is. In other words, I will assume that the different parties are similar enough when it comes to commitments to truthfulness. Facts are presented in different ways because different presentations of facts are consistent with experience. We have opposing discourses that supervene on certain facts, and that evoke ethics in order to find legitimisation of certain courses of action. How could we as ethicists deal with this if we are interested in conflict-improvement? I will start by looking at ethical theories that could be relevant.

Just war theory

Just war theory is the most obvious starting point. It is the most comprehensive attempt to establish ethical guidelines for armed conflict, and it has had a vast impact on the development of international law. The theory establishes rules for when a war is justified (jus ad bellum), as well as what justified conduct in war is (jus in bello). One would think that this should be able to tell us something about the conflict in question.

Jus ad bellum: According to the theory we are justified to start a war if: (i) the cause is just; (ii) the intention is right; (iii) it is properly announced and the decision made by the appropriate authorities; (iv) if all plausible, peaceful alternatives are exhausted; (v) the war is probable to succeed; (vi) the amount of violence is proportionate to the expected universal good that can be achieved.

Jus in bello: The following principles establish acceptable conduct in war: (i) international law on weapons prohibitions must be obeyed; (ii) only those engaged in harm should be targeted; (iii) the force used must be proportional to the end; (iv) prisoners of war must be treated benevolently; (v) soldiers are not allowed to use weapons and methods that are evil in themselves (e.g. mass rape, genocide); (vi) reprisals against violations of jus in bello by the other part are not allowed.

Could these be applied to the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Jus in bello should be informative. It does look like a war. There are F16s involved, and rockets, and soldiers, and death tolls are high. So what would jus in bello say? Israel is, on at least some understandings of the situation, targeting people who do not engage in harm. The force Israel uses is, occasionally, not proportionate. Indeed, the so-called Dahiya doctrine that Israel has used stipulates that Israel will use disproportionate power. Israeli officials have also admitted to torturing prisoners. It could also, with some reason, be claimed that the methods Israel use are sometimes evil in themselves. The Palestinian side has by no means been much better: they have target civilians; the proportionality of the force they use could be questioned. Both sides seem to make reprisal a virtue rather than a sin.

However, the Just war theory is not designed to deal with a conflict such as this one. It is not two states at war. One particular problem with the theory is precisely this: it addresses proper authorities, institutions, such as a system of states. Where one part is no state and instead a people living in a Diaspora under another state’s control, wars against them cannot be legitimate at all. Yet, presumably, violence could still be ethically justified, including warlike violence (perhaps we could think about Spartacus and the Third Servile War, or for that matter independence wars). This reveals that the theory is unfit for the conflict in question, and it is questionable how sound it is to pick out pieces of the theory just because they seem to, on the surface, fit.

A bigger problem is perhaps that the application of the theory seems to transfer us who wish to think about the ethical issues into the equivalent of the spiral of violence. There seems to be so much, such an abundance of, ethically condemnable activities on both sides (in particular if we accept the relevance of the recent past) so that any assessment will be blurred at best, and strongly biased at worst. Furthermore, it enables both sides to, as far as they combine it with any form of retributivist sentiments (and this, if anything, seems beyond doubt), find it very easy to justify further aggressions.

Just war theory, in this context, allows us to point fingers, to condemn and to accuse according to our biases, hunches, prejudices and self-interests. This is not particularly constructive. The theory does not enable us to make an ethical assessment that is univocal enough to allow for constructive dialogue, conflict-improvement, and impartiality.


A common ethical resort is rights. A lot of the normative discourses in our societies focus on rights, and this conflict is a perfect illustration of it. People as well as states, it is said, have a right not to be attacked. On such a right we can build ethical justifications for Israel to attack Gaza since there are indeed attacks on Israel and on Israelis. Yet, it appears reasonable that all people have a right also to free movement, to not being exposed to discrimination, to the pursuit of happiness, to self-determination. On such grounds, resistance against Israel can be justified. There is, again, an abundance of rights violations, rights violations that generate conflicts.

Two paths can be pursued here:

1) One could argue that there must be an original rights violation, a single, fundamental basis for our justified actions. An original sin as it were. But what would that be? One suggestion that comes to mind is the 1967 war. But why not the Nakba? Yet, we could of course also think of the Holocaust as the original sin that gave the Jews the right against the rest of humanity to defend themselves by any means. But what about the British, or why not the Ottoman, occupation of Palestine? Ethical theories based on rights have, as far as I know, never been able to say anything intelligible about how we could go about establishing the historiography of rights (cf. the problem libertarians get with original acquisitions of property).

2) One could instead recognise the presence of multiple rights violations of equal relevance. There are many rights. People do have a right to defend themselves. States have the right not to be attacked. Individuals have the right to free movement, to the pursuit of happiness, to self-determination. All of this, it could be said, is true. It just happens to be that they conflict. Is one right then more important than another? Does the right not to live with the threat of rocket fire outweigh the right to free movement? Does it do so categorically, lexically, even when the risk of actual harm from the rockets is diminishingly small? That sounds absurd. Potential harm of type A to an agent does not allow for her to inflict unlimited amount of harm of type B to another agent. So, it again becomes an issue of an overwhelming amount of ethically validated claims and ethically validated accusations, from both sides.


Finally, we could try to assess the conflict with utilitarian, or other consequentialist, reasoning. Both parties, as well as the international community, we could suggest, ought to act so that the better consequences are promoted. How this is supposed to be translated into practical judgements is very difficult to see. It notoriously relies on assessments of probabilities of future events, and selections of what to think about. As such, it could make as much sense from this perspective to say that Israel should be completely abolished, as it could make to say that an absolute ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is what would be best. Or, one could simply defend the position that international law needs to be applied. The position will depend on perspectives, and on estimations about futures that we are very, very bad at estimating. This normative theory is, from a practical perspective, the least practical.

Responsibility to recognise complexities 

Emerging from these lines of thought is, I contend, nothing but tragedy and opportunities to disguise non-ethical goals under a guise of ethical justification. On any ethical view, either side can reach the apparent higher ethical ground simply by changing the selection of what atrocities they focus on. There is hardly a shortage of ethically condemnable acts.

So, how tragic is it? No all-things-considered, overall, judgements can be made about this conflict solely by subsuming facts under some principle, and the reason for this is obvious. There is such an abundance of facts, such an amount of crimes, and both the facts and the crimes are so contested so that it is hard to reach an impartial judgement except for when it comes to very particular incidents such as the current use of disproportionate force by Israel in Gaza. At the broader level, ethical reasoning is reduced to sophistry at best, and unintentional expression of prejudices at worst.

It is necessary to recognise that making an ethical judgement in this, and other, situation(s) is a two-tier process. First of all, we need to decide what it is we make an ethical judgement about, what choice situation we face, and it is first when this is done that we can form an opinion, make a judgement of the situation. In this sense, to form a judgement about this conflict resembles more than anything what Jonathan Dancy described as the construal of a narrative of the situation, consisting of the ordering of features that one considers salient in a certain shape (Dancy 1993). Unfortunately, there is also the most apparent risk that competing narratives in this case will be irreconcilable, so it will be close to impossible for the different parties to unite around a narrative. To see this, consider some of the features that are perhaps, or perhaps not, relevant:

The holocaust. The Jewish people’s special relation to the land. The Palestinian people’s special relation to the land. The Ottoman Empire that did not give the land to Palestinians. The Brits who did give it to the Jews. How Palestinians are treated in other countries. Arab aggressions against Israel. Neighbouring Arab countries’ attitude toward Israel. Human Rights. Safety. Rockets. Human shields. Tunnels that make it easier for Palestinians to harm Israelis.

An implication of this inescapable fact is that it is also reflected in the arguments made about this conflict. An author that encourages us to see the conflict in a specific way is revealing her own biases, decision heuristics, and the rules that govern how she makes salience judgements. A peculiarly problematic feature of the conflict in Israel and the occupied territories is that these biases, these decision heuristics, and these rules of salience seem to in very many cases be charged with non-ethical, sometimes deeply unethical, values: a sense of superiority based on religion, nationalism, hatred and desires for revenge.

I would here suggest that the way in which we can deal with the situation is by stipulating that both parties, as well as commentators, have an essentially ethical responsibility to recognize this very phenomenon. There is an abundance of atrocities committed by both sides, and it is perfectly possible to construe genuinely truthful but of course incomplete accounts of the conflict that paint very one-sided pictures, while the vastness of the complexities involved makes it impossible to give a complete account of the situation. Failure to recognize this, and continuance of what has become business as usual is, a part from being dishonest distortions to the benefit of personal interest, fuelling the conflict, all of which in itself constitutes a harm. We should recognize an ethical responsibility to avoid this harm, and to recognize these complexities. Saying something like: “we face a simple situation where what matters is Israel’s right to defend itself, and if the Palestinians wanted peace, they would have it” is not only stupid, it is also ethically condemnable.

Recognizing this could, perhaps, also mean that we could stop just putting principles against each other, accept the tragic nature of the situation and assist in the doubtlessly very long process of finding a way to reconcile the narratives and establish a way in which peoples can live together. Finding a way to unite about not only what the conflicting interests are, but also what the ethical dimensions amount to seems to me an essential first step to building a sustainable long-term solution. It is not easy. However, recognizing this very fact itself is a significant step forward from the notoriously myopic perspectives that seem to dominate discourses on this conflict around the world.

As ethicists, we could perhaps also draw lessons about our profession. The conflict shows us that there are situations that are so complex so that it is futile to attempt to give appropriate accounts of facts which are then matched with principles that we find reasons to embrace. There will be situations in which ethics need to engage with other types of issues, issues about how to narrate facts, about how to select what matters.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks for the very patient and level-headed attempt to address a situation that is, as you say, incredibly complex. I think it’s a little quick to give up on the just war framework (it has key advantages of clarity, enshrinement in law and general agreement on principles – and, imho, is more or less correct), but I would agree that it has key shortcomings in resolving intractable disputes. So what’s the way forward? I can discern (at least) two suggestions from your discussion at the end: epistemic humility and bias recognition/avoidance.

    As you emphasize, the complexity of the situation indicates we should perhaps be less confident than we are of simplistic, unified positions on the issue. However, I’m not sure how helpful this will be in resolving the debate and generating resolution. Focusing on the complexity and inadequacy of accounts of the situation will likely lead to third-party disengagement: the situation would too complex to make any reasonable ethical judgment (including the position you seem to endorse, that atrocities are being committed by both sides). This would lead to an international regime that is more or less uninvolved in attempts to resolve the issues in Gaza; if we cannot make reasonable judgments, we really shouldn’t be taking concrete action. Maybe your idea is that, instead, people will reflect more carefully and come to better judgments which form the basis of action – but frameworks like just war theory are the result of *incredibly* careful thought, centuries of theorizing and refinement. If that’s not good enough for judgment, I doubt anything coming out of a few weeks of debate over Gaza will be.

    But maybe the situation is less bleak when it comes to bias avoidance. I think it’s absolutely right that ethical judgments concerning Gaza are distorted by people’s predisposition to support Israel or Palestine. One-sided arguments, cherry-picking historical facts, salience of reports on atrocities on one side or another, etc. So maybe, the best thing to do is work through strategies to prevent or mitigate bias. One key first step you point out is, simply, the recognition that we have these biases. I think that’s crucial – then, people can be motivated to take further steps (e.g., reading competing news accounts, not just those who support one’s own side). Though, at that point I suspect the most important work is not ethical per se, but psychological: we’d do well to learn psychological tricks to reduce bias.

  2. Thanks to the author of this interesting post and to the commentator for his constructive comment.

    Concerning the question of how moral responsibility are shared between the parties involved in the conflict: I was a bit surprised that neither of you mentioned — though the author of the post hinted at this direction when he expressed doubts the there being unified positions on the issue — the possibility that political powers whose actions are to be assessed for moral responsibility cannot be simply framed in terms of two States fighting one another, one State fighting one people, etc.

    What we have instead, it seems to me (from my equally unexpert point of view on those matters), are two political parties or factions, the Likud and its far-right allies on the one hand, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad on the other hand, that are holding their respective people hostage of the conflict by manipulation and flawed political manoeuvres.

    Hamas has the Palestinians believe that launching rockets on Israel, digging tunnels for sneak attacks and building ammunition storages under schools and hospitals will further their cause. Meanwhile, the far-right political faction in Israel has the Israeli believe that raining shells on Gaza will disable Hamas’ military power and bring peace to Israel.

    Thing is, peace is not the mere absence of war. It requires depth and vision, which both Hamas and Likud & friends are lacking. So my humble suggestion would be to see to it that those those goons are marginalized and eventually replaced by rational folks so that the political atmosphere there is refreshed with people that genuinely see their benefits in a long-lasting peace.

    If this is to be done, I would suggest beginning with Israel. After all, the now twenty-year long violation of international law through colonization in the West Bank and East Jerusalem call for that at the very least.

  3. As I write this comment, over 1,700 Palestinians have been killed in this operation, and 32 Israelis. This issues is presented radically differently depending on who is portraying it, with both sides claiming moral high ground. Real life situations are always messier and more complicated than theories on paper but if ethics is to be a guide for our actions and not a merely academic pursuit, we must seek to understand even the most complex of situations and have a way to determine which actions are ethical. There is a worrying tendency to exaggerate the impact and ‘evil’ of actions by non western players in any conflict and at best claim moral equivalence however brutally a western backed regime acts, I suppose this is to be expected of western media. Being from an African country whose fight for independence from oppressive, race based minority rule was considered terrorism, I take any accusations of that sort with a pinch of salt. If we start of with the dangerous and radical notion that all human lives are equally valuable, it becomes fairly obvious that claims of Israeli moral authority are completely baseless. In this latest campaign, 3 civilians have been killed by Hamas, as opposed to 1,360 civilians killed by the Israeli Defense Forces. To claim any equivalence between such is to say an Israeli life is worth 453 Palestinians. I am a big believer in consequential utilitarianism and I believe one group saying they will kill civilians and failing dismally to do so does not do society as much harm as another group claiming to avoid civilian casualties whilst killing thousands, bombing places of worship, schools, hospitals and United Nations facilities. Talk is cheap and the real aspect of this conflict that is of ethical relevance is the actions taken and their consequences, not speeches and pronouncements from either side.

    I cannot for a moment imagine a just war theory rationalization for Israel’s actions as rocket attacks only picked up when Israel bombed the homes of and arrested hundreds of Palestinians and the rockets are basically for show, all being deflected by missile defenses. It is unjust to obliterate an enemy who wishes to destroy you but cannot do so as you would not be under any actual threat, otherwise we would all be punching toddlers who kicked our shins in the face. There are aspects of conflict that must be taken into account to fully understand the situation, such as the fact that Israel itself created and supported Hamas as an alternative to Fatah whose moderate methods made justifying a hardline position by Israel more difficult. It is customary for the oppressor to call attempts at freedom barbaric. whilst refusing to acknowledge that such barbarism is learnt from one’s brutal and inhuman treatment by the occupier.

    Even if one is to consider international law, Israel has contravened for U.N. security council resolutions than any nation on earth and has an official policy of assassination, settlement expansion, blockade of civilian territory, brutal attacks on humanitarian convoys, killing and arrest without charge of children and a racist dual legal system that tries Palestinians in military courts, none of which have any ethical justification. To claim equivalence and complication between a side that claims it wants to wipe out the other but does not/cannot and a side that talks of peace but whose actions show an inhumanity reminiscent of the holocaust is farcical. And just to close, the Holocaust is often brought up, and has been brought up by the author of this thread as a justification trump card and moral get out of jail free card but there were no Palestinians running death camps in Poland, just western Europeans. There were no Palestinians financing the Nazi party, just americans like Henry Ford and their companies like IBM. So how do the erstwhile backers of the Nazis use their unethical behavior to justify the abuse by the victims of their actions on third parties?

    P.S. Any talk of Arab hostility in the region is equally baseless when we look at the tangible effects and consequences not speeches. Iran has not invaded another country in over a century, Egypt assists in the Israeli sealing off of the Gaza strip, blocking the border at Rafah, the only one not directly under Israeli control. The actions of the arab states, especially the gulf ones in the region actually cause disutility for the Palestinian people, whatever they may say publicly.

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