Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On Morally Relative Moral Analysis: A Disconnect

There are threads being pulled in the context of many national discussions lately that all, troublingly, seem to lead back to the same bare argumentative spool. The argument is one that leads to a moral judgment in favor of, and sometimes absolving, an individual or group engaged in conflict. It goes something like this:

"X has been MORE moral than Y, therefore X's actions are morally just."

This strikes me as being morally obtuse, and even surprisingly so. It's surprising in that it ignores our most basic notions of morality, and yet undoubtedly it implies the use of a tiered moral analysis to arrive at such a conclusion - the person must FIRST make a moral assessment given the existing circumstances; and then once said assessment reveals a party to be relatively moral in their actions, then the initial assessment is abandoned. I could only describe it as a kind of moral meta-judgment.

One of the news-worthy events for which this kind of moral reasoning has been pervasive is Israel's recent actions towards Gaza. Defenders of the IDF have, of course, engaged in all kinds of broad arguments spanning from historical to religious contexts. But when it comes down to morally justifying any particular action, and specifically ones that have irrevocably diminished the lives of innocents, this aforementioned line of argumentation is prevalent. The moral claims are many, "Well, they try to pin-point strikes...they telegraph their punches far ahead of time...they've acted with incredible restraint...they're dealing with terrorists...their enemies use human shields...their enemies kill the innocent...their enemies are on a religious crusade."

Now, on their own, many or most of these claims can be (and probably are) true to some extent. And so, ignoring deeper arguments about the way in which the IDF is constituted, we could then claim that they may in fact be acting more morally than their enemies. But it still does not follow that their actions are just, only that their actions are relatively just.

Supporters of the relatively just seem to want to say that the impetus of what would otherwise be seen as immoral acts falls upon the relatively unjust. But it's not immediately clear by what kind of moral reasoning such a transference is possible. Any ethical framework of rights that validates the enforcement of others' obligations to respect your own life must surely bind you to respect the lives of others as well - even if, in many cases, it would prevent you from sufficiently enforcing the obligations of others towards you.

Say, for instance, that an armed man is attacking you from a distance. He has surrounded himself with innocent hostages. You are in possession of a firearm, but are not in a position to return fire without predictably harming or killing innocents. What can we say about this situation? Well, if we believe in some reasonable right to self-defense, we can conclude that you are within your rights to bring force against your attacker to stop him. On the other hand, adopting that conception of rights also places an obligation upon you to not take the lives of the innocents involved if at all possible. That obligation may not be ultimately indefeasible, but the presumption is at least very strong.

You fire at the attacker, taking the life of a hostage before bringing his attacks to a point of cessation. What can we say now? It's probably reasonable to conclude that your actions are at least relatively just when squared against those of the attacker. But were your actions, ultimately, morally just? If our obligations to respect the rights of others are fairly weak, then perhaps so. Although, it would seem that watering down our obligations to respect the lives of others would, conversely, reduce the paramountcy of the right to forcefully defend your own life. On the other hand, if those obligations aren't so easily defeasible, we may be left with the conclusion that both acts were unjust, and simply one less so than the other.

The move the defender of the relatively just seems to want to make here is to claim that the relatively unjust is at fault for the incident and, so, is morally responsible for the actions of both parties. In this claim, the defender of the relatively just would be both partially correct and partially incorrect. There is little doubt that it is the initial aggressor who is at "fault" - namely for setting the whole chain of events in motion. It is partially for this reason that he is likely to be relatively unjust. But it doesn't necessarily follow that the relatively unjust is wholly responsible, in a moral sense, for all of the choices of various other agents that interject further down the causal chain. In fact, it doesn't even necessarily follow that the party who initiated this particular causal chain of events will even end up being the relatively unjust party. Think, for example, of someone who firebombs a city in order to stop a murderer who resides there. Surely such a reaction is dreadfully more unjust than the unjust acts that preceded it, and surely it's our obligation to respect the lives of innocents that would lead us to the moral intuition that such an act would be morally unjustifiable.

It's that particular moral outlook that I find to be in concordance with so much of what I embrace in the libertarian ethic. So you can imagine my surprise as I've watched so many prominent libertarians, who had staunchly defended and used that kind of moral reasoning to decry the U.S. government's killing of innocents in its foreign entanglements, leap to the defense of Israel and the actions taken in its own quest for "defense." It's something that's been very hard to reconcile. The same arguments that neo-conservatives and various other nationalists have been using for decades to absolve themselves of moral responsibility for their actions are now being employed by many of the same people who fought them so vigorously. Here there is a disconnect.