A reader sent me a link to Sam Harris’s latest podcast (there is a free short and a paid long version), particularly relevant now with the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. The reader’s email said this:
I know you don’t like listening to podcasts but really this one by Sam Harris is only 14 minutes long and well worth it. He brilliantly unpacks the notion of moral equivalence.
What bothers me most about the discussions going on now is the palpable moral obtuseness of many people—especially liberals—people who say that the dead Israelis had it coming because of the “settler colonialism” of Israel’s “apartheid state”. No, they did not have it coming; they were not representatives of the Israeli government. As Sam says, “There are legions of the confused.” This is combined with the attitude that Sam describes: that the moral calculus in the war can be performed simply by counting the number of dead bodies on each side. No, it doesn’t work like that.
He then presents a series of claims that are “both descriptively true and ethically important,” contrasting two sets of facts describing behaviors we see today. Sam adds that “at this moment in human history, not every group has the same ethical norms governing its use of violence.”
His example is the use of human shields during armed conflict; some groups do this, and other groups are deterred by their use. What he means is not the use of hostages as shields, but “people who will strategically put their own noncombatants—their own women and children—into the line of fire so that they can inflict further violence upon their enemies, knowing that their enemies have a more civilized moral code that will render them reluctant to shoot back for fear of killing or maiming innocent noncombatants. If anywhere in this universe cynicism and nihilism can be found together in their most perfect forms, it is here.”
It is the jihadists, he says, who do this, and describes how it works in Gaza and how it worked in Iraq. Contrast that with the Israeli practice of warning civilians to evacuate buildings before bombing them.
Then he reverses the logic, asking you to imagine what would happen if Israelis used their own citizens as human shields and then try to imagine that the jihadists would be deterred by such a tactic. It’s unthinkable to think that this would be a deterrent!
His conclusion: “The image you should now have your mind is a masterpiece of moral surrealism. It is preposterous. It is a Monty Python sketch where all the Jews die. Do you see what this asymmetry means? Can you see how deep it runs? Do you see what it tells you about the ethical difference between these two cultures? There are not many bright lines that divide good and evil in our world, but this is one of them.”
Yet many don’t see that bright line, and they’re all over social media.
Sam also discusses the difference between the deaths of civilians as “collateral damage” (Sam calls it “a euphemism for ‘innocent civilians killed in war'”) and “the intentional massacre of civilians for the purpose of maximizing horror.” Here numbers of the dead are not the way to calculate moral balance. As Sam says, “intentions matter.” His ending is a brilliant piece of rhetoric.
It’s a thoughtful presentation, and yes, well worth 14 minutes of your time. Do listen. It may help you untangle the web of twisted and misguided logic leading to the attitude that the ideology of Hamas (and of Palestinians in general) is morally superior to that of Israelis.
Click on the link below to go to the free short version (“preview episode”) or the paid longer one, which I haven’t heard as I don’t subscribe.
UPDATE: I had missed a piece Michael Shermer wrote on the same topic, “Moral equivalency and its discontents.” A quote:
In assessing the initial response to the rape, torture, and murder of Jews in Israel by Hamas this week I can only conclude that the progressive Left denouncing Israel and celebrating Hamas have had to overlook and forget their moral conscience.