Why is “moral equality” so bad? A political philosopher explains

An Israeli air strike to the refugee camp in Tal al-Sultanwithin the Gaza Strip resulted within the deaths of at the least 45 Palestinian civilians on the night of May 26, 2024. In this case, it’s disputed whether the attack was deliberately aimed toward Attack civiliansPer week earlier, nevertheless, the International Criminal Court indicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for intentional attacks on civilians in the midst of the conflict in Gaza; such attacks are a War crimes under international law.

The ICC documentHowever, Israeli intelligence also charged three Hamas leaders with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, torture and hostage-taking, throughout the October 7, 2023 attacks.

The decision to indict each the Israeli and Hamas leaderships has led to widespread condemnation, often based on the concept of “moral equivalence.”

President Joe Biden described the impact of such equivalence as follows:outrageous.” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell issued an announcement saying the fees were a “harmful attempt at moral equality“ by a “renegade sham court.”

Some commentators have used the concept of ethical equivalence in an analogous way – to sentence the choice to indict Hamas in addition to Israel’s leadership. Tim Anderson, director of the Center for Counter-Hegemonic Studieswrote that Hamas’ violence was within the service of a legitimate struggle.against colonialism and apartheid’, and any claim of ethical equality here would falsely ‘help the colonizer’.

As a political philosopherI'm concerned about how concepts like moral equivalence are utilized in political discussions. Those who use this idea generally achieve this to assert that somebody is, at best, being deceived – and, at worst, intentionally deceiving – concerning the moral failings committed by one side in a conflict.

Moral equivalence as moral criticism

Jeanne Kirkpatricka senior foreign policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan, much to popularize this idea of ethical equality within the Eighties. She understood the term as a criticism of those that, like many apologists for the Soviet Union, saw American moral failure as sufficient reason to disregard or trivialize Soviet human rights violations.

Kirkpatrick argued in her response that there are good reasons to differentiate between several types of moral failure based on their magnitude and origin. American excesses, she argued, were less frequent and fewer horrific than Soviet human rights abuses; and the American system defended the natural rights of the person, which the Soviet system couldn’t.

We would not have to agree with Kirkpatrick's view of the United States to see how this evaluation explains contemporary reactions to the ICC. Those who condemn the ICC for practicing moral equivalence argue that one side has committed a greater incorrect within the service of a more vicious worldview, because the others.

They insist, like Kirkpatrick, that one side is clearly higher than the opposite and must be called so. They don’t, after all, agree on which side must be higher. described in such terms.

No argument for non-intervention

When people denounce moral equivalence, what they mean is that their criticism relies on the false claim that either side are equally bad – and that any intervention within the conflict can be neither justified nor meaningful.

When the Soviet Union responded to American criticism by declaring America’s moral failings, it desired to encourage other countries to acknowledge Moral criticism as a useless endeavor.

However, not all admissions of ethical error are rightly understood as arguments for neutrality or non-intervention.

When President Barack Obama said after Hamas’ attack on Israel: Both this attack and the Israeli occupation were unjustifiedHe was condemned by many, including attorney Alan Dershowitz, for refusing to sentence and confront the atrocities of October 7. Dershowitz, who was captivated with defending Israel’s political legitimacyinterpreted the admission of Israeli misconduct as that Hamas’s response was morally right.

Obama's criticism of Israel was not intended to imply that no military response to Hamas was justified. In fact, he later insisted that each a strong military response to Hamas and criticize Israeli policies as dangerous and morally incorrect.

Human rights and moral motion

Moral equivalence justifies inaction provided that the admission of wrongdoing on either side is known as a sign that it’s unattainable to determine any meaningful moral difference between the edges.

However, it is feasible for an observer to say each that either side has done incorrect and that one side is doing more incorrect and must be prevented from committing such incorrect. Political theorists similar to Stephen Hopgood have shown that human rights activists all too often demand that victims of human rights violations morally impeccablebefore their human rights claims are defended.

Several people in vans and a tractor on a dusty road, smoke rising in the background.
Palestinians flee the southern Gaza city of Rafah during an Israeli ground and air offensive on May 28, 2024.
AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi

But it is a moral mistake. Human rights are valid moral claims and will be invoked even on behalf of those that usually are not themselves morally perfect. Those who make the claim of ethical equivalence may sometimes be guilty of it themselves by demanding that we ignore or deny moral wrongdoing before we will make a forceful response to the situation we face.

Victim and perpetrator at the identical time

The concept that one can’t be each a perpetrator and a victim of injustice is surprisingly widespread in current political discourse.

After the Hamas attack, some students at Harvard University wrote a public letter Arguing that the Israeli regime is “fully responsible for the unfolding violence” due to its misconduct toward the Palestinians, this response can be based on a refusal to acknowledge the chance that Hamas was right to sentence Israeli policy toward Gaza, but was deeply incorrect in its response to that policy.

Bioethicist Ezekiel Emmanuelnotes within the discussion of this letter that ethical assessments are rarely a matter of black and white. An in depth evaluation of the conflict in Gaza would require Moral courage and moral competenceBoth are mandatory if the analyst is to acknowledge the extent to which each parties to a dispute can have done incorrect – and, after this recognition, to proceed to work for justice on this planet.

Moral equivalence, then, is a useful term to criticize those that seek to make it harder to discover and recognize moral wrongdoing. But such criticism mustn’t extend to those that seek to acknowledge moral complexity—and the indisputable fact that in lots of real-world conflicts, each parties may be guilty of ethical wrongdoing.

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