There are times, not many, but a sufficient number to make my existence significantly grayer than I wish it to be, when I feel as if my professional endeavors have been in vain, and indeed, a waste of time. One such instance was the widespread defense of torture during the Bush administration. Another has been the reaction of some readers here to my post about Israel razing the homes of the families of presumed terrorists. I do not see how anyone who grasps the basic principles of ethics as they are explored and explicated on Ethics Alarms daily can pronounce such a policy as justified, justifiable, or anything other than unethical. If regular readers hear can come to a different conclusion, I am either not doing my job well, or the job itself is not worth doing.
Yesterday, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to stop razing the homes of Palestinians accused of attacking Israelis. The group called it a war crime, and I don’t like the concept of war crimes generally. The New York based organization’s argument, however, is irrefutable:
“Israel should impose an immediate moratorium on its policy of demolishing the family homes of Palestinians suspected of carrying out attacks on Israelis. The policy, which Israeli officials claim is a deterrent, deliberately and unlawfully punishes people not accused of any wrongdoing. When carried out in occupied territory, including east Jerusalem, it amounts to collective punishment, a war crime.”
Putting the war crime label aside, it is wrong enough that the act punishes those who have done nothing wrong other than be associated with a wrongdoer. There is no ethical system under which such an act is ethically defensible. It is an abuse of power. It fails any standard of Kantian ethics, using human beings as a means to an end, and proposing a standard that would, if universally adopted, send civilization into barbarism. It even fails extreme utilitarian ethics, for this means doesn’t even achieve a desirable end. The Israeli army believes that the razings do nothing to stem terrorist attacks, and there is no way that contention can be disproved. It is simply Old Testament justice of the most irrational and brutal kind.
The defenders of the policy here gravitate immediately to the bankrupt argument that terrorism is terrible and a nation has to do something, anything, to protect itself. Of course, retaliating against the families of terrorists after the fact makes as much sense as kicking a dog when you get a parking ticket and it happens to be there to kick. If the family of a terrorist did nothing to cause a terrorist act, punishing it by destroying its home is not an act of law enforcement, or deterrence, or justice, but hate.
I yield to no one in my admiration, sympathy and support for Israel, a small island of civilization in the midst of chaos. If it abandons the values that make it civilized and that have shown the nation to have the moral high ground in its apparently endless conflict with the Palestinians and the Muslim world, then I don’t know what it is fighting for besides animal survival. Israel represents a culture, a tradition, a faith and a nation. Without the culture and the tradition, it becomes just another scorpion fighting in the jar that is the Middle East.
I don’t understand why is is not intuitively obvious that when a nation resorts to the worst tactics of its enemies, it has surrendered too much, indeed its soul. Punishing guilt by association was a standard tool the Nazis wielded against the Jews in the process of exterminating them. Intimidating opposition by threatening loved ones is the tactic of thugs, criminal organizations, bullies and totalitarian despots. Simply saying “it’s war” is a lazy and unconvincing justification for a policy that doesn’t even take place in the ostensible enemy’s borders. Nor does the argument that Israel isn’t the United States and shouldn’t be held to its legal and ethical standards carry any logical persuasiveness. Had the response of the US to Pearl Harbor been to destroy the homes of loyal Japanese American citizens as “deterrence,” it would have been a national shame (though what we did was only slightly less deplorable). A similar tactic is no less acceptable because it is taking place in Israel.
The real U.S. analogy would be to put in place a policy where the homes of rampaging mass shooters are razed. Of course, it would be unconstitutional, because the Constitution’s embrace of due process of law forbids such a terrible practice. The logic for it would be the same, however. We can’t predict or stop these shooters, and they don’t seem to care if they die. We have no one to punish, and we have run out of ideas. Well, let’s punish their families then. They must have some culpability. There’s no point in having a trial, since they are being punished based on blood relation, not anything they actually have done. Hey, why not? It’s worth a try.
Doesn’t that sound irresponsible, cruel, unfair and wrong to you? It certainly should….because it is.
The arguments for such an unethical policy, every one of them, have been based on rationalizations. The best use of the rationalizations list is to realize when one of them is rattling around in your head to try justify something unjustifiable, and to let that trigger an ethics alarm. And when, say, rationalizations are all you can muster to support conduct you find viscerally satisfying? That’s supposed to let you know that you are wrong, and wandering in the unethical wilderness. There are fourteen rationalizations readers have used to make excuses for Israel’s conduct here—fourteen, when just one is enough to signal an abandonment of ethical principles. Here, I’ll refresh your memory, with short versions of each…
2. The “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse, or “They had it coming”
As a rationalization, it posits the absurd argument that because there is other wrongdoing by others that is similar, as bad or worse than the unethical conduct under examination, the wrongdoer’s conduct shouldn’t be criticized or noticed.
3. Consequentialism, or “It Worked Out for the Best”
The ethical nature of an act must be evaluated when it is done, and not based on its results.
7. The “Tit for Tat” Excuse
This is the principle that bad or unethical behavior justifies, and somehow makes ethical, unethical behavior in response to it. The logical extension of this fallacy is the abandonment of all ethical standards. Through the ages, we have been perplexed at the fact that people who don’t play by the rules have an apparent advantage over those who do, and “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” has been the rallying cry of those who see the abandonment of values as the only way to prosper.
12. The Dissonance Drag
Cognitive dissonance is an innately human process that can muddle the ethical values of an individual without him or her even realizing that it is happening. The most basic of cognitive dissonance scenarios occurs when a person whom an individual regards highly adopts a behavior that the same individual deplores. The gulf between the individual’s admiration of the person (a positive attitude) and the individual’s objection to the behavior (a negative attitude) must be reconciled. The individual can lower his or her estimation of the person, or develop a rationalization for the conflict (the person was acting uncharacteristically due to illness, stress, or confusion), or reduce the disapproval of the behavior.
This is why misbehavior by leaders and other admired role models is potentially very harmful on a large scale: by creating dissonance, it creates a downward drag on societal norms by validating unethical behavior. Tortured or inexplicable defenses of otherwise clearly wrong behavior in public dialogue are often the product of cognitive dissonance.
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
The words “it’s for a good cause” have been used to justify all sorts of lies, scams and mayhem. It is the downfall of the zealot, the true believer, and the passionate advocate that almost any action that supports “the Cause,’ whether it be liberty, religion, charity, or curing a plague, is seen as being justified by the inherent rightness of the ultimate goal.
14. Self-validating Virtue
A corollary of the Saint’s Excuse is “Self-validating Virtue,” in which the act is judged by the perceived goodness the person doing it, rather than the other way around. This is applied by the doer, who reasons, “I am a good and ethical person. I have decided to do this; therefore this must be an ethical thing to do, since I would never do anything unethical.” Effective, seductive, and dangerous, this rationalization short-circuits ethical decision-making, and is among the reasons good people do bad things, and keep doing them, even when the critics point out their obvious unethical nature.
22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”I
Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. “There are worse things” is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.
25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!”
When people say they had to behave unethically because they had no choice, it is almost always a lie. What they mean is that they didn’t like the choices they had, and taking the unethical option involved less sacrifice, less controversy, less criticism, less effort…in short, less courage, than doing the right thing.
27. The Victim’s Distortion
When someone belongs to a group that is commonly treated with bias, or has a history of being so, or when an individual feels, perhaps legitimately, that he or she is personally discriminated against or disliked because of external factors such as appearance, social background, past indiscretions, or personality problems, the victim mindset creates the conditions of a potentially crippling rationalization.
28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”
This rationalization suggests that standards of right and wrong can and should be suspended under “special” circumstances, always defined, naturally, by those who defy laws, rules, and societal values. Their circular logic results in their adversaries feeling justified in being equally unethical, since times in which the other side engages in dishonesty, cheating, cruelty, and more is, by definition, extraordinary. The inevitable result is a downward spiral of conduct, until unethical behavior is the norm.
31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now”
Ethics is never “a luxury.” …When you hear yourself saying, “I’ll do anything to fix this! Anything!” it is a warning, and the ethics alarm needs to start ringing hard. Grab those ethical values, and hold on to them. They are the last thing you can afford to be without at such times.
36. Victim Blindness, or “They/He/She/ You should have seen it coming.”
Asserting the rationalization of Victim Blindness attempts to shift responsibility for wrongdoing to the victims of it, who, the theory goes, should have known that their actions would inspire the conduct that caused them harm, and thus they should have either avoided doing what sparked the unethical response, or by not doing so waived their right to object to it. Clever, but nonsense.
40. The Desperation Dodge or “I’ll do anything!”
Desperation and crisis do not suspend ethical imperatives. Indeed, that’s when values and integrity becomes most important. Feeling like the walls are closing in and that all may be lost is when sound ethics stand as a bulwark against the temptation to prevail no matter what the cost to others. Hearing the voice in one’s head say, “I’ll do anything!” should set off the most jarring ethics alarms of them all, because the boundary between principle and expediency, good and evil, and courage and cowardice, lies dead ahead. If one is truly ethical, there are things you will never do and must never do, no matter what the crisis. Desperation doesn’t suspend ethics. It validates ethics.
41. The Evasive Tautology, or “It is what it is.”
It is the increasingly popular rationalization of the eternal shrug, the genesis of “Well, what are you going to do?”…”Who can blame him?”…”That’s life!”…”It’s the way of the world” and dozens of other facile clichés in many languages that essentially boil down to the excuse of ethical surrender.
So why, oh why, is none of this sticking? Why are so many readers here, who have shown impeccable ethical instincts and reasoning ability in the past, succumbing to the appeal of pure hate, desperation and vengeance?
I am obviously doing something wrong.