Besides political and ideological conflicts, the savagery of war and mass killing inspires several existential reflections. There seems to be little space for moral discussion, trapped as it is between the ruthlessness of an aggression that sets achievement of the war goals beyond good and evil, to a point where anything goes, and the survivors clinging to bare life among their dead amidst total, unthinkable loss. The blurring of moral boundaries makes it difficult to discern any morality in the thick of political and even identitarian polarisation in wartime. Nevertheless, the aim of this article – which is addressed neither to the war criminals nor their victims, who have enough to deal with – is to discern and address the moral issues raised by the Israeli war on the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. I mean those moral dilemmas that confront humanity as a result of the atrocities committed during the aggression and the mechanisms that allow the suspension of any moral judgment of the crimes committed.
It is crucial to remember that morals are not the driver of human action, in wartime or otherwise, unless it touches a person’s emotional, affective constitution such that doing good, refusing to lie, or relieving oppression and achieving justice, for example, spur a moral agent to action. But human motives more typically involve the avoidance of physical or psychological harm, the incapacity to endure, lust and possessiveness, the rejection of humiliation and defence of dignity, the desire for recognition and appreciation from others, the love of control, or the desire to be free from constraints. Individual and/or socially prevalent moral values often constrain, regulate, or prevent an act, or justify it after it has occurred.
Values often intersect with core human emotions. Take dignity, for example. For those who hold this value not, it intersects with a powerful aversion to humiliation that may spur them to rise up against those who seek to humiliate them. It may also inspire feelings of guilt by those for whom it is indeed a moral value and not merely a subjective feeling of pride when humiliating others, and feelings of solidarity with victims of humiliation.
Nevertheless, human actions are subject to moral judgment even if their motives are not moral, whether the criteria for judgment are individual morals or socially dominant moral values. These moral judgments, whatever their standards, are a prerequisite for the formation and existence of a society . The widespread assumption that the actions of states – meaning their governing authorities and institutions – are typically not driven by morality, but by interests, domination, and other factors, is rarely called into question. Even so, people judge the policies and actions of states not only by the degree to which their interests, however defined, are achieved and harm deterred, but also by moral standards. Without that a civilisation doesn’t deserve to be considered a human civilisation..
Truth is not, as often claimed, the first casualty of war; it is morality. When the campaigns of propaganda and lies commence, morals have already been thrust aside. They are asked to fall mute, and the voices that speak on behalf of them are silenced. The thin line between life and death cannot tolerate the urgency of their appeal, but there is no excuse for us.
General Director and Member of the Board of Directors of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). Dr Bishara is a researcher and writer with numerous books and publications on political thought, social theory and philosophy, as well as some literary works. He taught philosophy and cultural studies at Birzeit University from 1986 to 1996, and was involved in the establishment of research centers in Palestine including the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy (Muwatin) and the Mada al-Carmel Center for Applied Social Research.