The Higher Sociopathy

In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:

We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.

That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”

Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it’s now over 1000]many of these civilianI find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?

A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.

Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide willas they have for generationslearn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.

And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.

The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.

The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.

Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.


  1. Raphael Sperry July 28, 2014 at 1:33 pm | #

    Pretty shocking ideologically, but also thin practically. This article doesn’t recognize that there are powerful and effective non-violent ways to end conflicts, even when one party does use violence. There’s just a poverty of the imagination here. See, for instance, the remarkable “Why Civil Resistance Works” by Chenoweth & Stephan or Kurlansky’s “Nonviolence.”

  2. zenner41 July 28, 2014 at 3:39 pm | #

    “Wow” is all that can be said about this. Just “Wow”! So if Israel wins this fight (“wins” I should say), that means that they earn the “right” to keep doing it again forever. And it looks as though they will.

    • Deborah July 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm | #

      Yes, this does a good job of explaining why we all feel terrorized by what we’re watching unfold, albeit not from Gaza. We’re watching the latest turn of the lawfare screw.

  3. Scott Supak (@ssupak) July 28, 2014 at 4:31 pm | #

    The Dick Cheney method: Inflate the threat, profit from the means, inflate the ends. Repeat.

    • Ozlem July 29, 2014 at 6:25 am | #

      Spot on.

  4. Glenn July 28, 2014 at 4:53 pm | #

    Friedrich Nietzsche’s Master Morality is in play.

  5. s. wallerstein July 28, 2014 at 5:25 pm | #

    It’s pretty strange to make the claim that war crimes are necessary to end war crimes.

    The only thing that I can make out of this mess is that power and privilege corrupt and that the Jews, who were relatively innocent until they got into power, when in power, are as ruthless and dishonest as anyone else. I should have known that all along of course.

  6. Troy Grant July 28, 2014 at 6:29 pm | #

    What difference does it make if the war is based on sophistry, religion, land or resources? Barring humanistic ways like family planning, war is one of nature’s ways to reduce animal populations to the carrying capacity of an area. Warring anti-science conservatives are beasts that have not evolved into humans.

  7. Roquentin July 29, 2014 at 10:13 am | #

    I don’t put too much stock in “moral reasoning” to begin with as there are always anterior causes which shape it. I’ve been reading Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge on vacation (I’m in NC) and he has plenty to say to that effect. Like it was said in the documentary The Act of Killing (paraphrasing) “the important thing is to tell yourself a story that makes what you are doing okay.” To an outsider Israel just seems to be almost hysterically afraid these days, sensing that the international community is finally turning against them. The intense need to be seen as just mostly stems from fear and guilt that goes with the repressed knowledge that what they are doing is anything but.

    • s. wallerstein July 29, 2014 at 10:19 am | #


      Moral reasoning has its flaws, but what do you propose to replace it with? Especially when you engage in moral reasoning yourself when you state that “the important thing is to tell youself a story that makes what you are doing okay”. “Okay” in that sentence has to do with morality and in order to decide what is “okay” we have to do some moral reasoning.

      • Roquentin July 29, 2014 at 5:34 pm | #

        In practical matters you obviously need some kind of working definition of what you should and shouldn’t do, even if you suspend an ultimate or transcendental definition of right and wrong. What I’m arguing for is not so much the abolition of mortality, but a wider view which understands that what has traditionally been called mortality is by and large a surface level phenomena, pulled along behind other factors which supersede it.

  8. Anthony Greco July 29, 2014 at 1:42 pm | #

    Schwartz’s casuistry should not be allowed to discredit just war theory. In my two most recent posts (, I draw on JWT, demonstrating that Israel’s assault on Gaza fails to meet the requirements of both jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

    • BillR July 30, 2014 at 6:39 am | #

      Chase Madar did a fine piece on the “the reheated medievalism of ‘just war’ theory”:

      It deserves to go back to the dustbin of history from where it was resurrected by that slick charlatan, Walzer. It’s a shame someone who could have been a critic of the walking and talking affront to critical thinking that is Walzer died in his 20s:

      • Anthony Greco July 30, 2014 at 12:54 pm | #

        Thanks for the references, both of which I read with interest. I remember being appalled at Walzer’s apologetics for Israel’s 2006 assault on Lebanon, and Phillips’ critique is generally on target. But again I would urge that the fact that JWT can be misused shouldn’t be taken as grounds for trashing it altogether. Most of us aren’t absolute pacifists, but we are critics of war. We therefore need some kind of intellectual framework to say when war is acceptable and when it is not, if only to be able to make a stronger case against particular wars. I don’t know of a better framework than JWT.

      • Roquentin July 31, 2014 at 10:28 am | #

        While I agree that we must have some kind of ethics for evaluating when military force should and shouldn’t be used, perhaps justice is not the appropriate concept to apply to the question. Refusing to admit that there are circumstances when you and the society surrounding you would be perfectly comfortable with violent coercion amounts to self deception and is mostly a way to sidestep a lot of hard questions. Then again perhaps I am holding the idea of justice in too high an esteem, wanting it to stay separate from something like war.

  9. wetcasements July 30, 2014 at 6:37 am | #

    Reblogged this on Wet Casements and commented:
    Most Americans are familiar with the Vietnam era phrase “We had to burn down the village to save it.”

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