Lessons for us all in Gaza bloodshed
Mirko Bagaric | January 02, 2009
THERE’S a lot of rhetoric from both sides in the latest Middle East war, but in the carnage there are two incontrovertible truths the world can learn that will lead to a diminution in net future human suffering.
The first is that ultimately the only moral currency that matters is consequences. Trendy notions such as rights and intentions are distractions and obfuscate the search for moral truths.
Israel and Hamas have to varying degrees sought to justify civilian casualties on the basis that, while they are a foreseeable result of military activities against the enemy, they are not intentional and, indeed, are regrettable. Civilian casualties are, so the argument runs, the unwanted by-product of pursuing a just cause.
This reasoning invokes the doctrine of double effect, which is the view that it is morally permissible to perform an act having two effects, one good and one evil, where the good consequence is intended and the bad merely foreseen and those consequences occur simultaneously. The application of the doctrine extends well beyond the battlefield.
It is often appealed to in an attempt to justify the killing of an unborn baby to save the mother. In euthanasia it is employed as a justification for alleviating pain by increasing the doses of painkillers even when it is known that this will result in death: the intention is to reduce pain, not to kill.
There’s a lot of irrelevant, remote learning to be had in philosophy101, but occasionally there are pearls of wisdom that world leaders need to take heed of.
The doctrine of double effect has been discredited in philosophy schools for decades. In the end, there is no inherent distinction between consequences that are intended and those that are foreseen.
That civilians will be killed is often just as certain as the killing of combatants. We are responsible for all the consequences we foresee and nevertheless elect to bring about. Whether or not we also intend them is largely irrelevant.
The propriety of the actions of Israel and Hamas will be determined by one barometer: whether in the long term they result in less human suffering than would have otherwise been the case. This will involve some speculation and approximation but at least the moral formula is clear.
For all the condemnation that the Israeli bombings are receiving, they will be justified if they lead to a net reduction in the loss of human life in the foreseeable future. In this formula, each life counts equally, irrespective of which side of a border a person happens to be born.
Ostensibly it may seem callous to speak of any loss of human life as being justifiable or an appropriate means to an end. But it is time for a reality check and some honesty on the ethical front. Inevitable loss of life is never a moral conversation stopper. As a community, we continually sacrifice it for other benefits.
We know that every year the desire for transport efficiencies will result in about seven Australians in 100,000 being killed on the roads. Moreover, we could save many more lives if we doubled the ambulance service. We choose not to, due to the desire to achieve fiscal savings. Perhaps transport and fiscal considerations are not important enough concerns to justify the loss of innocent life and we should therefore be curtailing the circumstances in which motor vehicles are used and spending far more public money on the health industry. But we don’t have this debate because our moral judgment is clouded by loopy notions such as intentions and motivations. It is time to remove the moral blinkers.
The second important lesson to be learned from the Middle East conflict is that international law is an illusion. It is a figment of an international lawyer’s teenage yearning for certainty and order in a world where the only end geopolitical game remains “might is right”.
No doubt there will ultimately be a cessation to hostilities between Israel and Hamas, but the terms on which it is reached will have nothing to do with the supposed tenets of international law.
When the global stakes are high, international law goes out the door. The most cardinal prohibition in international law is the prohibition of the use of force against another state. Since World War II, the US, whose military and economic dominance is unrivalled in human history, has used force against another state on more than 30 occasions, the most notable examples being Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Cambodia, Grenada, Afghanistan and Iraq (twice).
Arguably, some of these interventions were lawful. Almost certainly some were not, such as Nicaragua and the second Iraq campaign. Despite this, the sum total of the adverse consequences that have been imposed against the US, as a result of the implementation of international law, is zero.
This reveals a fundamental shortcoming of the international law system: it is more akin to a system of etiquette rather than a prescriptive set of rules.
In the latest Middle East conflict, the UN has predictably been shown to be impotent when it matters.
The sorry spectacle the UN has become is symptomatic of the dysfunctionality that has emerged as a result of the structural bias towards those powers that emerged triumphant in 1945.
The engine room of the UN, the Security Council, is controlled by the fab five, consisting of the US, Britain, China, Russia and France. The veto power wielded by these countries gives them effective immunity from tangible international law sanctions being applied against them and their allies.
The power exerted by the permanent members of the Security Council, greatly in excess of their contemporary economic significance, has prevented the UN from functioning as anything like an effective parliament for the world community.
There is only one principled method for developing an effective system of international law. This involves the establishment of a new (de facto) world legislature that adopts at the international level the same best-practice model of governance that exists at the domestic level: democracy.
In this new body, the G193 (the present number of nations in the world), voting would be commensurate with the population in each country. There is no other fair basis for representation.
In the end, people are the only currency that counts, and they all count equally.
The principle of democracy is not only a desirable political ideal but also has a sound normative justification. Democracy is forced on us by the absence of any ethical basis for valuing the interests of one person more than those of another.
Until such a process occurs, international law will remain a system of global etiquette: always followed, except when it is contrary to the important interests of powerful states.
It seems that in 2009, human nature will remain as expedient and brutal as at any time in history.
Mirko Bagaric is the author of Future Directions in Human Rights and International Law