Out of some 1,300 Palestinians killed in Gaza, Israel claims that it can name more than 700 of the dead who were Hamas fighters. Claiming precise knowledge of their targets, Israeli officials insist that their attacks were judiciously planned so as to minimize harm to civilians. No matter how cautious Israel is, though, any attack on its enemies will result in civilian casualties.
Today on Public Ethics Radio, we discuss the role that civilian casualties play in assessing the justice of war.
For a war to be just, it must satisfy what is known as the proportionality principle. In a disproportionate war, the harms caused by going to war are so evil that they outweigh the benefits of an otherwise worthy goal. Considerations of proportionality are also relevant to the assessment of particular tactics undertaken in an ongoing war.
To help us understand how this weighing of harms and benefits works, we spoke to the distinguished just war scholar Jeff McMahan. McMahan is a Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. He has published widely on just war theory and defensive violence, and many of his articles are available through his website. His recent views on proportionality are discussed in, among others, his essay, “Just Cause for War.”
The ad I mentioned at the top of the show, showing missiles attacking New York, was taken out by the Anti-Defamation League. Their campaign is online, here.
- 4 Israelis killed by rocket and mortar attacks prior to 12/27/2008: The Israel Project, List of Deaths Caused by Qassam Rockets and Mortar Fire.
- ~1300 Palestinians killed since 12/27/2008: AP, First War Tally (scroll down for a second, higher, estimate from the Health Ministry).
Christian also mentions that proportionality has a long philosophical history. It’s much too long to even attempt a summary here, but interested readers might find Brian Orend’s entry on war in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy a useful starting point.
Many have made the claim that casualties caused by Israel shouldn’t be equated those caused by Hamas because the latter is intentionally targeting civilians and the former is not. For a good example from the present comment, see an interview with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni wherein she claims:
We are trying to avoid civil casualties, even though it’s not easy, while Hamas is targeting our civilians as a target. … I have to say that I can’t understand what is the nature of proportionality which is needed. I mean, they targeted last week a school in Beersheba, in Israel. Do you think that the proportionate action is to target a school? We are not going to do this. They are targeting civilians. We are not going to do this.
Christian noted Jeff’s belief that proportionality is related to (more accurately, premised on) just cause. This view is explored in Jeff’s excellent “Just Cause for War,” Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 3 (2005). Jeff claims that “not very many” Israelis have been killed by rockets (and presumably mortars) fired by Hamas and Hezbollah. The precise numbers are almost certainly up for debate, but the following should give you a rough idea. The Israel Project puts the number of deaths from rockets and mortars at 23 since 2001. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs also maintains a list of all “victims of Palestinian violence and terrorism since September 2000.” And for an overview of Hamas rocket activity in general, see this page from GlobalSecurity.org (wherein they claim 3,278 rockets and mortar shells landed in Israeli territory in 2008).
And finally, at the very end, Jeff mentions the precautionary principles. These principles, generally speaking, tell us how to deal with uncertainty. Applied to just war theory, they refer to the principles, proportionality included, that urge restraint in the face of an otherwise just cause.