Episode 7. Jeff McMahan on Proportionality

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.”

Click here to download the episode (28:17, 12.9 mb, mp3), or click on the online media player below. You can also download the transcript.


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.

Casualty figures

As Christian noted, Alan Dershowitz called the Israeli assault “perfectly proportionate” in the Wall Street Journal.

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.


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5 responses to “Episode 7. Jeff McMahan on Proportionality

  1. Excellent, careful, and nuanced. A few additional thoughts: Israel’s Army has an Ethics policy, and Israeli soldiers and pilots were quoted during the war – and many times before and since – saying that they are taught to abort attacks if they can positively identify non-combatants as being in the line of fire – and that they did so even in what people say was indiscriminate violence.

    That said, I also heard anecdotally from friends about experiences of their sons in the war who said they did order attacks against targets when they saw or felt threats coming – and did not necessarily take care to make them as “surgical” as possible.

    Further, I saw no discussion of the Hamas effort (cynical? calculated?) to embed its soldiers/fighters/gunmen/terrorists (call them what you will) in the civilian population in a seeming effort to help cause as many civilian casualties as possible in order for them to play the “victim” card with the global media and international community.

    You steered clear of accusations and rhetoric, which I appreciated.

    As you didn’t make blanket judgments or conclusions, let me say that if you place the justness of the war more on what Hamas MIGHT do if left unchecked, I think the past is something of a guide – but not wholly. Several years ago, when I worked at the Jerusalem Post, we received a briefing from Avi Dichter, then director of Israel’s Internal Security Agency (Shin Bet/Shabak). He told us how the range and accuracy of Palestinian missiles was increasing and predicted their growing ability to hit further and further into the Israeli heartland, and not just into the Gaza settlements that once were the “front line.”

    You can believe intelligence officers or not, but clearly, the 40KM range of the rockets was 4x the original 10KM they could reach – and the almost unchecked pipeline of weapons from Iran, Syria, whomever – suggests that the “effectiveness” was increasing. And the supply was seeming unending, and the lack of response seemed to embolden Hamas to keep going.

    Finally, the open cheering for Hamas from Syria and Iran suggested to Israelis just how much Hamas is a proxy for Iranian adventurousness. It has been stated since the war by serious thinkers here and elsewhere that the force and effectiveness of the Israeli response did, in fact, restore deterrence and achieve most of Israel’s “justified” goals.

    So, while it seems from your perspective that purely punitive actions not intended to “correct” or limit potential future behavior are not justified, Israel, I believe, was moral and proportionate in its response to the threats from the future. Of course, if nothing ever happens (hah), then we will never know just how effective Israel was – or will we?

    Some additional resources (if you don’t mind a plug) from the Shalom Hartman Institute (http://hartman.org.il) in Jerusalem, a Jewish policy/ethics think tank, one of whose senior fellows, Moshe Halbertal, was among the authors of the Israeli Army ethics policy. Plus several pieces by Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman before (worried about his soldier/son and facing his own dilemma of patriotism and parenting), during (the war’s ethics and the ethical conduct of Israel’s Army), and after (what to do now that the shooting has – mostly – stopped).

  2. Matt

    Thanks for the comment, Alan, which is itself careful and nuanced.

    There was an excellent article in the New York Times today that looked at two of the points you raise: that Hamas fighters physically locate themselves and their arms in a way that endangers civilians, and that Israeli soldiers were at times apparently less discriminate in their targeting than they ought to have been. Ethan Bronner and Sabrina Tavernise, “In Shattered Gaza Town, Roots of Seething Split,” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/world/middleeast/04gaza.html?hp.

  3. Thanks for pointing out the article. It does seem to be carefully reported, and everything I have read about the NYT correspondent there suggests she is trying to be “fair and balanced” (in the way that term is supposed to be used).

    The IDF is a true citizens’ army. Look, my rabbi’s son was injured. I am only in the country 9 years and I can’t list just how many people I know who were in the heat of the conflict. So, there is overwhelming support for “keeping the boys safe.” That meant, in this conflict, that overwhelming support was used to protect soldiers in the field. There was widespread condemnation of the Army’s upper echelons after the Lebanon War in 2006 for not protecting the soldiers. I know for a fact that many soldiers were left in Lebanese vilages with little to eat and drink – and few ways to defend themselves. Israel received an unacceptable number of casualties. So, training was revised and doctrine was revamped.

    However, there is also an acceptance that casualties will occur. One woman with a son in the conflict said on a TV show during the fighting that the government cannot make decisions based on the gut feelings in a mother’s belly.

    That said, there is a great deal of remorse in mainstream Israeli circles about the extent of the Gaza casualties.

    The “final”(and I say that only in quotes) moral issue now is whether you can fight your way to peace. Many say no, yet the long-term truce overtures by Hamas seem to indicate that Israel made its point emphatically. The independent media reports of declining enthusiasm in Gaza for Hamas’military/terrorist adventurousness suggests public opinion in Gaza may push Hamas to some sort of conciliatory stance. The question there is whether Hamas’ Gaza people will be able to withstand the pressure from Syria and Iran to keep to the “three No’s” of an earlier generation of Arab leaders: no negotiations, no recognition and no peace.

  4. I found your site when I was looking for something not related at all, but this post was on the first page of Google your site must be pretty popular! Continue the good work!

  5. Pingback: Episode 17. Seth Lazar on Self-Defense in War | Public Ethics Radio

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