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Lessons for us all in Gaza bloodshed

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Tuesday, 6 January 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.

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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 philosophy 101, 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.

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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.

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First published on January 2, 2008 in The Australian



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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is the author of 20 books and over 100 refereed scholarly articles. He is not connected with any political party or other interest group. He is the author of Australian Human Rights Law (forthcoming). Mirko is the author of Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.

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