Confronted by the horrors of war between Israel and Hamas, one is naturally drawn to those who offer moral certainty.

After all, it is repugnant to the soul to think that there is no sure ground for the revulsion we feel when confronted by the carnage unleashed on October 7th. Yet, to reject the dead hand of moral relativism does not mean that we must uncritically embrace one side or the other as being either wholly vicious or wholly virtuous. 

Here, distinctions matter. For example, there is a vital difference between the Jewish people and the Government of Israel. Likewise, the Palestinian people are not defined by Hamas. When free to do so, many Jews and Palestinians are as one in criticising and condemning the actions of those, in power, who claim to be acting in their name. So, in our search for ethical clarity, we need tools to produce certainty while allowing us to discern relevant distinctions. 

By way of background, I should mention that I have been teaching military ethics, both at home and abroad, for more than three decades. In that time, I have typically dealt with what occurs at the ‘pointy end’ of warfighting – with people of all ranks and many cultures. This has included sitting with generals, most of them active operational commanders, from twenty-five nations, as we have discussed some of the most challenging issues ever to be encountered by those who serve in the profession of arms. In the course of my work in this area, we have naturally focused on the requirements of Humanitarian Law and Just War Theory. Those requirements are routinely quoted at times such as these. However, I think that there are even more fundamental principles that can serve us well – whether military or civilian – as we seek to establish firm ground on which to stand. 

The first and most fundamental of these principles is that of ‘respect for persons’. This principle requires us to recognise the intrinsic dignity of every person – irrespective of their culture, gender, sex, religion, etc. As such, no person or group can be used merely as a means to some other end. Thus, the prohibition against slavery. No person or group can be deemed ‘less than fully human’ – even those who engage in unspeakably wicked deeds. The torturer or genocidal murderer might forfeit their lives under some systems of justice – but never their intrinsic dignity. That is why we insist on minimum standards of care for prisoners of war – and even war criminals awaiting their fate. Those who deny others intrinsic dignity open the gates to the hells of torture, genocide and the like. 

The second principle is captured in an aphorism derived from the Canadian philosopher, Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff argues that the difference between a ‘warrior’ and a ‘barbarian’ is ‘ethical restraint’. The idea is reflected in principles like those of ‘proportionality’ (minimum force required) and ‘discrimination’ (only legitimate targets) that are a core part of military ethics. However, I think that Ignatieff takes us somewhat deeper. His concept of ethical restraint – as the basis for distinguishing between ‘warriors’ and ‘barbarians’ – asks us not only to consider actions but also intent.  

For example, to mount an attack of the kind launched by Hamas on October 7th – with the clear intention of massacring and mutilating innocent civilians – is to be distinguished from military action that tries, with utmost sincerity, to limit the harm caused to non-combatants. Hamas knows that Israel will always prevail in a direct contest of arms. However, following the logic of ‘asymmetric warfare’ it also knows that if it can goad Israel into fighting a ground war in areas heavily populated by civilians then the latter’s strategic strength can be broken in line with a loss of moral authority at home and abroad.  

But how do you retain the status of a ‘warrior’ against an opponent who is deliberate in their use of the tactics of the ‘barbarian’ – and whose success absolutely depends on the wounding and death of the innocent? 

This brings me to a third principle – familiar the world over. Expressed by the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, in the form, “Do not do to others what you would not have done to yourself”, the same principle (or a version of it) can be found in Jewish writings: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow-man. This is the entire Law, all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id – 16th Century BCE). The same sentiment can be found expressed in the Hadith – the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad who is recorded as having said, “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others that which you wish for yourself.” In a further formulation of the same basic principle, the Prophet is also recorded as having said, “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourself.” Such precepts reflect the essence of the ‘Golden Rule’. 

What then might be the implications for the current conflict if this widely recognised principle was given practical effect? Even the most savage Hamas terrorist, with an abiding hatred of the Jewish people, will refuse to countenance that a child of his be raped and murdered in pursuit of his cause. Nor would the most zealous defender of Israel allow the bombing of a Jewish hospital – even if a Hamas command centre is located beneath the structure. One hopes that both would refuse to do to others what they would not have done to their own. In short, the exercise of moral imagination (in which you stand in the others’ shoes) as required by the application of the Golden Rule, should produce just the kind of ethical restraint that Ignatieff calls for. 

So, why the carnage? 

One explanation lies in the violation of the first principle outlined above. Antisemitism of the kind written into the core ideology of Hamas is fueled by an ancient denial of the full and equal humanity of the Jewish people. It is the same denial that made the Holocaust possible – with Nazi propaganda deliberately dehumanising the Jews by comparing them to vermin. Extermination was the logical next step once the vicious premise had taken root. And that is why it chills one to the bone to hear the Israeli Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, say that in the latest conflict, “We are fighting against human animals”. Israel is the one nation on earth where we might have hoped such words never to be uttered. 

If one seeks moral clarity, it will not be found in a flag around which one can rally. It will not be found in ties of blood or history alone. It lies in the conscious application of principle – without fear or favour, beyond the ties of kinship.

This is not to say that one must set aside emotion. It is proper to grieve for family and friends and those closest to you in belief and culture. But sympathy, grief, anger and a lust for revenge are not the ground on which judgement must rest. 

An edited version of this article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Image: Justin Lane / AAP Photo

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