Posted by: sean | July 24, 2006

On stopping now and casting the first stone

Here is a piece in Ha’aretz that lays things out for Israeli readers:

This war must be stopped now and immediately. From the start it was unnecessary, even if its excuse was justified, and now is the time to end it. Every day raises its price for no reason, taking a toll in blood that gives Israel nothing tangible in return….

Israel went into the campaign on justified grounds and with foul means. It claims it has declared war on Hezbollah but, in practice, it is destroying Lebanon. It has gotten most of what it could have out of this war. The aerial “target bank” has mostly been covered. The air force could continue to sow destruction in the residential neighborhoods and empty offices and could also continue dropping dozens of tons of bombs on real or imagined bunkers and kill innocent Lebanese, but nothing good will come of it.

And in a wonderful little piece by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert on casting the first stone, he shows that humans instinctively think of their actions as consequences of another’s provocation and nearly always underestimate the strength of their response (it’s worth reading in its entirety to see the experiments used):

After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words — like “retaliation” and “retribution” and “revenge” — whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first.

That’s why participants in every one of the globe’s intractable conflicts — from Ireland to the Middle East — offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later….

Examples aren’t hard to come by. Shiites seek revenge on Sunnis for the revenge they sought on Shiites; Irish Catholics retaliate against the Protestants who retaliated against them; and since 1948, it’s hard to think of any partisan in the Middle East who has done anything but play defense. In each of these instances, people on one side claim that they are merely responding to provocation and dismiss the other side’s identical claim as disingenuous spin. But research suggests that these claims reflect genuinely different perceptions of the same bloody conversation….

If the first principle of legitimate punching is that punches must be even-numbered, the second principle is that an even-numbered punch may be no more forceful than the odd-numbered punch that preceded it. Legitimate retribution is meant to restore balance, and thus an eye for an eye is fair, but an eye for an eyelash is not. When the European Union condemned Israel for bombing Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, it did not question Israel’s right to respond, but rather, its “disproportionate use of force.” It is O.K. to hit back, just not too hard.

Research shows that people have as much trouble applying the second principle as the first. …

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.


  1. Hey Sean, glad you posted this article. I had read it yesterday and wish it was in Dutch so I could post it on my blog too… How and where are you now? xx Nicolien

  2. Interesting article. I had the pleasure (or curse) of attending a lecture by Daniel Gilbert a couple of years ago at NYU. The topic of discussion was “Kohlberg’s Legacy” and it questioned the status of the infamous moral development theory. We can obviously see that certain contemporary psychologists, such as Daniel Gilbert and Carol Gilligan, inherited such a tradition.

    Ultimately, such moral developmental propositions from the field of social psychologicy beg epistemological and ontological questioning. If Gilbert expands the second principle of legitimate retribution into the realm of international conflict and affairs, then the next legitimate question becomes: what kind of political system may mediate the first and second principles in a morally-developed fashion?

    Here, I’d like to force the claim that it ultimately *depends* on a specific culture’s claims with its own rationale and powers, because such theories are always geared to claim that *democracy” is first and foremost the “highest stage of moral development”. The danger, of course, is the implication that non-western cultures, often more collectivistic than individualistic western cultures, are less morally developed, and therefore, such cultures cannot embrace the high calliber moral-based individualism that is so celebrated by western democratic tradition.

    Applying Gilbert’s theory into the Middle East, we find a whole slew of eurocentric analytical possibilities here. One principal question, albeit conservative, is the assumption that Arabic tradition and Democracy are not co-mutual. We hear such claims once we find that so much evidence shows that many Arabic governments use the language of revenge and retribution, and of which Israel uses as pure evidence as a means to exact preemptive measures to deter such dark desires. All of humanity, whether we like it or not, share in the curse of “myth-making” whenever and wherever collective conflict occurs, and thus, we often tend to retaliate at a morally-measured rate.

    However, in the end, the question of *morality* is always culturally specific – it is the raw stuff of human history and thus is the proposition of the “end of history” (Fukuyama) due to the hegemony of liberal-democracy, a perplexing assertion. It is in my opinion, then, that different cultures exact revenge more in terms of culture-specificity, rather than a blanketed culture-blind statement about human nature made by such trendy social psychologists as Gilbert, who ultimately accuse non-westerners of moral immaturity.

    Ultimately, such eurocentric theories deny our human capacity to make meaning and to reveal being -epistemology and ontology- in circumstances of inter-cultural discourse after conflict.

    My two cents,

  3. When you start talking about “eurocentric” analyses here, it would seem important to take a look at the actual parties involved, rather than making broad statements about “non-western cultures.” Can you give an example of a society where a response should be disproportionate to the offense?

    In the case of Israel, it seems particularly ironic to talk about eurocentric analyses, since European culture is ostensibly “Judeo-Christian,” and Israel’s political leaders are, for the most part, Ashkenazi Jews. Generally speaking, Israeli society, whether or not it is “non-western,” does not condone disproportionate reactions, just as American and European societies do not, regardless of these countries’ actual actions.

    But at the end of the day, we’re usually talking about states (or at least organizations that act like or interact with states) and not individuals or even societies or civilizations. There is a wide body of international law on the rules of warfare, including collective punishment and reprisals, such as the fourth Geneva Convention. Israel is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, as are nearly all the countries of the world.

    Furthermore, the important part of Gilbert’s article is about human perception and the fact that people have a tendency of underestimating their reaction to a previous action and having a hard time empathizing with others, particularly when they are our enemies. While this seems like common sense, it is interesting to see empirical evidence of it and to see how that evidence might come to bear on international relations.

    Discussions on how everything is relative and no universal morality can possibly exist are not terribly interesting or helpful when talking about international relations, with the exception of questions about the universal declaration of human rights. We’re not talking about whether or not it is morally acceptable to have sex before marriage, but whether one state can or should attack another, and under what circumstances.

  4. […] behavior in 2006 was already disproportionate and indiscriminate when it came to targeting civilians,  but this newest declaration takes […]

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