Moral equivalence

From Academic Kids

Moral equivalence is a term used in political debate, usually to negatively characterize the humanist claim that 'there can be no moral or ethical hierarchy decided between two sides in a conflict, nor in the actions or tactics of the two sides.' The term has some limited currency in polemic debates about the Cold War, and more currently, the Israel-Palestine conflict. "Moral equivalence" arose as a polemic term-of-retort to "moral relativism," which had been gaining use as an indictment against political foreign policy that appeared to use only a situation-based application of widely-held ethical standards.


Cold War

In the Cold War context, the term was and is most commonly used by political conservatives, as an implied accusation of logical fallacy, for liberal' criticisms of United States foreign policy and military conduct. Some liberals contend that US power, in the Cold War, used only to pursue an economically-driven agenda. They claim that the underlying economic motivation erodes any claims of moral superiority, leaving the hostile acts (Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq) to stand on their own in justifying the human lives the conflicts had destroyed. The typical conservative counter is the claim that there was in fact, a moral difference between the Soviet Union and the United States, and that policy arising in defense of the "moral superiority" of the US could not and can not be "immoral." Hence an argument, according to conservatives, which claimed that the two parties could be viewed as "equally" culpable in a struggle for supremacy, would be advocating "moral equivalence."

An early popularizer of the expression was Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was United States ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration. She published an article called The Myth of Moral Equivalence in 1986. She sharply criticized those who she alleged were claiming that there was "no moral difference" between the Soviet Union and democratic states. In fact, very few critics of United States policies in the Cold War era argued that there was a moral equivalence between the two sides. Communists argued that the Soviet Union was morally superior to its adversaries. Non-Communist critics usually argued that the United States itself risked creating a "moral equivalence" when some of its actions (such as supporting the violent overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government of Chile in 1973), or Reagan's Contra insurgency against the democratically elected Sandanista government in Nicaragua (which led to the US being condemned in the World Court for "unlawful use of force", i.e. terrorism), put it on the same level of immorality as the Soviet Union.


In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the term is commonly used by Israelis and defenders of Israel in other countries. They accuse those who describe acts of Palestinian terrorism, such as suicide bombing (many of which are against civilians) and the retaliatory acts the Israeli security forces as equally reprehensible of arguing for "moral equivalence."

Joel Mowbrey, a pro-Israeli writer, summarizes the coverage of the events:

"The coverage of the [recent] 'violence' has largely read like the equivalent of a chess match. Hamas refuses to halt suicide bombs. Israel targets a top Hamas leader. Suicide bombing in Jerusalem kills 16. Israel 'retaliates' with a strike in Gaza. What's at work is probably not anti-semitism, but a misguided attempt at objectivity. But reporting 'facts' in a moral vacuum is not objectivity; it is, in fact, just the opposite. Absent proper context, the situation can seem as if it is two equally justifiable sides making moves and countermoves, nothing more."

It is certainly true that in recent years many commentators have come to see the continued Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza as "morally reprehensible" and as being the "root cause of Palestinian terrorism." This is not necessarily the same thing as arguing that there is no moral difference between terrorist bombings which kill Israeli civilians and the Israeli retaliation to those bombings, but Israelis frequently see such critics as taking this view.

As with the United States during the Cold War, critics of the Israeli government argue that it is Israel's actions which are creating a "moral equivalence." Aron Trauring, an Israeli peace activist, argues that Israeli air-strikes against the homes of Hamas leaders makes Israel no better than Hamas:

"Civilians were directly targeted for death as part of an act of revenge on the part of the Israeli government. This is exactly the justification Hamas et al use for their military actions against Israeli civilians. They say the adults killed in their activities are people who perpetrate the "murderous occupation" against the Palestinians. They say these Israelis deserve to die just like Hamas leader Salah Shehada. If innocent dies as well, its just collateral damage. In essence we have reached moral equivalency."

The Israeli writer Yaacov Lozowick explains Israel's moral dilemmas:

"Restricting the freedom of movement of entire communities is immoral. Refraining from these restrictions when there is unequivocal proof that this will lead to the murder of innocents is worse, because movement restricted can later be granted, while dead will never live again. Demolishing the homes of civilians merely because a family member has committed a crime is immoral. If, however,... potential suicide murderers... will refrain from killing out of fear that their mothers will become homeless, it would be immoral to leave the Palestinian mothers untouched in their homes while Israeli children die on their school buses. Accidentally killing noncombatants in the cross fire of battles being fought in the middle of cities is immoral, unless... refraining from fighting in the Palestinian cities inevitably means the Palestinians will use the safe havens of their cities to plan, prepare and launch ever more murderous attacks on Jewish noncombatants. These concrete examples and others like them demonstrate the moral considerations that Israelis... have been dealing with since the Palestinans proudly decided to use suicide murder as their primary weapon." ("Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars", p.260)

See: Arab-Israeli conflict, moral relativism, morality, ethics

WWII atrocities


Implying a moral equivalence between a number of acts carried out by the Allies during the Second World War and the deeds of the Nazis, especially the Final Solution is a common strategy employed by apologists for the Nazis in Germany, such as politicians of the National Democratic Party of Germany. It is employed because the favoured strategy of neo-Nazi groups elsewhere, that of Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany.

External links

Further reading

  • Jeane Kirkpatrick, The Myth of Moral Equivalence, Imprimis, January 1986, Vol. 15, No. 1

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