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As has become distressingly clear, many people blame the Israelis for the atrocities that Hamas terrorists perpetrated on Saturday, October 7, against hundreds of civilians, including women and children, across southern Israel. The Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, along with many other student groups at Harvard, declared that Israel’s “apartheid regime is the only one to blame.” The San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America condemned “Israel’s ongoing occupation and the apartheid regime” and affirmed “the Palestinian people’s . . . right to resist,” including by means of what it euphemistically called “this weekend’s events.” And the president of the Student Bar Association at New York University Law School opined that “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life,” because its “state-sanctioned violence created the conditions that made resistance necessary.”

In one sense, these reactions to the butchery are more shocking than the butchery itself. History contains only too many examples of outrageous violence perpetrated against innocent people, Jews and non-Jews. But how could anyone, safely removed from the scene of a violent conflict, coolly seek to justify mass murder? Nor is this failure of moral judgment confined to a lunatic fringe. On the contrary, it characterizes a large slice of the academic and political left.

How can so many people have developed such a perverted sense of morality? Anti-Semitism is certainly a factor—a spiritual sickness as mysterious in its virulence as in its longevity. But anti-Semitism cannot be the complete explanation. Over the years, some people have similarly sought to justify the mass murder of Americans on September 11, of Cambodians in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and of Ukrainians in the Holodomor. Common to all these cases is a failure to acknowledge that some actions are always gravely wrong, regardless of the circumstances.

Aquinas says that although the most general truths of morality, such as that we should do good and avoid evil, are known to all human beings with normal mental faculties, nevertheless particular moral truths, such as the wrongness of theft or even of murder, can be obliterated from the human heart by bad arguments, depraved customs, or corrupt habits. In the present sad instance, I think much of the answer lies in a combination of these factors—in particular, persistent indoctrination, especially on college campuses, into erroneous moral thinking (Aquinas’s “bad arguments”), which has been reinforced through vicious behavior (“bad habits”) such as virtue signaling and the cancellation of anyone with an opposing point of view. I concentrate on the former as the root cause.

Any inquiry, whether descriptive or normative, theoretical or practical, begins from certain assumptions, often tacit ones. Notice, I am not saying that we begin with axioms from which we deduce conclusions by pure logic. Mathematical proofs work that way, but most inquiries do not. I am saying, rather, that there is no view from nowhere, and so we necessarily begin any inquiry, not from a blank slate, but from the best theory of the subject matter in question that we happen to have, however imperfect it may be. This initial theory, however, is just a starting point. We may discover, in the course of the inquiry, that some of our assumptions are false and in need of revision. Thus, beginning with Newtonian physics, we may end by rejecting Newton in favor of Einstein. But although we are not wedded to our starting points, they remain important, because they tend to guide and anchor the inquiry. And as Aquinas said, a small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the conclusions.

Now, the starting points of moral reasoning include our pre-theoretical beliefs about what sorts of actions are right and what sorts of actions are wrong—knowledge that is usually acquired by our being raised by moral parents in a generally moral society. Ask a person of ordinary moral sense for paradigm cases of grossly immoral actions, and you will get answers such as murder, rape, and robbery—the very things Hamas did to hundreds of Jews on October 7. Call this point of view commonsense morality. Ask the same question of the sort of people who put out statements justifying the atrocities of Hamas, and you will probably get a different set of answers. Such people, I think, would name racial discrimination, colonialism, or imperialism as paradigm cases of moral wrongdoing. Let’s call this point of view politicized morality.

In one sense, both groups are right. Murder, rape, and robbery are morally wrong, but so, too, are racial discrimination, colonialism, and imperialism. Nevertheless, there are important differences between the two sets of answers. The paradigms of wrongdoing in commonsense morality are actions that are not only always wrong but also always, or almost always, gravely wrong. There are no instances of murder (and here I mean intentional murder, not manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide) that are wrong but not gravely so.

With the paradigms of wrongdoing typical of politicized morality, however, things are quite different. Racial discrimination, for example, is always wrong, but the degree of wrongness varies greatly from case to case. A racially motivated lynching is gravely wrong, but other acts of racial discrimination are far less so, as when one person pokes fun at another person’s accent or perpetuates a mild stereotype (for example, Germans are humorless). Even the advocates of politicized morality concede the comparative lack of gravity in the latter offenses when they call them microaggressions. Notice too that, when an instance of racial discrimination is gravely wrong, the gravity often arises in large part from the fact that the discriminatory action involves an action that commonsense morality would identify as a paradigm of wrongdoing. A lynching is gravely wrong, first and foremost, because it is a murder of an innocent human being, its wrongness being aggravated by the fact that it proceeds from a particularly reprehensible motive (racial hatred).

Another difference between commonsense morality and politicized morality lies in how difficult or easy it is to recognize paradigm cases of wrongdoing when we see them. In commonsense morality, although it is occasionally difficult to determine whether a particular action falls under one of the paradigm forms of wrongdoing, the difficulty usually arises from factual uncertainty and the opacity of such matters as an agent’s mental state. (Did the wife who shot her husband in the darkened house really think he was a burglar?)

Politicized morality operates differently, for recognizing instances of paradigm forms of moral wrongdoing in politicized morality often requires settling a host of contested historical and political issues. Everyone will agree that a lynching is a terrible example of racial discrimination, but there are many other actions—often very important in practice—about which reasonable people may disagree concerning whether they really are examples of racial discrimination at all. For example, some people view university affirmative action policies that consciously favor historically disadvantaged minorities as instances of racial discrimination, whereas others view them as morally good policies necessary for addressing the consequences of social discrimination, both past and present. Settling such issues is anything but easy, and even when people agree on the facts, reasonable people may well disagree about the moral issues because they will disagree about the moral significance of various aspects of a complex historical and political context.

Since the paradigms of moral wrongdoing in politicized morality depend essentially on their political and historical contexts, these contexts tend to assume central importance in this way of thinking. As a result, particular actions of individual actors tend to derive their moral quality from such contexts. In the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel “colonizes” or engages in apartheid-like “discrimination,” and the Palestinians are the victims, striving to put things to rights. The actions of individual human beings are understood and evaluated in terms of this larger context. Because of the roles they play in that context, an old Jewish woman in her bed becomes a wrongful “oppressor,” and the teenager with an AK-47 who shoots her in the head becomes a heroic “resister.” In this way, politicized morality thus erases the dignity of individual human beings, along with our moral responsibility for our actions.

To be clear, this terrible step in moral reasoning does not follow by strict logic from the assumptions of politicized morality, and not everyone who thinks of morality in this way falls into such odious conclusions. But although the mistake is not inevitable, it is very easy to make, and the reason for this lies in the paradigms accepted in politicized morality. Paradigms guide our moral assessments. Thus, if a person who thinks of morality in commonsense terms is presented with an elaborate argument purporting to show that murder is not wrong, he is unlikely to change his mind about murder, even if he cannot immediately identify any flaw in the argument. Similarly, a person who thinks of morality in politicized terms is unlikely to change his mind about his paradigms: Imperialism is wrong, and therefore resistance to imperialism is good. To admit that, in a given case, the “imperialists” are the innocent victims and the “resisters” are barbaric murderers is to undermine the historical and political assumptions that animate the politicized moralist. Rather than compromise or reject a paradigm, it is easier to keep the paradigm intact and insist that the “imperialists” merely got what they deserved and the “resisters” were acting heroically.

It is hard to know what to do about this situation. We have fellow citizens, and not just a few, who cannot recognize the evil of mass murder when they see it. Some of them are probably beyond the reach of rational persuasion, but I cannot believe this is true of most. We all must do what we can to engage with such people. The sacred author of the Book of Wisdom says that the security of the world is a great number of wise men, and the grand American experiment in self-government depends in the end on the good sense of the American people. Even in times that try men’s souls, we should keep our faith in both.

Robert T. Miller is the F. Arnold Daum Chair in Corporate Finance and Law at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Image by AFP licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, filter added.

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