Why is ‘moral equivalence’ such a bad thing? A political philosopher explains

Why has the ICC indictment of Israeli and Hamas leaders drawn so much fire? Understanding the notion of moral equivalence might help explain why.

Author: Michael Blake on May 31, 2024
People in Beirut light candles in solidarity with Palestinians in Rafah on May 27, 2024. AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

An Israeli airstrike on the refugee encampment at Tal al-Sultan, in the Gaza Strip, resulted in the death of at least 45 Palestinian civilians on the night of May 26, 2024. It is a matter of dispute in this case as to whether the attack was deliberately intended to target civilians. A week before, however, the International Criminal Court charged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the intentional targeting of civilians in the course of the conflict in Gaza; such targeting is a war crime under international law.

The ICC’s document, however, also charged three leaders of Hamas with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, torture and the taking of hostages, during the Oct. 7, 2023, attacks.

The decision to charge both the Israeli leadership and that of Hamas has led to widespread condemnation, much of which used the concept of “moral equivalence.”

President Joe Biden described the implication of such equivalence as “outrageous.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement saying that the indictment was a “noxious attempt at moral equivalence” from a “rogue kangaroo court.”

Some commentators have similarly deployed the concept of moral equivalence – to condemn, instead, the decision to charge Hamas’ leadership alongside Israel’s. Tim Anderson, director of the Center for Counter-Hegemonic Studies, wrote that the violence of Hamas was in service of a legitimate struggle “against colonialism and apartheid,” and any assertion of moral equivalence here would wrongly “aid the colonizer.”

As a political philosopher, I am interested in how concepts like moral equivalence are used in political discussions. Those who use this concept generally do so as a way of asserting that someone is at best deceived – and, at worse, deliberately deceptive – about the moral wrongs done by one side in a conflict.

Moral equivalence as moral criticism

Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a top foreign policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan, did much to popularize this notion of moral equivalence in the 1980s. She understood the term to be a critique of those who, like many Soviet Union apologists, used American moral failures as sufficient reason to ignore or minimize Soviet violations of human rights.

In response, Kirkpatrick argued that there was good reason to distinguish between different types of moral failures, based upon notions of scale and of origin. American excesses were, she thought, less frequent and less horrific than Soviet human rights abuses; and the American system defended the natural rights of the individual, in a manner the Soviet system could not.

We need not agree with Kirkpatrick’s take on the United States to see how this analysis explains contemporary reactions to the ICC. Those who condemn the ICC as engaging in moral equivalence argue that one side has done a more profound wrong, in the service of a more malignant worldview, than the other.

They are, like Kirkpatrick, insisting that one side is clearly better than the other and should be described as such. They disagree, of course, about which side should be described in such terms.

Not an argument for nonintervention

When people denounce moral equivalence, then, they mean that the target of their criticism is falsely claiming that both sides are equally bad – and, often, that any intervention in the conflict would be neither justified nor useful.

When the Soviet Union responded to American criticism by invoking America’s own moral failures, it intended to encourage other countries to see moral criticism as a useless endeavor.

Not all acknowledgments of moral fault, though, are rightly understood as ways of arguing in favor of neutrality or nonintervention.

When President Barack Obama said after Hamas’ attack upon Israel that both this attack and the Israeli occupation were unjustified, he was condemned by many – including attorney Alan Dershowitz – as refusing to condemn and counter the atrocities of Oct. 7. Dershowitz, who has written passionately in defense of Israel’s political legitimacy, took an acknowledgment of Israeli wrongdoing to imply that Hamas’ response was morally right.

Obama, however, did not intend his criticism of Israel to imply that no military response to Hamas was justified. Indeed, he later insisted that one could both defend a robust military response to Hamas and criticize Israeli policy as dangerous and morally wrong.

Human rights and moral action

Moral equivalence only defends inaction, then, if the acknowledgment of wrongdoing on each side is taken to indicate the impossibility of finding any meaningful moral difference between the sides.

It is possible, however, for an observer to say both that each side has done wrong and that one side is doing more wrong, and should be stopped from doing such wrong. Political theorists like Stephen Hopgood have demonstrated how human rights practitioners too often demand that victims of human rights abuses be morally perfect, before their human rights claims are defended.

Several people in vans and a tractor on a dusty street with smoke rising in the background.
Palestinians flee from the southern Gaza city of Rafah during an Israeli ground and air offensive on May 28, 2024. AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi

This is, however, a moral mistake. Human rights are valid moral claims and can be asserted even on behalf of those who are not themselves morally perfect. Those who use the charge of moral equivalence might themselves sometimes be guilty of demanding that we ignore or deny some moral wrongdoing before we can offer a forceful response to the situation we encounter.

Both victim and victimizer

The thought that one cannot be both a wrongdoer and the victim of wrongdoing is surprisingly common in contemporary political discourse.

After the Hamas attack, a number of Harvard University students wrote a public letter arguing that the Israeli regime – because of its wrongdoing toward the Palestinians – was “entirely responsible for the unfolding violence.” This response, too, depends upon a refusal to acknowledge the possibility that Hamas was both right to condemn Israeli policy toward Gaza and deeply wrongful in how it chose to respond to that policy.

Bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel, in discussing this letter, notes that ethical evaluation is rarely a matter of black and white. An accurate analysis of the conflict in Gaza would require moral courage and moral skill. Both are needed, if the analyst is to acknowledge the ways in which both parties to a dispute may have done wrong – and, after that acknowledgment, to continue to act on behalf of justice in the world.

Moral equivalence is, then, a useful phrase with which to criticize those who want to make it more difficult to identify and acknowledge moral wrongdoing. Such criticism, however, should not extend to those who seek to acknowledge moral complexity – and the fact that, in many real-world conflicts, both parties might be guilty of moral wrongdoing.

Michael Blake receives funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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