Syria, Egypt present moral responsibilities and ambiguitiesby rabbi daniel feder
|Follow j. on||and|
What are our moral obligations in light of the carnage in Syria? If we disdain military dictatorships and hold the murder of civilian populations to be morally indefensible, how do we distinguish between blood spilled in Syria and Egypt?
Western liberal democracies believe in the inalienable rights of individuals, for citizens both of our nations and other nations. The abuse of these rights is morally problematic whether within the confines of our nation-states or outside our borders. We abhor tyranny, and we advocate the spread of democracy not because of self-interest but because of our moral principles.
At the same time, we recognize that the right of sovereignty must limit our actions outside our own borders and prevent superpowers from creating a new tyranny that imposes its will on others simply because it can.
The pursuit of self-interest is not morally flawed or even morally neutral. Unto itself, devoid of negative consequences to others, it is even morally obligatory. Jewish tradition teaches that love of self is the foundation on which love of neighbor resides (Leviticus 19), and that your life takes precedence over others’ (BT Baba Metzia 62a). Human life is sacred because we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 9), and that sacredness cannot apply to others if it is not applied to oneself.
The difficult question pertains to the limitations on the moral duty of self-preservation and where the rights of others ought to prevail. Our tradition teaches that if someone rises to kill you, you are to kill them first (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:4). If a person walking in the desert is in possession of only enough water to sustain one person, he or she is obligated to consume the water and neither give it nor share it with another if the consequences would be detrimental to the person’s own safety (BT Baba Metzia 62a). At the same time, however, tradition also teaches that one is forbidden to take another life if commanded to do so, in order to save one’s own life, for who knows if “your blood is redder”? (BT Sanhedrin 74a)
There are limits to self-interest and self-defense. One cannot appropriate others’ resources, nor take an innocent life under the pretense of moral responsibility to oneself. While the distinction is at times thin, maintaining it makes all the moral difference.
That said, in the real world, a certain measure of “dirty hands” is morally tolerated in the pursuit of moral obligations and self-defense, whether by individuals or nations.
dirty, but smelly as well. The odor becomes ever more odious when the political or military sanctions are hidden behind moral argumentation.
Even when we are clearly motivated by moral considerations in our foreign policy, we still may lack clarity in deciding on what actions we should take. For example, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was democratically elected. But so far, its track record shows support for a democratic process that gets its members elected and an undermining of the same process if it leads to the party losing power. That record makes it difficult to be morally motivated to come to the defense of the Muslim Brotherhood. A party that supports one democratic election and not two is hardly an advocate of human rights.
What makes the situation even more confusing is that even our national interests aren’t clear and they depend in no small measure on the imprecise calculation of who will win in the end.
When it comes to Syria, we face a similar dilemma. It is clear that neither of the warring factions is attuned to moral and democratic principles. Wanton murder is being perpetrated in the light of day, yet it is not at all clear that the support of one side over the other will bring it to an end.
The use of chemical weapons, however, is not merely a political red line but a moral one. It is not that death by exposure to poison gas is morally more objectionable than death by sword or bullet (remember Rwanda). It is the “mass” in weapons of mass destruction that changes the equation, with “mass” describing both the indiscriminate as well as extensive nature of the killing involved. The moral instinct that obligates us to seek, export and maximize well-being points to the users of weapons of mass destruction as particularly evil and dangerous to the moral fiber of our world.
Kant argued that the morality of an act is inextricably connected to one’s moral intent. But Jewish tradition teaches that while purity of intent is preferable, doing good even when not for its own sake is valuable, and a critical part of fulfilling our human obligations. The critical test is whether our actions are morally defensible and serve universal well-being, freeing us from the impossible psychological analysis of motivation in the realm of international politics.
In the Middle East, our moral responsibilities and motivations are not always clear. That said, there are times when our moral responsibilities are self-evident. When weapons of mass destruction are used, it is such a time.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Be the first to comment!