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Daniel G. Saunders

Naïve Liberals and the West’s Moral Incomprehension

Calls for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza are growing. Here in the UK, the Labour Party and the Prince of Wales have joined in, with Parliament voting tomorrow on an SNP ceasefire resolution. Although I think a ceasefire before Hamas is wiped out (as far as is possible), its arsenal destroyed and its tunnels made unusable is a mistake, even criminal, it’s wrong to assume everyone who calls for a ceasefire is motivated by anti-Zionism and Jew hate. There is a definite difference between the card-carrying anti-Zionists and what I call the “naïve liberals.”

The naïve liberals may have supported the war in the immediate aftermath of 7 October, but now view it as too costly in terms of Palestinian civilian casualties. They say that Israel has killed “too many” Palestinians, particularly children, although they strangely decline to suggest how many deaths would have been acceptable. The implication seems to be that the number of dead on each side should be “proportional” i.e. both about the same, although this is not how wars are fought in reality and is not at all what the doctrine of proportionality in the real laws of war means, where it refers to the amount of force used being proportional to the expected strategic benefit from an action.

Obviously the death of any innocent and especially any child is unbearably tragic, and there are few Jews indeed who celebrate or desire the death of Palestinian children. Beyond this, though, the “proportional” approach illustrates the moral quagmire the West has got itself into.

The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget examined the way children develop a sense of morality. Younger children, up until the age of ten or so, base their morality purely on consequences. Piaget would tell them little stories like, “Mary accidentally spilt a lot of milk. John deliberately spilt a little milk. Who was more naughty?” Children under the age of ten would typically accuse Mary of being naughty, as she spilt more milk. Only above the age of ten would they see intention as the decisive factor: Mary’s actions were accidental and therefore less culpable than John’s deliberate spillage.

It seems much of the world is stuck in the world of a young child, of what Piaget termed heteronymous morality as opposed to autonomous morality, a morality of actions not values and intentions. The IDF killed more children than Hamas, therefore the IDF is worse than Hamas. It doesn’t matter that Hamas deliberately started the war, or that the IDF tries hard to avoid civilian casualties while Hamas tries to maximize them, or that Hamas uses Gazans as human shields and even uses child soldiers. The numbers must be left to stand for themselves. As Benjamin Disraeli said, there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

What this points to is a larger problem in the West. I’m not generally of the belief (perhaps most associated with Fyodor Dostoevsky) that religion and theism are necessary for morality and an atheist culture is doomed to immorality. But I increasingly feel that the secular West has yet to develop a non-religious language for talking about morality or a way of finding common moral ground without a common value system, the historical Judeo-Christian morality and moral language being overthrown by a pluralistic secularism and multiculturalism. As Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out, we no longer understand how to talk about ethics and morality.

The result is that, if we talk about morality at all, we talk at cross-purposes. The vestigial remnant of traditional belief still talks in terms of moral obligation and absolute values, while the secular majority speaks simply of human rights, autonomous choice and self-fulfillment. This leads to moral impasses such as the abortion debate in America, where it’s impossible for either side to understand the other’s position as being motivated by anything other than malice and self-interest, let alone move towards some kind of mutual acceptance or understanding. Even within the secular progressive world, the moral language breakdowns occur, typically when two sets of rights conflict and there is no language to moderate them, as with the angry argument between trans activists and gender-critical feminists. In both these cases, in the absence of shared language and values other than asserting personal rights or identity group rights to the maximum, personal vituperation takes the place of debate and compromise. The progressive idea that “the personal is political” only extends political debates into more, and more emotional, aspects of our lives, increasing the conflicts.

From a sociological point of view what mattered about religion was not whether its theological underpinnings were true so much as the fact that it provided society with a set of shared values and a language to talk about those values and moderate value clashes with compromises rather than violence. This is obviously not an inevitable consequence of religion, which has often led to bigotry, violence and war, but the experience of the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to a “Golden Age” when early Enlightenment ideals of tolerance among the elite turned down the coercive power of religion while society was able to “free ride” for a while on pre-existing religious values and language as well as a continuing popular religiosity and a social sense of “right and wrong” even as the theological context of those values and that moral language were increasingly questioned. As secularism expanded past the elite and multiculturalism introduced sub-cultures that rejected Western values, sometimes violently, this period came to an end.

Now we live in a world where we can no longer communicate about morality rationally outside our local interest groups, only by the most visceral expressions of emotion that burn through the language barriers and try to reach our emotional core. But our emotional core is not good at calm and considered action. It is impulsive and often angry or afraid. Angry or scared people tend not to make good decisions.

Unfortunately, it is once again Israel and the Jews that are first in line to suffer as Western and, indeed, global society undergoes another upheaval, the moral language that many Jews (even non-religious) still use to try to explain Israel’s actions simply being so much noise to many other Westerners, if they even notice it above the sound of everything else on social media.

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management.
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