On Keeping One’s Reasons Straight

If you go to your local prison and speak to the inmates, you will discover two things. First, they will say they are innocent. Second, they will claim the real thieves are the government, or the banks, etc., not them. The conclusion is that everybody is a thief, except the people who are in jail for it.

The same happened during the Nuremberg trial of the major war criminals. Every defendant claimed he was kept in the dark about the Nazis’ crimes and Hitler’s intentions. Possibly so in some cases – but as they all claimed to have known nothing, the ludicrous picture emerged of the entire leadership of Germany knowing nothing at all about anything. No wonder Germany lost the war.

Daniel Oz, Amos Oz’s son, was accused by a popular Israeli blogger of pedophilia last week, based on posts he, Oz, made on Facebook. Oz angrily denies this, claiming he was misunderstood and that his good name was destroyed over nothing. I take no position about the incident itself, but merely note that two articles defending Oz — by Benny Tzifer and Koby Niv — were published in Ha’aretzUnfortunately, they did Oz a serious disservice, in their rush to defend him. Tzifer’s article claims Oz’s Facebook’s posts were merely a joke. Niv wonders: aren’t we all pedophiles, at least potentially? Ha’aretz thus asks us to believe that we are all pedophiles, except Oz, who was only joking.

In each of these cases, while each argument separately might be believed, or even be true, they are absurd when taken together, and make the position they attempt to support look ridiculous. More is not necessarily better when making arguments. They might weaken each other, or even contradict each other outright. But making such  contradictory arguments teaches us something important about the person making them: that they consider convincing people of the desired conclusion as so important, that they will use any means to do so, even if they are in conflict. It shows us what their real goal is.

Such arguments, taken individually, typically claim that the desired conclusion is necessary for some greater good: ministers and CEOs should be in jail for theft, not just us little thieves, because that is what fairness demands; or, we should be freed because we did not steal anything, as justice demands. But the clash  between the arguments shows that the real is not to support justice or fairness, but merely to reach the conclusion – we jailed thieves have been wronged – by hook or by crook.   

But, given that such conflicting arguments prove the real goal is just to support the conclusion, why do they give such contradictory arguments precisely when it is important for them to be at their most convincing?

Sometimes they have no choice. If there is overwhelming evidence of guilt, as there was against the Nuremberg defendants, one might as well try anything, and attempt to make up with quantity what one lacks in quality: after all, even when taken individually, their claims of ignorance were hardly believable. But often it is just the deep conviction in the obvious truth of the conclusion, or in the practical  necessity of convincing others of it, that tends to cause such self-defeating over-eagerness. Ha’aretz apparently thinks both that it is a moral outrage Oz was accused, and that it is obvious that he is innocent. Ha’aretz might be correct on both counts. But such an attitude make it more likely it would not notice, or not care, that the arguments it published in Oz’s favor conflict with each other. 

In the public political sphere, we often see such cases. Let us consider the left’s two arguments, that leaving the territories is necessary for peace, and also that it must be done for demographic reasons. But if the latter is the case, why should the Palestinians offer anything for peace, when Israel must evacuate the territories anyway? Each argument on its own makes sense; but when someone makes both at once, we conclude that, for them, leaving the territories is an end in itself, and the good each argument says it would promote [peace, demographic stability] is just an excuse.

Some on the right, for their part, tell us that Israel must keep all of the territories for security reasons, while at the same time claim there is no peace partner. Again, each argument in itself is reasonable, but when one makes both at once, the result is absurd: is a negotiation partner only someone who agrees to Israel keeping all the land, or will they agree to sign away Israel’s safety? The impression is one thinks keeping all the territories is a goal in itself.

We need some honesty in the discussion. Those on the left who make only one of the arguments for leaving the territories might indeed see peace or demographic stability as their ultimate goal, leaving the territories being only an instrumental one. Those who make both arguments are saying that leaving the territories is a goal in itself, for moral or other reasons, even if it does not bring us peace or security. This was Prof. Leibowitz’s position. One can strongly disagree with him, but at least he was quite open about it.

Similarly on the right, those who give only the “secure borders” or only the “no partner” argument, might be serious. Those who give both at once really believe all the territories should be kept, for some other reason — e.g., religious ones. This is Gush Emunim’s position. Again, one need not agree with it, but it is honest.

It is time for a little honesty, for people saying what they believe instead of insinuating it by giving conflicting arguments. That way, the actual reasons for one’s position could be tackled and criticized, instead of the excuses made to cover it.

About the Author
Dr Avital Pilpel is a lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Haifa and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). As a hobby, he researches the history of Chess in Israel and the Yishuv