Care is not an Unlimited Resource

If the Gaza ground invasion has had one constant, it is death.  Around 100 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have died in the war, and 42 Israeli soldiers have also lost their lives.  I sympathize1 with the families of the (innocent) dead on both sides.  But I also care far more about Israeli casualties than I do about Palestinian casualties. And this is perfectly rational.

Of course, such a statement is contrary to the sentiment of the enlightened moderates in recent weeks; such commentators have tried to strike up an even balance between the two sides.  There are objections to this, on moral and ethical grounds, but many of my esteemed colleagues have already raised these objections.  Indeed, for someone who has a neutral position in the conflict, it probably makes sense to care about Palestinian casualties equally with Israeli casualties.

I should at this point define what I mean by “care”.  I do not mean that I cheer civilian deaths, nor even that I readily dismiss civilian deaths in Gaza as unavoidable.  I also do not mean that I do not have feelings of sadness and horror over some of the civilian deaths in Gaza, even if I do agree with Israel’s war and strategy.  Rather, I mean that I spend far, far more emotional capital on being upset over the death of a single Israeli than I do over the deaths of even a hundred Gazans.  From an abstract perspective, I find the death of any innocent person abhorrent, but I am human.  Humans do not operate on their abstract perspectives most of the time; we are creatures of instinct and evolutionary habit.

This has nothing to do with the fact that far, far more Gazans than Israelis have died.  It has nothing to do with the fact that Hamas has essentially taken the coastal enclave hostage and used human shields; after all, that doesn’t negate any emotional loss over the deaths of Gazans.  Instead, it has to do with simple economics.

I, like everyone, have limited resources, most especially time and emotion.  Certainly there are some naïve sorts who will claim that they are a bottomless well of love and care, but that is utter hogwash.   Even if love and care were unlimited spiritual dimensions, time, as it so often does, limits their application.  Every single second of everyday, there are a million things begging for our attention.  To survive this veritable cacophony of potential interests, man, that most rational of animals, allocates his cares according to his preferences.

So to whom should our care be allocated?  The obvious first answer is family.  If I tell you that 30,000 people (a made up statistic) died today in the Central African Republic, and that your mother sprained her ankle, your interest will almost certainly gravitate towards your mother’s injury.  There are certainly evolutionary explanations for this, though I tend to be skeptical of much of evolutionary psychology (for reasons too complex to be detailed here).  Of course most people will be emotionally invested in their kin and their tribe; imagine a society based on the converse.  This interest is proportional to relative closeness.  The answer of the great evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane when he was asked if he would lay down his life to save his brother illustrates this: “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”

The news media operates on a similar principle.  Watch an American nightly newscast and see how international news, which carries enormous impact on humanity, is juxtaposed next to relatively minor events in America.  Better yet, watch local news, or read a local newspaper, to see how minor events locally are treated with equal importance to large events nationally, and major events internationally.

There is nothing in principle wrong with this. If I applied equal care to every piece of suffering in the world, I would go insane.  (Of course, the downside to this is that sometimes people are poor at allocating their preferences; Nicolas Kristof rightly observed that if the Sudanese government was engaging in genocides of puppies, Americans would rush to stop it)  For events not directly related to me, I apply equal distanced condemnation of wrongdoing, and seek dispassionately to find time and resources to alleviate, if possible, any suffering.  There is no reason that the death of an unknown person from starvation, or suicide, or heart disease, or Syrian military attacks, or reaching over to touch a car radio, should be any different to me.  On the other hand, I am a Jew, and the Jews of Israel are my brothers and sisters.  I spoke earlier of tribal affiliations, and Israelis are quite literally part of my tribe.  A death of a single Israeli in war is an unexpected death in my extended family; an Israeli soldier who dies while fighting to protect my people means that the event is even more relevant to me.  There are Jews who will say that they do not feel this way; that they feel the exact opposite way.  Well, there are people like that in every family; they do not disprove my claim, nor even detract from it.

Naturally, Gazans will feel the exact same way about their people.  There is no reason that a Gazan would care more about the death of an Israeli than that of his neighbor.

There are those who will raise the following objection to my argument: I am speaking, on one hand, of being rational, and on another, of tribal bonds.  Are not these familial bonds of which I speak a legacy of an irrational time?

There are certainly those who feel that way; that divisions of nationality are arbitrary social constructs of the past; that we ought to view Gaza as an issue of humanity, without regard to such primitive things.  I, as might be expected, disagree.

As I said earlier, humans have a need to classify and sort information, according to their preferences.  Now that we live in an era where information is not bound by geography, such classification becomes more important than ever.  I think we can all more or less agree that the most important information is one that affects the recipient of the information directly.  Perhaps those who reject the bonds of tribal days would have us not care about a single immediate family members more than a thousand strangers; I would not want to live in such a world.  It’s possible that family (in all its varied forms) is an arbitrary social construct (I would argue that it is an evolutionary development of the utmost importance), but even if it is, it has served humanity well over the years.  Similarly, I would be hesitant to have us erase the bonds of community and remove any preference for local information over more distant information.  Simple extrapolation leads me to care deeply about Israel, to which I am bound by virtue of my Jewishness; aside from a few conspiracy theorists, it is more or less universally agreed that the Jewish community is one of the oldest still extend on earth.  I will not disregard it anytime soon.  Perhaps for adherents of those religions which promote a single humanity untrammeled by division, such Islam or many Christian sects or the  Baha’i Faith, disregarding the bonds of tribalism is a noble goal.  I however, am not an adherent of one of those faiths; I am a Jew.

I am arguing here for a universal principle; I would imagine this is why Israel’s military strategy prioritizes the protection of Israelis over the lives of Gazans.  Although the IDF has taken extraordinary measures to reduce civilian casualties, everyone in the Israeli security and political apparatuses understood that to protect innocent Israelis, innocent Gazans would die.  This calculation is rational, and in my opinion, unobjectionable.

Indeed, every single military operation ever prosecuted has proceeded by valuing the lives of the military’s nation over the lives of the opponent’s people.   It was this calculation that determined that the atomic bombs ought to be dropped on Japan, as well as the decision that Dresden and Tokyo ought to be firebombed, that drones ought to be used to protect Americans, or that more Afghans died in America’s war in their country than Americans in 9/11.  This is not to say that militaries do not take the life of civilians on the other side into account, but instead that there is a venerable and nearly unbroken tradition of how to calculate how a war ought to be fought.  Perversely, it is only Hamas has made the opposite calculation: that killing a single Israeli is worth the deaths of hundreds of innocent Gazans.

As I said earlier, I am not disregarding the lives of Gazans.  Indeed, I care more about civilians in Gaza than I do in say, the Central African Republic, precisely because Israel is so deeply involved in this war.  I want to ensure that those who defend my brothers and sisters in Israel do so justly and with the minimum of harm to civilians; I would argue that the IDF has done so.  When members of my tribe fail to live up to the standards I would like to see them follow, the shame is likewise greater.  When Jewish thugs killed young Mohammed Abu Khdeir, I felt equal if not more grief over his death than that of the three boys murdered earlier by Palestinian terrorists, because of the shame his death brought over the entire Jewish people.

This is a long, and at times rambling piece, but if there is a single message to take away from it, it is this: it is neither wrong nor callous to care more about some lives than others.  Of course people will care more about those closer to them.  The only thing unusual about this piece that otherwise states the obvious is that I am stating the obvious.  I am a strong believer in openness and candidness, and as long as people on both sides pretend that human beings ought to care equally about everyone, we will be unable to have any frank discussion about the key issues in the war in Gaza.  It is a fact that Palestinians care more about Palestinian deaths, Jews care more about Jewish deaths, Americans care more about American deaths, and so on.  This is not a perverse or outdated fact; it is a good thing, so long as we are able to understand and embrace it in our cognition and discussion.



I wrote this piece in between several different actual academic papers, and thus did not want to look up a variety of citations in between looking up a variety on citations.  However, there is a wide variety of academic research on what I have discussed; the work of Kahneman, Arielly, and Pinker on cognition is particularly accessible to the lay reader.  More advanced readers can simply browse through the archives of the social science journal of their choice.

1I use the word sympathize here, not empathize, for a very obvious reason.  While sympathy is an essential human emotion, empathy is rather silly.  People have no need to feel exactly what another person is feeling; they have every need to feel for  what another person is feeling.


About the Author
Elijah Z. Granet is a student in the dual degree program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, studying political science and Jewish History. He is also a recipient of the 2013-2014 Anne and Benjamin Goor Prize in Jewish Studies.
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