One of the many disturbing things about living in Israel, is how easily hypothetical situations become real ones. You know, all of those fun discussions that you had in your intro ethics class. “If a train is heading down a track and there are five people tied to the rails…” Beginning the second day of the army, every Israeli starts discussing those questions, fully expecting to have to make those choices. And somehow, when they’re not hypothetical, our answers can sound a lot different.
Last Shabbat, I ended a tortured conversation about Israeli military tactics and morality by moving the discussion from the hypothetical to the real. “Yosef,” I asked, “if tomorrow we’re both in Lebanon, would you choose to shoot a civilian, or be shot yourself.” His answer surprised me and pissed me off. After all, we both had read enough Talmud to know that our blood isn’t any redder than a Lebanese, and Plato had taught us both that it is better to suffer evil than to perform it. So, how could he possibly give the wrong answer?
On the flipside, in a recent bout of drunkenness, I declared that I would prefer to kill civilians than to be captured and tortured. Yeah, even me, who knows exactly how untenable a position that is, in this moment of late night honesty, faltered.
Are both Yosef and I evil? Apparently, we’re allowing our emotions and our animal instincts for life and pleasure to overwhelm our rational faculties. But, then again, this is war, and if we were following reason, we could never fight in one in the first place. How else could we allow ourselves to shoot, if there is even a remote possibility of a civilian being hurt? Perhaps then, war by its very nature is immoral. On the other hand, if the war is thrust upon us, how can we not respond? How can we not defend ourselves? Just like in my Shabbat conversation, our instinct for self-preservation is stronger than all of our abstract reasoning.
It seems, that if war is ever justified, then all of western ethics can be thrown off the table. And, if they’re off the table, what are we left with?