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  • Writer's pictureF.M. Kamm

Israel, Palestine, and the Consequences of Wrong Acts in War



The Hamas-Israel war has sparked debate about what acts are wrong and what consequences of acts are good. Some have voiced concerns about whether certain diplomatic measures would reward wrong acts and should be avoided. I hope to clarify some connections between wrong acts, good consequences, and reward and punishment from a philosopher’s point of view. Many of these connections can be made clear without even deciding what outcomes are, in fact, good.


1. Consequences and wrongs acts

How should we decide which acts are morally right? According to act consequentialism, an act is morally right if, and only if, it produces the greatest overall good (that is, where the good outweighs the bad and the calculation of goods and bads includes the act itself). Looked at in reverse, act consequentialism claims that if the greatest good is produced, then the act that was needed to produce it must have been morally right even if it also produced lesser bads.


Nonconsequentialism, by contrast, claims consequences are not all that matter morally. On this view, it  especially matters how an outcome comes about – for example, whether one causes harm as an unintended side-effect, or as a means to one’s end. Nonconsequentialism thus claims that an act can be necessary and sufficient to produce the greatest good yet still be morally wrong and an act can be morally right though it doesn’t produce the greatest good. Nonconsequentialism also denies that if the greatest good is produced, then the act that was needed to produce it must have been morally right. 


Suppose (merely for the sake of argument) that it would be good if a Palestinian state came to exist alongside Israel. If such a state would come to exist only because of events due to Hamas’ attack on Israeli civilians, does that imply that it was morally right for Hamas to have attacked the Israeli civilians? No. Goods can arise only because of wrong acts without this implying the acts were not really wrong but, rather, are morally justified by those goods and so were right. (This is true even on an act consequentialist view which denies that acts needed to produce small goods are right when they also produce larger bads.) Nor does something arising only because of a wrong act imply that what the wrong act produces cannot be good.  


Goods can arise only because of wrong acts without this implying the acts were not really wrong but, rather, are morally justified by those goods and so were right.

Suppose (merely for the sake of argument) that the existence of a Palestinian state would be such a great good that not creating it would be a greater bad than 1,200 Israeli civilians being killed.  Suppose also that the Palestinian state would come about only if the killings occur: that is, the killings are a means to the establishing of the state, not merely a side-effect of some other action that is a means to securing the state. If one were thinking like an act consequentialist one might then deduce that the killing of the 1,200 Israelis civilians was morally right, assuming there are no other effects to consider. By contrast, nonconsequentialists don’t think that lesser bads can in general be justified merely by the greater goods they are needed to produce. For example, a nonconsequentialist could say it can be morally wrong to kill one innocent person merely as a means – for example, by  killing her to distribute her organs – even when doing so is necessary and sufficient to save five other innocent people from being killed.  


However, this is consistent with nonconsequentialists holding that it is morally permissible to help produce a good that could not have occurred without someone else having already done a morally wrong act. For example, suppose (merely for the sake of argument) that it was good that Israel came to exist though it would not have existed but for the occurrence of the Holocaust. Nonconsequentialists can claim that the Holocaust was morally wrong and was not justified by its having brought about the existence of Israel, yet creating Israel could have been permissible even though it occurred only due to the great wrong of the Holocaust. Analogously, they can hold that Hamas’ killing of Israeli civilians was morally wrong and would not be justified by bringing about a Palestinian state and yet find the creation of a Palestinian state permissible even if it couldn’t come to pass but for Hamas’ killings.


2. Reward and punishment

Some claim that creating a Palestinian state rewards Hamas’ killings. If Hamas’ acts were morally wrong, it should be punished and not rewarded for them. Suppose Hamas wants there to be a Palestinian state and without its wrong acts, the state would not come to exist. If the state were created in order to benefit Palestinians who are not Hamas fighters then creating the state would not be for the purpose of rewarding Hamas even though Hamas would benefit as a side effect by getting something it wants. (This is similar to how causing side effect harm to innocent civilians is not the same as causing harm to punish them, as Israel often emphasizes).


Ideally, Hamas would receive no side effect benefit since any benefits might encourage future wrong acts. However, there being such a side effect would not alone be a sufficient reason for denying other Palestinians  what they desire and will benefit them if we suppose (merely for the sake of argument) that this is something to which they have a right. It is also possible to separately punish Hamas for its wrong acts without denying other Palestinians a state.


3. More side effects

Suppose (merely for the sake of argument) that without Hamas’ wrong acts there would not have been renewed calls for a Palestinian state. This means that Hamas’ wrong acts were necessary for the new calls, but it does not mean its wrong acts were sufficient—that is, that the wrong acts were enough on their own to have brought about the new state. Indeed, suppose that if Israel had not caused so much (even unintended) harm to civilians in pursuing its war, there would not have been renewed calls for a Palestinian state. (In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar claimed that the Palestinian death toll would “infuse life into the veins of this nation.”)


Suppose further (merely for the sake of argument) that despite having a just cause, Israel’s war was unjust because the means by which it pursued that just cause produced civilian harm out of proportion to its military goals. If the Palestinian state were a good outcome of this war, then this would be another situation in which a good outcome would come about only because of wrong acts, and another situation in which one shouldn’t conclude that the acts were not wrong just because they were necessary to produce the good. If what Hamas did could be justified by the good its acts were necessary to produce, what Israel did could likewise be justified by the same good its acts were necessary to produce. But it seems wrong to say either of these things.


If what Hamas did could be justified by the good its acts were necessary to produce, what Israel did could likewise be justified by the same good its acts were necessary to produce. But it seems wrong to say either of these things.

Suppose that if Israel had not harmed so many Palestinians, there might be less pressure for a Palestinian state. Suppose also (merely for the sake of argument) that  there being less pressure would be bad. Producing the harm necessary to give rise to the greater pressure could still be morally wrong. On a nonconsequentialist view, this could be true even if the creation of a Palestinian state  were such a great good that not achieving it would be worse than so many Palestinian civilians being killed. By contrast, Yahya Sinwar is reported (also in the Wall Street Journal) to have said that the thousands of Palestinian civilian casualties “are necessary sacrifices” to bring about a Palestinian state. This implies that Sinwar believes that it is permissible to bring about such deaths as a means (or side effect of a means) to generating sufficient pressure for the creation of a Palestinian state.


Suppose (merely for the sake of argument) that Israel’s response to Hamas’ acts was crucial to creating pressure for the Palestinian state and that some of its response was wrong. Then insofar as Israel does not desire or would not be benefited by a Palestinian state, creating the state could certainly not be said to reward it for wrong acts. Some, however, might say that Israel would be punished for its wrong acts by the creation of a Palestinian state, pressure for which was the result of those wrong acts. But if the Palestinian state were created in order to benefit Palestinians who are not Hamas fighters, it would be mistaken to say that the state was being created in order to punish Israel (any more than it was being created in order to reward Hamas). On the other hand, suppose that Israel would be benefited by the existence of a Palestinian state (for example, if such a state contributed to long-lasting just peace in the region). The fact that Israel’s wrong acts were necessary for the state coming about is no reason to refrain from founding it. Israel would benefit as a side effect, not as a reward.


...if the Palestinian state were created in order to benefit Palestinians who are not Hamas fighters, it would be mistaken to say that the state was being created in order to punish Israel

It should be noted that civilian casualties causing pressure for a state to exist is not necessarily the same as their providing justification for the state to exist. First, the justification for a state may exist independently of any pressure caused by civilian casualties. Second, pressure caused by civilian casualties may not provide sufficient justification absent other grounds that justify the state. Whether civilian deaths justify the existence of a state can also depend on why they come about. When members of a peaceful group are massacred in their home country, this might justify creating a state in which they can be secure. When a massacre triggers a defensive response that kills a proportionate number of civilians as side effects, those deaths alone may not justify the creation of a state for the remaining civilians absent other grounds that justify creating the state. However, suppose that the defensive response causes a sufficiently high number of deaths to show that one does not give adequate weight to the interests of the civilians when pursuing one’s goals. This might help justify a separate state for the remaining civilians, insofar as such a state could protect them from these sorts of unjustified harms.


4. Conclusion 

In discussions of the Israel-Hamas war, it has been said that we must be able to keep two ideas in mind. Examples of these proposed sets of ideas are that one can be in favor of a Palestinian state without being against an Israeli one, and that one can condemn Hamas without approving of how Israel has carried out war against Hamas. My arguments here are meant to show that, in general, we must be able to keep in mind that an outcome can be good when what is necessary (and even sufficient) to its coming about is morally wrong, that one can receive benefits without being rewarded and be harmed without being punished, and that what justifies an outcome need not be the same as what creates pressure to achieve it. All of this can be true, even if there is still debate about what outcome is in fact good.


F.M. Kamm is Henry Rutgers University Professor of Philosophy and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. Her books include Ethics for Enemies: Terror, Torture, and War (OUP 2011) and The Moral Target: Aiming at Right Conduct in War and Other Conflicts (OUP 2012). Her most recent book is Rights and Their Limits: In Theory, Cases, and Pandemics (OUP, 2022).

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