by Laurence Houlgate
(Emeritus professor of philosophy at California Polytechnic State University)
Part 1 – Preface
On August 6, 1945, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima instantly killed 80,000 Japanese people. Tens of thousands more died of radiation exposure. Three days later (August 9) another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, killing an estimated 40,000. Most of those who died in these blasts were non-combatants and most of the non-combatants were children and women.
In 1995, one year before his death, the renowned American philosopher John Rawls wrote an article titled “50 Years After Hiroshima.” (Dissent Magazine). Rawls invited his readers to reflect on the question, “Was the bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki really a great wrong, as many thought then, or is it perhaps justified after all?
College students today are reflecting and debating about a similar question: “Is the bombing of Gaza City and other parts of the Gaza Strip orchestrated by the Israeli government really a great wrong, as some have recently said, or is it perhaps justified after all?”
For many protesting students, reflection and debate is useless. They think that they know what is right and what is wrong. There have been hundreds if not thousands of reports of emotional university students loudly taking sides on the justice of the current Israeli-Hamas conflict, but they do so without giving any explanation at all as to what the words “just war” mean. They have been barraged with photos and videos of death and destruction. Emotions of retaliation and revenge take hold and moral judgments are made before the protesting students know anything more about the war than what the photos show on social media.
The Rawls article provides a template for rational reflection. He answers the Hiroshima question (above) by setting out six moral principles that govern the conduct of war – jus in bello — of democratic peoples. Rawls assumes that the conduct of war by non-democratic dictatorial governments such as those in Japan and Germany were not guided by any principles that would qualify as ‘moral’. Their end was “the domination and exploitation of subjected peoples, and in Germany’s case, their enslavement if not extermination.”
In what follows, students should apply Rawls’ principles of just war only to the conduct of the Israeli government, not to the conduct of Hamas leaders. The Hamas government of the people of the Gaza Strip, like the WW2 governments of Japan and Germany is totalitarian. It is not a democracy “of the people, by the people and for the people” (Lincoln). The goal of Hamas’ leaders is the destruction of Israel through Jihad (Holy War). There are no moral limits to jihadist acts of war so long as the acts achieve this goal.
Before applying Rawls’ principles to the conduct of the Israeli government (Part IV), students should come to agreement about the facts relevant to the ongoing war with Hamas (Part II), and the nature of the principles of a just war (Part III). Principles without agreed-upon facts and/or facts without agreed-upon principles will leave students unable to come to mutual agreement about how to answer questions about the justice of the Israel-Hamas War.
Part II – Facts about the Israel-Hamas War
A. The war between Israel and Hamas started on October 7, 2023, when “scores of Hamas gunmen swept into Israeli towns and military bases near the border with Gaza, opening fire on people in their homes, on the streets, and at a music festival attackers fatally shot the elderly, women and young children, according to survivors; others were burned after attackers set their homes ablaze.”
B. Hamas has said the aim of the attack was “to free Palestinian prisoners, stop Israeli aggression on al-Aqsa Mosque, and to break the siege on Gaza.” (Washington Post) Other supporters of Hamas said that the October 7 attack was a continuation of the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) of Israel’s displacement of Palestinian Arabs (Al Jazeera).
C. The vast majority of those killed in the Oct. 7 assault — around 70 percent — have been identified as civilians, not soldiers, by Israeli authorities. According to Israeli police, health officials have identified at least 846 civilians killed in the fighting. Israel’s official estimate of the final death toll of the Oct. 7 attacks is about 1,400 people (including civilians, soldiers, police and foreign nationals).
D. Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks was almost immediate, starting with the bombing of sites in Gaza where they believed Hamas fighters and their leaders might be hiding. At this writing (27 November), the bombing has killed over 14,000 people in Gaza City and the Gaza Strip. Of the 14,000 killed, 69 percent, or 10,000 are women and children (Lauren Leatherby, New York Times).
E. Israel’s foreign minister Eli Cohen said, “We reject outright the UN General Assembly despicable call for a ceasefire. Israel intends to eliminate Hamas just as the world dealt with the Nazis and ISIS (Times of Israel).
Part III – Six Principles
Rawls announces at the beginning of his article that the bombings of Japanese cities were “very great wrongs.” He sets out six principles that guided him to this conclusion. Here is a brief summary of each principle. [Rawls gives a longer more detailed statement of the principles in the 1995 article: https://www.dissentmagazine.
1. The aim of a just war waged by a decent democratic society is a just and lasting peace between peoples, especially with its present enemy.
2. A decent democratic society fights only against nondemocratic societies that caused the war and whose aims threaten the security and free institutions of democratic societies.
3. A decent democratic society will defend itself only against those who are responsible for organizing and bringing on the war (the principle of responsibility). Civilians are not responsible and thus will not be attacked. Except for the upper ranks of the officer class, soldiers are also not responsible for the war because they are conscripted. But “the grounds on which they may be attacked directly are not that they are responsible for the war but that a democratic people cannot defend itself in any other way.”
4. A decent democratic society must respect the human rights of the members of the other side. Every human (by definition) has these rights, including enemy soldiers and civilians. “In the case of human rights in war, civilians…can never be attacked directly except in times of extreme crisis.” An extreme crisis exists only when the democratic society is on the verge of losing the war and will have “enormous and uncalculated moral and political evil” imposed on it by the enemy.
5. Democratic peoples should foretell during war the kind of peace they aim for and the kind of relations they seek between nations. This will show the public the nature of their aims and the kind of people they are.
6. Practical means-end reasoning in judging the appropriateness of an action or policy for achieving the aim of war or for not causing more harm than good should always be framed within and strictly limited by the preceding principles (1-5). War plans and strategies, and the conduct of battle must lie within their limits, except in times of extreme crisis.
Part IV – Applying Rawls’ Principles of Just War
What follows are six questions for thought and discussion. Each question is about an application of the principles in Part III to the facts set out in Part II.
a. Does Israel aim to achieve a “just and lasting peace” with the Hamas government of Gaza? (Principle 1). If not the Hamas government, then with whom does Israel aim to achieve a just and lasting peace?
b. Is the Hamas leadership threatening the security and free institutions of a democratic society? (P 2).
c. Is Israel’s bombing of Gaza consistent with the Principle of Responsibility, that is, is Israel defending itself only against those who are responsible for organizing and bringing on the war in a way that does not harm those who are not responsible for organizing and bringing on the war (P3)?
d. Is Israel respecting the human rights of all the people of Gaza, including enemy soldiers and civilians? Or is this a war of extreme crisis in which the human right to life can be ignored (P4)?
e. Has Israel announced or foretold the kind of peace they are aiming for and the kind of relations they seek between themselves and the enemy (Hamas) and/or the people in the Gaza Strip? (P5)
f. Is Israel using means-end reasoning in a way that is consistent with P1 – P5, assuming that defending themselves against Hamas is not an extreme crisis?
Part V – Conclusion and a final question
John Rawls wrote, “It is the task of the student of philosophy to look to the permanent conditions and the real interests of a just and good democratic society.” He finds it “hard to understand” why it was thought at the time by many Americans that questioning the morality of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “an insult to the American troops who fought the war.”
Rawls responded that “it can’t be that we think we waged the war without moral error!” Just and decent civilized societies “depend absolutely on making significant moral and political distinctions in all situations,” including especially the atomic bombings that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the two cities of Japan.
I leave students of philosophy with a final question. What do you think? Is the Israel-Hamas War being conducted without moral error? Are there any significant moral and political distinctions on both sides that have not been made in declaring whether this is or is not a just war? If so, what are these distinctions?
— Laurence Houlgate