In an era of increasing threats to democracy and the world order, it has never been more essential to take a clear, principled and unequivocal stand against such threats. At the moment, this threat is epitomized by the terrorist organization known as Hamas. Categorically condemning this organization, and its unspeakable crimes against humanity in Israel, is, quite simply, a moral imperative.
As 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, the moral imperative is the link between pure reason and acting correctly, what might be described today as “doing the right thing”. As Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne so eloquently put it, “the atrocities in Israel are a watershed moment, as 9/11 was, a test of our ability not just to reason clearly about fundamental moral questions, but to stand up for ourselves, to understand the moral case for the West, and to act on that conviction.” [i]
Kant’s concept of a moral imperative soon became a widely accepted principle. It was also relatively clear cut. What was “the right thing” to do seemed obvious, and the only real issue was choosing whether to do it or not. Sadly, in the current age of moral relativism this concept is apparently much more of a challenge for some. Even more unsettling – at least for those of us on the centre-left — is the fact that it is primarily some left wing progressives who have the most difficulty with this principle.[ii] And this woolly thinking continues despite the events of 9/11, which many analysts saw as a decisive rebuke of the moral relativity argument.[iii]
As a result we have seen an increasing number of incoherent statements criticizing the actions of Hamas while, at the same time, attempting to offer a “balanced” commentary recognizing all manner of previous events, policies and past wrongs. This type of muddled thinking is not only wrong-headed but dangerous. (“Of course Hamas should not have done this but…”)There is no “but” about this. Hamas has committed crimes against humanity. Israel has the right to defend itself from this unprovoked attack. Full stop. Issues such as Netanyahu’s attempts to muzzle the Supreme Court, the role of the US in the Middle East, the Arab world’s long indifference to the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, or historical events in 1949, 1973,or 2004, are completely irrelevant to this issue.
It is no accident that one of the earliest and most unequivocal statements of support for Israel and denunciation of Hamas came from none other than Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In a social media post shortly after news of the horrendous attack surfaced, he declared “Terror is always a crime, not just against a specific country or this terror’s victims, but against humanity in general and our entire world.” Or, as President Jose Biden put it, the actions of Hamas are “pure evil.” Prime minister Justin Trudeau, British PM Rishi Sunak and French president Emmanuel Macron have expressed similar views, demonstrating how all-encompassing and non-partisan this principle is.
Evoking the moral imperative does not mean that we should not be concerned about the immediate consequences for ordinary Palestinians, who are also the victims of Hamas, or for the question of what comes next and how to establish a stable and just peace in the region. It does mean that we first need to recognize the fundamental difference between problematic decisions and policies in a democracy and the wholesale massacre of women and children by a barbarous terrorist organization. Failure to do so represents the abandonment of the moral imperative.
[i] A. Coyne. “The Israel-Hamas War is a Test of our Moral Mettle. Will Canada Pass?” Globe and Mail. Oct. 12, 2023.
[ii] For an excellent analysis see K. Yakabuski. “Why Does the Left Still Go So Easy on Hamas?” Globe and Mail. Oct. 13, 2023.
[iii] See for example L. Simpson. “It Does Matter What You Believe: A Critique of Moral Relativism”, https://digitalcommons.cedarville.edu/cedar_ethics_online/36/