In times of war, we feel an urge to know who is in the right and who in wrong. Picking sides makes us feel comfortable that we are “on the right side of history”. But we must resist this urge and interrogate our certainties if we are to gain some moral clarity beyond oversimplified good vs evil narratives, argues Matt McManus.
War, repugnant and vicious as it is, continues to have strong hold on people’s thinking. Despite it being declared the constant and even greatest nemesis of our species, we are drawn into its distorting gravitational field. One of the reasons for this obscene attraction is that war provides us with a sense of moral certainty as few other things can. War has the edifying effect of removing so many of the confusions and ambivalences which pervade modern society, as if a fog clears. The kind of faux intellectual moral relativism many carry around as badges of sophistication gives easy way to existence forcing itself upon us, individuals and groups alike. War’s great virtue is that it has the power to stamp us all with a solidity that removes all ambiguity. When we perceive ourselves and our way of life to be under attack, human instinct naturally moves towards its most helpful bifurcations: friend and enemy, or even more basically, them or us. Not coincidentally this yearning for moral certainty crests as our perception of a threat does. This means\the most despised voices in war may very well not be those of the enemy but anyone who introduces the liquid quicksilver of doubt into the ballooning solidity of our commitment war. But what we should be aiming for in times of crises is not moral certainty, but moral clarity-which is not the same thing.
Moral certainty is the expression of an emotional and even spiritual need for the conviction that we are right.
This human instinct to surrender to war’s distorting power has been in full display during the latest reignition of the decades old conflict between Israel and Hamas. This began in early October when Hamas launched an atrocious attack against civilians, and has continued through the month as the Israeli army besieges and relentlessly bombs Gaza City and other sites overwhelmingly populated by children. In a display as predictable as it is amusing, the war almost immediately brought out many of the cartoonish impulses in Western media. Perhaps the most tragicomic are the endless facile comparisons to 9/11, with a litany of commentators expressing clear nostalgia for the myopic rage and lack of accountability that defined the Bush era. Nietzsche once said “blessed are the forgetful”; and indeed, memory can be a great burden when it imposes a responsibility to recall and learn from our own failures. So it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise so many of us want to consciously forget the descent into cynicism, farce and tragedy that followed responses to 9/11 by drawing an easy comparison with present events that erases the complexity surrounding both. That this might doom everyone to a repetition of the same militaristic blunders is something to worry about in the future, when it is so much easier to apologize after the fact.
Compounding this is the tribalistic instinct to double down on our partisan inclinations, and the form of geopolitics aligned with it. Today, a common metaphor applied to politics is sports teams. You cheer for red or blue, Sunak and Trump or Biden and Starmer. And your team in turn cheers for one of the combatants, with a war thousands of miles away being somehow just an extension of our own partisan culture wars writ large and in the bodies of the victims. Nowhere is the banality of this approach better demonstrated than in war, when the violence involved confound any effort to reduce warfare to some mysterious competition where in the end everyone just happens to lose.
Moral clarity demands of us that we ruthlessly subject our supposed certainties to interrogation, recognizing the multi-faceted history of the events taking place and pushing the yearning for immediacy and certainty aside for the sake of a universal humanism.
Moral certainty is the expression of an emotional and even spiritual need for the conviction that we are right. It makes demands of us, but often those we are very enthusiastic to fulfill: steadfastness of conviction, the overcoming of doubt, and above all active and immediate commitment to the cause or side we have made our own. The demands of moral clarity are more complex and less fun. Moral clarity demands of us that we ruthlessly subject our supposed certainties to interrogation, recognizing the multi-faceted history of the events taking place and pushing the yearning for immediacy and certainty aside for the sake of a universal humanism. It provides lucidity but without any of the kind of guarantees so requisite for certainty. For this reason moral clarity is often despised by the disciples of certainty.
One of the oddities of human nature is we are far often willing to speak in a deterministic language about ourselves and our actions, whilst ascribing a lot more agency and availability of choice to others. It is very easy for us to justify our own actions, even those that are cruel, by describing them as the result of complex circumstances transparent to ourselves and which we expect others would be able to understand. Slavoj Zizek has spoken about this eloquently, describing how our own inner psychic life is one of constant appeals to our own determinations to exonerate any behavior we might find it to hard to live with. This outlook is very rarely extended to others, especially in conflict, who we perceive to be driven solely by the conscious choice to do bad things. This cognitive division maps very clearly onto moral exceptionalism in war. We will very often blame others for acts and call them evil before doing the same thing but calling them necessary and insisting we could not have done otherwise. The dehumanizing rhetoric of fighting “human animals” projects an opponent clearly beyond the pale of redemption; paradoxically fully responsible for their own evil and somehow never able to transcend or overcome its inertia. This is a clear consequence of yearning for the kind of moral certainty that facilitates and exonerates rather than the moral clarity which halts and universalizes.
In war, opposing sides are extremely rarely fully as good or as evil as we’d like to make them out to be. Since the 20th century the vast majority of modern war-time victims are inevitably and cruelly civilians (often children) who are invariably dehumanized as collateral damage, human shields or a million other politically correct euphemisms that take the semantic sting out of war-crimes. Partially in response to these horrors, the century was marked by the rapid development of international humanitarian law as a wise gentler of our worst instincts when our worst instincts masquerade as sage. We should draw on this achievement by insisting that this new war be carried out far more humanely than it has been while doing all the can be done to bring the conflict to a swift conclusion, whether by a cease fire or another mechanism of peace. But however this conflict ends, we ought not to forget what we are feeling right now-the yearning for moral certainty-or how contrary it is to the more integral quest for moral clarity in dark times.