A site devoted to to understanding the world we live in and to making a difference.

SELECTIVE MORALITY – or how to target outrage.

Before I go onto the main topic of this post, I want to repair an omission. Amongst the photos posted on this site on the Free Karabus demonstration in Cape Town, there was one glaring absence – Michael Bagraim.

He was there, as he has been at the centre of all the efforts to secure the release of Prof Karabus over the past 6 months.  I hope Bagraim’s expertise and, above all, hard work and dedication are fully appreciated. The Jewish community in particular is greatly indebted to him for his contributions over the years.

When the full story behind this episode is revealed, as it should be, Bagraim should be the one to write it. The problem will be to ferret out what was going on behind the scenes.

Back to the issue of today’s post:

The soft deniers protest their link with hard-line delegitimisers, arguing that they support Israel, but are critical of its “racist policies,” its “illegal occupation of Arab lands,” its “colonialism.” But the connection between criticism and full-blown hatred deepens when biased news stories and distorted rhetoric about Israeli “atrocities” and “war crimes” become self-defined truths, distortions of reality.

…Palestinian leaders “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” It’s not due to a miscalculation. It’s exactly what they intend. It also explains why they can’t and won’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, refuse to negotiate the refugee issue, and reject any compromise on Jerusalem. The problem is not territorial, but existential.”  Moshe Dann  

Burning Israeli flag

Burning Israeli flag

Man is a moral species. This assertion seems strange given “Man’s documented inhumanity to Man”, but the saying itself proves the thesis. Our record is appalling because we are, and see ourselves, as essentially moral beings. It is this very contradiction between historical and political reality and our subjective perceptions and day-to-day experiences that cause confusion and such great unease.

Yes, we are indeed a moral species but that is not the end of the story. With our evolved (divinely inspired in some eyes) altruism and fairness impulses, come many constraints and limitations.  These can have the paradoxical effect of making us the cruellest of species and history is replete with examples of the use of the moral impulse to justify hatred and mass murder.

This is a large topic so I am going to select only the most important factors which constrain and distort our moral emotions and attempt to relate these to the focus of this site – Israel.

Firstly, as important as morality is to our inner world, selfish instincts generally take preference. Such selfish concerns can range from common greed and lust for power and status to the need to protect one’s psychological and reputational investment in a particular cause or group. Selfish motivations may also include the need to differentiate oneself from a particular ethnic, religious or social group. Many if not all such motivations operate below the level of consciousness (or are repressed in Freudian perspectives) which make them even more powerful and difficult to remedy.

Secondly, altruism shows a distinct gradient from kin (family) through to group level (or levels in highly stratified and differentiated societies) and then peters out fairly rapidly.

Thirdly, as part of the evolutionary mechanisms which have enabled altruism to enter humanity’s repertoire of emotions, comes a dark side – the desire and need to punish perceived “deviants”. In the technical jargon of researchers in this field, it is called “moralistic aggression”; namely, the impulse to punish those who are seen to flout the moral norms of a given society.

Fourthly, while universal emotions of morality exist in all societies they are also subject to considerable moulding by the cultural and social norms of a given society. Thus, for example, in “honour” societies saving face and reputation are very important norms, whereas in many democratic societies exhibition of tolerance and universalism take priority.

The extent and impact of cultural and social moulding is enormous and few of us are equipped to perceive the world through the eyes of those far removed from the social environments which have shaped our own perceptions. Such distortions of empathic perception can cause profound political miscalculations addressed by Michael Totten in “The Grand Universal Illusion”.

Fifthly, cognitive limitations and distortions interfere with our ability to analyse situations fully so as to adjust our moral priorities to fit objective realities. This makes us susceptible to propaganda and, more especially, it is “the intellectuals” heavily socialised in abstract and absolutist moral environments, who are most easily manipulated.

They are vulnerable to moral-ideological narratives based on the particular ethical systems which have dominated their emergence into adulthood. These have the subjective aura of “revealed absolute truth” rather than the transient products of a particular historical trajectory and cultural evolution. Thus in many parts of the Muslim world the emergence of Islamist doctrine, with its intellectual infrastructure and moral absolutism, was especially appealing to the small educated class. Likewise in the West, the left was raised on a set of moral-political doctrines which combined an intellectual framework and an alternate moral absolutism.

A segment of both these groups were prone to messianic feelings of intellectual and moral superiority which made them naturally prey to authoritarian and anti-democratic impulses. Thus from very different starting points, they could readily coalesce around an anti-Western stance hiding the essentially anti-democratic nature of their cause behind a smokescreen of presumed moral and intellectual superiority.

Israel is a convenient focus for such psychological tendencies being small, Jewish, wealthy and successful – and posing little threat to their physical and material welfare.  Such people are “the useful idiots” of those more concerned with ideological and the power/privilege advantages of victory, rather than the heady fervour of moral crusades.

My own take is informed by my life experiences and by my deep exposure to the evolutionary biology and social dynamics of morality. The moral emotions are essentially evolved, pragmatic but crude tools for adjusting behaviour effectively in very complex, unpredictable and multi-dimensional environments. Those societies which are able to channel morality effectively (essentially maximising individual freedoms and rights within the constraints of collective cohesion and existential threat) will have an enormous advantage.

Israel has been remarkably effective in doing this, especially when compared with her neighbours. She has managed to create a fairly high-trust, democratic and fairly cohesive society under extraordinarily adverse circumstances. She takes enormous risks with levels of individual freedom (eg. anti-Zionist NGOs financed by often hostile governments and radical internal critics) while holding the centre and the capability of decisive action. It is a delicate balancing act and not for those with sensitive stomachs; one can only hope that this strategy is sufficiently robust to adjust to changing circumstances.

This is one of the reasons why I have little patience with the genuinely pro-Zionist Jew in the Diaspora endlessly agonising over, or rather nattering on about, Israel’s alleged ethical lapses. They lack proper appreciation of the strategic environment in which Israel exists, and while (on occasion) their concerns are justified the place to sort them out is in Israel itself and not in the midst of a vile propaganda war to demonise the Jewish state.

And on top of this comes the implicit missionary suggestion of bringing ethical instruction to the benighted “Israel right or wrong” supporters. Let me disabuse them of such delusions. We are not unaware of Israel’s shortcomings and in different contexts may respond differently. So let me reverse the lesson: context is everything. What is appropriate and useful in one context becomes irrelevant and destructive in another. That does not require a PhD – just a regular reality check.

Mike Berger

Next Post – a series of good links!


One response to “SELECTIVE MORALITY – or how to target outrage.

  1. Buddy May 2, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Very good information. Lucky me I discovered your site by accident (stumbleupon).
    I have saved as a favorite for later!


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