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Moral equivalence is a term used in political debate, usually to criticize any denial that a moral hierarchy can be assessed of two sides in a conflict, or in the actions or tactics of two sides. The term originates from a 1906 address by William James entitled The Moral Equivalent of War, subsequently published in essay form in 1910.
The term has some limited currency in polemic debates about the Cold War, and more currently, the Arab-Israeli conflict. "Moral equivalence" began to be used as a polemic term-of-retort to "moral relativism", which had been gaining use as an indictment against political foreign policy that appeared to use only a situation-based application of widely held ethical standards.
The purveyors of the device usually start by believing their side is morally superior. They use history, possibly selectively, to cast the situation as a big-picture struggle against an evil power. This evil could be totalitarianism or genocidal policies or some other ostentatious villainy. They then justify the atrocities of their own side by claiming it to be a lesser evil compared with allowing the evil power to have its own way. These atrocities in this way become acts of good, not evil.
International conflicts are sometimes viewed similarly, and interested parties periodically urge both sides to conduct a ceasefire and negotiate their differences. However these negotiations may prove difficult in that both parties in a conflict believe that they are morally superior to the other, and are unwilling to negotiate on basis of moral equivalence.
In the Cold War context, the term was and is most commonly used by anti-Communists as an accusation of formal fallacy for leftist criticisms of United States foreign policy and military conduct.
Many such people believed in the idea that the United States is by definition benevolent, that the extension of its power, influence and hegemony is an extension of benevolence and brings freedom to those people subject to that hegemony. Therefore, by definition, those who opposed that were by definition evil, trying to deny the benevolence to people. The USSR and its allies, in contrast, practiced a totalitarian ideology. A territory under US hegemony thus would be freed from possibly being in the camp of the totalitarian power and would help to weaken it. Thus, all means were justified in keeping territories away from Soviet influence in this way. This extended to countries not under Soviet influence but instead said to be sympathetic at all in any way with it. Therefore, Chile under Salvador Allende was not under Soviet domination, but removing him would help weaken the USSR by removing a government ruled with the help of a Communist Party. The big picture, they would say, justified the tortures carried out by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship as it served to weaken the totalitarian Communist camp and in time bring about the freedom of those under its domination.
Many of those who criticized US foreign policy at the time contended that US power in the Cold War was used only to pursue an economically-driven agenda. They claim that the underlying economic motivation eroded any claims of moral superiority, leaving the hostile acts in (Korea, Hungary, Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Nicaragua) to stand on their own in justifying the human lives the conflicts had destroyed. In contrast, those who justified US interventions in the Cold War period always cast these as being motivated by the need to contain totalitarianism and thus fulfilled a higher moral imperative. That was so despite such things as the overthrow of Guatemala's elected non-Communist Jacobo Arbenz, for instance, on behalf of the United Fruit Company with whom senior US officials had an important business relationship.
An early popularizer of the expression was Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was United States ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration. Kirkpatrick published an article called The Myth of Moral Equivalence in 1986, in which sharply criticized those who she alleged were claiming that there was "no moral difference" between the Soviet Union and democratic states. In fact, very few critics of United States policies in the Cold War era argued that there was a moral equivalence between the two sides. Communists, for instance, argued that the Soviet Union was morally superior to its adversaries.
Leftist critics usually argued that the United States itself created a "moral equivalence" when some of its actions, such as President Ronald Reagan's support for the Contra insurgency against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, put it on the same level of immorality as the Soviet Union.
Following the dissolution of the USSR, the expansion of US influence has continued. The purveyors of the moral equivalence device have continued to demand this in the form of NATO expansion, the overthrow of rogue states, the invasion of Iraq, and the War on Terror. The morally inferior opponents have been recast as Islamic fundamentalists, anti-Israel powers, Russia, China, drug traffickers, and Serbian nationalists, among others.
In the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the term is commonly used by defenders of Israel. They accuse of moral equivalence those who describe acts of Palestinian terrorism, such as suicide bombing against civilians, on one hand, and the retaliatory acts of the Israeli Defense Forces, on the other, as equally reprehensible.
Joel Mowbrey, views on this matter:
- "The coverage of the [recent] 'violence'... has largely read like the equivalent of a chess match. Hamas refuses to halt suicide bombs. Israel targets a top Hamas leader. Suicide bombing in Jerusalem kills 16. Israel 'retaliates' with a strike in Gaza. What's at work is probably not anti-semitism, but a misguided attempt at objectivity. But reporting 'facts' in a moral vacuum is not objectivity; it is, in fact, just the opposite. Absent proper context, the situation can seem as if it is two equally justifiable sides making moves and countermoves, nothing more."
The Israeli writer Yaacov Lozowick explains Israel's moral dilemmas:
- "Restricting the freedom of movement of entire communities is immoral. Refraining from these restrictions when there is unequivocal proof that this will lead to the murder of innocents is worse, because movement restricted can later be granted, while dead will never live again. Demolishing the homes of civilians merely because a family member has committed a crime is immoral. If, however,... potential suicide murderers... will refrain from killing out of fear that their mothers will become homeless, it would be immoral to leave the Palestinian mothers untouched in their homes while Israeli children die on their school buses. Accidentally killing noncombatants in the cross fire of battles being fought in the middle of cities is immoral, unless... refraining from fighting in the Palestinian cities inevitably means the Palestinians will use the safe havens of their cities to plan, prepare and launch ever more murderous attacks on Jewish noncombatants. These concrete examples and others like them demonstrate the moral considerations that Israelis... have been dealing with since the Palestinians proudly decided to use suicide murder as their primary weapon."
World War II atrocities
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As in the other cases, the moral equivalence device is used by those who claim that the Allied side by definition was good and the Axis was by definition evil. The war was cast as a big picture struggle - that allowing the Axis powers to have their own way would be so horrible that anything done by the Allies became justified. World War II has become a favored example for those who use the device because of the magnitude of the Holocaust and the implications of the successful implementation of Lebensraum. It becomes a matter of suggesting that the present-day case (Israel-Palestine, Cold War) is one where the victory of Evil (Palestinians, Soviets) would be akin to allowing Hitler to win World War II. That such horrors happened thus make the possible worst-case scenarios seem more likely.
Suggesting a moral equivalence between a number of acts carried out by the Allies during the Second World War and the deeds of the Nazis, especially the Final Solution is a common strategy employed by apologists for the Nazis in Germany, such as politicians of the National Democratic Party of Germany. Forms of the argument are also found in the works of authors not sympathetic to Nazism, such as F.J.P. Veale, Noam Chomsky, Joseph Sobran, and Nicholson Baker. Commonly cited as examples are the Allies' aerial destruction of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Hamburg and Dresden, the systematic murder and rape of East Germans by the Red Army, etc.
Their point is to say that though the implications of an Axis victory, in particular a German victory, would be horrible, that this did not justify Allied atrocities. Those who defend the atrocities say that even if firebombing Dresden, for instance, served very little military purpose, even the slightest purpose justified it and also, German people bore responsibility for the horrors of the war and that they had to be punished for that.
"If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us...We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well."
- William James. (1910). "The Moral Equivalent of War"; retrieved 2013-1-13.
- Jeane Kirkpatrick. The Myth of Moral Equivalence, Imprimis
- Joel Mowbray, Moral Equivalence in the Middle East, TownHall.com, Monday, June 16, 2003 
- Yaacov Lozowick, Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars, Doubleday, 2003 p.260
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