Peter Singer is out to lunch on Gaza

Yesterday, Peter Singer published this article discussing the morality of Israel’s recent war with Palestinians in Gaza. Normally, I am a fan of Singer’s work which usually contains a high degree of moral seriousness. However, in this piece, his moral seriousness is undermined by his uncritical acceptance of Israeli talking points:

“Israel, blaming Hamas, arrested hundreds of its members in the West Bank, though it has never explained the basis of its accusation.”

Why is Singer taking Israel’s word that the people it arrested are actually members of Hamas?

“The Israeli government may have seized on the outrageous murders as a pretext for provoking Hamas into a response…Hamas responded to the West Bank arrests with a barrage of rockets that reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem”

This goes from mischaracterization to flat out lie. Hamas was responding not only the arrests, but several days of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, which were a violation of the 2012 ceasefire it had signed with Israel.

“In firing rockets at Israel, Hamas invited a military response. A country subject to rocket attacks from across its border has a right to defend itself”

Unfortunately for Singer, this logic actually defends the Hamas rocket attacks, because its land was under attack by Israeli rockets.

“Hamas’s strategy of launching rockets from residential areas and storing them in schools”

While some rockets were found in schools, there is no evidence that this represents a “strategy”. The actions of the few, acting against the institutional norms and orders, don’t constitute an institutional strategy.

“Israel has legitimate military objectives in Gaza: to stop the rockets and destroy the tunnels.”

These are not legitimate military objectives. They are legitimate political objectives, which can legitimately be pursued militarily if there are no other means possible. However, Hamas has offered another means: stop the siege of Gaza. Which is, not incidentally, a crime.

Singer’s failure to overcome the media talking points on Gaza might tell us something fundamental about the gap between ethics and politics: perhaps ethics is asking difficult questions about right and wrong when the facts are not themselves up for question (or, when whether the facts are up for question is itself known, and becomes an ethical problem itself). Politics, on the other hand, is the world where ethically relevant facts are manipulated by public relations armies, which if they do their job right will result in otherwise good people affirming processes which are in fact unjust.

Singer is a decent philosopher, and he’s actually more politically engaged than average because he takes the uncontested but ignored facts about cruelty towards non-human animals and draws ethical implications from them. However, on political matters where it is already taken for granted by everyone that the lives at stake are valuable, he can not avoid the manipulative representations of power structures which results in blaming the victim, and representing the problem as the solution.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this article is, however, that he begins with a recognition of the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but then denies that it has any relevance to morally understanding the current conflict.

“Different answers to that question are possible. Some depend on answers to prior questions about the founding of the state of Israel, the circumstances that led to many Palestinians becoming refugees, and responsibility for the failure of earlier efforts to reach a peaceful solution. But let us put aside these questions – which have been explored in great depth – and focus on the moral issues raised by the latest outbreak of hostilities.”

Rather than ignoring context, and taking media talking points as a given, I would expect from Singer (and from any serious philosopher) an original interpretation of the situation on the basis of that context, and ideally one that uses thinking to break through media taboos which make our public discourse anemically ritualistic, and unable to hold power to account and stop the perpetual reproduction of injustice at which we sigh but fail to confront.


Intellectual Property Rights, indo-european Linguistics, moral intutions.

Working on the origin of the Symbol as having something to do with the history of trade before the establishment of the State in ancient Greek times I’ve come across something which might be more than a little bit important for modern ethical thinking.

The question of virtue (right action), or ethics (a code of action which has pratical applicability) is something best ignored only by experts. And besides, there does seem to be some internal desire for a moral code, based on moral sentiments. The issue, however, of how these sentiments are codified in moral and legal concepts is perhaps left to languor, and the solutions are constantly supposed to be some organization of already accepted concepts.

However, it logically could certainly be the case that some concepts which are prominent in ethico-political and legal thinking today might simply fail to grasp the moral sentiments they intend to. Why this would happen – the interests of power structures, the desire for a moral code not based on sentiment but universally guaranteed by absolute knowledge, is less important than whether it has happened, where, and what can we do about it.

This is a long preamble to the topic I want to discuss: Theft. Or rather, the legal-ethical concept of theft which today is equivalent with many different practices, which while are admitted into language as different, are admitted into law only (to my knowledge), under 2 designations: theft or fraud

Now, as a disclaimer, in order to recognize the differences between these crimes it is neccesary to attempt not to immediately grasp “what is wrong” about them in terms of pre formed catagories downloaded from the legal discourse. Rather, try to access your moral sentiments, simply feel that they are wrong, and not know why. Because, there is in fact no “why” anything is wrong, all “whys” are subordinate to the more originary “that” – elsewise, wherefrom Law?

Forcible entry into a house for the sake of its valuable contents, downloading music and films from internet torrents, photographing art in galleries and then selling prints at a profit without permission or royalties – these are not the same thing. They are all different actions, all of which require subsuming under a concept (or many) to claim similitude.

There are also different sorts of Fraud, such as insurance Fraud, selling stock based on false information about its potential (Boiler room), or selling information about future changes in government economic policy to those for whom such information could be wildly valuable.

If we believe moral sentiments are innate (or at least internal, perhaps biological predisposition could account) we must at least admit that the way they are brought into voice is made possible only by a particular history of thought. Thus it seems very interesting to me that the Greeks drew a designation between Fraud and robbery a bit different than our own, (I believe).

Theft is stealthy appropriation. Associated with trickery, magic. It happens out of sight, or through devious distraction. It is perpetrated by individuals or small groups in confined spaces (or at night).

Robbery is forcible appropriation. Associated with War (original sanskrit word for war means literally “desire for more cows”. It is practiced in the open – public space by armies, kings.

The distinction between theft and robbery was crucial in Greek law, it was an antithesis. Before the state the only relations clans could bear to one another was trade or war, and this antithesis embodies that very distinction.

Theft and trickery were not distinguished until the rise of the state.

Today, many things Greeks would identify as Fraud are called robbery, for we do not identify theft and fraud but rather oppose them, and identify theft with robbery. Whether the appropriation is stealthy or not, whether it happens in the open, it is robbery – the same charge, the same time. Although, I suppose robbery often requires weapons and there are specific charges associated with robbery with a deadly weapon – but that aside, they are considered much the same.

Fraud, likewise has been “robbed” of theft, while it remains stealthy appropriation but not of another individuals goods, rather of some goods held in common (insurance settlements, the wealth of the market). (Please correct me if I’m wrong here, i’d check on wikipedia but I’m writing this away from an internet connection.) Fraud remains stealthy but cannot be the stealthy appropriation of an individuals goods, and thus can not be associated in any way with “trade” as it was in the early Greek period.

The distinction I’m interested in is theft/trickery (stealthy appropriation/stealthy deception). Internet piracy is theft in the sense of stealthy appropriation, and yet people overwhelmingly have the sense that it is not the same as stealing a woman’s handbag (as commercials suggest). Not to say people don’t feel that it is wrong, it is unsurprinsing people feel it is wrong – it is a distinction clarified by legal codes since classical (not ancient) Greece – it has a longstanding place in our ethical discourse.

And yet, there remains this sense that stealthy appropriation, while we generally agree it’s wrong (I don’t), is not the same as robbery (forcible appropriation).

There are other issues – we are probably only able to feel it’s perhaps not so wrong because it doesn’t physically deprive another of a good unless it is an alternative to a legal purchase of the product – this teleological argument doesn’t stand up in court but it holds a lot of sway in conscience, which is arguably much more influential on human action than the barrels of unloaded guns.

Still, I can’t help but thinking that this distinction, or rather original lack of a distinction, between theft and trickery, between stealth and stealthy appropriation, gives us some better way to interpret our moral sentiments as concerns intellectual property rights, and thereby DRM.