Equivocating about Moral Equivalence at The New York Times

NYT op-ed columns attempt to provide a “philosophical” approach to the news. The editorialists believe they can guide readers’ thinking about the events and issues that appear in the paper’s reporting. An examination of the writing of one of the most respectable columnists shows how fuzzy the moral reasoning can be in a newspaper increasingly committed to disseminating orthodox thinking.
Portraits of ancient

Plaster bust of philosopher Anaximander and group of other busts. Portraits of ancient historical persons. Mass-product souvenir in Turkey. Copy space, selected focus © Ella_Ca / shutterstock.com

November 01, 2023 05:40 EDT

Nicholas Kristof is one of more than a dozen regular New York Times opinion columnists. The role of these writers differs from that of correspondents who report on the news. The regular columnists have contrasting styles, points of view and political orientations. This reflects an editorial policy that seeks to present an image of breadth and diversity. Whether NYT achieves anything other than diversifying a range of establishment views is a matter of debate, especially for those who approach the news from outside the establishment. NYT has invested in defending an image that claims to be a model of respectable mainstream seriousness.

Ours is a moment of history in which the philosophical, and specifically moral, dimension of news stories has never been so obviously apparent. Proxy wars and shifting geopolitical power relationships provide the perfect context for asking serious metaphysical and ethical questions. In Kristof’s assessment of the moral questions relating to the drama in Israel/Palestine, the columnist offers us an example of what happens when NYT op-ed writers assume that what they want us to believe is at a noble philosophical distance from the political quarrels of the day. Professional philosophers might wonder about whether the distance he proposes isn’t an optical illusion.

Here is what the moralist, Nicholas Kristof has to share with us:

Decades from now when we look back at this moment, I suspect it’s the moral failures that we may most regret — the inability of some on the left (and many in the Arab world) to condemn the barbaric Oct. 7 attacks on Israelis, and the acceptance by so many Americans and Israelis that countless children and civilians must pay with their lives in what Netanyahu described as Israel’s “mighty vengeance.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Moral failures:

  1. Actions that can be cited as the cause of harm or acts considered evil according to an established ethical or moral code
  2. Thoughts attributed to those who disagree or fail to conform with the thinking expressed by voices who feel empowered to apply a moral code

Contextual note

This kind of journalism and its special brand of reasoning epitomize a type of moral failure that has become not just prevalent but even dominant in establishment thinking. Let’s try to do a logical breakdown of Kristof’s wise reflections.

The columnist invokes and implicitly compares two distinct facts. The first is “the inability of some on the left (and many in the Arab world) to condemn the barbaric Oct. 7 attacks on Israelis.” The second is the “countless children” dying on a daily basis.

Kristof frames this as a possible equivalence. But in moral terms, they are opposites. The first is an absence: the failure to deliver a specific preformatted message concerning a fact situated in the past. The second is a positive act of approval of the ongoing massacre of civilians and children. The agent responsible for the massacre is an ally, with whom it is theoretically possible to dialogue and reason. In the first case, speaking will have no effect. In the second speaking forcefully could prevent or at least attenuate acknowledged evils.

The first in no way implies complicity in the act. It may be nothing more than a disinclination to repeat another person’s judgment. No condemnation of an act in the past can mitigate its effects. The second, however — the refusal to stand up to prevent an ongoing massacre — constitutes implicit consent in its perpetuation.

The first moral failing is a sin of omission. The second is a sin of commission, because it has the direct effect of endorsing further death and destruction in the name of retribution. This act of retribution has an official name in international law: collective punishment. No discourse can change the past. But an active opposition to evil acts being currently carried out can potentially reduce the evil or attenuate its effects.

But that’s not the only problem with Kristof’s moral reasoning. There is also the question of the identity of the moral agents. His attempted equivalence is further vitiated by his own admission that the problem he identifies as the first moral failure lies with “some on the left” as well as “many” Arabs. “Some” and even “many” refer to isolated individuals, persons with no institutional power. The other group, who accept an ongoing massacre he defines as “so many Americans and Israelis.” But, in this case, first and foremost among the “so many” are governments and military establishments that wield power. The first group is guilty, at best, of a faulty moral opinion. The second is carrying out or supporting ongoing reprehensible acts.

Kristof wants us to believe he has a balanced view of the issue. He even seems somewhat aware of the non-equivalence of guilt on the two sides. After citing the polling result indicating that 83% of Israelis are indifferent to the sacrifice of Palestinian civilians, he even complains “President Biden has likewise greatly prioritized Israeli children over Gazan children.” That indifference is killing hundreds of children every day. But in the next sentence, he praises Biden for providing two aircraft carriers for Israel’s war effort.

The bulk of Kristof’s article goes on to document the horrendous extent of the enfolding catastrophe. Speculating about how people will assess today’s events in the future, he dons a cloak of humility. “I don’t claim to have all the answers,” Kristof confesses. “But I think some day we will look back in horror at both the Hamas butchery in Israel and at the worsening tableau of suffering in Gaza in which we are complicit.”

This is an astonishing admission. After establishing the idea of largely equivalent “moral failings” on the two sides he mentions, he admits the guilt of all those who do not protest. He asserts that “we” — the group to which Kristof belongs — are complicit in a situation that is continually “worsening.”

Historical note

Our second definition — “Thoughts attributed to those who disagree or fail to conform with the thinking expressed by voices who feel empowered to apply a moral code“ — links with a more general but deeply worrying historical trend that has become increasingly visible over the past decade. It has emerged in the form of a pitiless commitment to tracking “disinfomation” in the media and even in social media. This trend increasingly concerns anyone who expresses thoughts, ideas or opinions at variance with the kind of reigning orthodoxies NYT has a habit of promoting. Defense of these orthodoxies and condemnation of any discourse that calls them into question have become an essential task of governments that count on the complicity of the “respectable” media. It is usually done in the name of national security or public welfare.

Democracy has always tolerated and occasionally encouraged dissent, which was seen as a challenge to the status quo and a principle which could lead to constructive change. The trend of governments decreasingly committed to democratic values, instead of acknowledging dissent, labels it disinformation. It does so on the grounds that serious institutions — i.e. those appointed or consulted by the government — have produced the only reliable interpretation of whatever the issue is, whether it’s foreign policy or constraints imposed in the name of public health. Their opinions or doctrines become authoritative. Everything else is not just disinformation, but subversion of orthodoxy.

In such circumstances, propaganda not only becomes a norm of governance but hides behind arbitrarily defined expertise rather than pure political will. Distorted accounts of history achieve the same status as “scientific truth.” Commenting on the situation with regard to mainstream reporting concerning the Israel–Hamas conflict, former British ambassador Craig Murray, throws some light on the game Nicholas Kristof and others at NYT are playing: “The strange thing is, the BBC and The Guardian, and nearly the entire rest of the MSM, pump out their propaganda as though we have no other access to information or understanding of what is happening.” He then adds: “More than that, there seems to be a presumption that the general population harbour the same Zionist assumptions which the journalists are paid to promote.”

Kristof’s equivalence between two supposed examples of moral failure is a perfect example of presuming orthodox assumptions.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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