Heighten the contradictions

Suppose that party A habitually engages in actions that party B finds morally offensive. Party B then finds various ways to obstruct this offensive action, but only partially, so the effect is to make the action more dangerous, but not impossible. Party A continues with the (now more dangerous) course of action and predictably problems ensue. Who is morally at fault? Or more to the point, who receives blame and is the ensuing policy push to prohibit A from engaging in the offensive action or instead for B to cease obstructing and switch to accomodation and harm reduction?

For instance, if I am morally opposed to clear-cutting an old growth forest and so I spike the trees, but it gets logged anyway and some lumberjack get injured or killed, who is at fault: Me or the loggers?

Well, as in so many things, I think who you blame ultimately comes down to confirmation bias and we can see this play out in a few recent incidents.

Over the last months there has been a great deal of outrage over botched executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona in which the executions did not go as planned and in at least one of the three cases the condemned suffered prolonged excruciating pain. Many stories about these executions explained that states had been experimenting with new formulas because anti-death penalty activists and governments had systematically cut off their supplies of sodium thiopental — the old and much more reliable lethal injection chemical. However this was all in terms of the historical chain of events and I saw basically nobody saying that the anti-death-penalty activists were morally at fault for preventing a well-established and relatively effective means of execution or that the Lockett, McGuire, and Wood executions demonstrate the need to restore access to sodium thiopental. Rather the ubiquitous assumption was that once sodium thiopental was cut off that the states of Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona should have said “wow, looks like you got us into a checkmate, guess we’ll just commute every sentence on death row even though our electorates favor capital punishment.”

Conversely one of the issues with state-level marijuana decriminalization is that it’s a cash-only business which creates problems like armed robbery. The reason is that while many state governments have decriminalized marijuana, the federal government still opposes marijuana decriminalization and pressures banks not to service marijuana businesses. This means that marijuana businesses are easily identifiable as having large amounts of cash and/or frequent deliveries of cash to safe deposit boxes, all of which makes them inviting targets to armed robbers. The marijuana industry recognizes this, but you won’t be surprised to hear that their interpretation is not that they should stop selling cannabis until they are allowed to process credit cards. Rather Mike Elliot of the Marijuana Industry Group told Vox “If somebody gets killed because of this issue, we’re going to be pointing our finger at Congress saying, ‘This is your fault. You should have acted.’”

Probably the most severe current example is the current Gaza war, where Hamas appears to be deliberately placing military targets within or in close proximity to especially sensitive civilian areas. Despite fairly heroic efforts to minimize civilian casualties, Israel is thus in the position of either forgoing its offensive to destroy rockets and tunnels or destroying schools, hospitals, and many noncombatant human beings. Predictably those who see Israel as responding as any state would to an intransigent terrorism campaign see this as Hamas’s fault whereas those who were always inclined to see Israel as a colonialist apartheid regime see it as disproportionate.

I’m not trying to make a substantive argument that the obstinate actor A or the heighten-the-contradictions actor B is morally at fault when A continues to act under the circumstances made more dangerous by B. What I am saying is that whether you blame A or B largely depends on whether you sympathized with or opposed A’s action ex ante. Nobody who opposes the death penalty is going to say that the people who prevented state prisons from getting access to sodium thiopental are at fault when states wing it and botch executions badly. Likewise nobody who favors marijuana decriminalization is going to say that shops should cease selling marijuana if the federal government doesn’t let them bank. And nobody who already thinks Israel is a colonialist apartheid regime is going to say that it is justified in attacking military targets commingled with civilians. However, logically these conclusions have a lot in common, even though most people would agree to some but not all of them. And I’m just gonna lay out a marker here that any arguments I get on this will be to the effect that one issue is substantively different from the others, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but it really does prove my broader point that it’s all about whether you sympathized with the person engaging in the action or the person opposing the action in the first place and not about whether we should generally hold responsible actors who heighten the contradictions of an action as part of their attempts to abolish it.