Is Collective Punishment Always Wrong?
As readers of this blog are probably aware, I am not a fan of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. I find the blockade to be morally unjustifiable and ultimately not in the interests of Israel’s security. Yet I do wonder about some of the moral claims made in the course of the controversy.
For example, a recent Vox Nova post by contributor Morning’s Minion contains the following aside:
Remember, collective punishment is absolutely forbidden under the moral law.
Morning’s Minion, of course, is hardly the only one to make this point, and at first blush it seems fairly sensible and obvious. It’s easy to see why punishing one person for the crimes of another, which is what collective punishment seems to consist in, would be morally objectionable, and one might readily conclude that, just as a straightforward application of moral logic, collective punishment is always and everywhere morally wrong.
But is that right? Imagine, for a moment, a teacher writing on a blackboard in front of a class of 3rd graders. Every time she turns around to write on the board, she is hit with spitballs. She can’t see where the spitballs are coming from exactly, and has no way of knowing just which of her students is the culprit, nor can she complete her lesson without turning her back on the students to write on the board. Finally in frustration she announces that unless the spitballs stop or the students responsible step forward the entire class will get detention. This would appear to be a clear cut case of collective punishment. Yet it also seems clear (to me at least) that there is nothing immoral or evil about what the teacher is doing. Indeed, it may be the only method she has to keep the peace in the classroom so that she can complete her lesson.
One could argue, I suppose, that what is happening to the class is not really collective punishment, but rather that each of the students is being punished for not doing more to stop other students from sending the spitballs her way. But this, it seems to me, proves too much, as for pretty much any example of purportedly collective punishment it will be possible to redescribe the situation as one where people are being punished individually for their own actions or inactions (for example, one might say that the residents of Gaza are not being punished collectively but are being punished individually for not doing more to stop the rockets Hamas and others are launching into Israel). But if that is the case, then the claim that collective punishment was inherently immoral would be akin to the claim that it was wrong to eat unicorn meat, empty even if true.
Of course, to say that collective punishment is not always wrong is not to say that it is always right. And, as I’ve indicated above, I do think the blockade of Gaza is wrong. So I might well be accused to splitting hairs. Yet the underlying moral issue is an important one, even if it isn’t determinative in a particular case.