Explanations are Not Justifications: On the Need for Careful Deliberation

By John Thatamanil


To explain is not to justify. In recent conversations about the grievous situation now unfolding in Israel/Palestine, this distinction is erased or even ignored, much to the detriment of clear judgment and effective action. When analysts begin to suggest that Hamas’s violence does not emerge out of nothing, they are immediately accused of offering justification. The same holds true for any explanation offered of Israeli policies in Gaza. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Most often, when analysts of the situation say that a people who live under illegal occupation who are constantly subjected to Israeli military harassment and violence are likely to explode, they offer only what amounts to an explanation. We stand in desperate need for complex, subtle, nuanced, informed, and expert explanations to interrupt and bring an end to cycles of violence. But explanation is not justification. In this case, the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians strike clear-minded observers as repugnant. Hamas’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians can neither be excused or justified.

To say that a boiling cauldron will spillover is to offer an explanation. The function of an explanation is to offer analysis of the root factors at work in a given situation, in this case one of conflict. An explanation serves to disentangle and therefore perhaps remediate the factors that make a given conflict seem all but unavoidable. Put otherwise, an explanation operates on the register of the empirical whereas a justification operates in the register of the normative. One describes what is the case; the other what ought to be the case.

Much 20th-century analytical philosophy has been consumed by vexing philosophical issues regarding the supposed chasm between the “is” and the “ought.” I am among those (including Hilary Putnam) who refuse to believe that there is an unbridgeable divide between the two. Why? Because any nuanced description of facts will inevitably discover not just “the bare facts” but also values. Values are not just something human beings impose on reality; they are shot through most things. Any careful description will have normative implications. Nonetheless, it is worth slowing down and distinguishing between description and prescription.

The distinction between explanation and justification may be more easily discerned if we step back from the vexatious and overwhelming Middle Eastern conflict. Perhaps the most famous explanation of violence offered by a religious thinker and activist comes from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s worth quoting King at some length:

But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

Dr. King’s words explain how “riots do not develop out of thin air.” It is crystal clear that he does not commend riots. On the contrary, as a resolute champion of nonviolence, he condemns them. But more important than only condemning is simultaneously doing the hard work of understanding riots as “the language of the unheard.” A riot is not meaningless violence. It is not a volcanic eruption or something that just happens to happen. A riot may be resistance to oppression, a protest against unlivable conditions. That kind of riot is neither random nor inexplicable. King does not justify riots although he is prepared to explain them.

But does this shift, however subtly, from explanation to justification? Doesn’t King’s own discourse move from one register to another? The matter is complex. Still, it is possible to install a gap between explanation and justification. King refuses to justify the riots. But his explanation and every explanation of violence can accomplish one major goal: it removes the aura of inexplicability that routinely surrounds some acts of violence.

At no point does an explanation lead straight to justification. For example, historians of WW II enumerate a number of factors contributing to Germany’s aggrievement between the world wars, including most especially the punitive character of the Treaty of Versailles drafted after WW I. But such explanations can in no way justify the genocidal atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.

But explanations do serve to eliminate the appearance of sheer arbitrariness where arbitrariness is not the case. One way to make some acts of violence and those who perpetrate them seem subhuman is to render such violence into something random, purposeless, unprovoked and inexplicable. To leave violence inexplicable can serve a social and even military function; it can make perpetrators of violence seem bestial and so worthy of extermination. It can convey the subtle message that our violence has purpose; it is justified. Their violence, by contrast, is random and purposeless. Theirs is terrorism; ours is legitimate. In fact, both sides in a conflict may raise this charge against the other, each trying to delegitimize, decontextualize, and silence the other.

To offer causation and explanation does not justify, but it does erase the aura of senselessness. Explanations show that there are reasons for why we are in a given situation.

Patient and judicious reflection should lead us to avoid sloppiness about the distinction between explanation and justification, even if the distinction is not a duality. Leaving the other’s actions inexplicable and so arbitrary not only leaves us lost in darkness about the root causes of complex predicaments, but it can also leave us vulnerable to depicting the other as subhuman and given to arbitrary violence. The violence we inflict on those who are subhuman, of course, needs no justification.


John Thatamanil is Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary. He is also Volunteer Priest Associate at the Anglican Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, BC, and Theologian to the Diocese of Islands and Inlets. He is the author of Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity.

Counterpoint blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 31 October 2023.” The views and opinions expressed on this website, in its publications, and in comments made in response to the site and publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, its founders, its staff, or any agent or institution affiliated with it, nor those of the institution(s) with which the author is affiliated. Counterpoint exists to promote vigorous debate within and across knowledge systems and therefore publishes a wide variety of views and opinions in the interests of open conversation and dialogue.

Photo Credit: Mark Stebnicki

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *