Saturday, July 09, 2005

Morality and Terrorism Per Se (part deux)


For me, morality is established evolutionarily. That is to say, it is largely a historical accident, which has survived the trials of psychology and practicality. All people have an equal role in establishing their society's morality. The morality of a society is a gestalt of all the moral beliefs held by its individuals, but those moral beliefs are themselves beliefs about societal norms. A person's moral beliefs are the result of interaction with their society, and are an acceptance of society's moral goals as goals of their own.

In a highly diverse society, many people will have different moral beliefs, which would seem to invalidate what was just said. Since all members of society do not have uniform beliefs, how can society be the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong? Well, here's how. Society is really just the name for all the people we interact with - it's a useful name to give to a particular group of people. It's an alternative description of a collection of object, much as "gas" is a description of the behaviour of a large number of particles. Just as "gas" cannot capture the specific motions of the particles inside it, so "society" cannot capture the full diversity of its individuals.

Each person, then, has moral beliefs that are uniquely theirs, but that have been given them due to their interaction with others. Just as a gas adopts certain properties as a result of the interaction of its members, so society develops particular features. Some are clearly recogniseable, and some are not. Social taboos are examples of moral features of a society. Public nudity, for example, is a social taboo of Western culture. People have adopted the belief that this is morally wrong from their society.

Hence the question: Is the wrongness of terrorism something like a nudity taboo - that is, something that we believe is wrong only because we have adopted that belief from our society? The corollary of this is that believing terrorism to be right could also be that kind of thing - it might be possible to believe that terrorism is justifiable in some circumstances.

Let me put down a few points, with brief argumentation for each.

1.) Let's a assume that terrorism's value is purely consequential. It's not like happiness i.e. a good in itself, but rather it is valued for what it achieved.
2.) Let's identify two particular examples. One, let us suppose that we have two societies, both of which are evolutionarily fit, which is to say that they are robust in the face of danger, not susceptible to sudden revolution etc etc. The first is pro-terrorism, and the second is anti-terrorism. Can we identify this as an absurd example? Two, let us suppose instead that we have a pro-terrorism society which is evolutionarily unfit, and an anti-terrorism society which is evolutionarily fit.
3.) We should further consider whether terrorist acts are being committed with the blessing of society or not.

Let me quickly deal with the final point - that a terrorist act, indeed any act - cannot in practise or theory be a morally good act in the eyes of society, if that act is not carried out with the blessing of society. This is a simple truism if one accepts the societal definition of morality given above. The act could be in keeping with the moral beliefs of the particular actor, but cannot be ultimately judged "moral" by others. For me, a moral act is not merely a matter of the moral beliefs of the actor, but judged against actual standards for action, given by the beliefs of others.

Secondly - our tales of two cities. Let me call in each example the anti-terrorism society "Get-along-town".

In our first example, the beliefs of Get-along-town are in conflict with the beliefs of Pro-terrorism town. By construction, each society has equal claim to have justified true beliefs about their morality. That is to say, they should be able to examine their moral beliefs, and show how this is consistent with a evolutionarily fit society, show how their beliefs are internally consistent, etc etc. Is that ever really possible? Could a rigorous philosopher really manage to reconcile a pro-terrorism stance with those standards of justification?

In our second example, Pro-terrorism town has by construction failed the test of justified true beliefs. I would argue that while it is possible, psychologically speaking, for people to hold unjustified false beliefs, it is impossible to call moral judgements on the basis of those beliefs fully correct.

Religious faith can be included in this analysis, without assuming the non-existence of God. I would suggest that it is reasonable to believe a particular spiritual position if those beliefs can be rationalised with practical limits, standards of behaviour, internal consitency (or at least paraconsistency!) etc. It is, I would argue, unreasonable to believe a particular spiritual position if that position entails a descructive mode of existence - that is runs counter to the ability of society to prosper and continue. Even faith has a standard of justification, and as such, unreasonable faith cannot be used to justify a moral position. It is not, in my opinion, unreasonably to adopt a belief in either God or Allah, but it is unreasonable to use that belief to justify the destruction of a society, or engage in purely destructive behaviour for its own sake, etc.

Richard has been challenging my first post on this topic, and I was struggling to adequetly answer his challenge. This post consitututes a somewhat more formal description of what I believe the situation to be. I think we can quickly discount the second example - where terrorism is judged morally right on the basis of untenable beliefs. I don't think Richard has a problem with this.

He also questioned whether my societal definition of morality is sensible, but hopefully this post elucides a little why I think this is so.

The question then is whether the constructed example of an evolutionarily fit society which is pro-terrorism can plausibly exist. If not, the example breaks down, and terrorism can never be morally justified.

Clearly, such a society can survive /in the face/ of terrorism - but that is not the same thing as identifying terrorism as being in accord with the principles I have outlined as necessary. It is possible to society to continue even if some of its members commit terrorist actions, possibly in accordance with their beliefs, but is it possible that those individuals would pass the test of society's judgement? To put it another way, can society itself ever be pro-terrorism. To understand this, we much look at the consequential value of terrorism.

What is the result of terrorism? Used undirected, what the the immediate results? The level of damage involved is usually painful, but low relative to war or simple assault. Fear, panic, anger and pain are the results. This is seen, broadly speaking, as a bad thing. It is not sensible to want these things for their own sake. Thus, the only use for terrorism is as a threat, or because other actions are enabled by virtue of said panic, anger, pain etc.

I do not have scientific backup for this claim, but it seems uncontroversial that there is no direct benefit to a society in being panicky, afraid, enraged or in pain. Neither do there seem to be any direct flow-on benefits. None of those features seem to be linked to anything either morally or practical good. It does not seem that a society will ever be more successful as a result of terrorism.

The only use for terrorism then would seem to be if some particular situation could be best remedied through terrorism. It was suggested by Richard that if a society had in some way collapsed, then perhaps terrorism could be a way of shocking it into action. This does not seem to be a strong argument to me. It is a logically coherent suggestion, but I do not think that it could be true. I am willing to admit the logical possibility, but I think a sufficiently full analysis would show it to be semantically impossible.

I cannot think of any evidentiary basis for the success of terrorism in achieving any particular goal in the long term. Terrorism by the Islamo-fascists has achieved the short-term goal of engendering fear, anger, and publicity in the West, but I cannot identify any moral benefits of this, subject to the descriptions I have given in this article. This includes any justified beliefs from the perspective of the societies of the terrorists involved.

If terrorism really could be shown to be a good way of achieving some particular outcome, and could be identified as appropriate in some particular situation, then I would perhaps admit its rightness or goodness in that situation. But I have no reason for believing that this could ever be so. Certainly I am willing to admit the validity of the "greater good" argument as a justification for terrorism, but I am not willing to admit that the argument has ever been used successfully. The logical structure for the argument can be made, but I have never seen a constructed situation which is not absurd.

I would be happy to be corrected if someone could identify a historical or plausible example to contradict this, but until such time I do not think we need to entertain the possibility that terrorism could be an acceptable act.



Blogger Richard said...

I'm happy enough with your conclusion, i.e. a utilitarian argument could possibly justify terrorism, but it never has in any real (or even realistic) scenario.

I'm not sure if your meta-ethical views are coherent -- see here. But maybe I've misunderstood them?

7/09/2005 06:52:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

No, I don't think you've misunderstood them.

My claim is that something *is* morally wrong if society deems it morally wrong, because morality means accepting society's standards as your own.


7/09/2005 08:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

"My claim is that something *is* morally wrong if society deems it morally wrong, because morality means accepting society's standards as your own."

What if our "society" is humanity itself rather than just one portion of it? It is unjust to kill innocent people, and that is why I consider it wrong. If I lived in an area of the world that considered that it is ok to kill innocent people, I would still be wrong if I did so.

If local society's view makes things right or wrong, then would I have been right to keep slaves if I was a southern plantation owner in the 1860s US?

7/11/2005 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

"What if our "society" is humanity itself rather than just one portion of it? It is unjust to kill innocent people, and that is why I consider it wrong. If I lived in an area of the world that considered that it is ok to kill innocent people, I would still be wrong if I did so."

Well, that's fine. Justice is also a societal concept, by the way. Justice is like a codeified version of fairness. It is the rules to which we are forced by law to adhere. As it happens, I believe that killing innocent people is, all else being equal, wrong, unjustified, and unfair.

The killing on innocent people is, I must agree, a particularly hard
example to imagine ever being right. I would say it could probably be
right for the greater good, in a sufficiently artifical example. In a
practical sense, I can't think of any cultures which do think that it
is ok to kill innocent people. The closest thing I can think of is a
cannibal tribe, or maybe some place with religious sacrifices. Perhaps
you could furnish me with some ideas of your own surrounding trhis

But that aside, let's just suppose we have a culture who believes that
it is right to kill innocent people. Is it still wrong? Well, society
will certainly judge it to be right(by construction). How could we
possibly correct them? Perhaps one could point out an inconsistency in
their beliefs - one could perhaps mistakenly believe that some greater
goal is being achieved, or perhaps the issue is one of unreasoned

You seem to have deliberately constructed an example of a society in which killing innocents is right, without elucidating their other
beliefs. By what means to they justify this idea? Is it a matter of
faith? Is it for an economic goal? Is it regarded as a moral good per
se? I would argue that you have constructed an example which is
designed to be struck down, and it is difficult to argue against
because of its simplicity.

"If local society's view makes things right or wrong, then would I have been right to keep slaves if I was a southern plantation owner in the 1860s US?

No. I was half expecting this to come up. I think you will find that
society was not undivided on this issue. Certainly the slaves wouldn't
have agreed. Similarly, you would most likely find philosophical
inconsistencies or fallacies in the justifications used. I mentioned
that one cannot elevate belief above knowledge. Society's local view
can only make something right or wrong correctly if it is a correct

Since we're not talking about moral philosophers, but bent slave-owners, I don't feel there is a real moral challenge here.


7/11/2005 11:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Clive said...

Terrorism is just means to a specific end. Trying to understand terrorism in terms of philosophical morality or religion will get you nowhere.

Terrorism is tactic that is primarly used because conventional military action is essentially pointless against military superpowers (this is the terrorism happening in Iraq itself). In this case, a war against terrorism per se makes as much sense as a war against infantry.

The second (and much more recent) use of terrorism is to gain control of the after effects. The west is invariably duped by this due to kneejerk reactions of elected officials and because of our free press.

In the after-effect attack there are 2 subtypes - minor attacks (such as ETA, IRA, etc) where the group is essentially courting the western media by bombing with warnings and minor casualties; and secondly severe attacks (such as typical Al Quida attacks) where the aim it to court the fundamentalist public opinion in the middle east by appearing to stand up to the west, but more importantly since the military reaction of the west will strengthen their position.

Although there are lots of fundamentalist crazies who are happy to blow themselves to smithereens for their religions, they are cannon fodder of the people running big operations. The leaders are intelligent, secular and easily manipulate eastern and western public opinion. As such they are way more scary then the way they are portrayed.

The blundering response of the US in Iraq has been the biggest boost to fundamentalism in recent times. The west has lost the little moral high ground it had in the middle east. The AL-Q leaders have enormous power and control over the populations in the middle east.

7/11/2005 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

"Terrorism is just means to a specific end. Trying to understand terrorism in terms of philosophical morality or religion will get you nowhere."

Indeed. I just question whether terrorists are even achieving any kind of sensible goals with their actions. It seems like such an unproductive way to spend ones time!


7/11/2005 03:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Becky said...

Hi, I'm a philosophy/law student from New Zealand. I've just stumbled onto your blog and I find it interesting.

I'm not sure that you're right about morality having an evolutionary basis. Morality may well have helped societies evolve in the way that they have, but if you think of morality as purely based on evolution then you run into problems when you try to explain why people should do the "right" thing.

For example, we would normally say that it is morally right for people to swim into the ocean to save drowning children. However, if you justify this "rightness" by saying that it helps society evolve, why would people risk their lives to save a child? Sure, society might be better off, but they'll be dead so. In the absence of any other reason to act morally, evolutionary bases of morality are insufficient.

7/11/2005 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Hi Becky! Welcome, and thanks for stopping by.

The short answer is that if society is better off, then evolution selects for it. That is to say, a group of people who all put society's interests ahead of their own will perform better as a group and a society of greedy individuals. Even if it seems stupid and not very self-interested to save the life of another at the expense of your own, groups of such people are ultimately all better off because of it.

That's *how* evolution selects for that kind of behaviour.

Your second point is the more complex for me, and one that causes people to reject the idea of relative morality entirely. If morality tells you what you "should" do, what can that mean when a different choice is just as valid?

To me, that's not so much a strong objection as the real question. If you visit here , you can read something I wrote on evolution forming the basis for morality. It is one of the things which I am most comfortable is really true.

Possible answers, then, to the question of what "should means" probably merit their own post. And what you are asking is a great question - I've just thought about it before, so I'm just giving my own opinion here.

Firstly, you could say that what you "should" believe about morality isn't a moral problem at all, but rather a practical one. You don't choose a morality on a moral basis - that's pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps - but by a practical or reasoned one.

Secondly, you could accept one for psychological, or happiness reasons. Certain moral choices can make you happy or sad -- even though they may carry no ultimate moral weight in any objective sense.

Thirdly, you could just reject morality and see where that takes you. People have tried it before, and one can come up with ways of living without it, but so far as I have seen they are somewhat artificial.

Anyway, sorry for the overly long reply! I just liked the questions. I hope I can manage a couple more interesting posts over the next little while to keep you interested :)


7/11/2005 11:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

"But that aside, let's just suppose we have a culture who believes that
it is right to kill innocent people. Is it still wrong? Well, society
will certainly judge it to be right(by construction). How could we
possibly correct them?"

Archeologists have uncovered human sacrifices from past societies. Often they were chosen because of their youth and possibly their innocence. The society that sacrificed such people must have done so because they thought it was the right thing to do.

You previously said that something is wrong if society deems it wrong and that morality means accepting society's standards as your own. But you also said "Society's local view can only make something right or wrong correctly if it is a correct position." Is this entirely consistent?

Are there are objective standards of right and wrong independent of what societies believe? I think so, and I think we can, by learning philosophy, become convinced of what some of them are. Eg, it is usually right to tell the truth, to treat others fairly, to use reason to shape our life etc. On the other hand, I doubt that any society that is badly mistaken about moral truths (eg human sacrifice)can survive for very wrong. Perhaps it is an evolutionary advantage to be morally good.

7/12/2005 01:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Becky. I don't think that being morally good is always an evolutionary advantage. Take the saving a drowning child example. On the surface at least, it doesn't make evolutionary sense to potentially sacrifice a strong, mature, contributing member of the society in order to save a weak, probably non-contributing member of the society. How does the society benefit from this? Obviously it makes sense if the rescue is achieved, but this would lead to a morality whereby attempting the rescue is only the right thing to do if a sucessful outcome seems likely. On the contrary, most of us would consider simply making the attempt the morally noble thing to do, regardless of the outcome. Consider the possible outcomes:
1. Both rescuer and child survive.
2. Child dies, rescuer survives.
3. Child survives, rescuer dies.
4. Both die.
A simplistic analysis could suggest that a neutral or bad outcome is 3 times more likely than a positive outcome. Evolutionary pressure would suggest that sacrificing the weak in order to protect the strong is to be desired. Yet almost all societies, at least as far as I am aware, have a culture which praises acts of "bravery" in which a "hero" sacrifices himself in an attempt to save another...

7/13/2005 02:56:00 PM  

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