Terrorism and moral outrage

In my last post, I wrote about political outrage among the public (directed at the politicians) in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Mumbai and why it is unjustified (Ramesh has a long post on a similar theme that, unlike mine, is not polemical). This post is about moral outrage and its importance.

Why do we feel morally outraged by a terrorist attack? Is it because of the number of people who are injured or killed? No. People die because of a number of causes but we don’t feel outraged by their deaths. Is it because the deaths were untimely? No. People die in accidents but we don’t feel outraged at that. Is it because the deaths were preventable? No. People die in adventure sports but we don’t feel outraged by that. We feel outraged because the injuries and deaths inflicted by the terrorists are unjust. Because the people who suffer do not deserve to suffer. Because they are not morally responsible for the whatever grievances (if any) the terrorists may have. Specifically, the moral value that the terrorists outrage is justice. And the implicit principle by which we recognize the violation of justice is deliberate initiation of force – the use of force against men who did not use it. Consider some simple examples to see that it is indeed so.

A soldier is practising with his rifle in an enclosure. Someone accidentally enters it and gets killed. We do not feel outraged at the soldier because his act was not deliberate.

A trader on the stock market loses his entire fortune and kills himself. We do not feel outraged at the other traders on the market because there is no force involved.

A criminal tries to set fire to someone’s house. The victim happens to have a gun and shoots the criminal. We do not feel outraged at the victim because he has not initiated force, but merely used it in retalliation.

Note that this principle is an absolute. No mitigating factors, ideas, or convictions can justify deliberate initiation of force. If men wish to remain in a civilized society (and with the size of the world population being what it is, there is no other way to live), they must recognize this principle, or rather, the extent to which a society recognizes and implements this principle is the extent of its civilization.

A person who violates this principle is a criminal and deserves to be treated as such. Most people who do so are petty, short sighted crooks who seek short term gains and hope to get away with their crimes. They deserve punishment proportionate to their crimes (and it is a matter of philosophy of law to determine this punishment). A terrorist however is not an ordinary criminal. Whatever his motivations, he is not after short term gains. His acts are a rejection of civilization as such. The only appropriate response – morally and practically – to a terrorist act is the use of overwhelming force in retalliation and defence. Morally, overwhelming force is justified because what is at stake is the very principle of civilization. Practically, overwhelming force is necessary, because any indication of uncertainty can only increase the motivation of the terrorists (more so when the terrorists are motivated by supremacist religious principles). The only proper issues to be considered in a response to a terrorist act are ones of strategy – not what needs to be done, but how it should be done.

Such a response might involve civilian casualties in the countries that harbour and promote terrorism. The moral responsibility for any innocent people who may suffer in such an attack belongs to the terrorists, to the governments who support them and to the civilians who elect the governments. And it is here that moral courage and certainty comes into play. Are we so sure of our innocence that we are willing to take all measures to protect them? Do we value our lives enough to believe that force used in retalliating to lethal threats is always justified? Do we believe fully in the justice of our cause to accept the idea that there are no innocents in war?

Needless to say, we do not have such courage or certainty. And for good reason. We simply do not value our lives high enough. We believe in a code of ethics that holds serving others as the highest virtue. We constantly tolerate any amount of interference from the governments in our private lives. We advocate policies that are based on nothing but coercion. We participate in a political system that recognizes no absolute principles and places no limitations on the powers of the government to coerce people. There is no way we can say that we deserve to live even if it takes a war that may kill innocents to secure our lives. Is it any wonder that the statements of our elected representatives are empty platitudes devoid of any meaning or intent? And is it any wonder that the terrorists are convinced that they are morally supreme?

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The moral outrage that we feel everytime the terrorists attack, is a badge of virtue. It represents the implicit sense of justice that is needed for a civilized society. But in itself, it is not a guide to action. What we need is to understand the principles on which that sense of outrage is based and apply them consistently. Until we do so, until we establish a just society based on absolute moral principles, we will have no answer to terrorism.

Note: The ‘we’ in this post refers to the dominant culture as I see it.


6 Responses

  1. Very interesting, and it is a thorough discussion that makes a good deal of sense.

    A question and a comment:
    1) Question: What is going on with the kind of person that feels and expresses moral outrage, but at the same time makes excuses for the terrorist?

    2) Comment: I think about anger as an emotion that is expressed when boundaries are pushed and/or a person is violated in some way. Thus I am suspicious of those who preach that anger is always and everywhere wrong.

  2. Elisheva,
    1) Good question, but I don’t have an answer.
    2) Indeed. Anger is an important reaction. And anger at injustice is an indication that one has ones moral values soundly in place. I would add though, that anger should always be directed at specific targets. Anger at society at large (even if there are severe social problems) is wrong

  3. The inward sense of justice is evidence of the existence of moral “absolutes”. How do you justify the existence of such absolutes?

  4. wgreen,
    Yes, indeed it is evidence for their existence.

    Here is a very condensed answer. I hold my life as my highest value because I can have no values without it. My nature as a human – a thinking, living being with the power of choice – and the requirements of my life are the standard by which I judge and rank values. This is the basis of my moral code. Since this applies not just to me but to every human, the moral code (the principles, not the specific concretes) is absolute (in the sense of being derived from the nature of man and reality).
    Your question requires a much longer answer but I wanted to be sure I understood your question fully before I give that. Hence this short answer. I will be glad to elaborate if you clarify your question.

  5. Thank you, K.M.

    I am not clear on this sentence:

    “My nature as a human – a thinking, living being with the power of choice – and the requirements of my life are the standard by which I judge and rank values. ”

    How do these things determine moral absolutes?



  6. wgreen,
    I have posted a longer reply here.

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