Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Courage & Terrorism

In "Courage In Dark Places: Reflections on Terrorist Psychology," Andrew Silke suggests that terrorists can display courage. The background for this claim is what Silke describes as the tendency to see members of terrorist groups as brainwashed fanatics--crazy people--who have no feelings and so on. Almost everything Silke says against this kind of common caricature seems fine. But the discussion of courage leaves a great deal to be desired. First, Silke offers no clear account of what a virtue is besides a "feature." Silke's definition of courage specifically is pretty thin:
1. the individual perceives risk and danger in a given situation or behavior;
2. the individual experiences fear and anxiety in relation to this perceived risk; and,
3. the individual nevertheless enters the situation or proceeds with the behavior (p. 184)
Now, I've been teaching and thinking about Aristotle, and so my first problem with this definition of courage is that it doesn't say anything about "false" forms of courage--viz. rashness. Without that, as Silke acknowledges, the claim that terrorists can exhibit courage is unremarkable, since all that needs to be shown is that they satisfy the three conditions above--which he shows is often the case.

But from here, Silke questions "whether courage warrants consideration as a virtue in and of itself" (p. 195). The answer seems obvious: not if that's how you characterize courage. Or perhaps: it has no moral value in the absence of other virtues. (To be fair, this question has been discussed by some philosophers, too, but I'm not yet in a position to discuss that.) This is where the failure to consider what a virtue is reveals the relative shallowness of Silke's discussion of courage. Is courage a one-off deal? How stable must the disposition to act in the face of fears be?

I think it is a legitimate question whether we could/should withdraw ascriptions of courage because the person is acting upon a mistaken/misguided judgment or commitment. How far can one deviate in good judgment before this makes the ascription of courage problematic (and not just uncomfortable)? I'm just starting to think about this, so input will be quite appreciated.

One other thing that bugs me about Silke is the extent to which he emphasizes how "normal" terrorists are psychologically. This leads him to say: "it remains true that our enemies are capable of all the qualities of humans. They can be cruel or gentle, malicious or considerate, selfish or generous, stupid or intelligent. They can also be courageous or cowardly" (p. 195). On a few of these, I want to ask: to whom? Bat-Ami Bar On makes a powerful case, in "Why Terrorism Is Morally Problematic," that because terrorism involves terrorizing (often innocent) people, it is an inherently cruel practice. If she's right, then qua terrorists (or freedom fighters, if you prefer), terrorists cannot be "cruel or gentle."

My sense is that a lot more work needs to be done on (3) above. Or at least, an Aristotelian approach would have to say more than "nevertheless." The point above about cruelty raises a question about whether it makes sense to say that a person who employs inherently immoral means can be said to have acted with, or exhibited, courage. Recall that in Aristotle's thought, the first requirement of virtuous action is that you have to know what you're doing. And if it's true that what terrorists do is cruel, and if they are unable to see (or acknowledge) that--which some of what Silke discusses would seem to confirm (since there's a lot of abstraction away from the humanity of the targets)--then this might be a clue to why it seems problematic to attribute courage to them.


  1. Silke's definition of courage doesn't seem that bad, but he doesn't say how much fear and anxiety the person experiences. Huge anxiety over a slight risk does not seem like courage to me, and I think I can imagine a courageous person feeling no fear at all in some situations. And the fear or anxiety experienced has to be directed toward the right thing, surely. So charging into a burning building is perhaps not really brave if the only fear one has is that there might be spiders in there, say. You need to have the right kind of grasp of what you are doing and what the relevant dangers are. And this, I think, might connect with your insight about seeing the cruelty involved in terrorism. There might well come a point where we cannot make sense of the idea that the agent both knows what they are doing and yet does it anyway, at least not under any description that would be recognizably virtuous.

  2. William Ian Miller, perhaps my favorite living academic, has a superbly comprehensive and characteristically compulsively readable meditation on courage, in which these and other issues are variously addressed.

  3. Thanks for the ref, Rob. I'll definitely look into that.

    DR: Ok, maybe not that bad. At least, it's a start. I was going to say something about how since the definition offered is meant to be purely descriptive (psychological, as it were), there's going to be the usual problem of social scientists trying to exorcise anything normative from the concept. This isn't always a bad thing, but the discussion (in Silke) creates the illusion that figuring out whether terrorists can manifest courage is wholly separate from sticky moral questions. And I'm not sure I do, or should, buy that.

  4. Agreed. I think the questions are not separate. And I think you are onto something valuable in your thoughts about why this might be so.

  5. Thanks, DR. I hope I can make something of it. More to come.