by Luigi Corvaglia
You are walking along the railroad tracks when you see an uncontrolled train coming at high speed. It is about to run over five people standing on the tracks. You are near a lever. If you pull the lever, the train will be diverted to a side branch. However, there's a small problem: you notice that there is a person on the side track.
You've two options:
1. You do nothing, and the train will kill the five people on the main track;
2. You pull the lever and direct the train to the siding, where it will kill the person.
What should you do?
When we ask this question, 90% of people around the world say they would pull the lever. That is because one is less than five. So it seems that the moral choice of the lesser evil is a matter of arithmetic. This is quite consistent with Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism: "The greatest good for the greatest number of people is the measure of right and wrong." So we could paraphrase the Fifth Commandment as follows:
Thou shalt not kill unless the killing of fewer people enables a greater number to be saved.
Thus, if we want a person to commit acts that involve the death of some people, all we have to do is convince him or her that this act will make possible the salvation of a greater number of people and that his or her conscience will not be troubled. All the better if it is assumed that this majority will be unjustly mistreated. In fact, many terrorist proclamations are based on the concept of liberating mistreated masses of people.
However, if we look at another version of the same moral dilemma, things change. Now there the same runaway trolley and the same five people on the truck about to be killed, but you are looking from above a footbridge. Next to you is a huge man. You know that with his mass he could stop the train and save the five people.
You have two choices:
1. You do nothing and the train kills the five people on the tracks.
2. Push the fat man off the bridge so that he dies but the five people are saved.
What should you do? If we put the "trolley problem" this way, 95% of people say they would not knock over the fat man. But the math is the same: 1 against 5! The difference seems to be that in the first case, the person dies because he happens to be on the track, and his death is not necessary to save the other five, while in the other case, killing the fat man is essential to save them. Refusing to kill the fat man is consistent with Immanuel Kant's thought, "Act in such a way that you never treat humanity merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end." This is a moral imperative that's absolute and forever valid, and from which all other duties and obligations are derived (Kantian categorical imperative).
Jihadist terrorism is comparable to the case of the "fat man," not the "side truck" It is the difference between killing someone and letting him die, the same difference we can find between "strategic bombing" (i.e., when we bomb military targets and public infrastructures to win a war, even if it causes many innocent casualties) and "terror bombing" (an indiscriminate bombing to terrify a country into surrendering). The former is consistent with the doctrine of double effect established by St. Thomas Aquinas: "If a bad effect isn't the means by which a good effect is obtained, the action is not reprehensible." In fact, many abominations can be justified with St. Thomas, but there are situations that cannot be justified even with his advice.
The utilitarian calculus is no longer applicable to jihadist terrorism, because the death of "Western" people is not "collateral damage" but a means to an end. Only people who are recognized as "psychopaths" believe that putting down the fat man is a good deed, but terrorists are not psychopaths. (Silke, A., 2008).
Even granting that this cold utilitarian calculus is permissible, it does not account for human sensibility. Let us look at another moral dilemma:
Jim is in the central square of a small South American town. Tied to the wall stands a line of 20 Indians, most frightened, some defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. The captain in charge explains that the Indians are a random group of residents who're about to be killed after the recent protests against the government, to remind other possible protesters of the disadvantages of protesting. However, since Jim is an honored visitor from another country, the captain offers him the chance to kill one of the Indians himself as a guest. If Jim agrees, the other Indians will be released as a special token of the event. If Jim declines, there is no special occasion and 20 Indians are killed.
What would you do if you were Jim? You probably would not kill an innocent person, even if it were a good deed in the utilitarian sense. This is because there is a crucial moral difference between a person being killed by me and a person being killed by someone else. We are"moral agents" who decide according to our own integrity and while preserving our psychological identity. In order to kill an innocent person, it is not enough to do it because it is good, but we need something that preserves our integrity, that resolves our cognitive dissonance.
For this reason, many anthropological and sociological theories about Islamic terrorism are misleading. Some readings of the phenomenon tend to minimize the role of religion and faith (or fideism) in favor of explanations that focus on psychological, political, and social aspects, but to defuse the power of a categorical imperative, we need a different categorical imperative! To kill innocent people in the belief that we are in the right, we must have a worldview that does not grant equal dignity to "us" and others. We need faith! We need an exclusive belief system that asserts a single truth and causes us to view the outside world with suspicion, fear, and hatred. To deny this is only possible by acting like an ostrich or using the form of intellectual dishonesty called political correctness. Thus, the explanations based on the concept of "superstructure" (globalization, cultural fragility, etc.) contain only part of the truth. Let us look at an example:
According to Scott Atran [Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) France],
- Religion has little to do with Islamist terrorism.
- Daesh/ ISIS exploits the potential of suffering, humiliation, and degradation in Muslim societies
- Thus, the motivation for participation in violent political action is "parochial altruism."
This is the schema:
The five on the main track represent the Islamic community that is constantly overtaken by the train of degradation, suffering and humiliation. The expendable person on the siding is the infidel. The one who pulls the lever is the jihadist and the action of pulling the lever is the expression of his parochial altruism. But as we see, jihadist terrorism is like the case of the "fat man," and we cannot kill someone as a means to an end.
Parochial altruism does not explain the silencing of the categorical imperative (the fat man) and the overcoming of the "agent problem" (Jim's dilemma) unless the victim is not truly "human." If we replace the fat man with a gorilla (or the 20 Indians with 20 apes), people react differently. They tell us that we can sacrifice a primate to save more of them. The dehumanization goes from Kant to Bentham. This "dehumanization" is only possible thanks to the moral disengagement caused by the exclusive belief system described above.
When dehumanization operates, the victim is no longer viewed as a person with feelings, hopes, and concerns, but is objectified as an inferior subhuman. This is just one of the eight steps Albert Bandura (1990) describes to achieve moral disengagement. Fanaticism can activate any of the eight mechanisms.
Only a blind and fanatical faith can produce a moral disengagement that blows up the emotional servomechanisms selected by evolution (also known as moral dumbfounding ). Before modern social scientists explained the processes of persuasion, before they tried to explain terrorism with complex theories - such as Drive-Theory or Social Learning Theory - and highlighted the systematic errors or biases necessary to fix an individual in his dysfunctional worldview, three thinkers had already explained the risks associated with the lack of doubt generated by an exclusive and total belief system:
The first thinker was Isaiah Berlin: according to a fable by Archouls, he divided people into foxes and hedgehogs. The former are an expression of pluralism, the latter of monism: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows the big one".
The pluralist knows that value conflicts are an intrinsic, unalterable part of human life (the fox knows many things), so he does not think it necessary to impose his truth on others.
For the monist, on the other hand, all real questions must have one true answer, and one answer only (the hedgehog knows the big thing ); all other answers are mistakes. Hedgehogs need boundaries, walls, landmarks.
"The mass neurosis of our age - said Berlin - is agoraphobia". This is what we call Need for Closure (NFC). There's a strong relationship between Need for Closure (i.e., the need for security), on a measurable clinical scale, and extremism (Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman, & Orehek, 2009; Kruglanski, Belanger, Gelfand, Gunaratna, Hetiarrachchi, Orehek, Sasota & Sharvit, 2013; Orehek, Sasota, Kruglanski, Deschesne & Ridgeway, in press).
This could be explained by the second thinker, Max Weber. Berlin's hedgehogs act within Weber's ethics of principles. The hedgehog refers to absolute principles without posing the problem of the consequences that follow from them ("the operation was successful, but the patient died"), which allows for moral disengagement, whereas in the ethics of responsibility attention is paid to the relationship, the means, the ends, and the consequences: the foxy way.
Why does the ethics of the principles lead to what Paul Watzslavick calls ipersolutions (dangerous actions thought to play a role in one's salvation)? The answer is found in the third thinker, Karl Popper, who said that: "irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think), but a vice." Beliefs and ideologies cannot be disproved, so these theories cannot be confirmed. We can euphemistically say that the ideas that are supported with more "enthusiasm" are those that are held as dogma and as such cannot be confirmed in their claim to absolute truth. The best example is religious ideas, but political ideologies can also make such a claim. Moreover, provable concepts do not require much effort to be asserted; effort is needed only to convince others of what cannot be proven, which is usually the fact that we are better than they are. As Voltaire said, there are no sects in geometry.