On terrorism, moral relativism, and the absurdity of love.
The fact that I was able to admit to myself that there was no logical justification for morality illustrates a very important trait of mine. . . . I have much less tendency to self-deception than most people.
Theodore J. Kaczynski, Journal
A flawed conception of reason created the culture of despair, which in turn transformed our time into an age of ideologies, and these ideologies are now killing us. By politicizing everything, we leave ourselves no sanctuary.
Alston Chase, Harvard and the Unabomber (2003)
Certain themes and problems grip me so that I cannot get away from them. Most likely the reason I commit myself to talk and talk about these particular issues has something to do with my desire to untangle my own past, to figure out where I stand now in relation who I used to be, how I used to see everything. Anyways, the recurrent theme on my mind today is the problem of moral relativism.
In a post earlier this summer, I discussed the unknowability of morality in relation to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. I tried to explain why moral fundamentalists would resort to rigid dogmatics, and it’s because an inarticulable morality can lead to and legitimize chaos. Today I want to press into the other side, the side which acknowledges the absence of an absolute morality, and the particular sort of chaos which radiates from it.
I just finished Alston Chase’s book Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist, which was a fascinating read. Chase argues in the book that—despite the media’s insistence surrounding Kaczynski’s arrest that his crimes were the product of a deranged mind—Kaczynski was actually a highly capable man, and a man typical of the culture which produced him. Chase sources the Unabomber’s intellectual development back to his education at Harvard in the 50’s. During this period, so much of intellectual discourse, and even the official general education curriculum of the university, preached two central themes: first, that reason has shown the impossibility of founding any system of value, moral or otherwise, on reason, and second, that Western civilization was doomed to its inevitable self-destruction. All optimism and all ideals were abolished from the milieu in its insistence on despair.
The Unabomber was a man driven by his will, whose intellect and rationality legitimized all of his actions. During the course of his seventeen-year terrorist spree, conducted from the seclusion of his cabin in the Montana wilderness, Kaczynski killed three people and injured twenty-three others. Prior to his capture, The New York Times and The Washington Post agreed to publish his 35,000-word manifesto detailing the reasons for his violence. Titled Industrial Society and Its Future, the essay declared that society was founded not on morality but instead on a malicious system of power in which the progress of technology and the increasing strength of government serve to socialize people into submission and restricted freedom. With such an ideology firmly laid out in his mind, Kaczynski had reasons for the overthrow of such a society, which was, to him, beyond repair. His terrorist acts spoke loudly, though symbolically, in favor of such an overthrow.
One thing to observe is that, while Kaczynski admits that morality has no rational basis, he is not happy to remain a bleary-eyed nihilist, paralyzed in his despair of the meaninglessness of all morals. Instead, and problematically so, he fills in the absence of any system of virtue with his own systematic ideals—namely the ideal of freedom from brainwashing and public restriction of freedom. These ideals, while lacking moral justification, provide their own legitimacy because of the failure of moral realism. The Unabomber acted on the basis of an ideology which admitted no morally-defined limits, only the heat of a passionate will.
This is precisely the fear raised by the defenders of an absolute morality. Imagine the evil that is possible in a world which respects no morality! Chase even raises this fear himself as he places the Unabomber in a history of academic riots and violence during the 60’s and 70’s, squads of young thinkers rebelling against an ill-defined “system” of power, but whose legitimization of their violence is ideology, not virtue. Chase sees this as the inevitable outcome of reason which is not limited by virtue.
However, I’m not so sure virtue, in general practice, comes easily apart from ideology. When a moral system is drawn from reasons – whether they be something like a Kantian categorical imperative, a utilitarian calculus of consequential costs and benefits, or a divine command found in a scriptural text or in a “still, small voice” – there is always an act of interpretation involved. Interpretations are vulnerable to influence by a lot of things not driven by morality.
For one, we select which reasons we are going to listen to. How do we define the “maxim of our action”? Which consequences do we pay attention to? Which Bible verses do we reference, and how do we know when we hear the voice of God? And then, once our principle of reflective selection is in play, how do we read the situation? How do understand our duty or our freedom in light of particular space and time?
As I see it, our interpretations of morality are driven largely by our environment and by our will. We read the world through a lens which we have mostly inherited. The parts of our worldview which we chose consciously were chosen because we wanted to choose them. The way we think about our world is the product of a dialectic between history, social forces, and our own desires, and because of this, the distinction between moral values and ideological ones is an arbitrary one. They are the product of the same things, and they demand action in the same ways. The thing which sets certain people apart is the degree to which they are willing to act on the basis of their values.
Kaczynski acted on values which were not unique to him. Lots of people were thinking the same things, feeling the same despair, but his reason and his will coalesced in such a way that he committed terrorist acts. Any of us could get there. All we have to do is place ourselves in an ideologically-defined story which defines an ideal—a utopia—and the enemies which are obstructing our path to the good life, the good society.
Think about terrorists like Dylann Roof, whose ideology defined the good society as one which recognized the supremacy of white people. To him, black people were the enemy. Or consider the September 11th attacks by al-Qaeda, a group who saw the good society as a Muslim one and who defined the enemy as Western values and the military activity of the United States in the Middle East. Or take the Crusaders, who saw the good society as a Christian one and therefore massacred Muslims, Jews, and apostates as the enemy. Or more poignantly for some of us, consider the snipers and arsonists of abortion clinics, the murderer of George Tiller, who defined the good society as one which protects innocent life and therefore defines practitioners of abortion as the enemy. All such terrorists act on a system of values which are not unique to them; it is just that they are the ones who allow themselves to act, whose values and motivations include no contradictions which would prevent action (contradictions such as “virtue.”)
We set limits in our value-systems to keep ourselves from turning into terrorists, but many of these limits are not rationally justifiable, just as our values in general are not rationally justifiable. This does not necessarily mean that virtue does not exist, that there is no “real” morality; it only means that we cannot found it in reason. Every choice of values will appear arbitrary as soon as we are made to explain ourselves.
How then can we be saved from mass self-destruction? If we cannot resort to reason, if we cannot found our meta-ethic on some graspable “Truth,” then our only recourse is to a self-aware absurdity – namely, the absurdity of love. We can pick our exemplars, perhaps someone like Jesus Christ, not for their reasonableness but for their goodness, their absurd love. There is no reason to love—to love with self-denial, with a universal compassion—and yet there are a million reasons to love. I cannot tell why you should love. I can only tell you that you should. Love is the one solace, the one salvation, in the face of chaos. No unassailable truth raises itself up in defense of love, and yet love, in its absurdity, carries its own truth.