September 2007

Another semester teaching material I have taught for the last ten years . I was discussing Plato’s Apology with yet another introductory class: the reason Socrates asks questions, the difference between doxa and real knowledge, the reason he is wiser than others. I suspect that almost every intro philosophy class begins with this discussion. Why was I teaching it yet again?

In fact, it made me wonder why academics, even at prestigious research institutions, teach at all. Research is the main job of professors at many large universities, yet even these researchers are expected to teach. Why? One obvious answer is that these places still ostensibly exist for the purpose of educating people, so faculty must teach at least a few token classes to foster the image that the university serves the larger community. This is the cynical answer, and while there are undoubtedly those who believe it, I suspect that it is not the real reason teaching continues to be part of the duties of professor at research-centered schools.

Perhaps it is simply that these professors need to teach so that students are exposed to the ideas they develop in their research. What is the point of doing research, after all, if it is not publicized? This argument is even weaker than the first one, for teaching is hardly the best way to make one’s work known. Furthermore, it too is a rather cynical understanding of the reason for teaching: teaching does not serve the university’s interest in perpetuating its image as an institution of service, but rather it serves the individual faculty member’s interest in making himself known.

Reflection on this question led me, at least, to a rather different conclusion. Teaching is not something that is required of faculty because it justifies their salaries or because it allows them to indulge in sharing what they have learned. Both of these ideas presuppose that the faculty possess ideas that have value and that teaching allows them to in some sense share this value. I am not going to dispute the fact that these people have ideas worth sharing. However, it is not the reason professors are required to teach.

We are required to teach so that we constantly have to face questions about the value of our subject areas. This is most apparent to those who teach courses required of students majoring in other subjects. Many people dread these courses, for the students invariably want to know why they have to take them. This is the very question that many of us would not consider if we were not constantly challenged by it. Of course our subject area is important; it seems self-evident to us that it matters and that an educated person should know something about it. But what is the value of our discipline? Why does it matter? One very rarely finds professors asking each other these questions at conferences; indeed, there is a good chance that someone who did ask such a question would be ridiculed, because everyone believes his or her own area is interesting, if not important. Students—very often the ones we do not regard as “good ones”–force us to consider this question, though. They want to know why the material matters, or at least matters to us, and if we cannot provide them with an answer, then our understanding of what we profess to know is no more than the doxa Socrates criticized in his Apology.

I would like to build on last week’s blog by Prof. McGushin. He says rightly that terrorism and philosophy are polar opposites and even mortal enemies. Given that terrorism is beyond the pale of what can reasonably be justified, what about our response to terrorism? Can it make use of methods that cannot be reasonably justified?

There are some who argue in contemporary debates that, against terrorists, one may use any measures necessary to stop them. It is, indeed, hard to think of more heinous and unjustifiable action than that of purposefully killing innocents to terrorize a people. Such an act is clearly against the rules of war as articulated in the just war theory of the natural law tradition and expressed as international law in the Geneva Conventions. If terrorists won’t fight fair, why should we?

Having just reread Machiavelli’s The Prince, I’ve been thinking about how it is that a state may be defended. In this discussion, I am not going to try to sort out specifics of Machiavelli’s deeply held principles. Evidently, he was a Republican at heart and would have preferred such a government, all things being equal. But with the Medici princes coming in and out of power (and in power at the time he writes The Prince), he takes recourse to the second best option, advising the one who has power—a prince. Certainly, political stability was a major need in the Italy of his day. For the sake of this discussion, it does not matter that much, perhaps, whether one’s government is a republic or a monarchy, for we are talking about external relations with other states or enemies rather than internal methods of rule.

My question if this: for the sake of defending the state, is it permissible to use any means necessary—even, as Machiavelli suggests, those one knows to be immoral? Here is the relevant and famous passage from The Prince.

Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation. The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore, if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need. (Machiavelli, The Prince, chap. 15, trans. by George Bull [Penguin, 1985], pp. 90-91)

This apparently implies that the end of preserving the state (an apparently worthy end) justifies taking immoral (not virtuous) means to reach that end. Not only is vicious behavior permissible, it seems it is required. Machiavelli argues that the refusal never to be vicious leads to the destruction of the state. The ruler must learn how to be a fox and a lion: to deceive and use cruel force (chap. 18). Machiavelli is not saying that indiscriminate evil is good; however, the ruler must be willing to use evil if needed to preserve the state. “As I said above, he should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary” (chap. 18, p. 101). “A prince who wants to maintain his rule is often forced not to be good” (chap. 19, p. 108).

Without minimizing the difficulties in knowing how to act justly to defend against unjust aggression (paradigmatically terrorism), I think that Machiavelli’s statement is false for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, it is never literally necessary to do evil; one cannot be forced not to be good. Although actions can be characterized as evil to some degree by the harm they do, what makes them essentially evil is intention. Thus, if I accidentally give you the wrong directions to the train station, I harm you. If someone picks me up and hurls me into someone else, that someone else is really hurt, which is an evil. But in neither case is the harm intended by me. This means that these harmful actions are not really my actions. For an action to be mine in the full sense of implying responsibility on my part, I must choose it. And if it is to be characterized as evil, I must choose it knowing full well its evil. Good or evil actions are free actions. If they are not free, they are not morally worthy of praise or blame.

Secondly, it is never permissible to choose evil. Perhaps, as in much discourse about how people act, Machiavelli means by necessary, not what must literally be done, but what should be done (all things considered). In other words, if one would be morally good, it is necessary to do such an action. But such a position is morally incoherent. It suggests that one should do evil for the sake of good. But moral good means what should be done and moral evil what should not be done. This being so, the argument that an evil means can be justified by a good end amounts to saying that one should do (it is good to do) what one should not do (what is not good to do)—an obvious contradiction.

It may be very difficult to know what the right thing to do is in a particularly challenging situation (such a figuring out how to defend against terrorism), but that does not mean that there is no morally justifiable response. One should always pursue what is good and avoid what is evil. Insofar as one is able, one should avoid harming the innocent, for one should fight evil, not good. It certainly would be wrong to kill innocent people intentionally in order to frighten the enemy into giving up his aggressive actions. This intentional killing of the innocent is precisely what makes terrorism such an egregious crime. To have a policy that is good, one must be consistently good, not good as to one’s end and evil as to one’s means. Otherwise, one’s argument for any policy falls apart, since to recommend a policy is to assert that it is better than some other course of action.

There may be bad effects of combating terrorism, such as a certain amount of innocent suffering and perhaps even deaths. Although these may be acceptable as unavoidable side-effects of legitimate actions to safeguard the good of life, they should never be intended and should be avoided if possible. When discussing whether or not it is ever permissible to kill in self-defense, Thomas Aquinas says flatly that one should never intend evil—in this case, killing another human being (Summa theologiae II-II, 64, 7). It is life that is to be protected, and a sign that we are intending the good of protecting life (and not the evil of killing) is that we use the least force possible.

What precisely the least force possible would be in fighting unjust aggression, whether against an individual or a state, is hard to say. And it is particularly difficult in the case of terrorism when protecting the common good may require preemptive action. But the suggestion that, in some cases, one should purposefully act unjustly makes no sense. Intentional injustice clearly can never be justified.


On September 11th six years ago, nineteen men carried out their plans to hijack four planes and turn them into weapons of mass destruction, flying them into buildings that were both symbolically charged and heavily populated. In the days and weeks that followed we wondered how anyone could carry out such evil. While much has happened since those attacks, it is still worth reflecting on the events of that day and asking what they mean for us now. In particular I am interested in the role of philosophy — the love and pursuit of wisdom — in a post-9/11 world. What role does philosophy have in our attempt to understand terrorism and terror, and how can it help us to respond to them?

To begin to answer these questions, we might start by recognizing that terrorism and philosophy are polar opposites. Terrorism, as opposed to philosophy, is based upon the refusal to think. Only days after the 9/11 attacks Ian McEwan characterized an important aspect of that refusal:

It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than oneself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality. The hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith, and dehumanizing hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of the imagination.

(Ian McEwan, Guardian, 15 September 2001 quoted in Kearney, “Terror, philosophy, and the sublime: Some philosophical reflections on 11 September,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 29, no. 1, pp.44-45.)

The hijackers refused to engage in the basic human act of imagining oneself in the place of the others. They could not see themselves in their victims. Communication and understanding are impossible without this “human instinct for empathy” that would allow one to really listen to and take seriously the fears and hopes of others. The 9/11 hijackers were too locked within the “fanatical certitude” of their own minds to wonder about the life of the other’s mind. They believed with absolute certainty that they were right and therefore in their minds the most extreme kind of destruction and murder seemed justified.

Opposed to the un-thinking of terrorism, philosophy begins with the experience of wonder, which involves an active imagination carrying us beyond the presumed certitudes that are familiar to us and towards an unknown other. Furthermore, philosophy is fundamentally dialogue — without wondering about and listening to the other, whose ideas and reasons may be very different from one’s own, there is no possibility of dialogue and subsequently no philosophy. This aspect of philosophy is most clearly embodied in the life of Socrates who spent his days in the market place where he could speak with anyone who came by. Finally, philosophy, in opposition to the “fanatical certitude” of the 9/11 hijackers, thrives in the elements of uncertainty and doubt. Again, Socrates’ great insight was to admit to, and reconcile himself with, the limits of human knowledge. In his Apology he concluded that: “That one among you is wisest, who, like Socrates, has recognized that he’s truly worthless where wisdom’s concerned (Apology, 23b).” This insight is not the end of inquiry and dialogue but the beginning. The danger of “fanatical certitude” is always present because we have a tendency to become negligent and thoughtless, clinging to our opinions and beliefs out of our needs for security and self-justification. Therefore we must always take care not to become too complacent and self-satisfied. For Socrates philosophy was the activity of taking care that he and his fellow citizens did not fall into complacency and begin to believe that they possessed all the answers.

Philosophy and terrorism, then, are not only diametrically opposed activities; they are mortal enemies. If terrorism requires disabling the reflective imagination and the dialogue with the other, then it must silence the philosopher. The impulse to destroy the philosophical spirit of questioning is, in itself, nothing new. Socrates’s fellow citizens executed him in order to avoid dealing with his questions. But, while philosophers can be silenced, philosophy can always be renewed — each of us carries the potential for philosophical dialogue and imagination within us.

What philosophical questions do the 9/11 attacks press upon us today? What dialogues and with whom? We might begin with questions about the kind of world we want to live in — what kind of world can we imagine? Few sensible people would recommend dialogue with extremists such as bin Laden — you cannot engage in dialogue with some who has “fanatical certitude.” But we might begin with a philosophical reflection on the terror that terrorism aims for. What does the experience of terror reveal, not just about the evil of terrorism, but about our own mortality and vulnerability, our own hopes and desires?

Philosophy, according to the Plato and Aristotle, begins in wonder. We have a predilection to think of wonder as a kind of childlike curiosity and playfulness. And there is some truth to this way of understanding the word. But wonder, in the Greek sense, is not always something pleasant. It is often an experience closer to terror. For example, think of the second chorus in Antigone:

Many wonders, many terrors,

But none more wonderful that the human race or more dangerous

The “wonderful” referred to in this passage, and in the Greek experience, was closer to the notion of the “awesome” than to pleasant, childlike curiosity. The wonderful, the awesome, overwhelms us, fill us with awe — even with terror! The word “awesome” itself has lost its original power so that now it can refer to the new iPhone or the latest song by a favorite musician — originally it was a religious term used to describe the terrifying, awe-inspiring power of the gods (it may be worth reflecting on the poverty of our current vocabulary to give voice to the experience of awe and wonder). The chorus goes on to identify the deeds and qualities that make the human race so “wonderful” — namely, our tireless conquest of nature, our might at subduing everything around us. In our power and intelligence we over-awe the rest of nature. But there is one thing we cannot control or subdue:

[Man] has the means to handle every need,

Never steps toward the future without the means.

Except for death: He’s got himself no relief from that,

Though he puts every mind to seeking cures

For plagues that are hopeless.

(Sophocles, Antigone lines 333-334, 360-364

Trans. by Woodruff, in Classics of Moral and Political Theory. Hackett Publishing. 2005. Fourth edition.)

What is most wondrous — that is, terrifying — is that this terrifying creature who terrifies and conquers the entire world, is in turn terrified and conquered by death. Not only is death incurable, but the fear of death and the fight against death dominates us, making us seek cures for the incurable. In other words, it is our terror in the face of death that renders us the terror of nature — ceaselessly seeking to put it under control in order to cure the incurable, in order to control the work of nature within us and master death.

How do we respond to the wonders and terrors of our own nature? How can one live with the incurable fragility and mortality of human nature? Perhaps the experience of terror points us towards two different paths. On the one hand, one can, like the 9/11 hijackers, sink deeper into a “fanatical certitude”, closing off one’s imaginative connections to others, and giving in to death and destruction. This path leads to the destructive effort to relieve oneself from the terror and wonder of death by believing with “fanatical certitude” that one can master it — that one can destroy any and all threats to peace and security. On the other hand, one can try to imagine and empathize with the other, one can live with the uncertainty of the limits of human knowledge, and one can begin the questioning dialogue of philosophy. We can begin to recognize that the truly wonderful is that which we all share — the hopes and the fears that mortality gives rise to are what unite us in our humanity. Following the path of the questioning dialogue and imagination of philosophy is one way that we can try to take care of each other by fighting the terrifying slide into destructive thoughtlessness.