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Everyday Ethics

Does Comprehension involve Moral Justification?

Current discussions about the Middle-East crisis display a strong polarization between the expression of a reactionary sense of western identity and its progressive castigation. In particular, confronted with the growing threat of terror pursued in the name of Islam, especially by organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram, some have been wondering, as they already did in the aftermath of 9/11, whether a version of Samuel Huntington’s famous prediction has begun to come true, that is, whether we are currently witnessing the beginning of a clash between the Western and Islamic civilizations. Critics of this “apocalyptic” reading of the facts claim that this conviction is part and parcel of the strategy of ISIL militants, who want to provoke panic so as to increase diffidence against Muslims and engender a global conflict. In this connection, however, the same critics tend to minimize the Islamic nature of those terroristic associations’ aims and methods by insisting that no civilization that merits the name could ever produce or justify such atrocities.

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By: Francesco Poggiani, Rock Ethics Institute Dissertation Humanities Fellow

Can we make sense of the behavior of those individuals among us and abroad who are persuaded into joining the cause of global terror? Whether we decide to deal with this question or look the other way, there is more at stake than political problem solving.  My research focuses on questions concerning the normative sources of personal identity. An important aspect of this project involves an attempt to give a meaningful contribution to the ongoing task of framing a coherent picture of human motivations and aspirations.

Current discussions about the Middle-East crisis display a strong polarization between the expression of a reactionary sense of western identity and its progressive castigation. In particular, confronted with the growing threat of terror pursued in the name of Islam, especially by organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram, some have been wondering, as they already did in the aftermath of 9/11, whether a version of Samuel Huntington’s famous prediction has begun to come true, that is, whether we are currently witnessing the beginning of a clash between the Western and Islamic civilizations. Critics of this “apocalyptic” reading of the facts claim that this conviction is part and parcel of the strategy of ISIL militants, who want to provoke panic so as to increase diffidence against Muslims and engender a global conflict. In this connection, however, the same critics tend to minimize the Islamic nature of those terroristic associations’ aims and methods by insisting that no civilization that merits the name could ever produce or justify such atrocities.

I suspect that the widespread assumption that cultural ideology and religious faith cannot in this case constitute important explanatory lenses is an implication of our (largely implicit) commitment to a liberal (in the broadest sense of the word, which includes both sides of the current political spectrum) conception of self-determination. From that perspective, as one type of argument goes, whenever a person’s self-conception fails to withstand the test of rational consistency, it is not only to be judged as immoral, but also as fundamentally inconsistent. If we judged it to be immoral in the usual sense of the term, our judgment could always be rebuffed in one of two ways: either by insisting on the cultural relativity of our moral standards, or by asking the well-known question: why should anybody be moral? Instead, a rationally inconsistent identity is one that is incapable of functioning as an identity, namely, incapable of performing its essential function: giving us a universally recognizable and rationally acceptable (first of all by and to ourselves) practical orientation to the world. Within this model, seeing ISIL militants as nothing more than a bunch of psychopathic criminals appears as a perfectly legitimate move. A madman after all is someone whose basic orientation to the world is unintelligible on rational grounds. But are their actions, and the ideological orientation to the world or cultural identity such actions express, truly unintelligible?

In September 2014 Roger Cohen (a prominent advocate of the clash of civilization narrative) published an article in the New York Times in which he quoted Primo Levi’s heartbroken reaction to Nazi brutality: “Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: ‘understanding’ a proposal or human behavior means to ‘contain’ it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him.” In other words, as Cohen implies with respect to ISIS, really to understand those actions would not only involve grasping their psychological and historical conditions, but also to perceive their “allure,” that is, to see how someone like us might be motivated to act in that way (or support people who do). But even to entertain this possibility makes us shudder, which is why it seems that the only reasonable “explanation” of those actions amounts to accounting for our incapacity to understand them: those people cannot be like us. If we really comprehended them, it would be as if we justified them.

But what if we tried to argue for something like the opposite claim, namely, that a lack of adequate understanding of a given ideological phenomenon might more easily grow, upon favorable circumstances, into its unproblematic, banal (whether reluctant or enthusiastic) acceptance? Conversely, what if a profound understanding of such phenomena were not a sign of consent but an opportunity (perhaps a condition) for self-knowledge?