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The Morality of Suicide Bombing

Since the 1980s, the popularity of suicide attacks – primarily bombing – has grown rapidly. There are now hundreds every year. As I write, the BBC is reporting a suicide bombing which appears to have killed eight people in Pakistan: The motivation of suicide bombers has been widely discussed by sociologists, historians, psychologists, and others. My topic, however, is not their motivation, but their moral status.

It is not uncommon to hear the claim – often from a spokesperson of those attacked – that suicide bombers are cowardly. Here the thought seems to be that suicide bombing is the ‘easy’ way to seek to achieve one’s political goals, and that greater ‘moral courage’ would be shown in a ‘fair fight’ with opponents or in sustained peaceful political campaigning over a lifetime. This view, however, strikes many as absurd. Rather, they argue, even if the goals and methods of suicide bombers are evil, their actions are in fact brave or courageous. For they knowingly put themselves in situations of great danger, for a cause in which they sincerely believe. Courage, then, is seen as what philosophers have called an ‘executive’ virtue, one which enables the agent to pursue any dangerous goal, whether good or bad. But this view is also problematic. A virtue is a good quality to have, and demands our admiration. How can it be possible that we are required to admire someone for the way they pursue evil ends?

In the last few decades, philosophers have thought hard about the virtues, and the philosopher whom they most often cite as an authority is Aristotle (384-22 BCE; see especially his *Nicomachean Ethics*, book 2, chapter 6, and book 3, chapters 6-9). Aristotle’s view does seem to provide a solution to our question whether suicide bombers are cowardly or courageous. According to him, they are neither. Aristotle sees that human lives can be understood as consisting in certain ‘spheres’, and that within each sphere what is important, morally speaking, is living – and in particular acting and feeling – as one ought. Take the emotions, for example, and in particular the emotion of anger. All of us are prone to anger on certain occasions. And there are, in a sense, two ‘directions’ in which we can go wrong in this particular sphere. We can feel anger when we shouldn’t, at the wrong time, towards the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, and so on (and in doing this we display a vice of ‘excess’); or we can *fail* to feel anger when we should, at the right time, towards the right people, for the right reasons, and so on (this will be the ‘deficient’ vice). Virtuous people will hit what Aristotle calls ‘the mean’, and will feel anger when they should, at the right time, etc.

This account will work for just about any ‘neutrally describable’ feeling or action you like, including, of course, fear. Now, the brave person will conquer their fear *only* when they should and for the right reasons. So a suicide bomber, pursuing an evil end by evil means, cannot be brave. Will he or she be cowardly? Well, no, because that consists in not conquering fear when one should. (As it happens, they might well be cowardly, if they were too afraid to stand up to those who have encouraged and trained them.) Cowardice is the deficient vice in the sphere of fear. The excessive vice consists in conquering fear when one shouldn’t, for the wrong reasons, and so on. Aristotle calls it ‘rashness’. Suicide bombers, then, who pursue evil ends through evil means, are neither brave nor cowardly. They are rash, and so do not deserve our, or anyone else’s, admiration.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Roger: here’s a suggestion that perhaps makes sense of the inclination to call suicide bombers cowards. What may lie behind it is an honour ethic concerned with regulating violent conflict. Accepting that there are friends and enemies and that conflict with enemies is inevitable, an honourable enemy is one who at least fights fair. An enemy who, prior to aggression, declares their intention to attack (such as war), attacks openly and picks on a strong target that is prepared for a fight is wrong but is at least facing up to us like a man rather than stabbing us in the back. In so doing they are brave and respectworthy. An enemy that attacks without declaration, when we are off guard and picks an easy target is cowardly and contemptible. The issue of bravery here is not whether the enemy places their own safety at risk, but whether the safety of success is at risk. Of course, one way that the safety of success is at risk is for the manner of attack to place the safety of the attacker at risk. But that is not the only way. Another way is to attack openly. Picking an easy target by surprise makes the success of killing easy, and is cowardly for that reason. The fear that is un-resisted is the fear of failure. For the sake of an easy victory they fought underhandedly rather than openly and to do that is cowardice, quite irrespective of whether they place their own safety at risk.

  2. Thanks, Nick. This is an interesting suggestion, and it can of course be fitted into the Aristotelian framework I suggested: such bombers are failing to resist a certain fear which they should resist, and as such will be — in that respect — cowardly. But the kind of fear Aristotle had in mind (he was indeed thinking of the battlefield in particular) was the visceral, emotional fear of harm. The fear of failure you speak of isn’t fear of that kind. It’s really just a strong desire not to fail.

    I did allow that suicide bombers might be cowardly if they were, for example, afraid to stand up to those encouraging and training them. So I do accept that such bombers may also be afraid to attack openly in the way you suggest, and so in that way cowardly. But in reality I suspect it would be hard to make such a charge stick against such fanatics. It’s quite possible that they choose suicide bombing not because they are afraid of an open fight, but because they believe this is the best way for them to achieve their political ends.

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