Monday, October 17, 2005

More Conservative Phoniness

As David Gelernter was desperately searching for something, anything, to excoriate the left for, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan was getting all worked up about this news brief from Science and Theology News. The brief describes recent speculation that suicide bombers are motivated by “altruism.” The brief begins:


Researchers’ attempts to understand suicide terror have revived a controversial theory of “altruistic suicide,” the act of killing oneself so that one’s community might live.

Altruism — a counterintuitive and little-studied motive for suicide — suggests that suicide terrorism is a phenomenon of group psychology and organizational behavior, rather than an outgrowth of fundamentalist religious beliefs.

The distinction could prove important, researchers say.

“Motivations for terrorism need to be clearly understood, rather than perceived stereotypically, so that they can be effectively counteracted,” said Karen Larson, an expert on the political ramifications of terrorism and an anthropology professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

Such understanding may, for instance, enable Muslim organizations to “promote a group identity that will help prevent recruitment of youth into radical organizations,” she said.


Later, we get a more explicit definition of what is meant by the term altruism in this context:


“The concept of altruism is based solely on sacrifice for the betterment of the group,” said Jeffrey Riemer, a retired Tennessee Technological University sociology professor. Riemer’s seminal 1998 study, “Durkheim’s Heroic Suicide in Military Combat,” helped revive a 19th-century theory to explain a 21st-century scourge. “Essentially, altruistic suicide is taking one’s life for the benefit of the group,” he said.


As is typical from news briefs of this sort, it is difficult to really get a good picture of the argument being made. But that doesn't stop Sullivan from drawing sweeping conclusions.

To Sullivan, you see, this is evidence of the great moral perfidy of modern academics. Under the headline, “Suicide bombing as - Altruism?” Sullivan writes:


That's a new “theory” on the motivations of suicide bombers. Read the piece detailing the study and see if you can find a distinction between martyrdom - which kills only oneself - and suicide-bombing, which, of course, kills others. Money quote:


There follows a quote from the news brief linked to above. Sullivan continues:


It seems to me that if Islamic fascists wanted merely to blow themselves up, few of us would object. In fact, it might be worth encouraging. Win-win: they go to “heaven”, we get to ride the subway in peace. But these people are mass-murderers. I guess it takes an academic to see that as altruism.


Sullivan has obviously missed the point, right? There is no value judgment being made in describing suicide bombers as altruistic. That's why I used the scare quotes earlier. As described in the quotes above, altruism has a precise technical meaning here. Once that is understood, it is also clear that Sullivan's distinction between martyrdom and suicide bombing is totally irrelevant.

But wait! The story continues. An e-mailer pointed out the obvious to Sullivan:


You're being somewhat unfair to the researchers who attribute suicide terror to “altruism.” We generally use the word “altruism” in a positive sense -- an “unselfish concern for the welfare of others,” as defined in The American Heritage Dictionary. However the same dictionary defines the scientific term “altruism” as “instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.” There are no value judgments inherent in this scientific definition, which seems clearly to be the meaning intended by the researchers in the article to which you link. The conclusions reached by the researchers may or may not be accurate, but understanding the mind of the suicide bomber is both a worthy and necessary goal.


Looks pretty clear to me. But Sullivan absolutely refuses to get it:


Huh? Let's concede for the sake of argument that altruism in this sense means precisely “instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.” You're saying that the murderers of 9/11 were exhibiting “cooperative behavior” for the “survival of the species”? Suicide bombing is an upper-middle class form of mass murder, attached to a psychotic, narcissistic version of religious faith. If someone wants to martyr himself as a protest, that's one thing. If he wants to take other innocent people with him, it's quite another. I would think that distinction is an obvious one. Within the confines of today's value-free academia, it apparently isn't.


Sullivan insists on seeing a moral connotation to the term “altruism.” That's why he thinks that describing suicide bombing as an upper-middle class form of mass murder somehow contradicts the statement that bombers are motivated by altruism, in the technical sense of that word.

The distinction between martyrdom and suicide bombing is obvious if your goal is to pass moral judgment on the actions of terrorists. But since for the moment the issue is the motivation for their actions, it is a completely irrlevant distinction.

The really amusing part of this is that Sullivan has elsewhere expressed his admiration for Murray and Herrnstein's infamous book The Bell Curve. This is the book where the authors tried to use messy sociological data to draw biological conclusions about IQ differences between races.

So when conservative academics use an obviously defective procedure to draw incendiary conclusions about race and IQ, Sullivan sees that as courageous and admirable. But when someone suggests that suicide bombers might be motivated more by group psychology than by religious fanaticism, Sullivan sees this as evidence of the lack of values among academics.

Ask me again why there aren't more conservative academics.

7 Comments:

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Bob Davis said...

Didn't Andrew Sullivan once write for Married With Children? That would explain everything.

 
At 10:47 PM, Anonymous Joe Shelby said...

Altruism — a counterintuitive and little-studied motive for suicide — suggests that suicide terrorism is a phenomenon of group psychology and organizational behavior, rather than an outgrowth of fundamentalist religious beliefs.

uh, when one's "group" of psychology is one's community, driven by an exclusivity in religion (enforced by the state), and one's organization is dictated by the laws of the state and tradition, originated in the religion of the region, then that particular paragraph strikes me as supremely redundant.

granted, "suicide bombing" prior to the middle east crisis usually referred to the japanese kamakazi pilots, who like many of the japanese dead of ww2 (take the Marshall Islands campaign for example), were told that their dying was of benefit to the empire, the emperor, and their nation and family.

"altruism" is relative -- if something is beneficial, the standard by which that "benefit" is measured and considered is a product of the society. in the religious fundementalist mindset, society and religion are indistinguishable (even though in the society where that religion resides, like America, they ARE distinguishable).

as such, i think that paragraph, and article, is relatively pointless.

 
At 4:47 AM, Blogger Phil N. Darrer said...

It's one thing that some people get confused when science borrows a general term and uses it without every original implication. They should know that the scientific "concept of altruism" isn't the same as altruism, but obviously they don't get that.

Of course, the same people who get confused at this point are also the same people who complain loudest when life science would just make up new terms (or use Latin ones) for how arrogant science can be of talking in complicated cryptic science slang that they don't understand either.

 
At 8:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I'd say that altruism doesn't seem to fit Islamic suicide bombers in the scientific sense of the word because there is an inherent selfishness to the act as well.

A bee that stings an enemy and kills itself in the process doesn't have the mental capacity to speculate about its possible future after death. This seems to fit with the scientific definition of altruism.

An Islamic suicide bomber isn't just blowing him or herself up for the community or society or species. They think they're going to be rewarded with a special place in the afterlife. In this sense, due to their mental state, it is doubtful that most see it as a sacrifice. They're not giving up their life, so much as promoting themselves to a glorious afterlife.

If there is evidence to refute this, in the study you mention, I'd like to hear it.

Derek James
http://www.journalscape.com/derekjames/

 
At 10:29 AM, Anonymous j. j. ramsey said...

"An Islamic suicide bomber isn't just blowing him or herself up for the community or society or species. They think they're going to be rewarded with a special place in the afterlife."

That the behavior of Islamic suicide bombers is fairly similar to that of the Tamil Tigers, who are Marxist and don't believe in an afterlife, suggests that something more than a promise for a glorious afterlife is at work. Even with the hope of an afterlife, most people are reluctant and often afraid to die, which would suggest that an after-death hope, while "icing on the cake," is not enough to put people over the edge.

 
At 1:05 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Joe-

I actually had the same reaction to the article as you did. As I mentioned in my blog entry, it's very difficult to understand the argument being made by the `altruism theorists' simply from reading this brief.

What is claer, however, is that the term altruism is not intended as a moral judgment about the actions of suicide bombers. Consequently, Sullivan's writing, and his constant harping on the distinction between martyrdom and sucide bombing, is way off the mark. Also way off the mark is his insinuation that this is evidence of a lack of values on the part of academics.

 
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