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.