Terrorism and the philosophers.

Philosophical ruminations.
April 22 2002 2:25 PM

Terrorism and the Philosophers

Can the ends ever justify the means?

(Continued from Page 1)

The debate over the doctrine of double effect, though philosophically interesting, is mostly moot. It is possible to think up hypothetical cases where an evil act is a means to a disproportionately good outcome—"If you boil this baby it will save 10 lives." But in the real world, acts of terror are rarely efficacious in a good cause (somewhat less rarely in a bad one). That is not surprising when you think about it. Deliberately killing noncombatants does not weaken an enemy militarily, precisely because they are noncombatants—children, the aged, and so forth. Far from having a demoralizing effect, the bombing of civilians both by the Germans and by the British during World War II seemed to stiffen the sinews of each side. In The Lessons of Terror, Caleb Carr produces ample historical evidence that terror is especially impotent when it comes to fighting terror—witness the sorry experience of the French in Algeria. All of which suggests an empirical counterpart to the doctrine of double effect: To act knavishly in a good cause is to act foolishly.

Jim Holt is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker—where he has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, truth, and bullshit, among other subjects—and the author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He lives in Greenwich Village, New York City.

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