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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The Simpsons World App Is Here, and Nearly Perfect

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Politics

The Right to Run

If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Education
Oct. 22 2014 4:45 PM Welcome to 13th Grade! Several Oregon high schools are offering a fifth year of high school. Every district should consider it.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 4:10 PM Skinny Mark Wahlberg Goes for an Oscar: The First Trailer for The Gambler
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.