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Moral Moments

The Mouse That Roared

by Joel Marks

The dirty little secret about the World Trade Center assault is that many Americans were impressed as hell by the skill, dedication, and effectiveness of its planning and execution. And for all the labeling of its perpetrators as “cowards,” presumably because they attacked unarmed and defenseless civilians, it is pretty clear that these men were not cowards in any conventional sense, since commandeering an airplane and then crashing it head-on into a skyscraper is not an act for the weak-at-heart.

No, the attack was brilliantly conceived and flawlessly and fearlessly carried out. A band of men figured out how to acquire the world’s largest air force, by realizing the potential of airliners to be airborne bombs. Furthermore, such an air force is even more ‘stealthy’ than the highest-tech fighter jets, for it has the perfect disguise. And what a defense: Which American military pilot is going to be the first to shoot down one of our own passenger planes?

Essentially, a few men with ceramic knives brought a mighty nation to its knees, however momentarily.

But what is the ethical significance of all this? Does the fact that the adversary is so intelligent and brave lend legitimacy to their cause? Does it – terrible to consider – even justify their actions? The answer, I believe, can be found in the opening sentences (First Section) of Immanuel Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, arguing thus:

There is no possibility of thinking of anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and whatever talents of the mind one might want to name are doubtless in many respects good and desirable, as are such qualities of temperament as courage, resolution, perseverance. But they can also become extremely bad and harmful if the will, which is to make use of these gifts of nature …, is not good. (James W. Ellington translation, Hackett Publishing Company)

Heretofore when teaching this passage and this book to my college students, I have cited Adolf Hitler as the perfect example of genius and tenacity gone awry; he has certainly been Twentieth Century ethical philosophy’s favorite whipping boy. Perhaps in the Twenty-first Century, this year’s towering act of terrorism will become our new textbook case.

But it is not the magnitude of destruction and death that defines an act as evil, according to Kant. It is, rather, the quality of the will that motivates it. He makes this clear when discussing the goodness of a good will:

A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e., it is good in itself. … Even if, by some especially unfortunate fate or by the niggardly provision of stepmotherly nature, this will should be wholly lacking in the power to accomplish its purpose … yet would it, like a jewel, still shine by its own light as something which has its full value in itself. (ibid., pp.7f)

As regards the present instance, we can infer that Kant would make the complementary application: that the stupendous accomplishment of the terrorists does not, by one iota, redound to their glory, provided the will which motivated it was corrupt. Nor, for that matter, does their feat overshadow the evil of a will that bungles its golden opportunity to wreak havoc, or of one whose object is only something petty and mean.

There is also a relevant warning in Kant regarding the role of education. He notes that “The prescriptions needed by a doctor in order to make his patient thoroughly healthy and by a poisoner in order to make sure of killing his victim are of equal value so far as each serves to bring about its purpose perfectly” (ibid., p.25). This illustrates again Kant’s fundamental thesis that skill in means must always be subservient to a good will.

Up until now in my teaching I have driven home this point by referring to a course at my university, which is entitled ‘Arson for Profit’. Naturally, the intended student clientele are arson investigators who have matriculated in our criminal justice program. But I have often, half-kiddingly, asked my students whether they thought that would be a good course for a prospective arsonist to take, or whether there is any screening of the applicants. After all, they would learn the latest methods of setting fires and detecting them; what better knowledge for the person who wants to get away with it?

Well, now we know that the hijackers who guided the airliners into their targets were students at an American pilottraining school. Why, my university has just such a program! So perhaps it is again incumbent on me to change the example I use to make my Kantian point!

But the argument is not yet complete. For what is this good (or bad) will of which Kant speaks? Simply to single it out as the axis of ethics is not to characterize it, much less defend its significance. Kant’s response is his categorical imperative, one of whose formulations I find particularly apt to answer the Twin Towers attackers, thus: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (ibid., p.36). It would seem beyond question that the hijackers used the thousands of persons whom they killed, including themselves, as well as the millions whom their skillful actions have harmed, “simply as a means” to achieve their goal. This, and not even the intention to kill as such nor the multitude of those adversely affected, is what made their wills wicked, their actions evil. And against this, neither any presumed worthiness of the goal, nor bravura in its pursuit, counts for aught.

© Joel Marks 2001

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. He would like to thank David Brubaker and Darrell Harrison for their suggestions. The Moral Moments website is at www.moralmoments.com.

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