Evil and the Morality of Conviction
This essay is about the moral psychology of those who do evil as they wage war upon evil. My focus is the “morality of conviction” that simplifies and polarizes for the sake of meaning, certitude and decisiveness. My primary example will be the downward spiral dance between those Islamists who invoke fundamentalist views to motivate and justify terrorist attacks on the U.S. and its allies (many who hold radical fundamentalist views, of course, deny that attacks on civilians are justified), and those in the U.S. who oppose them but are fundamentally alike in misperceiving the motivations of the other side. By saying they fundamentally alike in this respect, I am not saying that what is done on both sides is morally equivalent all things considered, nor do I want to say that the fact of one’s actions being somewhat or even a lot less worse than those on the other side constitutes a good excuse for those actions. A final qualification to make clear at the outset is that the perception of the other side as malignantly evil is but one motivating factor for the terrorist attacks and the U.S. response, and there is no claim here for the primacy of this perception as a motivating factor. The assumption of this paper, however, is that it was and continues to be a significant factor in the readiness to use violence without the usual acknowledged constraints.