Tuesday, May 3, 2011

NPR on Korsgaard on bin Laden

Thanks to Brian Leiter, I found this article about the reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden, which quotes Christine Korsgaard:
Is there moral philosophical justification for rejoicing over the demise of someone like bin Laden?
"Most people believe that the killing we do in war is justified as the only way to disable an enemy whose cause we believe to be unjust," says Christine Korsgaard, a philosophy professor at Harvard University. "And although it is more controversial, many people believe, or at least feel, that those who kill deserve to die as retribution for their crimes.
"But if we confuse the desire to defeat an enemy with the desire for retribution against a criminal, we risk forming attitudes that are unjustified and ugly — the attitude that our enemy's death is not merely a means to disabling him, but is in itself a kind of a victory for us, or perhaps even the attitude that our enemy deserves death because he is our enemy."
It is important, Korsgaard says, "not to confuse the desire for retribution with the desire to defeat an enemy. But because terrorism partakes of both crime and war, it is perfectly natural, and perhaps legitimate, to have both of these attitudes towards Osama bin Laden: to think that we had to disable him, and to think that he deserved to die."
The two sentiments should be kept apart, she says. "If we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him — not because he is dead."
I wonder what Korsgaard actually said, though, because it doesn't seem to make much sense to say both that it is perfectly natural and perhaps legitimate to think that bin Laden deserved to die and that if we have any feeling of triumph it should not be because he is dead. If his death was deserved then why not be glad that  justice was done? (I'll return to this below.) Or is the idea that a feeling of victory or triumph is not the same thing as the feeling of satisfaction one legitimately has when justice is done?

Or is Korsgaard's idea that it is OK to have both attitudes as long as they are not mixed together? That seems a bit strange too.

My guess is that either Korsgaard thinks that there is an important difference between a feeling of justice having been done and a feeling of victory, or that part of her thinking has been omitted, in which she actually rejected the "natural and perhaps legitimate" (emphasis added) combination of attitudes that she describes. 

Let's look more closely at what she is quoted as saying. If we feel a sense of triumph, she says, this should be at our having successfully disabled an enemy. Apparently this would be OK. We may also, acceptably, feel that justice has been done. But we may not mix or confuse these sentiments, lest we start to think that our enemies deserve death just because they are our enemies. I wonder how far sentiments work, or can be got to work, like this though. If we mix them will they make each other grow? Maybe. If we are rational and keep them apart, will this prevent us from singing "We Are the Champions" in the streets? Maybe. It's not really clear whether the issues here are empirical/psychological or ethical or conceptual or what, at least to me.

I do agree that a feeling of triumph is out of place here. A chapter (not a book) has ended, but it's not a good chapter. A lot of people get killed in it. Some of the people who killed bin Laden probably lost their lives too. (They didn't, according to the official reports, but I have heard that this might not mean much, since it was a covert operation, and that a helicopter was reported to have made a "hard landing" after receiving heavy gunfire. "Hard landing" (at least sometimes) means crash.)

I have always thought of Al Qaeda as a terrorist organization rather than as a genuinely military enemy, so I thought of bin Laden much more as a wanted criminal than as an enemy combatant. Korsgaard is probably right that he is somewhere between the two, or both, but my sense is that he was no longer much of a threat, so his status as a criminal is probably more important than his status as a threat. And so, perhaps, justice has been done. I don't believe in capital punishment, but it may well be that bin Laden was killed in a firefight rather than in an execution, and he could hardly complain that he had done nothing to deserve being killed. None of it makes me feel like singing in the streets though.


  1. Apparently bin Laden was unarmed when shot, so it sounds as though it could have been an execution.. Of course I don't know what happened though.
  2. This is well worth reading too.
  3. Rupert Read gives his opinion, and others respond, here.]    


  1. I basically agree with what you say. I heard H. Clinton's press conference yesterday morning, and she used the phrase "brought to justice" or something like that (in the range of "justice has been done"). And I get the point of saying that, but I don't particularly agree that justice is the right concept. But then I'm not a big fan of retributivist thinking. There was a firefight. He was killed. He was a bad guy. Enough. (The invoking of the notion of justice by US leaders just reinforces, I think, a kind of ugly retributivist mindset...is this an overreaction?)

  2. The news of bin Laden's death was indeed big and surprising--the sort of thing where it SEEMS like there should be some kind of significant reaction. I assume that explains dancing in the street--what else do you do when you hear really important news that's basically good?

  3. Yes, talk about justice sounds a little too triumphant or satisfied. My main reaction was just "wow," as in recognizing that this was a significant event. I suppose it's basically good, but its importance outweighs its goodness by a long way in my mind. Maybe I would have reacted differently if I had been with other people who felt more celebratory.