Explaining violent extremism

Thirteen years into the ‘War on Terror’, and confusion still reigns about the roots of radicalisation.

The horrors visited on the streets on Paris on January 7 are the latest entry in the tragic catalogue of violence committed by Islamist extremists in Western countries since 9/11. Like 9/11, the 2004 Madrid bombings, and the 2005 Tube attacks, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket have re-ignited a cluster of deep and divisive arguments that have become entrenched over the past decade or so. What is the place of Muslim minorities in European societies? What are the limits (or non-limits) of free speech? Is there a fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the free West?

Yet another profoundly important question seems to have been lost in all the commentary over the past few weeks: what drives people to commit such extreme violence? Continue reading

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Beyond belief: On the ethics of killing

Why Sam Harris’s argument that it’s ethically OK to kill people for what they believe still doesn’t stack up.

It’s not uncommon for a polemicist’s words to come back to haunt them, as Sam Harris knows all too well. For the past decade, he’s has been trying to exorcise the ghost of a notorious line in his 2004 book The End of Faith: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

Recently, someone going by the handle @dan_verg_ Tweeted a picture of Harris with these words plastered across it, along with the judgment that Harris is a “genocidal fascist maniac” (an assessment I’m not going to defend). This was re-Tweeted to hundreds of thousands of people, leading Harris to write another defence of his Infamous Argument, entitled ‘On the mechanics of defamation’. It’s time to revisit the argument. Continue reading

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Owning our mistakes


To err is human; to forgive, divine. Somewhere in between sits the willingness to admit when we’ve done wrong, and to take ownership of our transgressions against others. This is the crucial ingredient of a sincere apology and the first step towards forgiveness, divine or otherwise.

It can be hard enough to face up to our simple mistakes, which may impugn our competence, but admitting that we’ve done something bad, or perhaps even just said something out of line, is even more difficult: it threatens our self-image as essentially decent, moral people. Even when people do acknowledge that something they’ve done has caused hurt or offense, it’s not uncommon for the subsequent apology to be more of a pseudo-apology than the real deal. Continue reading

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On being thankful for the freely given kindness of others

Friendships begin with liking or gratitude – roots that can be pulled up
Daniel Deronda (1876), by George Eliot

Twice in my life I’ve been stood behind someone in a queue who has unwittingly dropped a £10 pound note. Both times, I picked it up, tapped the person on the shoulder, and gave it back to them.

This hardly makes me a moral saint or deserving of great praise. Yet I’d bet that for both people the simple act of returning their money generated at least a fleeting flash of gratitude, as I could easily have pocketed it.

Gratitude — like its converse, moral censure — is a basic moral emotion that fuels everyday social interactions. Now new research shows that how much gratitude we experience after people do us a favour depends on free we think they were to do it. Continue reading

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A Free Will Resource via Al Mele

Originally posted on A Philosopher's Take:

Al Mele, one of the most distinguished and recognizable philosophers writing on free will has launched a new blog where he plans to field questions and generate discussion a few times a week (see the blog here). He hopes to answer questions related to his last two books where he takes on scientific claims that supposedly lend support to the idea that we do not have free will. Here is a recent quote from Prof. Mele via facebook:

“Here’s something I posted on the Flickers of Freedom blog.

New Blog for Undergraduates

I’ve started a blog dedicated to discussion with undergraduates using either of my two latest books in a course:

A Dialogue on Free Will and Science

Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will

It’s part of an “outreach” idea I had while I was directing the Big Questions in Free Will project. The current…

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Touring the Veritable Museum of Mistakes: Thoughts on Dennett on Harris on Free Will

Philosopher Dan Dennett has recently taken Sam Harris to task over his arguments for rejecting the concept of free will. Here are my thoughts on this intellectual fallout.

Sam Harris is perhaps the most prominent defender of the claim that we lack free will, a conclusion that he thinks is inescapable if we’re intellectually honest with ourselves and accept the best scientific picture of the world we have.

It’s not a new claim, and Harris doesn’t advocate any new arguments for his position on free will, usually known as hard determinism. (It’s called hard determinism because it’s based on the acceptance of determinism — the thesis that every event that happens has a preceding cause — combined with a denial of free will, which is seen to be incompatible with determinism.)

Harris’s hard determinism is a minority position within contemporary philosophy. Continue reading

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This Is How We Do It: Exploring the Psychology of Culture

Social life is powerfully shaped by rules of culture. But how do we acquire these rules, and why are we so prone to do so? Recent research is shedding light on these questions, and showing how we use culture to create our social identity.

Credit: David Cooper [http://www.headlinestheatre.com/past_work/us_and_them_play/media_us_and_them.htm]

Gangs do it; high-school cliques do it; even educated professionals do it: in all walks of life, groups of people — whether defined by shared interests, belonging to the same profession or competition with other collectives — invariably invent ways of demarcating themselves from everyone else. Street gangs like the notorious Crips and Bloods, who brought mayhem to South Central Los Angeles during the crack years of the 1990s, differentiate themselves by blue and red clothing, along with unique gang signs, tattoos, tags, and even dances. Teenagers and young adults — emo kids, skaters, goths, hipsters — broadcast membership in their chosen subculture by walking, talking and dressing the same.

This tendency to define and mark off our ingroup boundaries in terms of largely arbitrary and symbolic markers goes much wider than the clothes we wear, the hairstyles we sport, and the make-up and tattoos we adorn ourselves with. We have an almost inexhaustible range of social traits that can be used to define who is in or out of our groups — and we take full advantage of these opportunities.

For example, the language we speak is an especially salient way of carving out large-scale group boundaries. Between countries that share a common language, accent (British or American) serves as a more fine-grained way to divide up peoples, and within countries our accent, and the idiom we speak, provide a similarly easy way to divide up the social world (northern or Cockney, posh or working class).

Languages and dialects, however, are just the tip of the identity iceberg. Social, ethnic and religious groups have developed their own rules governing everything from what foods are deemed acceptable to eat, and the ways it should be prepared and consumed, to sexual mores, ways of greeting each other, the appropriate means by which the dead should be handled and disposed of, and so on indefinitely.

Practically every area of life is governed to a greater or lesser extent by a complex and sometimes opaque web of interweaved codes of conduct, rules of etiquette, social conventions, and moral prohibitions that constitute what behavioural scientists call social norms. So extensive are the social norms governing the way “our people” do things that they constitute a good part of the culture we imbibe during childhood and beyond. Understanding how we pick up these social norms, what motivates us to follow them, and how we treat people who fail to obey them is a first step towards explaining how and why we’re such deeply cultural creatures. Continue reading

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