The Is-Ought Dilemma: And How a Young Suicide Bomber Learned Nothing

All we can talk about today is the reported suicide attack in Iraq by Australian teen and convert to Islam, Jake Bilardi. Jake defected from his home country and middle class Melbourne family to join the Islamic State (IS) with dreams of becoming a “martyr” for Islam. After the death of his mother, the self-reported former atheist turned to Islam and, through his Internet study of the politics of the Middle East and the wars lead by the West, grew deep hatred and distrust of America and Australia. And so he traveled to Ramadi with the explicit purpose of killing Shias and non-Muslims. …and himself.

How does this happen? I don’t know. It’s incredibly frustrating that seemingly reasonable children can wake up one day and become unreasonable. I call him unreasonable because suicide missions are by definition irrational. Suicide terrorists are no longer alive to share in any benefit their deaths bring. The definition of rationality is operating in a manner sufficient to maximize the utility of the resources at your disposal. Using them to commit suicide in no way maximizes their utility.

Anyway, through my reading I became aware that Bilardi had written a blog where he explains why he chose to become a suicide terrorist. This article by Daily Mail has an excerpt (in the blue box) that gives us all we need to know. I recommend taking a moment to read his words before continuing to my main arguments below.

In his blog post, Bilardi appears to believe he can make a positive impact on his adoptive society and, perhaps, the world by killing himself. To me this appears a recurring theme in people engaged in suicide protest. Through my research into self-immolation, every actor honestly believed their death would compel society or a government to undo a wrong. The problem is they were mistaken, and their deaths were in vain. When it comes to suicide terrorists, their deaths are not only often in vain; their deaths are murderous, which makes it even less likely they’ll ever find a sympathetic audience.

You see, this brings up the philosophical question about is versus ought, articulated by David Hume, and often called “Hume’s guillotine.” Bilardi’s suicide was meant to compel a sympathetic audience to change the way something is to the way it ought to be. But how can a teenager understand how things ought to be if the world can’t even agree on how it ought to be? Furthermore, how can one go from descriptive facts to objective prescriptions? Isn’t a prescription itself, even if we agree on the descriptions, subjective? These questions arise because we don’t even know how the world is?! Without being able to explain how something is, we cannot come to a consensus about how it ought to be. Even if we agreed on how the world is, agreeing on how it ought to be is a rather challenging feat.

This is one of the reasons I got into political science in the first place. I had ideas of how the world ought to be, and I came into the program years ago hoping to make a difference. I learned very quickly that one person can’t make a difference if a) he cannot accurately describe the thing he wants to change, and b) there’s disagreement about how this thing should change. In other words, my job now is to figure out how the world is — which, I confess, is rather impossible. Only when I know how the world is can I tackle the immensely challenging disagreement of how it ought to be.

Bilardi, however, made up his mind without ever learning a damned thing! He chose to adopt a religious philosophy that fails to accurately provide a descriptive basis, and he used this flawed philosophy to justify killing himself and others. This kind of commitment to a failed philosophy is remarkable and piques the interests of scores of political scientists, and I think we can all agree that this kind of commitment would be better served in academic halls. If he had spent this much effort in forming a demonstrable descriptive basis for the problems he perceived, then he might’ve had a fighting chance at changing the descriptive basis through prescriptive statements. And not a drop of blood would’ve been spilt.

This is the fundamental difference between the sciences and religions. Science is primarily concerned with accurately describing reality so it can determine problems and perhaps prescribe a solution. Religion is primarily concerned with maintaining its predetermined description of reality and prescribing only reaction to changing norms. One of these actually has the potential to help society. The other has the actual potential to harm society. If only Bilardi had seen the difference before he killed himself and others.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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1 Response to The Is-Ought Dilemma: And How a Young Suicide Bomber Learned Nothing

  1. Barry says:

    Had he been born in another time, he may well have chosen fascism/Nazism or Marxism/Stalinism instead. I don’t think it’s religion per se. It’s more a case of feeling part of an ideology. He wanted to belong to a cause. Unfortunately he found islamism.

    I view Islam and and islamism as two different things. Islam is a personal religion. Islamism is not. I like Daniel Pipes’ summary of Islamism:
    “Islamism is yet another twentieth-century radical utopian scheme. Like Marxism-Leninism or fascism, it offers a way to control the state, run society, and remake the human being. It is an Islamic-flavored version of totalitarianism. The details, of course, are very different from the preceding versions, but the ultimate purpose is very similar.” (the emphasis above is mine)

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