The Skewed Ethical Universe of the Terrorist - Pacific Standard

The Skewed Ethical Universe of the Terrorist

New research finds terrorists' moral reasoning resembles that of certain dementia victims.
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A police officer stands guard during a government land restitution process. Farmers were displaced under pressure and threats from former paramilitary commander Rodrigo Tovar Pupo.

A police officer stands guard during a government land restitution process. Farmers were displaced under pressure and threats from former paramilitary commander Rodrigo Tovar Pupo.

A relative of one of the three men who committed the recent London Bridge terrorist attack offered a succinct analysis of his mental state. "He was a psychopath, and I mean that in the very medical definition of the word," she told the Mirror. "He came from a nice family, had everything, but there was something very wrong with him."

While we can only speculate about any individual's motivations, new research on terrorists suggests the source was only half-right. Yes, there is something amiss in the brains of people who commit such acts, but they're not psychopaths.

Rather, their moral judgment is akin to that of very small children, or people "with damage in frontal and temporal regions (of the brain)," writes a research team led by psychologist Sandra Baez of Favaloro University in Bueno Aires, Argentina, who studied 66 former terrorists from Colombia.

It found terrorists have a "fixation on utopian visions, whereby only (idealized) ends matter," the researchers write in the journal Nature Human Behavior. To their way of thinking, harming innocent people is morally acceptable "insofar as it favors the accomplishment of a utopian aim."

The study participants were far removed from the usual group of undergraduates. All were imprisoned former members of a militia group who had been convicted of multiple murders—33 apiece, on average. Their answers were compared to two control groups: one of non-criminals, and another made up of convicted murderers who were not involved in terrorism.

They filled out a series of questionnaires measuring their intelligence, aggression, ability to identify people's emotions, and moral judgments. To that latter end, they were presented with 24 scenarios involving intentional or unintentional harm. For each, they were asked how permissible they found the action of the perpetrator.

Most individuals—criminals and non-criminals alike—"tend to attach greater importance to intentions than to outcomes in judging the morality of an action," the researchers note. We view hurting someone intentionally as being far worse than doing so unintentionally.

"Terrorists judge others' actions by focusing on the outcomes, suggesting that their moral code prioritizes ends over means."

For the terrorists, this was reversed: When making a judgment, they focused almost entirely on the outcome of an action, not the intention of the perpetrator. "This moral judgment pattern resembles that at early developmental stages," as well as "patients with neurological disorders (frontotemporal dementia)," the researchers write.

"Our results reveal that terrorists judge others' actions by focusing on the outcomes, suggesting that their moral code prioritizes ends over means," Baez and her colleagues conclude. In other words, any action that helps promote the desired end is, by definition, morally acceptable.

They add that this attitude "was the measure that best discriminated between groups," which suggests "distortion in this domain is a hallmark of the terrorist mindset."

Also noteworthy: The researchers found this skewed ethical sense "was not associated with fluid intelligence or executive functions." This shows that "deviant moral judgments may be present even in individuals with normal or above-average IQ."

To reiterate, this study looked at Colombian terrorists, not Islamist radicals; it's not certain if their moral worlds are the same. Nevertheless, the results provide good information for law-enforcement officials or community leaders looking to identify potential terrorists in their midst.

If someone expresses the odd view that an accidental killing is morally indistinguishable from an intentional one, that's not just weird—it's a danger sign.

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