Slippery Words and Evil Deeds

Terrorists are often not cowardly, but brave, says Dalrymple at the Library of Law and Liberty. But is acknowledging that really to compliment them?

The reason we call terrorists cowardly is that bravery is generally considered a virtue, and we are reluctant to accord people whom we abhor any virtues at all. We want our enemies to be endowed only with detestable qualities, and we are only too aware that courage is the virtue without which other virtues cannot be exercised. If someone were to say “these brave terrorist attacks,” we should suspect him of sympathizing with them.

This is all based on a confusion about the nature of the virtuousness of bravery. Bravery is not a free-standing virtue, as it were, such that anybody who displays it is thereby virtuous. It is like originality in art or architecture: originality is not a virtue unless in the production of something worthwhile sub specie aeternitatis, that is to say judged by a criterion other than originality itself.

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