Lessons from the island of Utøya

News reports on the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who murdered 77 people on the island of Utøya, near Oslo, last year, are being filed from a different moral universe. In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells imagined that Martian “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” were scrutinising and studying earthlings “as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water”.

That could be a description of Breivik. His cool detachment in the court as he recalled how he stalked and shot his helpless victims was terrifying. It is a great mercy that he failed to kill more innocent people.

But his conscience remains untroubled. He has constructed a moral system in which his actions were needed to counter the poisonous influence of Muslims and Marxists in Norway. He cites evidence and experts to back up his claims. “I know it is gruesome what I have done and I know that I have caused an incredible amount of pain to thousands of people,” he told the court. “But it was necessary. I would do it again.”

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How can this extraterrestrial fit into life amongst earthlings, a being so bereft of emotion, fellowship, or compassion that he could spend years planning the decapitation of a former prime minister and the slaughter of hundreds of innocent teenagers?

There are no ready categories for man like Anders Behring Breivik. Perhaps that accounts for the endless palaver about whether he represents a first wave of violent Islamophobia in Europe. It is easier to cope with an evil ideology than with an evil man.

If he is not from Mars, he must be sane or insane. If he is sane, how could he act so inhumanly? If he is insane, how can he appear so normal? Psychiatrists may eventually find words to describe his mental state, but how this evil emerged in a tranquil society like Norway is almost inexplicable, unless perhaps you invoke supernatural powers beyond our ken.

And yet, having said all that, we mustn’t treat Breivik as an intruder from an alien world. In some respects the way he thinks is all too familiar. It represents an extreme — a hyper-extreme – corollary to a moral code based only upon autonomy and rational choice.

Breivik made a conscious choice. There is no question whatsoever that he acted freely. He was not angry. He even practiced meditation to control unruly passions. “First of all,” he testified, “if you are going to be capable of executing such a bloody and horrendous operation you need to work on your mind, your psyche, for years. We have seen from military traditions you cannot send an unprepared person into war.”

This has a familiar ring to it. Euthanasia and abortion are nearly always justified by invoking autonomy and choice, as well. In these cases, it is rationalised as a choice which hurts no one else. But harm to others is not the central issue for supporters. They argue that the act of making a fully-informed, voluntary choice determines the essential goodness of the action.

Breivik’s murderous day in July last year blows this approach to moral reasoning out of the water. Choices cannot be good or bad simply because they are made freely. Only if the action is good can the choice be good.

The second morality lesson relates to the “yuck factor”. For contemporary ethicists, a sense of moral repugnance is often regarded as an obstacle rather than as flashing red light that an act might be depraved. Objections to same-sex marriage, for example, are dismissed as the fruit of emotional bias.

A typical critique of the “yuck factor” comes from utilitarian bioethicist John Harris: “there is no necessary connection between phenomena, attitudes, or actions that make us uneasy, or even those that disgust us, and those phenomena, attitudes, and actions that there are good reasons for judging unethical”. From the other side of the Atlantic, philosopher Martha Nusssbaum argues in her book From Disgust to Humanity that repugnance is a justification for oppression and vilification.

But what happened on the island of Utoya suggests that we mute our instinctive reactions at our peril. As Breivik began the killing spree, he was swept by a wave of repugnance. “My whole body tried to revolt when I took the weapon in my hand,” he told the court. “There were a hundred voices in my head saying, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it.’” He did it.

Repugnance is an emotion, not a reason. But it can be, in the words of bioethicist Leon Kass, “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it”. Breivik ignored it. He was pumped full of reasons why the children of Norway’s left-wing intelligentsia had to be exterminated. He made a “rational choice” uncontaminated by emotion. And it was horrifically wrong.

If anything can be learned from this despicable man, it is the danger of creating one’s own moral law. Nature did a pretty good job the first time around. It is folly to think that we can improve on it.

This article was originally published on MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons Licence.


  • Michael Cook

    Michael Cook is the editor of Mercatornet.com. He earned a BA at Harvard University and later moved to Australia where he pursued a career in journalism.

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