Jeffrey R Young, at the Chronicle of Higher Education, on the unlikely conversation between the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski) and David F. Skrbina, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Michigan. The two have been corresponding for nearly a decade, and Skrbina discusses the former's writings in his class on the philosophy of technology:

At one point an older student in the back with gray hair and a denim shirt suggests that it's wrong to be having this discussion. "Is it even morally or ethically right," he asks, "to be studying the works of a societal criminal—in this case a social terrorist?"

Skrbina is quick to respond: "So the question is, Can the ideas stand on their own merit regardless of who said them? It could be Kaczynski, it could be Mother Teresa, it could be Mr. Anonymous—the ideas are what they are, and the arguments are what they are. So I think from a rational standpoint we should say we can treat the ideas in abstraction from the circumstances in which they appear."

I don't think that is the relevant ethical question. Every time one of these guys pops up--the Kaczynskis and the Jared Lee Loughners and the Anders Breiviks--there's a tendency to try to figure out why someone would lash out so viciously against innocent people, meaning that people suddenly pay a lot of attention to their manifestos and YouTube videos and so on. Or if not a lot of attention, more than we otherwise would. The relevant ethical question is along the lines of, do we thereby create a perverse incentive for people to act out this way?

As for Skrbina's question, though, the answer seems to be 'no'. That's why the Unabomber was sending mail bombs. He wanted to compel people's attention, and apparently the normal, nonviolent ways of doing so weren't working. In a sense, he used technology to advance his public profile--ironic, given that his manifesto (which I haven't read) apparently calls for people to abandon technology. If he doesn't believe his own argument, why should any of us check it out?

06/10/2012 15:43

That's a good point about not creating a perverse incentive for people to act out violently. A good, albeit less serious, analogy: sporting broadcasts long ago stopped showing fans who run onto the field during play, on exactly the logic that people knowing that this disruptive activity results in being seen on TV encourages the behavior.

09/26/2012 01:23

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