A terrorist’s virtue

I keep a fluctuating list of meta-ideas in a folder on my desktop. Generally, they’re concepts or ideas that transcend the passage of time, things that I want to consider and reflect upon over a prolonged period. Right now it contains, amongst other things, a passage from The Gulag Archipelago

“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

…an idea concerning macro-productivity…

“Saying no and setting boundaries creates time and space which allows you to discover and focus on what is essential.”

…and a short standard for risk taking:

“Take risks for…

1) …what you believe in.
2) …”the sake of the survival of a layer higher than yours.”

As you may realise, the idea around risk taking is derived from the work of Nassim Taleb. One of his central concepts is “skin in the Game”, which can be loosely translated into the practical aphorism above: take risks for what you believe in. For example, if I believe in free speech, I must oppose those who try to censor and silence others. Not with words, but with deeds. I must put my reputation, prosperity and wellbeing on the line for it. Another example: if I believe that capitalism is an evil I must myself make do with only that which is produced by non-capitalist means. No extravagant food or drink, no possessions that are made by people who don’t have the welfare of producers as a central focus, no social media, none of the many utilities made by companies around the world. Another way of thinking of this is as follows: it’s not a principle unless it costs me something

Seems admirable and virtuous, doesn’t it? It seems right and proper that the sincerity of a belief or principle is measured by the cost required to sustain it. But here’s where it gets interesting. If taking risks for what you believe in is honorable and virtuous, does that mean that terrorists are honorable and virtuous? A terrorist puts his life on the line for what he believes in; in a non-metaphorical way, he dies for what he thinks. Can you or I say the same?

Of course, terrorists also kill people. Which makes me think that, alongside the standard for risk taking, I need some sort of counter-metric to assess the validity of a belief. Because, as Oscar Wilde said, “a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.” So it’s a balancing act, really. On one hand, to have skin in the game I must take risks for what I believe in. But on the other, I must entertain the idea that I am mistaken in what I believe, and thus, risking everything for something that isn’t true.