Moral of the Story: Terrorism and Virtue Ethics

I am currently in Oslo, Norway, visiting the Norwegian side of my family. It’s lovely; pretty, friendly, sunny, suddenly stormy; everything you’d expect from a Scandinavian summer, in other words. But, of course, you’re not here to read about the weather. Instead, in this post, I thought I would review The Defender: the book written by Anders Behring Breivik’s defense council.

Some quick background, in case you don’t know who Breivik is. He’s the guy who planted the bomb in Oslo 22nd July 2011, killing eight people, and then drove up to Ut&#248ya, where he shot 69 people (mostly young people) who were there for a summer camp for the youth branch of Arbeiderpartiet (the “Labor party”), the governing political party in Norway at the time. Breivik was tried in a regular court, and requested Geir Lippestad as his defender. Lippestad took the job (with some hesitation, which he writes about in the book), and worked with a team which included three others. In the end, Breivik was sentenced to 21 years (with containment), the maximum available sentence.

I read the book last week – it’s not a big volume, and it’s incredibly gripping, so I got through it in a couple of days. In some ways, it’s “just” the story of the trial. Lippestad starts more or less with the phone call he got early in the morning on the 23rd, when Breivik had been apprehended and was sitting in a cell just down the road from where I am now. He describes how he didn’t want to take the case – mostly for “selfish” reasons, he writes, like wanting to look after his family. It’s his wife who gets him to change his mind, and once he’s made his decision and heard Breivik’s initial confession, the next challenge is deciding how he’s going to approach the case.

By “approach the case” I don’t mean the details of building up Breivik’s defence. Rather, I mean that Lippestad sat down (“on a milk crate” in the police station), thought about Breivik, himself, the guiding values of Norwegian society, and how they were all related – he took a “big picture” kind of view. Then he decided (or “realised” might be a better word) what his guiding values would have to be. And from then on, the book becomes a story about a whole lot more than “just” a trial.

I found it incredibly fascinating to read how Lippestad constantly balanced competing demands – from the public, who ranged from being absolutely furious at him to those who were supportive; from the media, who were likewise supportive and critical but who also played an important role in keeping everyone informed; from his own family, who didn’t necessarily appreciate his increased work load; and not least, from Breivik himself. Although the trial itself runs through the book as a guiding line of narrative, it’s the discussions of values and communication that forms the substance of this book.

It’s insightful, it’s moving, and it’s so very very good. Reading this book, and reflecting on it from a perspective of moral psychology and moral philosophy, I feel like virtue ethics is completely underrated. Perhaps us moral psychs can do something about that.

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