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Lenin, Hitler—and Abraham Lincoln

In a recent LSS Newsletter, I connected Scott Atran’s concept of the “devoted actor” to my “Second Law” (see below). Devoted actors—unconditionally committed to a sacred cause—willingly make costly sacrifice.

Atran’s concept derives from his study of Islamic radicalism. I suggested, however, that the concept of the devoted actor is equally applicable to many political movements…where societies adhere to “transcendent values” and make costly sacrifices “in the name of a sacred cause.”

I mentioned the cases of Lenin and communism, Hitler and Nazism—and Abraham Lincoln’s desire to create a “more perfect union.”

I received the following note from Joel I. Friedman, Professor of Philosophy at U. Cal., Davis.

Are all "devoted actors" bad? Would it be better for the world if there were no devoted actors? Are you implying this?

I would agree that most of your examples of "devoted actors" show that the world would be better off without them. But I take great exception to your example of Abraham Lincoln! Lincoln not only freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War, but then permanently freed them through the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution…I would insist that Lincoln was a great and good "devoted actor", and that America and the world is better off because of Lincoln and his legacy! For all I know, you may actually agree with this!

My Second Law (see below) makes no reference to the “goodness” or “badness” of a particular transcendent value—in the name of which societies die and kill. The nature of the cause—and the mechanism by which the cause is validated—are orthogonal.

Dying and killing represent vehicles for verification—the manner in which the value (or “truth”) of the transcendent value is established. Dying and killing constitute proof of devotion.

A significant dimension of political history consists of violent acts whose purpose is to give credence to a sacred value. We may “like” a particular societies’ sacred value, or feel it is evil.

Each society has its own conception of what is worth dying and killing for. Whatever the sacred ideal, the mechanism for establishing its reality—or validity—is the same: the proof of the pudding is in the dying and killing.

Best regards,
Richard Koenigsberg, PhD
Director, Library of Social Science

Koenigsberg's Second Law
The nature of the entity or idea for which human beings die is fungible. Among these entities or ideas:
  • France
  • Germany
  • The British Empire
  • The (Japanese) Emperor
  • Allah
  • Freedom and democracy
  • A Tamil homeland
  • A more perfect union
The mechanism is the same: death and memorials erected in the name of those who have died—testify to the reality of the entity or ideal. Death and memorialization perform a validation function.