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Moral Justification of Terrorism: Personal Statement

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Table of contents

  1. Definition of Terrorism
  2. Moral Justification: Supreme Emergency
    Moral Justification: Consequentialism
  3. Conclusion

In modern day society, particularly in liberal democracies, it is a common consensus that terrorism is branded immoral, a rejection to the label for its characteristics of fear and violence on surface level. This essay will attempt to encapsulate why terrorism is not always immoral, examining theories in line with circumstantial context in support of the claim. I will first introduce the concept of terrorism, discussing the contention within the debate of the definition before evaluating moral justifications of terrorism, concluding that terrorism is not always immoral. I will discuss two main theories for justifying terrorism; the supreme emergency theory and consequentialism, however I would like to pay acknowledgement to the deontological justification, for conciseness reasons I will not evaluate in this essay.

Terrorism as a phenomenon holds a pejorative label in society, associated with wholly negative connotations based upon atrocities conducted by non-state terrorist organizations. The definition of terrorism is a longstanding debate within its academic field, with contention over who can commit terrorist acts and what acts constitute as terroristic. Although it may seem like a cyclical debate as the lack of consensus of a universally accepted definition is not in reach any time soon; it is crucial to have an agreed upon understanding of the concept, the importance lies within the avoidance of cross-purposing. The concept of terrorism can be seen as interchangeable, depending on the individual’s perspective and who they are talking about, in accordance with the established argument of one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Cooper develops an interesting analogy of these two roles, comparing them with oranges and apples. In basic terms, if one person is talking about oranges and the other is talking about apples, the conversation ineffective. This comparison can be applied to dialogue concerning terrorism, the definition debate is significantly important to ensure parties engaging in discussion are in agreement and understand what the other is talking about.

Terrorism has a number of characteristics to it, which is what separates the strategy from other forms of political violence, thus the definition must incorporate these features. Academic working definitions usually share commonalities such as:

  1. the harmingkilling of innocent civilians;
  2. the strategy to instill fear or threat to victims and a wider audience, in an attempt to influence change;
  3. motivated by political or religious ideologies.

There is dispute among academics over the action-based definition of terrorism, as it is argued that most definitions offer that terrorism is a strategy deployed by non-state actors. Accepting an action-based definition of terrorism ignores the state as being a perpetrator for terroristic action, resulting in an absence of research and statistics on state-terrorism. This gap in literature is critical for our understanding in the field of terrorism studies, and subsequently allows state-terrorism to go largely unnoticed. The definition also needs to incorporate the distinction of terrorism from all other forms of political violence. This is important, not only for consistent dialogue on the subject, but for juridical frameworks and political responses to terrorist attacks.

Definition of Terrorism

For the purpose of this essay, I will adopt Coady’s working definition of terrorism, who explains it as “he organized use of violence to attack non-combatants (innocents’ in a special sense) or their property for political purposes”. Narrow definitions are preferred for philosophical debate as they provide a deeper insight into moral understanding, in comparison to wide definitions, which typically incorporate historical context on the phenomenon. This narrow definition is valuable because it is direct in its approach to what terrorism is and is action-basedpolitical status definition, meaning that it holds any actor who employs terrorism as a strategy accountable as the perpetrator. Richardson asserts that promoting a political status definition helps avoid the prevalent hypocrisy of protecting states while they conduct terroristic actions. This extension to include states as terrorist actors, in turn, aborts the definition of state-terrorism, making it a priori. It should be acknowledged that state’s employment of terrorism has a far greater capacity for devastation and states have killed and harmed colossal amounts more people than non-state actors have, however due to definitions of terrorism excluding states as perpetrators, the recognition of these statistics is not public knowledge. Coady’ss definition also illuminates the political dimensions behind terrorism.

Coady’ss definition offers preciseness in the moral distinction of terrorism from other forms of political violence, by placing emphasis on “non-combatants”. Here, he relates the concept of terrorism to just war theory, which stresses one of the fundamental principles of non-combatant immunity. Essentially, in the conceptualization of terrorism, “non-combatants” and “innocent civilians” are the same targets but with different labels, both applied to persons who still hold immunity from violent attacks by being directly or indirectly responsible for structural injustice. A terroristic attack on persons who are not armed separates terrorism from other politically motivated attacks, such as assassination of state officials or the sabotaging of military operations. Primoratz shares a hypothetical distinction: in that placing a bomb in a government building and placing a bomb in a coffee shop are both immorally wrong, however branding both actions as “terrorism” will hinder the process of moral judgement. Walzer puts forth there is a “difficulty recognizing the political parallel of the line which marks off combatants from non-combatants’, the discussion here surrounds the political code. The political code is a very similar ethos to the war convention, a structural likening of officials and citizens in the political code, to soldiers and civilians in the war convention. Both citizens and civilians are killed and harmed by terrorists, however the distinction of other forms of political violence lies in the aiming and non-aiming of them. One of the most important aspects to Coady’s definition is that he eludes to the possibility of terrorism being justified in very limited circumstances.

Moral Justification: Supreme Emergency

The first moral justification of terrorism I will dissect is the supreme emergency theory, offered by Walzer. It should be advised that Walzer believer to the procurement of jus in bello conditions during wartime, however he retracts on this principle through his moral stance on supreme emergency. Walzer defines it as “an ultimate threat to everything decent in our lives, an ideology and a practice of domination so murderous, so degrading even to those who might survive, that the consequences of its final victory were literally beyond calculation, immeasurably awful”. The phrase originated from Winston Churchill in 1939, who described Britain in a state of “supreme emergency” when the nation faced imminent threat from Nazi Germany, the main feature of the theory is the nature of necessity. To accurately depict a circumstance of supreme emergency is to resort back to its origins. As Britain was under imminent threat from Nazi Germany, Walzer claims that through supreme emergency, the bombing of German towns and the killing of innocents and non-combatants was morally justified. Britain’s adoption of extreme measures was a necessity to protect civilization of German attack, but also as a means to cease a victory of the war for Nazi Germany. The threat of the German victory would cause unethical, devastating consequences for Britain, however when the Germany no longer imposes such a magnificent threat the state of supreme emergency was no longer in effect.

Orend’s depiction of supreme emergency offers five conditions which must be satisfied:

  1. Last resort;
  2. Public declaration;
  3. Appeal to international community;
  4. Right intention;
  5. The probability of success.

This account is essentially concerned on the killing of civilians, assuming that they are non-combatants and innocent in the sense they are not harming anyone. Conditions 1 and 5 of Orend’s account of supreme emergency are in accordance to Walzer’s account, emphasis on terrorism as a last resort contributes to its moral justification and the probability of success, where it must be for the better.

Thomas Hobbes places emphasis on the role of fear, describing it as a dominant incommodity for persons in wartime, which is in accordance to the event of supreme emergency during WWII. It is explained that for a circumstance to fit the label of supreme emergency, it must fit two criteria: the first is the imminence of the threat, the second is the nature and context behind it. Both criterion must be accepted, as if a threat is of severity but immediately impending, it does not fulfil “supreme emergency”, similarly if a threat is looming quickly but not as serious, it also does not fulfil the requirements. Scheffler explains the outcome of “standard cases” of terrorism typically use fear as a tactic to destabilize an existing social order, describing the plausibility of terrorism as a “corrosive power of fear”. “Dirty hands” is an argument within supreme emergency, which Walzer summarizes as in a circumstance where human rights violations are inevitable to occur, professional ethics should be reconsidered to account for when it is required to “get our hands dirty”. It is advised that the circumstance of two evils, the lesser evil should be chosen, even if it goes against killing innocent people. The necessity to prevent disaster should succeed the moral rule. Both Orend and Walzer’s accounts of supreme emergency both gloss over the element of proportionality, which is crucial for morally assessing terrorist acts by this theory.

The justification of supreme emergency as a justification to terrorism has been widely debated by scholars in recent years. One general objection contends that supreme emergency is too ambiguous, it fails to directly assert where and when the theory can be accurately applied, presenting a dichotomy between two altering states of “emergency”. Walzer depicts an emergency as two differing concepts, sometimes alluding to a moral disaster, such as genocide, or he implies supreme emergency justified in the threat to the continuation of a political community. It is also criticized that supreme emergency bares common concepts and principles to consequentialist justifications. Orend highlights the similarity in the justifications, which both assert that throughout normal conditions of war, there must be adherence to the standards of jus in bello. Supreme emergency ultimately has the same outcome to consequentialism in the resorting to harming and killing innocents if it deemed absolutely necessary. It has also been accused of its correlation to deontology, however I will not address this position in this essay.

Moral Justification: Consequentialism

The next moral justification for terrorism I will analyze is consequentialism, a justification offered by Primoratz. To introduce consequentialism is to begin by explaining utilitarianism, which is proposed to an action or type of action which improves happiness is the right action, if the action is going to create unhappiness or pain it is deemed wrong . Consequentialism shares the same framework in the sense that if an action produces bad repercussions for society and civilians in it, the avoidance of this action should be implemented. Consequentialism is ultimately concerned in the future, focused on predicting the consequences of actions to decide what path to take to lead to better outcomes. Primoratz asserts that terrorism in itself is not morally wrong, only if the consequences of the terrorist actions have damaging and negative outcomes. From contemporary public discourse we can observe that the vast majority of terrorist acts have resulted in devastating catastrophes for society. The important aspect for a consequentialist regarding terrorism is the moral status within the consequences. It should be warned that consequentialism does not permit terrorism as acceptable just because terrorists themselves deem the consequences of their actions as good outcomes, but there are in fact important considerations to consequentialism which must be satisfied. One condition to be met is that the terrorist objective must prove that through the action, a valuable outcome will prevail, justifying the terrorist in their actions. The second condition which must be met is the exhaustion of all other methods to achieve the desired, goal. Other possible methods may be less problematic yes, however the empirical question must be asked, will these alternative methods actually attain achievement in the terrorist’s objective?

Trotsky offers a domineering perspective on consequentialism, asserting that the emancipation of humanity is the greatest objective, it can only be attained through revolutionary action. He explained that there is cohesion between war, terrorism and revolution, the employment of violence within war is done so to break the opponent’s resistance, this can also be seen in the employment of terrorism. War and terrorism both share features of intimidation, the continuity between the two concepts puts fourth the argument that if terrorism is to be branded legitimately immoral even in grave circumstances, the same features which characterize war should be identified as morally impermissible. Consequentialist Kai Nielsen explains that terrorism can be justified in the political results and the moral consequences, for example in the liberation of colonial rule, acts of terror can be permissible. He explains that in a struggle of inequality it is perhaps more appropriate to employ the use of violence, rather than ignore the injustice and use no violence at all. Nielson advises that small-scale employment of terrorism combined with altering forms of more ordinary methods can prove to be effective in liberation movements. There are examples of this happening in previous countries, like South Vietnam and Algeria. He asserts that using terrorism as a solitary method is usually counterproductive.

Consequentialism has been criticized by many scholars, Nicholas Fotion questions the second condition to consequentialism, claiming that other methods of achieving the desired outcome will rarely be exhausted, as attacking military regimes should always be an option in most countries. Although this could be considered (and is probably the first option on most terrorist’s checklists), the argument stands that attacking a country’s military does not guarantee the terrorist’s success and achievement of the desired goal. Fotion counteracts with the option of conducting terrorism on state officials or political leaders, concerned about the killing of innocents he claims the former type of terrorism could possibly be morally justified. Discussing the distinction between innocents and statepolitical officials, he offers that all victims are collectively objectified, “in being treated as an object, the innocent victim is worse off than the (alleged) guilty victim. Insofar as the latter is judged to have done a wrong, he is thought of as a human. For the terrorist, the innocent victim is neither a human in this judgmental sense nor a human in the sense of simply having value as a human being”. Fotion accepts that terrorism can be permissible if the killing of innocents is for a greater good, however the contention remains that it can never be absolutely justified as there should be alternative methods to attain the achievement of the goals.


The position I take on the justification of terrorism is that in some cases, terrorism is not always immoral. I adopt this stance firstly, in the respect that in some cases non-combatant immunity can be violated. In adherence with jus in bello, I assert that terrorism can be used as a tactic if the terrorist employs the appropriate amount of violence to justify its means. With reference to consequentialism, I suggest limited application of terrorism, combined with altering methods, such as guerilla warfare can be morally justified, with the intention to reform and bring about a balance in structural equality or liberation. I understand this is a difficult assessment and can only ever be applied under limited circumstances. But it should be warned that no individual can predict the future, we only have the tools to learn from events in history, for example the Holocaust or enslavement, are atrocities for humanity, conducted by humanity. To reprise, “in the last war the bombing of cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is simple a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women”. The evolution of violence, in particular war and terrorism, are ever changing, and unfortunately inevitable in the world we live in, which is not to say it is a contemporary issue. The phenomenon of terrorism has been around longer than historical events have been recorded, however it is more important now more than ever, given the modern age of technology and the capacity of greater threat due to globalization, to address issues on what is right and wrong. The opportunity is always there to reform a system which incorporates future equity and equality, if the employment of terrorism is the strategy to reach the fair, unprejudiced new system I recommend it to be permissible in its use. The deontological justification for terrorism offers more contributions as to why terrorism is not always immoral.

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