argument top image

Can terrorism ever be justified? Show more Show less
Back to question

The aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States has placed terrorism on the philosophical agenda. While the definition of terrorism remains contested, there are different stances on whether terrorism can ever be morally justified.

Terrorism is justified under certain conditions Show more Show less

The moral justification of terrorism depends on the aim and consequences of terrorist acts. Consequentialists argue that terrorism is justified if its consequences improve injustice. Deontologists judge terrorism by the political and social context within which terrorist acts occur. In extreme cases, terrorism may become the only option to choose.
< (2 of 2)

Terrorism is justified in the cases of supreme emergency and moral disaster

When a supreme emergency or moral disaster exists, the price of not resorting to terrorism may be so weighty as to override those of justice and rights. In such cases, terrorism is justified.
< (3 of 3)

The Argument

Extreme cases may require the use of terrorism. Such extreme cases occur when there is a supreme emergency or a possibility of a moral disaster. A supreme emergency is a circumstance in which dangers are so imminent that there are no alternative means to use to counteract the threat.[1] A moral disaster is an imminent threat of extermination or ethnic cleansing of an entire people.[2] Under such circumstances, even civilians are permissible targets. Philosopher and political theorist Michael Walzer offers an exemplification of this argument in his discussion of the terror bombing of German cities by the British during World War II. In early 1942, Britain seemed to be defeated by German Nazi forces. Considering Nazism as a “murderous and degrading ideology”, Britain was facing a supreme emergency –an imminent threat of something utterly unthinkable from a moral point of view. In such an emergency, one may breach a basic moral principle such as civilian immunity. By early 1943, it was clear that Germany was not going to win the war. Hence, all subsequent terror bombing lacked moral justification.[3] It is necessary to clarify that Britain was facing two supreme emergencies: suffering the fate the Nazis had in store for people they considered racially inferior and having their polity broken apart. The first emergency is a political disaster, whereas the latter is a moral disaster. The British bombings were justified only due to the moral disaster –where an entire people was subjected to an attempt at ethnic cleansing.[3] Overall, terrorism can be used if a group faces a supreme emergency. However, to justify this terrorism, the supreme emergency needs to include the possibility of a moral disaster in the case of no action.

Counter arguments

Walzer’s concept of a supreme emergency is unclear and vague. It is very hard to distinguish genuine supreme emergencies from other cases in which threats of terrible destruction and damage exist but do not justify terrorism. Is a threat of mass enslavement or extermination a necessary feature of any supreme emergency? Or can other threats to civilized values qualify? Or could there be enslavements and exterminations that do not threaten civilized values? These questions all weaken the theory of supreme emergencies.[1] The example in the argument about the British bombings of German cities does not constitute a supreme emergency that could justify the terror. Britain, as a whole, never faced a threat of enslavement or extermination. While the Nazis explicitly sought to exterminate Jews and enslave Slavs, they took no steps to enslave or exterminate the French or the Scandinavians. Their racist ideology provided no reason to think that genocide or enslavement awaited the British. Therefore, Britain only faced a supreme emergency of political disaster and not one of a moral disaster.[1] Even if the British example is assumed to be valid, supreme emergencies are extremely rare. It is not a familiar principle that people understand and know how to apply. There is no evidence that people involved in the World War II city bombings thought in this way. Had they reasoned as Walzer does, they would have stopped city bombings when the supreme emergency was over.[1]

Proponents

Premises

Rejecting the premises

References

  1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/23354400.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A0b0fb5f270a1420bcd08d04ce78b182b
  2. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2013/04/29/terrorism-moral-disaster-justified-igor-primoratz-philosophy/
  3. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/terrorism/#BasHumRigDisJus
This page was last edited on Saturday, 21 Nov 2020 at 23:38 UTC

Explore related arguments