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Can terrorism ever be justified? Show more Show less
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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.
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Terrorism is justified when it is used against an oppressive regime

If terrorism is used as a politically effective weapon in the revolutionary struggle to overcome oppression or improve the human rights of a group, then it is justified on the grounds of distributive justice.

The Argument

While evaluating the moral justification of terrorism, one should consider the people whose political aims terrorists are trying to advance. In many cases, these individuals have long endured oppressive circumstances. They lack social and political capital. Hence, terrorism becomes a last-ditch effort for them to secure justice. Terrorism can therefore be justified on the grounds of distributive justice.[1] According to philosopher Virginia Held, terrorism is justified when the protection of rights for one group depends upon rights violations being inflicted on others. For example, if both groups have a right to education but only one of the groups enjoys this right, then the group that lacks effective respect for this right may engage in terrorism to regain their rights. Therefore, a choice must be made between two morally bad outcomes. A transition to bring an end to rights violation is better than to subject one group to continued oppression.[2] The power structure in international relations is another reason why terrorism can be justified. The analogy of a patriarchal family illustrates the situation in international relations. In such a family, the legitimate authority is the patriarch or his substitute. If women or younger members carry out a rebellion, the strongest and most public alliances lie with the patriarch. For example, in international relations, when a country faces minority rebellions in its territory, the world powers support that country rather than the minorities. Therefore, the use of terrorist attacks to have a dramatic international impact and recognition can be justified.[3]

Counter arguments

Terrorist acts targeted at privileged individuals are, in part, justified by their responsibility for the status quo. However, the status quo is not always the responsibility of all the group members, such as the children of the privileged group. The distributive justice of terrorism would endorse similar harms faced by the members of the oppressed group in the status quo upon the youngsters of the privileged group. This is also the case for the members of the privileged group who actively oppose the oppressive regime.[2] Therefore, terrorism lacks to target the institutional causes of inequalities (such as the forms of government or the constitutional provisions) but rather results in innocent deaths by targeting the privileged groups as a whole. Equalizing rights violations through terrorism rather than by shaping an institutional order fails to promote institutional fairness. This is because institutional fairness cannot be promoted directly by individuals’ actions. It requires institutional modifications.[2] Concerning the point on the international power structure, terrorists indeed play into the hands of their powerful opponents. States suffering from terrorism can win even more international support due to the human rights violations tied to terrorist acts. All publicity is not always good publicity.[4]



Rejecting the premises


This page was last edited on Monday, 30 Nov 2020 at 18:54 UTC

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