Can Terrorism Ever be Morally Justified? Argumentative Essay

According to the US Department of Defense, terrorism is the improper use of violence or the threat of violence to compel societies and to instill fear (Nathanson, 2010). There has been a long-standing axiomatic belief that terrorism is a violent act that will always be morally wrong. However, these claims with regards to the moral clarity on terrorism are somewhat illusionary and they have created an obstacle state security, and promoted the use of destructive policies in the war against terrorism. To achieve a more streamlined argument on the subject matter, it is imperative that we use a modified definition of terrorism. Suffice it to say this paper will use David Rodin’s object-oriented definition of terrorism as the “deliberate and reckless use of force against non-combatants…in the absence of a just legal process” (Rodin, 2004). Doubts often arise on the moral credibility of the denunciation of terrorism. In this regard, this paper explores whether there exists any moral justification of terrorism, whilst paying special attention to the doctrine of double effect.

The principle of double effect is besought to try and explain the tolerability of serious and often harmful actions, for instance the death of an innocent, as long as some greater good will come off it. The perpetrators of terrorist acts often defend the loss of innocent lives using the consequentialist tradition. This doctrine is an accepted excuse for engagement in war. Then again, what may be hazardous in tolerating such a contention is, to the point that the defenders of this doctrine in war may lack the capacity to reject terrorism as a method for accomplishing a ‘greater good’. Essentially, a terrorist may also, in this case, argue that a terrorist assault in which fifty individuals lose their lives is justified based on the fact that it eventually encourages the government to reject an unfavorable policy that would lead to the death of thousands (FitzPatrick, 2012).

McIntyre (2010) outlines four conditions under which a harmful action is justified according to the doctrine of double effect:

  1. The good outweighs the bad effects
  2. The bad effect is not intended
  3. The nature of the act can be considered morally good
  4. The noble outcome does not go through the immoral result

A hypothetical case of a terrorist attack can be used to analyze whether such attacks satisfy the four criteria presented for the action to be justified under this doctrine. The government in country A has built a nuclear weapons manufacture facility without following all the proper safety requirements. Independent investigations show that the facility might be a high-level security risk for 10,000 residents in a nearby town, but the government vehemently refuses to shut down it down. A terrorist uses suicide bombers to storm the facility killing all 50 workers in the process, prompting the government to shut it down. In this case the action, though morally good, fails to satisfy criterion 2 and 4. The main aim of the terrorist cell was the death of the workers, and therefore the bad effect (death of the workers) was their main intention (2). A good outcome was achieved (the facility was shut down); however, it was only as a result of the bad effect (death of the facility workers).

It is also argued that terrorism is justified because it works especially to voice the opinion of a repressed majority, and it has been successfully used by freedom fighters and revolutionaries in the past. However, it just estranges and infuriates the group that it targets. It captivates sentiment and makes it harder for conservatives on both sides compromise. An enduring settlement must be won with the uninhibitedly given assent of both sides to a contention or difference. The dissatisfaction caused by the deaths of innocents by terrorists makes such consent impossible to attain. Moreover, states or establishments made as a result of terrorism are frequently degenerate and dominated by violent leaders. In the end the lives of the people do not improve and they fair of much worse than before in the long run (Steinhoff, 2007). However, terrorism can be excused in extreme cases in regions where all peaceful methods of negotiation have been exhausted. This is only applicable in an oppressive state, where no international relief is available. The greater good should be for the benefit of the repressed majority, and not for a small minority that wishes to air its views.

In conclusion, this paper initially provided a modified concept of terrorism as defined by David Rodin. This concept was used in conjunction with the theory of double effect to outline four criterion that should be satisfied for a harmful act to be considered just. It is important to note that Rodin’s definition of terrorism aims to separate terrorist acts from their ultimate political, religious and political aims. This allows for a streamlined analysis of the moral justification of terrorist acts. It is only through this systematic analysis that the moral justification of terrorism can be evaluated.

As a result of the failure to satisfy that terrorism can be justified using the doctrine of double effect, terrorism is repugnant and immoral and it can never be morally justified. Not only is terrorism decadent because the negative consequences of terrorist acts, such as death of innocent individuals, is its main intention but also because the ‘greater good’ of terrorist acts can only be achieved through a negative outcome. Additionally, terrorism’s reliance on illegitimate targets further weakens its claim for moral justification.

FitzPatrick, W. (2012). The Doctrine of Double Effect: Intention and Permissibility. Philosophy Compass7(3), 183-196.
McIntyre, A. (2010). Doctrine of double effect. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Nathanson, S. (2010). Terrorism and the ethics of war. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rodin, D. (2004). Terrorism without Intention. ETHICS114(4), 752-771.
Steinhoff, U. (2007). On the ethics of war and terrorism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.