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Ethical Approaches to Terrorism:A Very Short Introduction

2015/3/30 — 15:53

This article will conceptualise ‘terrorism’ and highlight its differences with other forms of organized violence. It will also argue that this type of indiscriminate violence is unjustified by consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics.
Conceptualising ‘terrorism’
  All forms of organized violence involve intimidation, coercion and physical attacks, and terrorism is no exception (Combs 2003, p. 10-11; Lutz & Lutz 2005, p. 7-8; Pastor 2010, p. 46-47). Yet “[i]t is often said that the most distinctive characteristic of terrorism is that it employs violence indiscriminately. This is certainly not true if construed literally: terrorists do not strike blindly and pointlessly, left and right. They plan their actions carefully, weighing the options and trying for the course of action that will best promote their objective at the lowest cost to themselves. But the claim is true, and of crucial importance, if taken to refer to the terrorists’ failure to discriminate between those who are and those who are not innocent and to direct their violence only at the latter while respecting the immunity of the former” (Primoratz 2013, pp. 15). The mulling uses of indiscriminate “violence must be designed to produce fear. To induce fear, the ‘target’ of the violence must be larger than the actual victim” (Pastor 2010, pp. 47). Therefore, public places, target landmarks and symbols are the “ideal” places for terrorists to “stage” their attacks. “They seek to make clear that the government cannot stop the violence. Underlying this message is the notion that government is incapable of controlling the violence. Indeed, the message is the government is weak, feeble, or ineffective. In essence, both messages are largely based on perception. One seeks to convey a message of safety and security; the other seeks to convey a message of inevitable attack” (Ibid., pp. 48).

The Ethical Relevance of Terrorism
  At the heart of terrorism is the assault on innocent groups so as to create a horror atmosphere in the larger society (Combs 2012, p. 11-12; Goldstick 2002, pp. 21; Khatchadourian 2006, pp. 513; Primoratz 1997, p. 221-222; Primoratz 2013, p. 16-18; Schwenkenbecher 2012, p. 56-57). The purposeful assaults usually have some objectives. For instance, “Al-Qaeda’s overriding objective is the expulsion of American forces from the Arabian Peninsula, with an overwhelming emphasis on Saudi Arabia” (Geltzer 2010, pp. 72). Likewise, Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based Islamic terrorist organization, “nurses ambitions of destroying the Nigerian state, especially in the northeast. This ambition is a long-term one: Even as Nigeria’s Feb. 14 general elections approach, Boko Haram is behaving as though it plans to trouble Nigerian authorities for years to come” (Thurston 2015). Characteristically, “Boko Haram has always shifted tactics in response to changing behaviors by the state. Since launching its campaign of sustained guerrilla violence in 2010, its tactics have included prison breaks, robberies, assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, arson and more. When Boko Haram suspected the state of using cell phones to track it, its fighters destroyed cell phone towers. When the state imprisoned female relatives of Boko Haram’s leaders, the group responded by kidnapping women and girls. Contextualizing Boko Haram’s choices does not excuse them, but it does indicate that the group adapts when it sees opportunity, or when it reaches the limits of a given approach” (Ibid.). Nonetheless, Ignor Primoratz, who is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Professional Fellow at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, abhors this strategy ethically. In his book Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation (2013), Primoratz explains,

“This indirect strategy is a feature of everyday life, and there is nothing wrong with it as such. But when the indirect, but really important, aim is to force someone to do something they would otherwise not do, when that is to be achieved by intimidation, and when intimidation is effected by using violence against innocent people—by killing, maiming, or otherwise severely harming them—or by threatening to do so, then the indirect strategy is that of terrorism. The primary and secondary targets are different persons or groups of people. The person or persons who constitute the primary but indirect target of the terrorist may or may not be innocent themselves; what is essential is that those who are made the terrorists’ secondary but direct target are. Thus terrorists may attack a group of civilians with the aim of intimidating the civilian population at large and getting it to leave a certain area. Or they may attack such a group with the purpose of cowing the government into accepting their demands, as is usually the case in airplane hijacking. Those attacked are people who are innocent and who, by virtue of this innocence, enjoy immunity against the attack. In war, these are innocent civilians: everyone except members of armed forces and security services, those who supply them with arms and ammunition, and political officials directly involved in the conflict. In political conflict that falls short of war, this class has a similarly wide scope: it includes everyone except certain government officials, police, and members of security services” (p. 15-16).


  Yet some adherents of terrorism accentuate that the dichotomy between innocent and legitimate groups is blurred in some complicated power-relationship systems (Ibid, pp. 18). “Assuming bizarre ideas of collective responsibility for instance, terrorists might claim that any voter in a democracy is partly responsible for his government’s failures and thus not innocent” (Schwenkenbecher 2012, pp. 52). For instance, Osama Bin Laden proclaimed that American citizens deserved to suffer the 9/11 attack, since they offered the necessary wherewithal (paid taxes) and political support (voted for George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush as the 41st and 43rd president respectively) for their government to send troops to the Arabian Peninsula (Brahimi 2010, p. 179-180).

  However, such an interpretation of “responsibility and liability” is undoubtedly “preposterous” (Primoratz 2011; Primoratz 2013, p. 18-21). “For it claims that all Americans are eligible to be killed or maimed: some for devising and implementing America’s policies, others for participating in the political process, still others for paying taxes. Even if, for the sake of argument, we grant Bin Laden’s severe condemnation of those policies, not every type and degree of involvement with them can justify the use of lethal violence. Surely voting in elections or paying taxes is not enough to make one fair game” (Primoratz 2011). In reality, many non-combatants of the advanced countries do not involve into decision-making process of sending troops to the Middle East. Rather, many of them participate into anti-war protests in which are a concrete proof of their innocence amidst the armed confrontation between the West and the Middle East. Even if the remaining non-combatants are partially non-innocent, they are not felon and thus should not face any kind of death penalty offered by terrorists (Primoratz 2013, pp. 88). “Only major injustices can allow for lethal responses, and only those responsible for such injustices are liable to lethal attack. Liability to be attacked by lethal violence requires not only that the injustices to which the violence responds be on a large scale, that is a significant form of injustice, but also that the respective person be responsible for that injustice in the above-specified sense. In other words, the necessary condition for having the status of a ‘non-innocent’ is that this person is responsible in the above-specified sense for a state of affairs constituting a certain injustice. The necessary condition is that the respective state of affairs constitutes a major injustice. It follows from this that minor contributions to injustice do not render a person liable to violent attack at all, let alone to lethal attack. Only by wronging others in a significant and serious way can one be justifiably attacked. For some minor-scale injustices, no one may be considered liable to be attacked by lethal violence. Some causes are not important or weighty enough to justify lethal violence at all” (Schwenkenbecher 2012, pp. 53). Thus, ethical evaluation of terrorism ought to recognise that terrorists’ arbitrary attacking is disproportionately heavy to the non-combatants. In the following sections, consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics will be used to show that terrorism is ethically unjustified.


Consequentialists’ evaluation
  For a consequentialist, whether or not terrorism can be justified “depends on the consequences it is going to have in the circumstances given. When its consequences are bad, terrorism is, of course, impermissible. But when its consequences are good enough, terrorism, just like everything else, is given moral consecration. For a consequentialist, the question of the moral status of terrorism is solely the question of tis consequences, i.e. a factual, empirical question, and accordingly one that, at least in principle, can always be settled” (Primoratz 1997, pp. 222). Theoretically, terrorist attacks are an overwhelmingly rational decision when the costs are outweighed by the benefits (Love 2013, p. 21-28; Sandler 2012, pp. 1; van Um 2009). “That means that it, too, is not considered wrong in itself, but only if its rationally expected consequences (on balance) are bad. The innocence of its victims does not change this. One of the standard objections to consequentialism has been that it allows, and indeed enjoins, punishment of the innocent, when its consequences are rationally expected to be good (on balance). This objection can get off the ground only because consequentialism denies that in such matters a person’s innocence is morally important in itself” (Primoratz 2013, pp. 65). Furthermore,

“Without fear of proportional retaliation, physical harm and psychological fear is instilled upon many, with the expected costs of terrorism far outweighed by its gains. The imposition of sanctions that are limited in scope (i.e. trade) provide terrorist groups and their supporters with limited consequence for their actions” (Hagen 2009).

In addition, Kai Nielson (1981, pp. 446, quoted in Primoratz 2011) states that “terrorist acts must be justified by their political effects and their moral consequences. They are justified (1) when they are politically effective weapons in the revolutionary struggle and (2) when, everything considered, there are sound reasons for believing that, by the use of that type of violence rather than no violence at all or violence of some other type, there will be less injustice, suffering and degradation in the world than would otherwise have been the case”. He summaries “that terrorism on a small scale, used as the sole method of struggle in order to provoke the masses into revolutionary action, is ineffective and often counterproductive. On the other hand, terrorism employed in conjunction with guerrilla warfare in a protracted war of liberation may well prove useful and therefore also justified, as it did in Algeria and South Vietnam” (Primoratz 2011). His summary can be a guideline for some other rule-consequentialists to follow.

  An act-consequentialist may endorse a particular terrorist act if a lesser moral and political bad consequences can be guaranteed. Setting aside various twists and turns,

“A terrorist who justifies his actions in consequentialist terms has one paramount goal: to bring about the state of affairs to which he accords the highest value. That can be the good, just, truly free and human society, or the liberation of the homeland and setting up an independent state, or the victory of the one true faith, or, as in [Ted] Honderich’s philosophy, the getting and keeping people out of bad lives—lives bereft of, or insufficiently provided with, the basic human goods. Since this commitment is the highest value, that value overrides all other values that might conflict with it, all considerations that might stand in the way of its realization. He may also have certain beliefs about society according to which the way to bring about the desired state of affairs is, or includes, terrorism. It is often said that terrorism is indiscriminate violence, but that is not true if taken in the most obvious sense. The terrorist does not strike mindlessly, but rather carefully plans his actions, considering the situation and the resources at his disposal and choosing the course of action likely to be most effective under the circumstances. In his calculations he takes into account, on the debit side, his victims: the men, women, and children he is going to kill, maim, or otherwise seriously harm. They are part of the price that has to be paid on the way to the ultimate goal; he will have no great difficulty proving this by his calculations” (Primoratz 2013, pp. 78).

  Yet terrorists are often blamed for making strategic miscalculations. To be sure, “[s]ome consequentialists emphasise that those who resort to terrorism tend not to take the need for moral justification seriously enough, and that it is actually not at all easy to satisfy the requirements of its consequentialist justification. It is not enough, as many terrorists apparently assume, to believe that terrorism is a possible, or even helpful method for achieving the desired objective. One must show that the objective will indeed be achieved by means of terrorism; that the objective, when it is eventually achieved, will indeed be so valuable as to justify all that the terrorist does on the way to achieving it; finally, and most importantly, that the objective could not possibly be achieved by other, less problematic methods” (Primoratz 1997, pp. 223). This line of argument tries to justify terrorism “instrumentally” (Primoratz 2011). In practice, however, Al-Qaeda’s organized assault and the recent beheading incidents of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (hereinafter as ISIS) are incapable of intimidating the West. Rather, they have caused the West to send more troops to the Middle East, which resulted in more casualties of the non-combatants.

  Likewise, ISIS extremists’ massacre of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists and journalists in Paris, on January 7th 2015, aimed to threaten French’s political satire over Prophet Muhammad into silence (O’Grady 2015) and thus to restore “the honour of the Prophet Muhammad” (Mishra 2015). Yet the public reacted by defending the freedom of the press and of the speech resolutely, such as emphasising that ‘I’m Charlie’ (Je Suis Charlie), albeit with their hesitation in agreeing the magazine’s satirical style on the Islamic sensitivity. On January 14th, Justine Drennan (2015), who is a Cambodia-based fellow at Foreign Policy, reported that “[t]here’s sky-high demand for the first issue of Charlie Hebdo since the attack that killed eight members of the French satirical weekly’s small staff last week. The first 50,000 copies in France sold out within minutes of newsstands opening on Wednesday morning, Jan. 14. Another 4.5 million copies are on their way […]”. TIME’s Editor-at-Large, David Von Drehle (2015, pp. 25) also noted in his article The European Front, “As multitudes marched bearing banners declaring I AM CHARLIE, media outlets around the world republished the cartoons, including a German newspaper in Hamburg that was firebombed in apparent retaliation. The first issue of Charlie Hebdo after the killings had a press run reported at 5 million (compared with its normal run of about 60,000) and sold out in many places”. Simply put, the ISIS murders failed to achieve their aims to a large extent. France decided to respond ISIS extremism toughly. Soon after the Paris attacks, “the surging party is the far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen. The Front garnered more votes than any other French party in last May’s European Parliament elections, and Le Pen predicts that her party will rule France within 10 years. Many analysts believe that the Paris attacks will move voters to embrace her call for greater restrictions on immigration and limits on travel to and from the Middle East. Le Pen agrees: in a phone interview with TIME, she said the unity of the mass marches was impressive but fleeting. ‘It was a big reaction’, she allowed. ‘But now it is finished, and the struggle against Islamic extremism has not changed’” (Ibid., p. 25-26). This phenomenon somewhat relates to Andrew Alexandra’s following argument:

“In the world we live in, acts and, in particular, campaigns of terrorism tend to have very different consequences: ‘almost invariably concerted terrorism produces in the terrorised group a persisting sense of moral resentment against those in whose name the terrorism is being perpetrated, provokes reciprocal outrages, cements the internal solidarity of the antagonistic groups, and makes co-existence more and more difficult’ ([Alexandra 2006, pp. 114])” (Primoratz 2013, pp. 90).

  Also, terrorists often mistakenly regard targeting innocent people as the last resort. For instance, “Fotion argues, they always have the alternative of taking on the opponent’s military establishment, and often also have the option of going after government officials responsible for the wrongs they object to, instead of attacking innocent persons. That kind of terrorism may sometimes be justified, whereas terrorism that targets innocent people never is” (Ibid.). Rule-consequentialists would oppose the policy of terrorism in general. “Such an account will not advise that we assess the consequences of each and every act or campaign of terrorism on its merits, and resort to terrorism whenever doing so can rationally be expected to have better consequences on balance than refraining from it. It will rather tell us to go by the relevant moral rule. And the moral rule concerning terrorism will, of course, prohibit its use; for both history and contemporary experience show that, in the vast majority of cases, the balance of consequences of terrorism has been very bad indeed” (Primoratz 2013, p. 82-83).

  In addition, “these calculations” are dehumanised and thus should not be encouraged (Primoratz 2013, pp. 78). Thus, “[a]ct-consequentialist accounts of the morality of terrorism such as Honderich’s will be rejected by those who understand the basics of morality in terms of separateness of persons, respect for persons, the distinction between innocence and guilt, and so on” (Primoratz 2013, pp. 82). Crucially, the distinction between rule-consequentialist and act-consequentialist should not be exaggerated, and neither one of the accounts to terrorism is impeccable. As Primoratz remarks,

“[C]ritics of rule-consequentialism have argued that it is not a great improvement upon act-consequentialism, since it does not succeed in ruling out those numerous departures from basic moral rules that compromise the latter. A moral rule—say, that we must not resort to terrorism—is selected because it is rationally expected that its adoption will be for the best. The adoption of this rule is justified by this expectation. We then keep to this rule until we face a situation where we rationally expect that, atypically, we will achieve better consequences on balance if we depart from the rule and engage in terrorism than if we stick to the rule and desist from it. Our assessment takes into account not only direct and short-term consequences of doing so, including the ways in which that will affect the general acceptance of the rule. Now there are various nonconsequentialist reasons for keeping to the rule that forbids terrorism in such a situation: the separateness of persons, respect for persons, innocence of the direct victims of terrorism and their immunity against deadly violence this innocence entails, and so on. But what consequentialist reason for sticking to the rule could there be? How can a rule-consequentialist argue for upholding the rule prohibiting terrorism that has been selected and justified because of its good consequences in a situation where such consequences will not transpire, and so the justification of the rule no longer applies? But if she cannot, then rule-consequentialism allows for as many departures from this and other basic moral rules as does the old, ‘act’ variety of the theory” (Primoratz 2013, pp. 83).

Deontologists’ evaluation
  Terrorism should not be evaluated solely by its consequences. For deontologists, the question “whether or not staging terrorist attacks is a duty that can lead to the respect of others’ human rights?” is more significant. There are 3 possible answers for this question:

Position 1: Staging terrorist attacks is not a duty, not to mention about respecting others’ human rights.
Position 2: Staging terrorist attacks is a duty but it somehow leads to the violation of others’ human right.
Position 3: Staging terrorist attacks is a duty, which can lead to the respect/the protection of others’ human right.

Those deontologists who choose position 1 would suggest that terrorism is never justified. Those who choose position 2 would think that terrorism is a necessary evil. Those who choose position 3 would appreciate the merits of terrorism in terms of respecting/protecting human rights.

  Virginia Held is key deontological figure who chooses position 3. “In her article ‘Terrorism, Rights, and Political Goals’, Virginia Held argues that terrorism may be justified under certain circumstances if it is the only way of turning a deficient society into a better one, and if, during the period of social transition, rights violations are equally distributed, or at least more equally than before” (Schwenkenbecher 2012, pp. 116). She attempts to justify terrorism in the light of its capacity for implementing distributive justice (Primoratz 2013, pp. 87). If the violation of human rights is inescapable, redistributing it is better than staying at the pre-terrorism stage. “[T]he fact that a restriction would put those who combat injustice at a serious disadvantage in seeking to overcome their oppressors is a serious pro tanto reason to reject the restriction—the more serious the graver the injustice, the more burdensome the disadvantage, and the more likely the other side is to resort to violent measures analogous to those the norm forbids. In recent times in Iraq and Israel, these might be adequate reasons to reject a prohibition against deliberate killing of political leaders, day labo[u]rs working for the occupying army, and adult settlers in the West Bank or Gaza—though other norms would certainly regulate the incidence of this killing as well as requiring concern for side effects. If violent interference with everyday life among the dominant people has a reasonable prospect of sustaining a rebellion against a grave injustice that will otherwise be stifled by the contentment of the dominant people, the inattention of the world at large, and pervasive, violent repression, this is a serious pro tanto reason to deliberately target those who are not even active participants in an unjust coercive project” (Miller 2005, pp. 195).

  Yet Uwe Steinhoff, who is an associate professor of political philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, disagrees with Held’s position. “He doubts that the equal distribution of rights violation Held proposes would really make the respective society more just” (Schwenkenbecher 2012, pp. 122). More specifically, ‘[h]e points out that using terrorism as a way of securing a more equitable distribution of basic human rights violations would not simply bring about a different distribution of a given number of such violations, but would rather mean adding new violations to those that would occur anyway” (Primoratz 2013, pp. 88). Anne Schwenkenbecher, who is a lecturer in philosophy at Murdoch University, also recognizes that “it would be a very bizarre idea of justice to think that a society may turn more just by raising its total number of rights violations. Hence, if Steinhoff argues that it cannot be right to simply add new acts of violence to the scale pan, he is certainly right: ‘“If one group is having a bad time, the others shall also have a bad time”—this does not appear to be a particularly commendable principle of justice’”(Schwenkenbecher 2012, pp. 123).

  Igor Primoratz (2013, p. 88-89), nonetheless, argues that “[t]his objection is based on a misunderstanding of Held’s argument that reduces it to one of its two components. Held does not propose to justify terrorism solely as a way of securing a measure of distributive justice in a very imperfect society. Her argument is not exclusively deontological. Rather, hers is a complex, two-part, deontological and consequentialist justification. On her account, terrorism directed at members of a group whose basic human rights have been effectively respected will be morally justified for two reasons: because it will bring about (a) a more equitable distribution of violations of those rights in the process of transition to (b) a better society in which basic human rights of all will be effectively respected. Neither of these two reasons—that of distributive justice and that of consequentialism of rights—is sufficient. Each is necessary, and the two are jointly sufficient to justify terrorism in the assumed circumstances”. Schwenbecher echoes this line of response to Steinhoff’s critique of Held’s position. In her book “Terrorism: A Philosophical Enquiry” (2012), Schwenkenbecher writes,

“Steinhoff makes a mistake when comparing the situation S1 [members of A have a human right x and enjoy effective respect for it, while members of B have the same right, but suffer a lack of respect for this right; and In S2, members of both A & B have the same human right x and enjoy effective respect for it] with the period of transition, that is the period during which terrorism is employed. He comes to the conclusion that in this period, ‘new’ (that is, additional) violence is generated compared to S1. But Held has constructed her argument in such a way that she does not actually contrast S1 with the transitional period, but instead the two alternatives A1 [to maintain S1 and to refrain from terrorism] and A2 [to employ terrorism and to achieve S2]. The latter includes a short and limited engagement in terrorism and a brief increase of violence in the beginning and a certainly much longer period of far fewer rights violations than in A1. There are in total fewer rights violations in A2, even though at first they increase. Yet, I still think that Steinhoff is right in criticizing the way the argument is set up. There is a problem in how Held has constructed her argument: To claim that A2 is more just and therefore morally better than A1 because—despite an increase in rights violations initially—it eventually involves fewer rights violations is extremely close to a consequentialist account to which the final praiseworthy end compensates for the reprehensible means. And this is one problem with Held’s account in general: it oscillates between consequentialist and deontologist argumentation” (Schwenkenbecher 2012, pp. 123).

  But Schwenkenbecher is eager to show that terrorism cannot be justified even in terms of consequentialism of rights. She adds, “Held’s aim is to show that A2 [confronting the injustice by employing violence only against innocents from group A (those who have a human right x and enjoy effective respect for it)] is comparably better than A1 [not confronting the injustice at all] and A2’ [confronting the injustice by employing violence indiscriminately against innocents] and should therefore be chosen. However, her line of argument ultimately fails, as she does not succeed in showing that A2 is comparably better than A2’, given that the principle of an equal distribution of rights violations does not, in the end, deliver convincing reasons for overriding the prohibition against killing the innocent in general and the innocents from group A in particular” (Schwenkenbecher 2012, p. 124-125).

  Insofar Steinhoff and Schwenkenbecher harrumph over position 3. However, not every deontologist dig in to “bring about (a) a more equitable distribution of violations of those rights in the process of transition to (b) a better society in which basic human rights of all will be effectively respected” (Primoratz 2013, pp. 88) becoming sufficient conditions of justifying terrorism. Some may argue that position 2 (staging terrorist attacks is a duty but it somehow leads to the violation of others’ human right) is not ideal but acceptable.

  Michael Walzer, for instance, applauds that terrorism is a necessary evil in supreme emergency (Primoratz 2011; Primoratz 2013, p. 95-97; Schwenkenbecher 2012, p. 125-128). He illustrates his argument with a famous historical analogy—Britain’s bombing of German immunities in World War II:

“Walzer holds that the United Kingdom was facing such a supreme emergency during a certain period of World War II when under attack from Nazi Germany, which constituted an ‘evil objectified in the world’. Walzer holds that, at least in the first years of the war while Germany was undefeated, the situation was a supreme emergency, because a German victory would have constituted an ultimate threat to the UK. However, after it became clear that Germany could no longer win the war, there no longer was a supreme emergency, claims Walzer. In a supreme emergency condition, it is morally permissible to directly and intentionally target and kill innocents, or non-combatants. According to Walzer, it was therefore justified to bomb residential areas of German cities, thus directly targeting the civilian population.

Although the prohibition against killing innocents is overridden by more important considerations, Walzer insists that it is not being suspended: ‘There are limits on the conduct of war, and there are moments when we can, and perhaps should, break through the limits (the limits themselves never disappear)’. To him, a supreme emergency constitutes a dilemma: it is a situation where one can only choose between two evils and should opt for the lesser one. Thus, the political leader facing a supreme emergency ought to choose the ‘better’ alternative, although the act which follows this choice is in itself morally condemnable. Walzer emphasizes that ‘The effect of the supreme-emergency argument should be to reinforce professional ethics and to provide an account of when it is permissible (or necessary) to get our hands dirty’. He thus advocates for choosing the lesser evil, even if it means to infringe the prohibition against killing the innocent. To Walzer, in the face of a disaster it would be irresponsible to adhere to a moral rule if the only way to stop or prevent the disaster from happening lies in breaking this rule. He argues that moral absolutism ‘represents…a refusal to think about what it means for the heavens to fall. And the history of the twentieth century makes this refusal very hard to justify’” (Schwenkenbecher 2012, p. 126-127).

“Walzer then expands the notion of supreme emergency to apply to a single political community facing the threat of extermination or enslavement, and eventually to a single political community whose ‘survival and freedom’ are at stake. For ‘the survival and freedom of political communities — whose members share a way of life, developed by their ancestors, to be passed on to their children — are the highest values of international society’ (Walzer 2000: 254)” (Primoratz 2011). This line of argument suggests that realism matters, which leaders assume “dirty hands” to do “wrong” for human’s “survival” (Walzer 2000, p. 323-325, quoted in Primoratz 2013, pp. 99).

  Yet there are many reasons why Walzer’s justification is problematic. The concept “supreme emergency”, although not nonsensical, could be seen as “ambiguous” or misguided (Schwenkenbecher 2012, p. 128-129). Primoratz explains that there are “two different conceptions of supreme emergency. The threat is imminent in both, but the nature of the threat differs: it is one thing to suffer the fate the Nazis had in store for peoples they considered racially inferior, and another to have one's polity dismantled. By moving back and forth between these two types of supreme emergency under the ambiguous heading of threat to ‘the survival and freedom of a political community’, Walzer seeks to extend to the latter the moral response that might be appropriate to the former. Yet whereas genocide, expulsion, or enslavement of an entire people might be thought a moral disaster that may be fended off by any means, its loss of political independence is, at most, a political disaster. If a polity to be dismantled lacks moral legitimacy, its demise may well be a moral improvement. But even if a polity does have moral legitimacy, a threat to its ‘survival and freedom’ falls short of ‘an ultimate threat to everything decent in our lives’. If so, its military cannot be justified in waging war on enemy civilians in order to defend it” (Primoratz 2011). Indeed, Primoratz is not alone in the position of challenging Walzer’s “supreme emergency” concept:

“Stephen Nathanson, too, takes a critical look at Walzer’s position and reaches the conclusion that the supreme emergency argument should not be allowed to undermine our absolute commitment to civilian immunity and consequent rejection of all terrorism. Nathanson first takes a close look at the ways in which Walzer describes such emergency. This brings to the fore two different conceptions of supreme emergency: a broad and, to a significant degree, subjective conception and a specific and objective one. When focusing on the Nazi threat, Walzer uses a broad brush and lays on highly emotional colors: Nazism presented a threat to civilized values, to civilization itself, to ‘everything decent in our lives’, and this threat properly evokes responses such as abhorrence and horror. When looking beyond that particular case, Walzer portrays supreme emergency as ‘a threat of enslavement or extermination directed at a single nation’.

The first, broad and subjective version of supreme emergency is much too flexible and open-ended to provide the kind of ethical guidance we expect of such a criterion. Walzer focuses on World War II and highlights Nazi atrocities while placing the atrocities committed by the Japanese armed forces in that war at a lower point on the atrocity scale, where they fall short of supreme emergency. Yet the latter atrocities, too, were systematic and large-scale, and when portrayed vividly and in detail tend to evoke the same emotional response as those committed by the Nazis. They, too, strike us as incompatible with civilized values and as a threat to ‘everything decent’ in our lives. Vivid and detailed accounts by survivors of the terror bombing of German and Japanese cities in that war will also evoke a response of horror and abhorrence in a decent person. Moreover, ‘if people are subjected to brutal rule over many years and cannot live normal, secure lives, they are likely to see their own situation as a supreme emergency for them. […] It is not clear that Walzer could show why these people are mistaken since any form of extended oppression is a threat to civilized values’ (Nathanson 2006, p. 22)” (Primoratz 2013, pp. 102).

In theory, “a specific and objective” version of “supreme emergency” should be adopted. In practice, however, Nathanson still finds it problematic “for two reasons. First, it does not support Walzer’s account of the British predicament at the early stage of war, since Britain was not facing such a threat. Second, it is likely to be rejected as too demanding by people facing the threat of lesser, but still huge disasters. Generally, Nathanson submits, people are likely to perceive any urgent, threatening situation as a supreme emergency” (Ibid., pp. 103). The term is easily abused. “The supreme emergency criterion, then, does not provide clear and reliable ethical guidance. Those who adopt it are stepping on a very slippery slope, and are liable to end up violating civilian immunity in many cases in which Walzer himself would not condone doing so” (Ibid.).

  Another criticism of Walzer’s “supreme emergency exemption” is C. A. J. Coady’s critique of “his bias in favo[u]r of the state” (Ibid., pp. 100-102). For example, “[a] soldier on the battlefield might fall into the grip of the survival instinct to the extent that he can no longer think rationally or act in a significantly voluntary way and, say, kill some civilians in order to save his life. But [for Walzer,] supreme emergency is not something that faces a single soldier on the battlefield. It is rather a problem facing a nation at war or, more accurately, those who lead the nation and decide on its behalf whether to go to war and how to fight it” (Ibid., pp. 99). Indeed, “Walzer’s view on supreme emergency and terrorism is not without contradictions, which makes it difficult to discuss. This is, above all, caused by his using the term ‘terrorism’ in two different ways. On [the] one hand, he uses it to denominate a certain strategy employed by non-state or sub-state actors, characterized by the deliberate violations of ethical and political norms, and thereby indefensible. On the other hand, he also calls the bombing of German cities by the Allies in World War II ‘terrorism’, this time partially defending, or at least excusing, the strategy” (Schwenkenbecher 2012, pp. 133). As a consequence, double standard may arise. “A stateless people and an organization fighting on its behalf should in principle be as entitled as an established and recognized state to consider resorting to deliberate attacks on civilians, when facing a supreme emergency. Corporations and individuals, on the other hand, seem to be in a different position in this respect” (Primoratz 2013, pp. 102).

  Furthermore, it is questionable whether Walzer’s justification is really a deontological one:

“Brian Orend furthermore notes a certain inconsistency in Walzer’s methodological approach: Just and Unjust Wars is overall committed to a deontological perspective and clearly dismissive of consequentialism, in particular utilitarianism. Yet, when it comes to supreme emergencies Walzer, to Orend’s surprise, appeals to consequentialist concepts such as the ‘greater good’. Orend claims that the supreme emergency doctrine ‘bears a striking similarity to one form of rule-consequentialism: during ordinary conditions of war, we are to adhere absolutely to the rules of jus in bello. However, when confronted with the hardest case, we are to set aside these rules and do what we must to prevail. According to Brian Orend, ‘part of Walzer endorses Churchill’s consequentialism, while another part of him supports Kant’s deontology’. With regard to supreme emergency, Orend argues, Walzer is clearly inclined towards consequentialism” (Schwenkenbecher 2012, pp. 129).

  Thus, Walzer’s endorsement of position 2 (staging terrorist attacks is a duty but it somehow leads to the violation of others’ human right) is not convincing enough.

  By rejecting position 3 and 2, one may then think that position 1 (staging terrorist attacks is not a duty, not to mention about respecting others’ human rights.) is the most acceptable deontological claims. Nevertheless, one should not take it for granted. There are still some worth-mentioning controversies. Professor J. Angelo Corlett, for instance, tries to rebut position 1. In his book chapter “Can Terrorism Ever Be Morally Justified?” (2003, ch. 5), Corlett (pp. 123) cites Carl Wellman’s 5 reasons why “terrorism is prima facie unjustified” and then counter-argue each of them:

(i) It is harmful;
(ii) It uses terror;
(iii) It unduly harms the innocent;
(iv) It is necessarily coercive;
(v) It infringes rights.

Among these 5 reasons, (v) is relevant about debating whether position 1 is acceptable.  For Corlett(Ibid., pp. 124), “(v) cannot serve as a sufficiently good reason why terrorism per se is prima facie wrong in that terrorism against one who presumably deserves it is not an unwarranted infringement of that person’s right to be treated as a human being. For Wellman to push this point he would seem to have to challenge the claim that retributive justice itself violates the Kantian dictum that persons should be treated as human beings. But as Kant himself states, when an individual or group violates the rights of others, retribution is required. Terrorism might be the retributive means (or one such means) by which to inflict justice on such persons. Thus that terrorism infringes rights is not clearly a sufficient reason to condemn it”. In Corlett’s understanding, staging terrorist attack is a duty not in Walzer’s sense of “saving the state”, but in Kant’s sense of “retribution”.

  However, while Kant acquiesces to retributive justice in the conditions of others’ rights being violated, terrorism arguably fails to fulfil this function. As noted above, killing innocents not only fails to restore justice, but also violates more innocents’ human right. Crucially, the long-term or irreversible intangible harms caused by terrorism, notably losses of innocents’ life or deprivation of their physical and mental health, are hard to be compensated. In terms of logical consistency, if one finds that Held’s position is unconvincing, one should also rebut Corlett’s one. The mainstream deontological view does not accept terrorism, as long as it violates the principles of “separateness of persons” and “respect for persons” (Primoratz 1997, p. 230-231).

Virtue Ethicists’ or Moral Absolutists’ evaluation
  A comprehensive evaluation of the reasonableness of terrorism should include the perspective of virtue ethics. Virtue ethicists do not judge the moral values in terms of generating good consequences, nor do they regard moral obligation as following a special rule or set of rules. Rather, they define moral values in terms of certain human virtues or excellences, such as courage, honour, kindness, temperance, wisdom and trustworthiness, which are often seen as a refinement of aspects of human nature. With these traits of character, human beings can live good or flourishing lives.

  However, the excellences are neither innate features of human nature, such as instincts and passions, nor merely traits of personality, such as aggressiveness. Thus, some virtue ethicists argue that staging terrorist attacks because of the instincts of struggle for survival, of hostile feeling or of the aggressive personality are not virtuous acts. Moreover, killing innocents deliberately is never an honourable and graceful way to seek to live a virtuous life. Since moral virtues are at least parts of human virtues and excellences, this line of rejection of terrorism is echoed by some moral absolutists. For instance,

“[Per Bauhn] attempts to show that terrorism that targets non-combatants or common citizens can never be justified by deploying a slightly amended version of Alan Gewirth's ethical theory. Freedom and safety are fundamental prerequisites of action and therefore must be accorded paramount weight. The need to protect them generates a range of rights; the right pertinent here is ‘an absolute right not to be made the intended victims of a homicidal project’ all innocent persons have (Gewirth 1981: 16). When the absolute status of this right is challenged by invoking supreme emergency or moral disaster, Bauhn argues that there is a moral difference between what we are positively and directly causally responsible for, and what we are causally responsible for only indirectly, by failing to prevent other persons from intentionally bringing it about. We are morally responsible for the former, but (except in certain special circumstances) not for the latter. If we refuse to resort to terrorism in order not to target innocent persons, and thus fail to prevent some other persons from perpetrating atrocities, it is only the perpetrators who will be morally responsible for those atrocities. Therefore [one] must refuse (Bauhn 1989: chapter 5). Absolute moral rejection of terrorism can also be based on a natural law ethics that takes the prohibition of intentional killing of an innocent person to be absolute, admitting of no exceptions whatever the circumstances. In response to arguments of supreme emergency or moral disaster, its adherents affirm ‘a willingness to undergo tyrannous domination rather than be ready to carry out vast massacres’, indeed ‘a willingness to accept anything, even martyrdom, rather than do wrong’ (Finnis 1991: 22). There may not be much room for argument beyond this point” (Primoratz 2011).

  Nevertheless, moral absolutism does not necessarily lead to the rejection of terrorism. “Moral absolutes are [also] adopted by terrorists, so that the distinction between good and evil is very clearly drawn, as are the lines between the terrorists and their opponents. The terrorists’ belief or cause is a morally correct vision of the world and is used to establish moral superiority over others. Violent extremists thus become morally and ethically pure elites who lead the oppressed masses to freedom. For example, religious terrorists often believe that their ‘one true faith’ is superior to all others and that any behavio[u]r committed in defen[c]e of the faith is perfectly justifiable” (Martin 2010, pp. 39). In their contexts, terrorist attacks are a way of exercising some individual (religious) virtues. Indeed,

“The claim that terrorism is absolutely wrong is sometimes supported by a slippery slope argument. Construing the prohibition of terrorism as anything less than absolute and allowing for exceptions, however few and far between initially, is likely to generate ever more widespread misuse of the argument for making an exception (Coady 2003/4: 787-89). Now if that were to happen, the consequences would obviously be very bad. Still, the force of slippery slope arguments varies with the circumstances in which they are advanced. In some cases, such an argument may carry great weight, while in others its force and even its relevance may be doubted. A people may be facing the prospect of genocide, or of being “ethnically cleansed” from its land, may stand no chance of defending itself by fighting in accordance with the rules of war, and may have good reason for believing that recourse to terrorism would fend off the disaster. Under such circumstances, it is not very likely that they would be persuaded to desist by the slippery slope argument. More to the point, it is not clear that they should be persuaded to desist by such argument” (Primoratz 2011).

  However, it is argued that people who exercise virtues selectively or exercise them excessively cannot become virtuous individuals. A courageous but intemperate, arrogant and selfish terrorist is affected by vices indeed. His/her behaviour is unjustified in the perspective of virtue ethics. Crucially, “[t]he deliberate use of violence against innocent people is the worst thing about terrorism, morally speaking. It is not what is morally distinctive about it, because there seems to be no significant moral difference between such violence and violence against innocent people inflicted without intent but with foresight, as a side effect. But the deliberate use of violence against the innocent is only the most morally salient thing about terrorism; there is more to terrorism, morally speaking. The terrorist does not inflict violence on innocent people for its own sake, but as a means to something else: to intimidating some other people and coercing them into doing something they otherwise would not do. Now both intimidation and coercion are morally wrong. Neither is morally wrong always, whatever the circumstances; sometimes we have good moral reasons to resort to one or the other, or even both. But both are wrong prima facie—that is, as long as there is no moral consideration in favo[u]r of resort to them weighty enough to override their initial, intrinsic wrongness. Normally, we are not required to justify getting someone to do something by persuasion or provision of incentives, but any resort to coercion is exposed to a demand for justification. Intimidation and coercion, too, are part of the answer to the question of what makes terrorism wrong” (Primoratz 2013, p. 124-125).

  Terrorism is arguably unjustified in the perspectives of consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics. Its good consequences are often exaggerated, or terrorists simply miscalculate them. The arguments of justifying terrorism in terms of redistributive justice or in supreme emergency are not convincing enough. Rather it inevitably violates the deontological principles of “separateness of persons” and “respect for persons” (Primoratz 1997, p. 230-231). Although some moral absolutists may argue that terrorism can cultivate and exercise certain individual virtues, the imbalanced development of them can deform terrorists’ character. Last but not least, terrorism as killing innocents deliberately is a despicable manner, which deprives human beings’ of flourishing and virtuous life. 

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The article was firstly published in Glocal http://www.glocal.org.hk/archives/41579 )