How Terrorism Is Wrong: Morality and Political Violence

July 24, 2008

When nonviolent politics has been exhausted, or shut off by governments in situations of profound injustice, is violence or even terrorism sometimes justified? This is the central issue animating Virginia Held's book. She answers with a qualified yes, while insisting that we must think about these things within the humane philosophical perspective of the "ethics of care" and with an eye constantly open for less costly alternatives.

Held believes that moral arguments about political violence have been compromised by treating terrorism as immoral by definition, making it impossible, she argues, to take the question of justification seriously. It prevents understanding of terrorists' motives and vitiates efforts to engage in dialogue with both the terrorists themselves and those they try to recruit. Since both are essential, Held believes, to more successful and humane practice by Western democracies, an innovative approach to definition is vital. Her most radical innovation is to try to turn a word that generally has the rhetorical force of condemnation into one that neutrally describes certain types of "small-scale war". Most definitions focus either on the nature of the agent or on particular kinds of violence, but Held resists both moves. She maintains that terrorism can be carried out by both state and non-state actors; and it doesn't necessarily involve either the intentional targeting of civilians or the tactical deployment of fear.

As a result of Held's definitional stipulations, it's often unclear just which phenomena she wants us to understand and to consider justifying. But at least sometimes she seems to want us to think specifically about terrorism involving the deliberate targeting of civilians. Held makes three arguments. First, and most controversially, she argues that terrorism isn't always more unjustifiable than war, ie, if war is sometimes justified (and despite some equivocation, she seems to think it is), then it's likely terrorism will sometimes be justified too. Held maintains that, all else being equal, the foreseeable civilian "collateral damage" caused by state forces in conventional wars is no more acceptable than the intentional killing of civilians by non-state actors. In fact, where terrorism kills fewer innocents than conventional war in pursuit of legitimate political goals, it is to that extent more justifiable rather than less.

The argument about justification would need more rigorous defence than it receives here in order to offer a persuasive alternative in contemporary debates. Held's less provocative arguments concern empathy and care. To reduce the harms caused by terrorism, she thinks we ought to try to understand what motivates people to resort to political violence, whether justified or not. The media could help inform better moral and political choices by Western citizens, especially where global grievances arise from irresponsible consumerism or poor political judgment. Westerners, she argues, should also be encouraged to take responsibility for attitudes that help create a culture permissive of the injustices causing violence.

Finally, Held maintains that responsible policymaking should be formulated not only within the constraints of international law, but also within the broader framework of the ethics of care. Care requires not only that we try to empathise with terrorists and others, but also that we cultivate forms of sociability and activism that might create opportunities for non-military engagement in international affairs. It's not clear how this approach would affect specific practices, although Held's discussion is suggestive in a general way.

A volume that brings together Held's influential essays in the field is a welcome addition to the literature. But I think readers will find her definitional manoeuvres more apt to cause confusion than enhance precision in public debate, and in the absence of a more systematic treatment of key arguments, Held's approach as a whole is likely to prove provocative rather than fully convincing.

How Terrorism Is Wrong: Morality and Political Violence

By Virginia Held
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780195329599
Published 15 May 2008

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