The Limits of Just Terrorism and Torture

How do terrorists justify murder? How does our government justify torture? When are terrorism or torture right?


This paper was written for Prof. Claudia Card’s course, “The Nature of Evil,” in December of 2011. It looks at the ethics of war and how they’re often misused.



Since there has been war, there have been philosophers who’ve tried to justify it. And though their justifications have been different, most share the same basic idea: that war can only be righteous if the law can eliminate unnecessary violence. Because of the changing relationship between our law and the wars we fight, just war philosophy is worth reexamining.



Philosopher Mary Kaldor calls modern conflicts like the War on Terror “new wars.” Those fighting in them don’t adhere to conventional philosophy on just war. Casualties aren’t limited to soldiers and state resources. Terrorists bring entire innocent populations into the fray. States torture innocent people for information. Terrorists and torturers justify themselves in dangerous, often unethical ways. And relatively weak international laws can do little to stop them. Conventions conceived with World War II in mind can’t control conduct in the War on Terror. Because of how the wars we’re involved in are changing, the law is becoming easier to bend.1 By examining utilitarian and Kantian ethics, we can give ourselves a moral compass to gauge the wartime policies of our government, its allies and its enemies. Though we can imagine a few unlikely scenarios in which they’re justified, terrorism and torture are most often violations of sound ethics.


Utilitarianism provides justification for both conventional and “new” wars. It gives a justification for any war that promises to do more good than evil. Any harm done within that war can be weighed against the overall good accomplished by the just side’s victory. But that’s a simple and problematic idea, since we wouldn’t have war at all if there weren’t some dispute over which is the just side. So, depending on your perspective, the Principle of Utility can justify terrorism. Consider, for instance, the Allies’ carpet-bombing of Axis cities during World War II – which is, by many definitions, an act of terrorism.2 Still, though it killed thousands of civilians, it also contributed to Hitler’s fall from power and the end of World War II. How good was the outcome of World War II and how bad was the bombing? Depending on your point of view, the Principle of Utility can condone or condemn the policy.


Now consider one of the recent suicide bombings in the Middle East. To us, it seems like the evil done by the bomber far outweighs any progress achieved by his associates. But to him it’s just the opposite; otherwise he wouldn’t have laid down his life as he did. If you think one of these acts of violence is justified and the other isn’t, where do you draw the line? Using the bare utilitarian approach, you could justify any action as long as you could dream up a high enough value for the outcome. Subjectivity here is deadly. To apply the Principle of Utility, we need some guiding morality to help us estimate values of good and bad.


Immanuel Kant might help us here. His philosophy clearly labels good and evil. Like utilitarian philosophy, it allows moral justification for conventional and “new” wars, but unlike utilitarianism, it plainly labels terrorism and torture evil.


The very idea of war seems to violate Kant’s Categorical Imperative, since deaths of the enemy’s forces seem to be used as a means to the end of victory.3 The Doctrine of the Double effect explains it differently. The Doctrine says a fetus can be killed during a life-saving uterus removal, and likewise German soldiers can be killed during a Europe-saving Hitler removal. According to the Double Effect, in both operations, the deaths are incidental casualties and not somehow means to the end. So the Categorical Imperative allows for just war as long as the enemy is only killed when he or she immediately threatens the achievement of an otherwise just and non-violent objective. This means that Kant’s philosophy justifies some uses of conventional war. However, acts of terrorism and torture, like the Allies’ carpet-bombing of Axis cities – since the deaths of German and Japanese civilians were used as a means to force surrender – or the torture of the ticking bomb terrorist – since his pain is used as a means of obtaining information – are labeled evil.


We can build the strongest case for some acts of terrorism by integrating Kantian judgments into a utilitarian value judgment. We can break an act of terrorism into its constituent pieces and examine which are good and which are evil (in Kant’s ethics, there is no middle; everything is black or white) and then we can look at the big picture to see which prevails. With this approach, we can imagine a perfect act of terrorism – one that strictly limits evils to only those necessary. At least one evil is inherent to terrorism. Scheffler’s, Walzer’s, and Wellman’s definitions of terrorism tell us terrorism must involve using people as means and not ends. So, in this hybrid philosophy, the terrorist act itself is evil. Whether it’s justified depends on two conditions.



First, just terrorism, like just war, needs a just cause. Let’s imagine a murderous dictator’s regime, like Hitler’s or Stalin’s, which a resistance movement wants to bring down by getting rid of the dictator. This may be just cause for violent resistance, but if the dictator isn’t very clearly evil, the movement might not be justified. Second, just terrorists, like just war belligerents, have to discriminate between targets. The Doctrine of the Double Effect only justifies incidental deaths when they’re essential to an otherwise non-violent objective. To kill anyone (including civilians and unarmed non-threatening regime agents) who doesn’t immediately threaten the mission to bring down the dictator’s regime would be an unnecessary evil weighing against any good of the outcome. So the resistance attack couldn’t be a bombing of a crowded government building, for example. In sum, this perfect terrorist attack executed perfectly leaves dead only a handful of opposition guards or soldiers and safely captures the dictator or high-ranking officer. Resistance fighters can’t get carried away. They can’t kill anyone who isn’t an immediate threat. If they do, they’ve perpetrated evil, which threatens to outweigh the good they’ve brought about.



The main weakness, obviously, is this and similarly perfect acts of terrorism are unlikely. We can see that by looking at the most infamous attacks in modern history. Terrorists tend not to have jus ad bellum. Many of the extremists like Al-Qaeda have such a skewed worldview that they can justify to themselves something as atrocious as the September 11th attacks. Terrorists kill more people than they have to. The deaths in the Allied carpet-bombing may have pressured Axis powers to surrender, but the deaths were evil nonetheless. Further, the Allies, with all their military power, could have used a more limited means to win the War. Terrorism is probably justified in a perfectly planned and executed operation, but any person or organization walks a thin line between good and evil terrorism.



We find a similar problem with torture. Torture is justified in at least one kind of situation – the ticking bomb scenario, in which a terrorist who’s planted a bomb in a major city has been captured and the only way to save the city is to get him to reveal the bomb’s location. The lives saved with the information from the perpetrator probably outweigh the evil of the torture itself. It’s the perfect act of torture, and like the perfect act of terrorism, it’s unrealistic.



Torture in the ticking bomb scenario is justifiable because before we torture the suspect, we’re certain of three conditions which we might not be certain of in a similar real situation: First, that there is a ticking bomb (or similar threat) and innocent life is in peril. Second, that the man in custody is the perpetrator and knows what we need to know to save those people. Third, that either because we’ve tried everything else or because we don’t have time for anything else, torture is the only viable course of action. If we’re certain of these three things, it doesn’t much matter whether or not torture will be effective – we have to try.



Actual law enforcement officials can be relatively certain of these things. For instance, in the example Seumas Miller uses in his essay on torture, a baby is left in a stolen car after the thief tries to flee the scene. The police officer that has him in custody sees the security video proving the baby is in the car and the man in custody is the thief. The officer also knows with certainty that a baby left in a hot car will die within hours.[iv] After the officer tries a few methods to get the man to talk, he’s left with no other time-effective option. The thief still might not talk, but torturing him is the only remaining method of trying to save the baby. Torture here was justifiable for the same reasons ticking bomb torture is justifiable: torture seemed to be the only way to save innocent life.



Though there have been instances of justifiable ticking-bomb-type situations in the real world, they’re extremely unlikely. If the would-be torturer isn’t relatively certain about all the critical aspects of the bomb and the terrorist (or the hot car and the carjacker in the one case), then he risks torturing an innocent man. What if we knew there was a bomb, but not who planted it? Should we torture someone who we only suspect has something to do with it? Of course not. But by misusing the ticking bomb scenario, torturers can push ethical limits past their extremes.



When the limits of torture ethics are stretched, evil abounds. Consider the U.S. government’s torture of the Afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, described in the film Taxi to the Dark Side. The Army personnel who captured him acted on a hunch that Dilawar had information that could help them fight Al-Qaeda. He didn’t, but they tortured and killed him thinking he did. Dilawar wasn’t the first nor the last innocent casualty of the Army’s campaign of torture in Afghanistan.5 The U.S. government’s policy of torture is based on an expansion of the ticking bomb principle. The rationale is to torture out of the terrorists the information we need to stop another September 11th. But the Army knew far too little about who knew what to be using such a broad campaign of torture. The ticking bomb scenario is a tempting excuse for torture. But if it’s used, it has to be contained, because when it expands, it threatens innocent lives.



“New wars” present new dilemmas. Terrorism and torture in the modern era defy sound ethical codes. Although we can imagine, and even sometimes see, instances of justifiable terrorism and torture, both remain mostly immoral concepts. We can imagine a perfect terrorist attack, but we see far more evil terrorist attacks than good ones. Terrorism is used most often by people or organizations without jus ad bellum. Similarly, we can talk all we want about ticking bomb torture, but almost no real torture scenario is like that. An institution like the U.S. government that condones any – even the justifiable – kind of torture risks immoral stretching of the ticking bomb principle. The ideas of just terrorism and torture are being used today in evil ways.






1  Kaldor, Mary New and Old Wars. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001

2  Scheffler, Samuel “Is Terrorism Morally Distinctive?” Journal of Political Philosophy 14:1. Walzer, Michael, “Terrorism,” from Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977). Wellman, Carl, “On Terrorism Itself,” Journal of Value Inquiry 13 (1979).

3  Kant, Immanuel. 1988. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. T. K. Abbott. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus.

4  Seumas Miller, “Torture” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy <>.

5  Taxi to the Dark Side. Think Film, 2007.