The Morality of Terrorism

38 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2002


Notwithstanding the current political consensus in the United States, terrorism is inherently morally ambiguous. The Boston Tea Party, which helped lead to American independence, John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, which helped lead to the abolition of American slavery, and the bombing of the King David Hotel, which helped drive the British out of Palestine and thereby made possible the establishment of the State of Israel, were all terrorist acts under current U.S. law.

This paper first explores problems in the definition of terrorism. It then applies the most commonly invoked contemporary moral theories to the problem, concluding that none of those theories offers fully satisfactory answers. Finally, it applies a new moral theory based on evolutionary and game theory. Goodness, the paper asserts, consists of behaviors consistent with a generalized version of Tit for Tat, which I label the "principle of reciprocity". Each culture has evolved its own ethos of reciprocity more or less consistent with that principle. Each such ethos also includes a specification of the We of that ethos - that is, the set of individuals to whom duties of reciprocal cooperative behavior are owed. Terrorism is morally ambiguous, the paper asserts, precisely because it crosses cultural lines - because it involves people not part of our We.

The paper offers two precepts for a successful response to terrorism. First, it is necessary to expand our We to include the cultures from which we face terrorist challenges. In other words, it is not sufficient to punish; it is also necessary to develop an ethos of reciprocity that includes those cultures. Necessarily, that shared ethos will not be defined entirely on our terms. Second, the paper offers a game theoretic explanation for the rule of law. Defection is inherently ambiguous: it may constitute punishment, or it may merely be original nastiness deserving of punishment. As a result, self-help punishment can lead to a cycle of mutual defection - in common parlance, the blood feud. Law solves this problem by removing the punitive role to a neutral third party. An approach to terrorism that involves third parties in the punitive process is more likely to succeed, less likely to result in long-term blood feud.

Keywords: terrorism is inherently morally ambiguous, Tit for Tat, principle of reciprocity

JEL Classification: C71, K14, K33

Suggested Citation

Seto, Theodore P., The Morality of Terrorism. Loyola-LA Public Law Research Paper No. 29, Available at SSRN: or

Theodore P. Seto (Contact Author)

Loyola Law School Los Angeles ( email )

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Los Angeles, CA 90015-1211
United States
213-736-1154 (Phone)
213-380-3769 (Fax)

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