Week of: 
June 1, 2004
What is it: 

We like to think that terrorism is always wrong. But what if the cause is just? Do the ends ever justify the means? And how do we define "terrorism" anyway?

Listening Notes: 

What is terrorism? As used in modern journalism, it requires three things: non-state actors, a political agenda, and the intentional killing of innocents. How are civilian deaths in terrorism different from collateral damage in, say, war? Ken introduces Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard. Is terrorism ever morally justifiable? Dershowitz explains why state sponsored warfare and is not as bad as terrorism. Dershowitz explains why he thinks that terrorism is not always wrong.

What philosophical views are useful for thinking about terrorism? Dershowitz answers that he would not want a single ethical view to dominate thinking about ethical matters. Is torture justified if it means that you can find a ticking time bomb by torturing a suspect? Dershowitz thinks that it can be justified in certain circumstances. John explains how Dershowitz's utilitarian views play into his philosophy. Dershowitz explains why he thinks that the distinction between civilian and military should be changed to a continuum of civilianness. Have there been any successful uses of terrorism? Is terrorism rational? Ken and Dershowitz both think that it is rational, although it is not the only rational course of action.

Should state-sponsored action be included in the definition of terrorism? Dershowitz thinks it should, as a lot of terrorism has historically been state-sponsored. Ken says that the notion of state-sponsorship has changed. Now groups are hosted by a state without being sponsored and they can use new communication technology to organize. Is “terrorist” just a negative version of “freedom fighter”? Dershowitz distinguishes between groups that fight against occupying armies and groups that kill civilians. Dershowitz and Ken introduce the principle of double effect to explain the morality of killing a terrorist on a plane.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:48): Amy Standen interviews Bill Ayers, a founder of the political activist group, Weather Underground, about the use of violence in political protest.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:40): Ian Shoales summarizes the history of terrorism, from the to the assassins to the zealots, from the French Revolution to World War 1.

Alan M. Dershowitz, Felix Frankurter Professor of Law, Harvard University

Related Resources: 

Get Philosophy Talk


Sunday at 10am (pacific) on KALW 91.7 FM Local Public Radio, San Francisco


Individual downloads via CDBaby and iTunes. Multipacks and The Complete Philosophy Talk via iAamplify

John Perry and Ken Taylor

Continue the Conversation

Sidebar Menu

Upcoming Shows

  • October 30 : Memory and the Self
    Ever since John Locke, philosophers have wondered about memory and its connection to the self. Locke believed that a continuity of consciousness and...
  • November 6 : Election Special 2016
    John and Ken look beyond the horse race at some of the bigger questions raised by this year’s campaign: • Do we always have a duty...
  • November 13 : The Legacy of Freud
    Did you really want to eat that last piece of cake, or were you secretly thinking about your mother? Sigmund Freud, who might have suggested the...
  • November 20 : Acting Together
    Many goals are too complex for one person to accomplish alone. Every day, we pool together our planning abilities with those around us to get things...
  • November 27 : Science and Gender
    What does gender have to do with science? The obvious answer is ‘nothing.’ Science is the epitome of an objective, rational, and disinterested...

Support Philosophy Talk


Philosophy Talk relies on the support of listeners like you to stay on the air and online. Any contribution, large or small, helps us produce intelligent, reflective radio that questions everything, including our most deeply-held beliefs about science, morality, culture, and the human condition. Make your tax-deductible contribution now through Stanford University's secure online donation page. Thank you for your support, and thank you for thinking!