Ethical Dimensions of Terrorism, Political Violence and War

Modular value: 20 credits
Teaching: two hour seminars
Duration: 1 semester (semester 2)

Lecturer: Dr Christopher Finlay
Contact:, Tel: 0121 414 5091.

This is a course in normative political theory and international ethics in which students engage in critical debate with classic and recent arguments about the scope and justification for war, both conventional wars between states, and irregular wars involving non-state forces (insurgency, resistance, or terrorism). In particular, Ethical Dimensions of Terrorism, Political Violence and War introduces students to the vocabulary and core principles of Just War THeory, explores their application in relation to recent conflicts, and subjects them to critical evaluation.

Course Aims

The aim of seminars is to explore the following inter-related concerns:

  • Tensions within the traditional moral and legal frameworks for contesting the justice of wars as a result both of the varying forms of war (inter-state war; insurgency / counter-insurgency; terrorism / counter-terrorism) and of recent scholarship.
  • Questions concerning the viability of the 'just war' framework for justifying actual wars and for regulating the conduct of combatants.
  • Critical alternatives to just war theory and to traditional assumptions about the justice of conventional wars.
  • Questions and problems arising in relation to recent and current conflicts.

Topics include the following:

  • The question of what ‘causes’ (if any) are of sufficient importance to justify military killing;
  • The question of whether and when the sovereignty of states can be disregarded for the purposes of ‘humanitarian intervention’;
  • The question of whether military interventions can be used to liberate peoples from domestic dictatorships;
  • The problem of civilian collateral damage in war and the idea of ‘proportionate’ harm to non-combatants;
  • Problems concerning the legitimacy of non-state, ‘irregular’ armies in the context of political resistance;
  • The question of whether and why soldiers ought to be liable to attack in conventional wars;
  • The question of whether and why civilians ought always to be immune from deliberate attack in war.


Two pieces of work:

  • A formative essay of 1000 words, presenting a short sketch of the assessed essay that forms part b. Part a. is given a mark and feedback to help students develop skills and research expertise necessary for part b. (but the mark for part a. does not contribute to the student's grade for the course).
  • One fully assessed essay of 4000 words, fleshing out the ideas sketched in part a. The student's grade for the course is based 100% on this piece of writing (though part a. is also compulsary).

Key Texts

Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: a Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, fourth ed., New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Jeff McMahan, Killing in War, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009.

Michael L. Gross, Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Week by week, students read a series of recent articles on terrorism and military ethics as well as selected parts of classic texts.

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