The Theory and Ethics of Terrorism and Political Violence

School: School of Government
Department of Political Science and International Studies

Modular value: 20 credits
Duration: Term 1
Contact Hours: 3 hours per week

Lecturer: Christopher Finlay

This is a course in normative political theory and international ethics in which students engage in critical debate with classic and recent arguments about violence and the political purposes for which it may legitimately be used. ‘Political violence’ is understood in a broad sense, encompassing political rule, terrorism and non-state armed resistance, and counter-terrorist measures involving force.

For this 20-credit module, topics focus on two areas and the relationship between them: 1. concerning violence, political power, and security as the concern of democratic states; and 2. concerning violence against states by subjects and other non-state entities in the form of armed political resistance, revolutionary violence, and non-state terrorism.

Seminars begin with philosophical and conceptual questions concerning the problems of defining 'terrorism,' the concept of violence and its relationship with concepts of injustice, and the role of violence as an ‘instrument’ in politics. These are followed by a series of discussions on ethical questions concerning the possibility of justifying such practices as armed resistance, terrorism, torture, and targeted assassination.

Some Key Questions:

  • What is ‘terrorism’? Is it distinct from other uses of violence such as 'freedom fighting' or conventional war?
  • Is the use of terrorism ever morally permissible or excusable?
  • What, if any, political values can legitimate the use of violence and under what circumstances?
  • Under what circumstances are armed resistance and revolution permissible?
  • Is interrogational torture by democratic states ever justified or excusable in response to terrorist threats?
  • Is the targeted killing of terrorists an acceptable security measure from an ethical or legal point of view?

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

  • The nature and ethical limits of violence as used in resisting political oppression
  • The nature and ethical limits of violence as used in security and counter-terrorism by liberal-democratic states
  • The concept of ‘terrorism’ and its relationship with concepts of war, violence, and injustice


  • 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 compulsory).

Related courses:

The optional modules listed on the website for this programme may unfortunately occasionally be subject to change. As you will appreciate key members of staff may leave the University and this necessitates a review of the modules that are offered. Where the module is no longer available we will let you know as soon as we can and help you make other choices.