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Some Thoughts on Terrorism, Moral Complaint, and the Self-Reflexive and Relational Nature of Morality


The contemporary discussion of terrorism has been dominated by deontological and consequentialist arguments. Building upon my previous work on a paradox concerning moral complaint, I try to broaden the perspectives through which we view the issues. The direction that seems to me as most promising is a self-reflexive, conditional, and, to some extent, relational emphasis. What one is permitted to do to others would depend not so much on some absolute code constraning actions or on the estimate of what would optimize overall the resulting well-being but on the precedents that the past actions of those others provided, on the relationships among the participants, on tacit or explicit offers and possible agreements among them, and on the reciprocity (or lack thereof) that ensues.

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    Beyond the influence of the issue of moral complaint, I have also been led to explore the relational direction by some surprising moral–psychological results of my investigation into the idea of not being sorry (or even of being happy) when morally bad things happen to others (Smilansky, 2005). My colleague at Haifa Daniel Statman has been thinking philosophically about warfare and terrorism far longer than I have, and we have shared our thoughts in a way that has affected this paper. And while working on these topics, G.A. Cohen sent me a draft of his unpublished paper “Casting The First Stone: Who Can, and Who Can't, Condemn the Terrorist?.” In this paper Cohen takes up the issue of condemnation. He concludes that there may be limits as to who can condemn terrorists, which are similar in kind (although in fact go in opposite directions) to my own doubts about when terrorists may complain. Cohen's discussion also seems to strengthen the need for exploring what I am calling self-reflexive and relational ways of thinking about morality.

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    A further option might be to disconnect moral complaint from moral constraint. This would allow us to integrate the insights of both N and U. We could say that wrongdoers cannot complain if treated in the ways that they have normatively supported through their actions, but that nevertheless there are constraints on how anyone may be treated. In this new option the ‘right’ to complain may be curtailed even when people become the target of morally wrong acts, but the general constraints on what would be morally permitted to do to other people would remain in force. The commonsense assumption that, if one is wronged, one may complain (and that, if one cannot complain about an act done to one, then presumably that act may be done to one) is abandoned.

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    This is not to deny that there are likely to be moral differences between the moral case that a party to a conflict can make for responding in kind, and the moral case of an unrelated party to take advantage of the unacceptable behavior of the offending party, allowing those who have not been involved to treat the offending party as it has treated the offended party. Even the optimistic case of morally motivated humanitarian intervention is not the same as the case for relational self-defense in kind. That we are taking care of ourselves and our dependents, and are involved in self-defense, will typically be significant.

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    This possibility is not completely farfetched. After the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, a significant new wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine ensued, increasing as the persecution and the sense of mortal danger intensified. This brought about a violent revolt against the British by the local Arabs. In 1937 the British Peel Commission recommended the establishment of separate Arab and Jewish states (the Jewish one was much smaller than that established by UN resolution after the war). This compromise plan was accepted by the Jewish leadership, but the Arab leadership rejected it. The British did not implement it, choosing instead to radically curtail Jewish emigration. The establishment of such a Jewish state would of course have enabled hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews to be directly saved from the Holocaust, since they could have emigrated to Israel*, at a time when all other countries shut their gates. Once World War II began, the Israel* bombing scenario might also have become a reality. Jewish units from Palestine did participate in the Allied effort, as members of the “Jewish Brigade” of the British army and other units, but they had no operational autonomy.

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    I have defended the idea of an esoteric morality elsewhere (Smilansky, 2000). I think that there are good reasons for thinking that the morality of warfare would exhibit such features, and that it will present, for pragmatic reasons, a much more deontological face than is philosophically justified; a thought that I began to explore in Smilansky (2004). But it is philosophically too early to decide on this possibility.

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    A shorter version of this paper was given at the annual meeting of the Israeli Philosophical Association on February 17, 2005, and I am grateful for comments made by the co-discussant, David Enoch, and by members of the audience. I am very grateful to Michael Gross, Iddo Landau, Jeff McMahan, Jonathan Smilansky, Daniel Statman, and the Editor, for comments on drafts of this paper.


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Correspondence to Saul Smilansky.

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Smilansky, S. Some Thoughts on Terrorism, Moral Complaint, and the Self-Reflexive and Relational Nature of Morality. Philosophia 34, 65–74 (2006).

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  • moral complaint
  • terrorism
  • agreements
  • reciprocity
  • prisoners of war