Terrorists actively target civilians. Warring nations realize that their actions will lead to collateral damage and yet they proceed with their actions anyways.

Would a consequentialist then consider all warring nations to be terrorist regimes (or, morally identical to terrorists)?

To use some numbers to compare the consequences of terrorism and warring nations, the US killed 125.000 Japanese in a single bomb blast, and it takes worldwide terrorism 5 years to match those fatalities.

  • 1
    I will repost the SEP link to institutionalist approach to war favored by indirect consequentialists from @Dennis's comment to a now deleted answer since it is relevant. But there seems to be an incongruity in the post: if "terrorists actively target civilians" but warring nations only "lead to collateral damage" then it would seem that they are not terrorists, since they do not "actively target" civilians. Some of them might deliberately do that to win, but that is considered a war crime.
    – Conifold
    Jul 21, 2017 at 2:55
  • @Conifold, aiming for civilians alone is not enough for terrorism. Their purpose is to spread the panic which is not universally true in the case of war where the purpose is simply to win, maybe even from surrender.
    – rus9384
    Aug 6, 2018 at 20:37

2 Answers 2


I see no reason why consequentialists would have a definition of terrorism different from anyone else. I'd think that a proponent of any ethical system would realize that war involves terror, some accidental and some deliberate, and the question of whether war is terrorism would be independent of ethical evaluation.

You mention what appears to be the nukes used against Japan at the end of WWII, and seem to think a consequentialist would find it unjustified. By the standards of the day, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were legitimate military targets (the headquarters for the defense of Kyushu against invasion were in Hiroshima, for example), so there was no erosion of international law involved.

I can make a good historical argument (which I'll omit here) that using the nukes saved more civilians than they killed, counting primarily but not exclusively Chinese civilians. If we're using civilian deaths as a rough measure of consequences, that justifies the nuclear bombings for consequentialists.

  • Terrorism has a terror as its purpose. War typically doesn't. Wars typically had such purposes as resources, but for some people it was more than that, it was an ideology.
    – rus9384
    Sep 6, 2018 at 19:14
  • Terrorists usually want something, such as the removal of infidel troops from holy land, or to change the government, or to promote an ideology, and commit terrorism to try to cause a desired effect. In warfare, terror is a very useful tool, although sometimes it's masked by euphemisms ("shock and awe" meant terrifying those affected), and is part of demoralizing the enemy, normally considered a reasonable goal. Sep 7, 2018 at 18:09

It seems to me that there are situations where consequentialism could endorse going to war, for example to stop a genocidal regime from murdering a number of people that is orders of magnitude larger than the number of civilians that would die as a result of the war.

In general, given that the circumstances dictate whether it is wrong to go to war or not (and also maybe some kinds of terrorism, say primarily damaging some symbolic physical property, are less wrong than others, say killing large numbers of innocent people), it would seem hard to establish any general moral equivalence between the two.

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