A young boy in Germany is kidnapped and a ransom demanded. The police manage to apprehend a man they are certain is the kidnapper, and beat him when he initially refuses to disclose the boy’s location. Were the police justified in their actions?

Dr Uwe Steinhoff of the Department of Politics and Public Administration has done much research and writing on the ethics of violence, and he is unequivocal in his answer. Yes the police were justified, but not for the reasons people might think.

“Most arguments in the Anglo-Saxon debate emphasise what is called a necessity justification, which assumes a person has a right but you override that right. In a way you violate their rights so you would owe them compensation.

“But I argue self-defence. If someone tries to kill you and the only way you can stop him is by killing or severely harming him, you don’t owe him any compensation. There is no rights violation in the first place. The child kidnapper is an attacker and he is currently violating the right of the child to freedom and to not be tortured.

“That takes a lot of weight out of arguments like whether you are sure that you have the right guy, or whether your actions will be effective or proportional. In the self-defence context, these arguments don’t work. That is why a lot of absolutist torture opponents don’t like the self-defence argument, because it’s so much more difficult to find objections to it.”

Certain acts of terrorism can in principle be justifiable but of course it’s the same with acts of killing: some are justified by self-defence or necessity justifications, but almost all are not.

Dr Uwe Steinhoff
Torture in a political context

It’s a controversial stance in a world where the use of torture in more politicised circumstances is hotly debated. Dr Steinhoff is clear, though, that there are strict limitations on when torture is justified.

“For the ticking bomb arguments that you hear, for example that by torturing a terrorist certain terrorist acts have been prevented, there is actually no evidence for that. Even a necessity justification it is not applicable here. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are just abuses, there is no justification,” he said.

In fact, he also believes torture is not justified in armed conflict – and certainly not on the grounds that if the other side is torturing our soldiers, we are justified in torturing theirs.

“A lot of people try to justify the use of torture against terrorists but many of these justifications are just far too sweeping for me,” Dr Steinhoff said.

For one thing, there is a lot of hypocrisy in defining terrorism. Churchill could be considered a terrorist – “he even called the attacks on German civilians terror bombing” – and the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would qualify as terrorism too. For the record, Dr Steinhoff said Osama bin Laden was without doubt a terrorist.

Terror, he said, targets innocent civilians (although not all civilians are innocent, for instance the German industrialists who supplied Zyklon B gas to Hitler’s gas chambers). Like torture, there are very limited circumstances when terrorism might be justified, but this would require proportionality and a chance of success.

The ethics of terrorism is Dr Steinhoff’s other area of research. He regards the attack on the World Trade Centre unjustifiable because it involves the targeting of innocent people.
On 9/11 and ‘just wars’

“I think 9/11 is not justifiable but even there I make a distinction. The attack on the World Trade Centre is strictly a case of terrorism because it involves the targeting of innocent people, but the attack on the Pentagon isn’t because it’s a military target.

“Certain acts of terrorism can in principle be justifiable but of course it’s the same with acts of killing: some are justified by self-defence or necessity justifications, but almost all are not. I think reasonable people can disagree on this, but it is important to me that they can be reasonable and not to say that one side are the saints and the other side the devils.

“And it shouldn’t be forgotten that in wars, far more innocent people are killed collaterally than by terrorists directly. Which is a fact Osama bin Laden always emphasised.”

This ties into another area under Dr Steinhoff’s critical gaze, that of war. The idea of ‘just war’ is simply misleading, he said, because inevitably the rights of innocent civilians are violated. Even soldiers’ rights are, if they are drafted. “Things like aerial bombardments inflict extreme suffering on other people for political reasons. That actually fits the United Nations definition of torture,” he said.

Dr Steinhoff’s arguments have stirred interest and debate not only in academia but in military echelons and in the popular media in Europe. “I am attempting to clarify what is going on and reveal this kind of hypocrisy. And this bad philosophising – that’s one thing I really dislike where counterarguments for whatever intentions are never even considered.”


On the Ethics of Torture was published in 2013 by State University of New York Press, Albany. On the Ethics of War and Terrorism was published in 2007 by Oxford University Press.