Why We Fight: The Moral Roots of Violent Extremism

By Lindsay Hahn

Terrorists killed more than 20,000 people in 2019 alone. According to the Global Terrorism Database, more than 900,000 actors were responsible for directly perpetrating over 200,000 terrorist attacks between the years of 1970-2019. Countless additional actors are likely to have indirectly helped the groups plan their attacks. Although it might seem reasonable to assume that these violent ideological actors lack a moral compass given the heinousness of their actions, a growing body of research actually suggests that violent extremists believe their actions are morally righteous.

That is, from the violent actor’s perspective, their actions are necessary and even morally compulsory in pursuit of their cause. This robust research finding is perhaps best summed up by the common phrase, “One man’s freedom fighter is another’s man’s terrorist,” which highlights that who is in the right – the actor or the people they are fighting – depends on the observer’s perspective.

But what moral ends could be so important that they might allow perpetrators to justify their violent means? And how do perpetrators come to be so “blinded” by one moral value that they are willing to do anything, even kill other people, to uphold it?

These are two of the core questions driving my research group, The Media Psychology and Morality Lab, at the University at Buffalo. We investigate the role that media play in this moral priority process, specifically focusing on the extent to which media content such as news, entertainment, and propaganda all shape audiences’ moral values in sometimes extreme ways.  Before describing the findings from a recent study we did to investigate how terrorists try to exploit audiences’ moral values to grow their following, I describe a little about the psychology behind our work.

Violent Extremists Perceive Their Causes as Morally Righteous

To answer the above question, our work primarily draws from theories in moral psychology, including a theory called moral foundations theory. This theory argues that humans are born with sensitivities toward at least five different moral values, including care and compassion for vulnerable others, fairness and justice, ingroup loyalty, deference to what we perceive are benevolent authorities, and desires for purity/sanctity. Given that these moral preferences are thought to be innate, we wondered to what extent the same moral priorities act as the driving moral end for which terrorists are willing to commit violence.

Guided by previous work defining violent extremism according to an imbalance in motivations, in one study, we demonstrated that the same moral priorities mentioned above that drive the rest of us are also what drives terrorist groups. What separates terrorists from the rest of us is the degree of conviction they display toward their cause, as they are willing to do whatever it takes – even harm other people – to uphold the moral value they care most about.

In this study, we also showed that there are predictable patterns in the moral foundations that drive certain terror groups. For instance, just like non-extremist left-wing partisans tend to favor the values of fairness (compared to non-extremist right-wing partisans), left-wing terrorist groups tended to be motivated by fairness. Right-wing terror groups, just like their non-extremist counterparts, tended to be motivated most often by purity (compared to left-wing groups). This scheme was also useful for categorizing the moral motivations of non-partisan groups, as results revealed that religious ideological groups were mostly motivated by purity, ethno-nationalist groups were mostly driven by ingroup loyalty, and single-issue groups, such as those focusing on animal-rights or abortion concerns, were mostly driven by care toward an entity other than their victims (e.g., care for innocent animals or unborn fetuses).

After contributing to research on some of the psychological mechanisms prompting violent extremism, we developed a line of work trying to investigate the processes by which terrorist groups come to hold a motivational imbalance. That is, how do would-be terrorist members come to justify a group’s violent causes as moral? To answer this question, we tried to understand how existing violent groups persuade new members to join their cause, as we hoped this would provide insight into how terrorists come to construe their causes as morally virtuous.

Investigating How Terror Groups Exploit Audiences’ Moral Values

To guide our work, we looked to early persuasion research, which tried to understand how effective pro-war propaganda was for motivating US soldiers to fight in World War II. This propaganda was created by the US Department of War in 1942 and studied by researchers in 1949. The series of studies, commonly referred to as the Why We Fight studies, generally found that this pro-war propaganda wasn’t very effective for convincing soldiers to fight if they didn’t want to fight already. However, the propaganda was effective for bolstering attitudes that the soldiers already held. So, channeling audiences’ pre-existing beliefs into a related cause appeared to be one method for getting soldiers who were already pro-war to be willing to fight for the cause themselves.

We thought that terrorist groups might adopt a similar approach to persuading audiences to fight for their cause – that is, if they can exploit the moral positions their audiences already hold, then maybe they would be more successful at convincing those audiences to engage in violence for their cause.  In this study, we hypothesized that terrorists’ ideologies would predict the types of moral appeals they emphasize in their propaganda. We also expect that terrorists’ motivations, as we identified in the study mentioned above, would predict the types of moral appeals emphasized in propaganda. And, finally, we wondered whether groups’ emphasis on any one moral value throughout their propaganda might be associated with the severity of their attacks. If groups successfully persuaded people to join their causes, then we might expect them to have more ‘successful’ attacks as a result. Because we can’t determine time order here (i.e., whether the attack or the propaganda came first), we limited this part of the investigation to correlations.

To test our hypotheses, we investigated propaganda that was created by known terrorist organizations. To compile a sample of propaganda for the study, we searched the internet for propaganda created by any terrorist group who attacked in the US. We were able to find propaganda from 73 terrorist groups, resulting in a total of 873 propaganda items created between 1920-2018. The sample, which we then content analyzed for the presence of moral appeals, includes terrorist-created flyers and websites, interviews with terror group members, images of membership logos, and other media.

Our study revealed several key findings. First, we found support for our hypothesis that terrorists’ ideologies predict their propaganda’s appeals to certain moral values. Matching the moral values most prioritized by like-minded non-extremists, our data revealed that left-wing terror groups were most likely to emphasize fairness concerns, and right-wing terror groups were most likely to emphasize loyalty concerns. In support of our second hypothesis, we found that terrorists’ moral motivations for violence (e.g., desiring justice for my people) feature prominently in their propaganda as a way to construe their cause as inherently imbued with moral righteousness audiences’ minds. These findings suggest that terrorist groups’ ideologies and motivations allow us to predict with some accuracy how they will try to justify their cause to outsiders to grow their following. Last, the results of this study revealed that terror groups’ emphasis on ingroup loyalty in their propaganda positively correlated with the number of US casualties they caused – and groups’ emphasis on purity in their propaganda positively correlated with their attack frequency, as well as the number of casualties they caused globally and in the US.


Understanding the contexts in which humans may cite one moral value as justification for violating other moral values – and messages’ role in fostering this moral priority process – is what prompted me to go to graduate school. Although the studies I mention above are certainly an extreme case of moral prioritization, they’re a good example of one of the consequences that can arise when individuals cling to their moral convictions without considering how their actions might affect other people with different priorities.

In particular, by examining the propaganda created by ‘successful’ terrorist groups, we were able to shed light on the process by which violent extremists persuade and effectively “blind” others to what they perceive is a morally worthy cause. Although the proximate and ultimate causes of terrorism are considerably dynamic and complex, we think that incremental advances in the social-scientific understanding of terrorists’ psychology and media production can be useful for understanding and ultimately intervening in actors’ ideological violence.

Dr. Lindsay Hahn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Center for Cognitive Science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY where she directs the Media Psychology and Morality Lab. Her research investigates morally-laden media, its uses, and its effects in audiences across the lifespan. 

Image Credit: Pixabay

Want to submit a blog post? Click here.


Leave a Reply