I earlier distinguished two approaches to politics, which I ascribed to ‘dogmatists’ and ‘fallibilists’, respectively. But the essential difference between them lies not in their epistemic assumptions, but – more importantly – their civic attitudes. The question that divides them is whether politics is a fundamentally combative or cooperative endeavour. I think it is the latter conception that we ought to adopt. Civic virtue requires that we approach the political arena with a commitment to deliberate with our fellow citizens in good faith. The democratic process establishes the rules by which citizens cooperate to reach political decisions. Hence, the vigilante who violates this process is effectively engaging in a unilateral act of civil war against his fellow citizens. By "taking the law into his own hands", the vigilante assumes that he alone has the moral clarity to "see justice done". Instead of engaging with his fellow citizens, he dismisses them. They are seen as mere obstacles to justice: if he cannot convince them, he will coerce them. The vigilante’s attitude is thus seen to be fundamentally disrespectful towards his fellow citizens, denying them moral autonomy or political agency.
There may be rare occasions when such disrespect is warranted, however. For what are we to do when faced with a dogmatic sectarian majority that seeks to oppress minority citizens? In such a case, the majority has already forsaken civic cooperation. To preserve the value of respect, we must disrespect those who would betray this meta-political value. Hence, civic virtue and respect for humanity should arguably lead us to defend subgroups of our fellow citizens – by whatever means necessary – against those who would aggress against them. If a tyrannical majority has seized control of the democratic process, abusing it for nefarious purposes, then radical action may be legitimated in response. But it’s worth noting that this is not merely a first-order problem: rather, it is the political process itself which needs repair. If there is no hope of engaging the majority in reasoned discussion, then democratic procedures will no longer be responsive to reasons, and hence will fail to qualify as just procedures at all. So this concession to radicalism is consistent with procedural liberalism, understood as the prioritization of process over first-order substance.
Importantly, I hold that civic disrespect is not warranted simply in virtue of first-order political disagreements, no matter their importance. One might consider abortion to be a ‘genocide of the unborn’, or animal experimentation a form of ‘slavery’, and hence consider their defenders to be about as morally misguided as anyone could possibly be. Nevertheless, I suggest, civic virtue requires us to restrain these deeply held beliefs and concomitant attitudes. When engaging politically in the public sphere, we must self-identify as citizens first and foremost. Our commitment to civil society must trump all else. There is a sense in which we must be capable of bracketing our first-order concerns, to become an abstract citizen on a par with all others. This humble self-conception will guide our political action towards principles of cooperative reciprocity. We are led to treat our political opponents the way we would wish them to treat us. So when we believe them to be mistaken – even horrendously mistaken – we must respond with good-faith attempts to convince them of this, for as long as we should retain any respect for them whatsoever. The coercive imposition of one’s moral views is not an option for the virtuous agent who would treat her fellow citizens with basic respect.
The crucial test for legitimate radicalism is thus whether one’s fellow citizens have forsaken good faith and civic virtue, effectively initiating civil war by precluding any hope of reasonable co-operation. If the political sphere becomes a battlefield, then radicalism is justified as the only available form of self-defence. We need not submit to the arbitrary coercion inherent in civilly disrespectful political decisions. That’s no part of any “social contract” that citizens (tacitly or hypothetically) commit themselves to. On the other hand, citizens arguably are committed to abiding by the conclusions of a reasonably co-operative political process. The project of politics as collective decision-making would be fatally undermined if participants could simply refuse to accept any outcome with which they strongly disagreed.
However, even generally well-meaning citizens might prove stubbornly unreasonable on particular issues. If civil war is not justified, then – I claim – neither is political vigilantism. Co-operation is still possible, so citizens ought not to undermine the social fabric through civilly disrespectful direct action. But then what can be done about those particular injustices to which society remains willfully blind? The ideal political system would incorporate a “failsafe” – some means of shocking the populace out of stubborn complacency when all the usual (read: legal) routes fail. Such a proposal faces two major challenges: to protect it against abuse from misguided vigilantes, and to reconcile it with fidelity to the rule of law. In the next section, I will argue that civil disobedience, properly understood, can meet both challenges.