Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Ethics of Activism

Animal rights activists recently terrorized a UCLA neurobiologist into abandoning his research on primates. Ethical concerns about animal experimentation are certainly legitimate, and I'd have a fair bit of sympathy if they were raised through legitimate democratic channels (e.g. public debate), but this is just deplorable. As Timothy Burke notes, the activists' behaviour displays "an anti-democratic arrogance born of unthoughtful righteousness."

Such hubris is what repels me from radical politics more generally. These dogmatists feel so assured of the infallibility of their moral opinions that they're willing to coercively impose them on others. This implies a startling disrespect for one's fellow citizens. If you're really in the moral right, then you ought to be able to persuade your fellow citizens of this, and hence get the needed reforms implemented through legitimate democratic processes. Hence, if you can't succeed democratically, perhaps it's just as well...

Alternatively, if you're not in a properly functioning liberal democracy, then your overriding goal should be to establish the necessary institutions. Any first order political objectives are of secondary importance, and should wait until they can pass the liberal-democratic test. (It'd plainly be disastrous were every self-righteous moralist to go about trying to coerce everyone else into following their dictates.)

Do these principles imply the impermissibility of civil disobedience? Perhaps. If our democratic institutions are properly responsive to reasons, then illegal forms of protest should be quite unnecessary. Though I guess some might worry that the antecedent condition is unrealistically utopian. (That would pose obvious problems for the principles in my previous paragraph.) Perhaps we could argue that civil disobedience is itself an accepted part of our democratic process, so long as the protestors take care to cause no harm, and submit to the subsequent legal punishment?

For another difficult test case: what if one lived in a society that overwhelmingly endorsed slavery? Would it be wrong to "illegally" help slaves break free? That might seem a tough bullet to bite, but I think there is some plausibility to the idea that - even then - one would do better to work through legitimate channels (if such exist). Changing public opinion would have more significant long-term effects than isolated lawbreaking in any case, so could be preferred even on fairly crude utilitarian grounds (so long as such efforts are sufficiently likely to succeed). And again, we need to factor in our own fallibility: it's not entirely obvious that in such a situation we would have sufficient epistemic justification for our anti-slavery beliefs to warrant coercive action on their basis.

There could be exceptions for extreme cases where the government is so corrupt that one owes no respect whatsoever to the laws (qua laws -- there might be some, e.g. against wanton murder, that you'd still respect on independent moral grounds). Outright revolution can be justified if it is the only hope for establishing the just liberal-democratic institutions required for peaceful reform. But when those institutions are already available, I think it's terribly irresponsible to agitate for revolution simply in order to impose one's preferred first-order political objectives. Disrupting civil society with such minor revolutionary acts as illegal activism is, I think, likewise unjustified.

I want to suggest that this principle holds no matter how righteous one's goals might be. This seems well-grounded on indirect utiliarian grounds, since it's otherwise apparent how, say, anti-abortion activists might take themselves to be warranted in bombing abortion clinics and the like. To prevent misguided beliefs from leading to atrocity, we need firm principles of political toleration. We cannot universalize a decision procedure that would allow us to act coercively whenever we believe it would do the most good. So we cannot rationally act in such a way ourselves; we must first subject our proposals to the same tests we would reasonably demand of others, and the liberal-democratic process seems the best option there.

As a procedural liberal, I endorse the claim that our first (political) loyalty must always be to the liberal-democratic process -- upholding, reforming, or establishing it, as appropriate. This loyalty may (and should!) be shared by all citizens, no matter their first-order political stripe. There is plenty of scope for legitimate activism within this process. But coercive violations of the democratic process, no matter how well-intentioned, should be met with universal condemnation.


  1. Hi Richard,

    I think we tend to agree here, but just wanted to push on two things you said.

    First: "If you're really in the moral right, then you ought to be able to persuade your fellow citizens of this, and hence get the needed reforms implemented through legitimate democratic processes. Hence, if you can't succeed democratically, perhaps it's just as well..."

    This thought, that one can persuade one's fellow citizens goes beyond the assumption that the democrary must be a functioning one (as you note), and also assumes fellow citizens are reasonable. This I think, is often not the case at all. Rather the opposite is mostly true when it comes to issues such as animal liberation and abortion. If we can't expect our fellow citizens to listen to reason, what then? What about pursuing both avenues at once (civil disobediance AND through the legal channels available?). Also, it most certainly is not just as well if democracy fails to make the changes it should. This sort of thought would suggest that if American citizens pursued the proper legal options to prevent the war in Iraq and failed then it would be just as well. This seems wrong. Especially if one believes in objective morality.

    Second: I think your example of slavery is interesting. Most animal liberation supporters think that the current use and abuse of animals in factory farms and for other uses is not dissimilar when compared to slavery. They think the issue is important enough that working the legal channels alone is not enough when so many are suffering day in and day out. Here it seems like your analogy, unless you offer up a defense arguing that the two are dissimilar, actually supports the activists more than you might like.

    Interesting issue.

  2. Hi Ben!

    "it most certainly is not just as well if democracy fails to make the changes it should."

    Granted. There I merely meant to make the epistemic point that democratic failure indicates one may not be in the right after all. (The conditional does not span both sentences you quote; the second is rather the contrapositive of the first.)

    "If we can't expect our fellow citizens to listen to reason, what then?"

    Civil war? Naturally this is to be avoided, so I encourage higher expectations, and hope the citizenry live up to them!

    "Here it seems like your [slavery] analogy, unless you offer up a defense arguing that the two are dissimilar, actually supports the activists more than you might like."

    But I was suggesting that even opposition to slavery should be conducted through legitimate channels...

  3. "if you're not in a properly functioning liberal democracy, then your overriding goal should be to establish the necessary institutions."

    Isn't the problem that direct-action animal rights activists highlight precisely that there's disagreement over what a "properly functioning liberal democracy" is?

    Putting a very concise case in their favour, a truly functioning democracy should take into consideration the interests of every morally worthy creature under its jurisdiction; our "democracy" fails to take into account the worth of morally worthy animals by experimenting on them; therefore: our first task should be to remedy this defect in democracy, even if only by undemocratic means.

    I don't know enough about the details of this particular case to comment, but as a general rule, I think people often forget that some activists resort to direct action precisely because they want to change the kind of democratic structure that we live in.

  4. But by "democratic structure" I mean the process by which political decisions are made. This should be specifiable in neutral terms, i.e. without reference to the substantive (first-order) decisions or considerations that should then be made via those processes.

    Considering the interests of animals thus strikes me as a substantive rather than procedural issue. It's something done by us, the decision-makers, not the institutions themselves. It's a topic, rather than vehicle, of debate.

    Even if we lacked these independent grounds for classifying it so, indirect utilitarianism suggests we should find a way to force this result. Otherwise abortion-clinic bombers could offer an analogous argument in defence of their atrocities.

    Which is all just to say that we need a relatively minimal conception of a "properly functioning liberal democracy" here. Kind of like "human rights" -- making it contentious would defeat the practical point.

  5. But my exact point is that no conception of a "properly functioning liberal democracy" is neutral! We always have to actively choose how this decision making structure is going to work - how we weigh up votes against one another, which groups can and cannot vote, and so on. When you say that deciding on animal rights is "done by us, the decision makers", this is precisely the problem at hand - Should animals also be included as decision makers also? Even if they lack the capacity in practical terms, should we counter-balance this by giving extra weight to causes animals would support if they could vote? (such as stopping animal testing)

    Analgously, imagine responding to direct-action in favour of universal suffrage by claiming that "whether or not women should have votes is something decided by us, the decision makers". It's an innapropriate response when the matter at hand is what restrictions we should place on our decision making structures.

  6. Interesting. I definitely agree that the democratic process should come first, respected before the answers on substantive issues. For this reason I see my political arguments as aimed at the electorate rather than politicians.

    However, I think that there is a place for civil disobedience outside agitation for democracy. I would say that if the law requires me to violate the dictates of my conscience then I must weigh up the ethical problems I have with the action against the reasons in favour of it, including the general ethical reasons for obeying the law. If it still comes out in favour of disobedience, I would say that my ethical system still demands disobedience.

    There are reasons why violent animal rights protests make no sense: They damage the democratic order and tend to turn more people off their cause than onto it, damaging their viewpoint in the long run. I would say this should make them reject their violent tactics. This is the reason that non-violaent protest is almost inevitably better.

    What this means, I think, is that procedural correctness is important not as an end in itself but as a means of achieving stability, fairness and other ends. Where these are outweighed by other moral considerations, I cannot see an argument for them nevertheless trumping them. Luckily, these situations should still be relatively rare, as the democratic process will usually be far superior.

  7. Governance has become better and better (by most standards it would seem) over the last few centuries.
    I wonder if one day we will reach a point where the government has reached a structure such that the pressures placed on it by the public are generally unabiguously 'evil' (by a normal moral system). ie that civil disobediance, or even political pressure.

    Anyway a world in which that is the case probably requires a procedural approach to maintain itself through to that point. So sort term gains are likely to cause long term harm unless there really is a good argument that the system has hit a road block.

  8. Alex - the procedural response isn't obviously "inappropriate" even in the women's suffrage case. It's not as if I'm claiming that either decision would be equally legitimate. There are certainly substantive issues with one right answer that we are morally obligated to endorse, and this is one of them. But it might still be that the right way to bring about reform is through the democratic structures that are in place (even when the reform is to those structures themselves). This might not be possible in the very earliest stages of democracy, say if it's really more of an oligarchy by a self-interested few. Full-scale revolution might then be called for. But we're plainly well beyond that now. (Well, New Zealand is anyway, I can't speak for America -- it seems rather less of a democracy.)

    Colin - When you take into account the broader consequences of illegal activism -- e.g. legitimizing violence, undermining civil society, and generating widespread hostility towards the arrogant activists and their otherwise-worthy cause -- it is far from clear that utilitarianism supports such action. (Indeed, quite the opposite.) For again: what do you then say to the radical anti-abortionists? They think that incapacitating one abortion doctor could save many more "lives", after all, and you're not about to convince them otherwise. The only hope of living together peacefully is through a social contract whereby each individual forsakes vigilanteism and agrees to abide by the democratic process, even when they are morally outraged and believe (naively) that more good could be done by coercively imposing their will on others.

    I say "naively" because I think such beliefs will almost inevitably be mistaken. I argue here that we should be indirect utilitarians. This carries over into the political realm, in support of the proceduralism I'm defending here.

    To make this conclusion more palatable, recall my suggestion that radicalism is a recipe for Pyrrhic victories. When it appears that society suffers from a systemic moral corruption, the right thing to do is change society, i.e. popular opinion. The essence of radicalism (as defined above) is disrespect for one's fellow citizens, so it should come as little surprise when they are instead alienated by the radicals' illegal actions. Each battle won by anti-democratic radicals hence takes them further away from winning the war. This latest example of animal activists and their molotov cocktails is a case in point. The extremists in his own camp are the moral reformer's worst enemy.

  9. Richard,

    I've been intending to write on this for ages anyway, so I'll try to do so in a near-future post. Still, one last go to convince you:

    "This might not be possible in the very earliest stages of democracy, say if it's really more of an oligarchy by a self-interested few"

    But again, just whether we live in an oligarchy depends on your viewpoint on these issues. If you were to adopt a (fairly extreme) view on animal rights, that one animal's welfare is equal to one human's, then we do live in an oligarchy - all of us humans are imposing our wishes on all of these ant/monkey/elephant/rat/etc. slaves. You're assuming that our democracy is a relatively fair one - but, I reiterate, this is precisely the issue at hand.

  10. Yes, I see what you mean, but even so, it nevertheless does seem possible to bring about the desired reforms democratically. We have sufficiently advanced institutions that they will be responsive to reasons -- you just need to present them to your fellow citizens, and convince them that you're right. Unless radicals are willing to ascribe irremediable moral blindness to everyone besides themselves, there's just no reason for them not to advance their goals by democratic means.

  11. Perhaps the point can be put in terms of good faith. Liberals are willing to discuss and negotiate with other citizens in good faith about what collective arrangements should be undertaken. They bring an element of good-will, humility and open-mindedness to the deliberative table, in contrast to radicals who seek simply to impose their own views. Hence, to play the analogy game: radicals are to liberals as apologists are to philosophers!

  12. I guess the point is are we willing ot risk taking the progress of himanity back to anarchy in order to progress our aims.

    that would depend on the following
    1) how close to a good society do we think we are (I would say reasonably but others might disagree)
    2) how long would it take to get back there if we had to reform it? VS how much progress will occur if we use more 'legitimate' means?
    3) do we have the power to reform it or would we just be destroying or potentially killing for a futile cause?

    3 is interesting because for an individual the answer is probably 'no chance at all' for a radical proposal while for a society as a whole it might be ""just do it".

  13. Genius,

    I'm not sure if you were addressing me, but I should make clear that I didn't say anything that contradicts your latest comment.

    My suggestion was that there is no principle that allows you to declare all direct action to be wrong - because often the principle itself is what is in question. That's entirely consistent with it being, as a matter of fact, self-defeating, in any of numerous ways, to pursue your ends through direct action.

    That's a point about the pragmatic benefits of direct-action, not whether it is right or wrong in principle.

  14. Would you also demand protests against infringement of human rights (let's say, medical experimentation on human children) be raised through "legitimate democratic channels"? Certainly if an activity is judged to be sufficiently morally reprehensible more drastic action is permissable? Of course, most people do not consider the cause of animal rights to be such a case, but does that lessen the moral obligation the protesters consider themselves under, nor that we would have considered ourselves under had we recognised the moral claims of animals.

  15. Yes, certainly not, and precisely. (These answers are probably predictable from my earlier responses.) There's nothing that won't seem "morally reprehensible" to someone. But it would be disaster were every righteous misguided fool to resort to "drastic action" whenever they found themselves in such a subjectively compelling situation. The only way to avoid this disaster is a principled rejection of the practical inference from "this strikes me as reprehensible" to "I may therefore take drastic action against my fellow citizens".

    Let me reiterate some of the key points that lie behind this position:

    1) The Epistemic principle: No matter how awful X seems to you, if you can't rationally convince your fellow citizens then you're probably wrong about it, and so have no business engaging in coercion.

    2) The Civic-Peace principle: In rejecting democracy in favour of "more drastic action", i.e. coercing others, you are disregarding the social contract, and hence effectively declaring war on your fellow citizens. That's got to be hard to justify. Procedural liberalism offers us a way to conduct politics together without degrading into civil war. That sounds to me like an offer worth taking!

    3) The Universalizability principle: As noted above, "We cannot universalize a decision procedure that would allow us to act coercively whenever we believe it would do the most good. So we cannot rationally act in such a way ourselves; we must first subject our proposals to the same [i.e. democratic] tests we would reasonably demand of others".

    And, to a lesser degree:
    4) The Instrumental principle: radical behaviour undermines popular support for a cause, and thus is self-defeating in any case.

    Chuck all these together and we obtain:
    5) The Indirect Utilitarian Conclusion: the way to make the world a better place is to endorse and abide by the rules of procedural liberalism, to eschew radicalism and denounce it as illegitimate.

  16. I wanted to add some thoughts to this very interesting discussion; since what I had to say turned out to be much longer than would be appropriate for a comment, I wrote a separate post, which can be found here


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