Sunday, October 29, 2006

Universal Vigilantism

A key motivation behind procedural liberalism is that society would descend into anarchy if everyone flouted the law whenever they disagreed with it. We generally want others to respect the rule of law, no matter whether they personally agree with the particular laws in question. We wish to condemn religious extremists who bomb abortion clinics, no matter their righteous motives. So it would be hypocritical to make an exception only for ourselves, or the causes we happen to believe in. As stated, this criticism is overly crude, and leaves open an easy answer for the radical: they do not claim moral permission to break whatever laws they like. Rather, they think we should oppose unjust laws – a perfectly universalizable claim – and they implement this general principle as best they can, in relation to the particular laws they believe to be unjust.

We may grant the radical the desirability of universal perfect compliance with the rule ‘flout all and only unjust laws’. But it is not realistic to think that humble mortals are capable of following this rule perfectly. As has long been recognized in relation to na├»ve utilitarianism, the direct and deliberate pursuit of such a difficult goal is likely to backfire terribly. So we need to take human error into account when assessing moral guidelines, and hence specify them in terms of the decision-procedure that one is to attempt to follow, without presupposing perfect success. I suggest that when we do this, radicalism is no longer universalizable. At least, the decision-procedure ‘flout all and only laws that you consider to be unjust’ is plainly indefensible, since it would serve to legitimize “righteous” terrorism such as abortion clinic bombings. We cannot universalize a decision procedure that would allow one to act coercively whenever they 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 that we would reasonably demand of others. This raises the question: can radicals base their decisions on a more reliable procedure?



  1. At least, the decision-procedure ‘flout all and only laws that you consider to be unjust’ is plainly indefensible, since it would serve to legitimize “righteous” terrorism such as abortion clinic bombings.

    Isn't the problem here just that the decision procedure doesn't provide any restriction as to means? The radical can say that the bombings are right to the extent that the ultimate intention is good, but not to the extent that the intended way of bringing that about is good. It would be much less clear, for instance, that this is a problem if the decision procedure were 'flout, to the extent justly possible, all and only laws that are unjust' or something like that.

  2. But it seems that what extent of flouting is 'justly possible' is precisely what's at question...

  3. the procedural laws have to be based on somthing... and as such you again expose yourself to the hypocracy argument. (ie "why based on rules that result in your conclusions? why not based on 'MY' rules?")

    also of interest is how we seem to have elevated hypocracy to be a higher moral standard than any other.

    Having said that if I elevate myself above the people (like a god or a president) I can say a nice simple rule to create a good long term outcome is to enforce proceduralism (i.e. to punish those who break laws etc) - in fact it emerges in a simple way from "punishing those who do bad things" because there is no 'unless you think you are right' clause.

    > 'what extent of flouting'

    I guess this depends on what extent allows a reasonable level of change with only a reasonable level of disturbance. Thats going to be pretty subjective. but the limits would be where the disturbance threatens to destroy your long term gains (ie towards having a system that you want) or where the procedures threaten to stop progress in any direction all together (unless you reached utopia!).

  4. I might be missing something obvious, but I'm not sure how the extent of the flouting need be much of an issue; since the radical has a standard of justice determining which laws to flout, why couldn't someone use the same standard govern how to flout them? This does fit with what seems to be a common view of proportionality in these cases: what jars us most is not so much when radicals are willing to riot against slavery/oppression/etc. as when they are willing to violate the same rights and principles of justice they claim to be fighting for. That's really the only sort of universalizability a radical need be interested in, I think; and I'm not sure why this sort of universalizability might not itself be the standard in play (perhaps when combined with some very general notion of rights).

    This topic reminds me quite a bit of Hegel's critique of Kant. Kant criticizes certain things -- e.g., stealing from the rich -- because they aren't universalizable -- they would bring down the system in place. Hegel points out (I am paraphrasing with this example) that the sort of universalizability that, say, Robin Hood is concerned with (and rationally, morally concerned with) is not beholden to the system at all. The Kantian critique focuses on a type of universalizability that is only sometimes related to the genuinely relevant type of universalizability. And I think a similar response is available to the radical in these cases, given that presumably the radical is not simply arbitrarily labelling things as just or unjust, but has reasons for thinking that this or that is just or unjust. And it's the universalizing of those reasons that's really the test of radicalism.

    Think of Antigone, defying the laws of Thebes even to the point of death because she believes that respect for the dead is a moral principle. If she's admirable for doing so, it's not because 'Defy the law whenever you think it violates a moral principle' is universalizable (the whole point of the tragedy is that it isn't; Creon's enforcement of the laws of Thebes is what we, and certainly the ancient Greeks, would ordinarily think the right thing to do) but because respect for the dead and respect for moral principles, the reasons for the defiance, are universalizable.

  5. You could probably universalize "flout unjust laws" under the belief that the resultant chaos would resolve itself quickly enough.
    Also, given that real civic standards never meet the theoretical standard for civic discourse, what good does procedural liberalism do you anyway?


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.