Sunday, October 22, 2006

Vigilantism and Civic Respect

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.


  1. It's not entirely clear when you're saying that disrespect or radical action are justified. You talk about the case where "a dogmatic sectarian majority ... seeks to oppress minority citizens," but is the point there that the majority is oppressing or aggressing against a minority population? If so, how is aggressing against animals or the unborn different from aggressing against a group like blacks, homosexuals, or people with physical or mental disabilities? The answer can't just be that you and I agree that the one set of cases is obviously wrong and the other set is not, since that is part of our first-order beliefs about who's inside the moral circle.

    Is the important thing that the majority is being dogmatic? It doesn't seem like a majority that is aggressing against some minority group must be acting particularly dogmatically. Were, say, pro-slavery people in the US in the first half of the 19th century really especially dogmatic? From the point of view of anti-abortion or anti-animal-experimentation activists, how would they tell if the majorities that opposed their agenda were overly dogmatic?

  2. You're right, it's not oppression or aggression per se that's essential here, for these come down to first-order disputes, as you note. The important thing, for me, is that the group has completely forsaken any good faith attempt at political cooperation. They must have more or less announced their intention to wage a one-sided civil war against some other class in society. Genocide is the paradigm example, but we can also imagine less extreme cases where a sectarian majority simply refuses to listen to - or deliberate with - minority groups at all, when making political decisions. Hence, they must intentionally seek to oppress others (rather than, say, enacting misguided paternalistic policies that have oppressive consequences). They must already betray an unprovoked civic disrespect for their fellow citizens. Only then is a reciprocated disrespect (or radical action) warranted in response.

    It's worth noting that this is a highly circumscribed defence of radical action, which covers only the most extraordinary of circumstances. It might not even justify anti-slavery radicalism, assuming that the pro-slavery folks were not being fundamentally uncooperative and refusing to address the others' political concerns in the slightest. [But see below!] Instead, one might consider this a case where the majority were simply stuck in a stubborn rut on the particular issue at hand. It would then call for civil disobedience rather than direct action, as suggested in my closing paragraph (and to be further discussed in my next post). Contemporary animal rights or anti-abortion activists should presumably draw similar conclusions. They remain, as citizens, generally welcome to participate in the political process. They are not victims of civic disrespect, and so they should not disrespect others through radical action. (They will think that members of the moral circle -- animals or fetuses as the case may be -- are suffering an atrocious moral disrespect. But I take it nobody disputes their exclusion from the political circle, so they cannot be suffering civic disrespect.)

    A further clarification: my focus on civic respect implies that it would actually be impossible to justify radical action directly for the sake of fetuses, animals, infants, aliens, or other non-citizens. (But note that I use 'citizen' in a functional sense, to encompass the rationally autonomous members of a society. It hence covers de facto citizens who might lack official legal status, e.g. if excluded by discriminatory laws, or if they illegally immigrated many years ago but have since integrated into the society.) What *might* happen is that the citizens who advance these first-order causes find themselves consistently (and generally) dismissed by their fellows. This might justify radical action, but it is the disrespect to the citizen advocates, rather than the cause they advocate, which grounds it.

    This might provide a formal disanalogy between slavery and abortion, since slaves are arguably de facto members of society, and as adult persons are certainly rationally autonomous (even if they are denied any practical autonomy). So they are owed civic respect. But of course slaves' voices are not just blocked out on the particular question of slavery: they are allowed no political voice on any issues whatsoever! So they are suffering from general civic disrespect, and having political decisions imposed on them which they had no chance to contribute to. Slavery is thus essentially a form of civil war against the enslaved, and hence may be resisted in kind.

    So I think I can consistently support direct action against slavery after all -- that's a nice result! (I don't mind biting bullets if necessary, but tolerating slavery was an awfully bitter one...)

  3. Richard, interesting objection to your thesis I've come up with. Doesn't your view hold only if there is an effective and sufficiently free from corruption form of democracy in practice? That is, if the vigilante feels that rationally there isn't any ability to have the law function reasonably blind nor an ability to persuade the populace, then aren't they justified in taking the law into their own hands?

    Take some situations in say the American west (although one could probably point to numerous modern examples). Elections are rigged. The Sherrif is bought off. So the town rises up with vigilante fervor to take the law into their own hands.

    Now is that vigilantism unwarranted? Especially when it seems to be able to function precisely because of a kind of informal democratic process?

  4. Clark, that's right, rebellion may be necessary (and justified) to institute just processes. (I discuss this a bit more here.) It's different from typical vigilantism because private actors aren't imposing their own first-order laws. They're merely establishing the background conditions necessary for laws to be set through a just process (as they ought to be).

  5. It bothers me in that it seems to me that the relevant civic body to which citizenship applies is not being explicitly defined, which is particularly problematic in a federated republic. If Germany's citizens once again decide, this time after respectful and rational consideration and by supermajority vote, to conquer France and Poland killing all their people, but the French and Polish vote against this in the EU, all other nations abstaining, what's a German of good Civic Virtue to do? If the rest of the EU votes with Germany what's a Frenchman of good Civic Virtue to do?

  6. I think that the good German and Frenchman alike can oppose the genocide on the proceduralistic grounds discussed above. There's just no way that such wholesale killing is consistent with Civic Virtue.

    P.S. in response to concerns (expressed elsewhere) that proceduralist rebellion is no less dogmatic than first-order vigilantism, because both violate existing decision-procedures: I'm assuming that advocacy of general rules/procedures is less likely to be ad hoc or biased. That's the main difference. But note also that the proceduralist is not contradicting what they recognize to be generally reliable procedures. They overthrow the system because they take it to be generally misguided, and not just because they disagree with the outcome on some specific case. (The earlier post probably covered this in more detail.)

    I should also clarify that I'm not advocating that one blindly believe that one's political opponents are co-operatively rather than combatively inclined, no matter the evidence to the contrary. Rather: (1) one should seek to establish a politics where co-operation does in fact dominate; and (2) one means to this (given human flocking behaviour) is to be disposed towards framing political discussions in a co-operative way, i.e. make it the norm.


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