Protests such as those of Black Lives Matter often disrupt the lives of others and may incite violence, even when a peaceful demonstration is intended.  They may also break the law and lead to arrests.  Does the cause justify these negative outcomes?

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

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  1. John Hooker says:

    The question here is not whether people have a legal right to protest, or should have a right. They do, and they should. The question is whether participating in street protest, or helping to organize one, is ethical.

    The issue is posed as a utilitarian one: do protests do more harm than good? This is one criterion, and I will consider it first. But there are other ethical tests a protest must pass as well: is it generalizable, and does it respect autonomy? I will get to these shortly.

    Having come of age in the tumultuous 1960s, I have witnessed and thought about protests for a long time. I have reached the (unscientific) conclusion that street protests have very limited effect on public policy, at least in the United States. There were massive protests over the war in Vietnam for many years, and yet US involvement stopped only when Henry Kissinger decided it was the right time geopolitically.

    Maybe civil rights protests had an effect. Yet the threat of escalating violence (as symbolized by the Watts riots in Los Angeles) was arguably the driving force behind civil rights legislation. Protests are not the same as riots. A protest attempts to persuade and to demonstrate popular sentiment, while a riot attempts to force change through violence or threat of violence. One might argue that the 1960s riots were effective, but this is a different issue than whether the protests were effective.

    More recently, the Occupy Wall Street protests represented widespread sentiment, but it’s hard to say that the protests themselves had any effect. The groundswell of support for Bernie Sanders was due to agreement with his vision, not obviously because protests somehow woke people up.

    I think the ineffectiveness of protests in the US is due ultimately to the fact that we can still control public policy through the ballot box, although we often fail to take advantage of this. Protests may have greater effect in countries with a different political system.

    Another problem with protests is that they receive limited media attention unless they turn violent, and perhaps not even then. For example, US media ignored hundreds of protests in US cities against the Iraq war. I learned about them only from European news reports. Perhaps the protests were too peaceful, or were too far from the political narrative that US media wanted to present.

    If protests are effective only to the extent that they turn violent, and perhaps not even then, it is hard to make a utilitarian case for them. At the very least, there is no utilitarian obligation to participate in (or help organize) a protest, because one can rationally believe that the net expected utility of the protest will not be positive. This is especially so when one has the option of investing the same time and energy in some other kind of political activity.

    On the other hand, there is no clear utilitarian argument against protest, due to the same uncertainty. However, organizing a protest requires more careful scrutiny than merely participating in one, because organizing one may result in violence, while participating in one (peacefully) is unlikely to affect the level of violence.

    While the utilitarian principle provides no clear argument for or against protest, the autonomy principle has something definite to say about organizing a protest (if not about participating in one). If a protest organizer is rationally constrained to believe that innocent parties will suffer injury or death during the protest, then organizing the protest is a violation of autonomy, no matter what the cause. As for riots, they are normally unethical, because violence against people is normally inevitable.

    The organizer may respond that violent protests will prevent greater violence in the future, as perhaps in the case of Black Lives Matter protests. But this does not change the ethical judgment. There is still violation of autonomy, and the organizers must find some other way to prevent future violence.

    The generalization principle can be applied in two ways. First, it may show that illegal protest is unethical. Breaking the law is normally ungeneralizable, except perhaps in cases of principled civil disobedience. But disobedience must be directed against a law on the ground that it is unjust. If the state is unfairly suppressing protest by making it illegal, then one might make a case that illegal protest is justifiable civil disobedience. However, protest that destroys property is unethical on its face, because property laws are not the object of the protest.

    On the other hand, the generalization principle may show that participating in legal protest, at least once in one’s life, is obligatory. If one always avoids protests because another type of activism is more effective, then this policy could fail to be generalizable. One might argue that frequent protests remind the power structure that people can always rise up and resist. So if everyone always avoided protests for a cause they believe in when there are more effective types of activism, the political system might become less democratic, and other types of activism would no longer be effective. If this argument is correct, one can ethically avoid protesting only if the reasons are more complicated. Perhaps one has conflicting obligations to family, work, etc., lives far from the protest venue, believes the protest will be illegal or violent, has no strong interest in the cause, and so forth.

    I conclude that both protest and a failure to protest are normally ethical, with some exceptions.

    • Organizing a protest that one is rationally constrained to believe will result in violence against people (intended or unintended) is unethical, regardless of the cause.
    • Organizing a protest with a possibility of violence is unethical, unless one can rationally believe that an offsetting benefit will occur with equal or greater probability.
    • Organizing or participating in an illegal protest is unethical, unless the state is unreasonably suppressing protest, in which case civil disobedience may be justified.
    • Protest that destroys property is unethical.
    • Participating in protest at least once in one’s life may be ethically required, at least under certain conditions, as when one feels strongly about the cause, and protest would not be violent, illegal, or inconvenient.

    In any event, it is easy to make an ethical case for political involvement in general.


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