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*When All Else Fails* Is Out!

Summary:
I’m pleased to report my ninth book, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice is now out with Princeton University Press. Read chapter one here. Kit Wellman’s review: “A superb book. Brennan clearly and convincingly defends the radical idea that ordinary citizens may use force against injustice perpetrated by government officials, just as they would against fellow citizens.”―Christopher Heath Wellman, Washington University in St. Louis Blurb: Why you have the right to resist unjust government The economist Albert O. Hirschman famously argued that citizens of democracies have only three possible responses to injustice or wrongdoing by their governments: we may leave, complain, or comply. But in When All Else Fails, Jason Brennan argues that there is

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I’m pleased to report my ninth book, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice is now out with Princeton University Press. Read chapter one here.

Kit Wellman’s review:

“A superb book. Brennan clearly and convincingly defends the radical idea that ordinary citizens may use force against injustice perpetrated by government officials, just as they would against fellow citizens.”―Christopher Heath Wellman, Washington University in St. Louis

Blurb:

Why you have the right to resist unjust government

The economist Albert O. Hirschman famously argued that citizens of democracies have only three possible responses to injustice or wrongdoing by their governments: we may leave, complain, or comply. But in When All Else Fails, Jason Brennan argues that there is a fourth option. When governments violate our rights, we may resist. We may even have a moral duty to do so.

For centuries, almost everyone has believed that we must allow the government and its representatives to act without interference, no matter how they behave. We may complain, protest, sue, or vote officials out, but we can’t fight back. But Brennan makes the case that we have no duty to allow the state or its agents to commit injustice. We have every right to react with acts of “uncivil disobedience.” We may resist arrest for violation of unjust laws. We may disobey orders, sabotage government property, or reveal classified information. We may deceive ignorant, irrational, or malicious voters. We may even use force in self-defense or to defend others.

The result is a provocative challenge to long-held beliefs about how citizens may respond when government officials behave unjustly or abuse their power.

This is not a book defending a controversial conclusion on the basis of some whacky, controversial moral theory. Rather, I start with commonsense moral thinking about self-defense, and then ask whether there’s any good reason to grant government agents “special immunity” from commonsense principles of self-defense. An excerpt:

The Moral Parity Thesis holds that democratic government agents, property, and agencies are as much legitimate targets of defensive deception, sabotage, violence or “vigilante” justice as civilians are. The principles explaining how we may use defensive violence and subterfuge against civilians and the principles explaining how we may use defensive violence and subterfuge against government agents are one and the same. Government agents (including citizens when they vote) who commit injustice are on par with civilians who commit the same injustices.

To some, this may not sound like a controversial thesis. However, if we combine A) the Moral Parity Thesis with B) commonsense moral thinking about defensive lying, sabotage, and violence, plus C) frank and realistic appraisal of how governments tend to behave, a number of controversial claims follow, such as:

  1. It can be permissible to assassinate presidents, representatives, generals, and others, to stop them from waging unjust wars, even if those wars enjoy widespread popular support and are ratified through legal means. It is also permissible to kill them to stop them from issuing certain unjust orders even if the war they are fighting is, overall, justified.
  2. It is permissible to hurt or even kill a cop trying to arrest you when you have broken a bad or unjust law, such as laws criminalizing marijuana or homosexual sex.
  3. If you are imprisoned for doing something which should not be a crime, you may hurt the guards and break free.
  4. Political candidates may sometimes lie to ignorant, irrational, misinformed, or malicious voters in order to stop them from getting their way.
  5. Corporations, and private individuals or businesses, may lie about their compliance with wrongful or punitive regulations.
  6. A person may join the military or a government bureaucracy in order to sabotage some of its operations from within.
  7. You may engage in tax evasion to avoid unjust or excessive taxes.
  8. Soldiers may ignore unjust orders, and, in some cases, subdue or even kill the officers who issue them. They may also, in some cases, kill their fellow soldiers who try to follow those unjust orders.
  9. You may hurt a police officer to stop excessive violence.
  10. It can be permissible to find, steal, and publicize certain state secrets, such as some, if not all, of the secrets Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning revealed.
  11. Supreme Court (or equivalent) justices may lie about what the written or unwritten Constitution allows or forbids. They may refuse to enforce or apply unjust laws.

And so on.

These seemingly radical conclusions follow from commonsense moral principles plus the Moral Parity Thesis. While lying, sabotaging, hurting, destroying, and killing are usually wrong, commonsense holds that we may do these things, either in self-defense or defense of others, under the right circumstances. This book’s conclusions seem radical only because we tend to assume that government agents are to be held to a lower moral standard than we hold civilians, and we tend to assume that government agents enjoy a special immunity against defensive action. These assumptions are unfounded. Philosophers have spent 2500 years trying to justify these assumptions, but their arguments fail badly.

Of course there are lots of objections to this view: We musn’t be vigilantes! What if people make mistakes in applying these principles? What if we’re uncertain about whether the government officials are acting wrongly or not? Don’t government agents enjoy legitimacy and authority, which explain their special immunity? If you work as a government agent, don’t you thereby promise not to disobey or interfere? Isn’t this book dangerous? These are good worries, but on closer inspection, none of them succeed.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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