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When Non-Violence Isn’t Enough at Reason

Summary:
Today at Reason, I have a longer write-up summarizing some of the main moves I make in When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice. Read it here. If you see, e.g., cops using excessive force, or arresting someone for something that shouldn’t be a crime, may you resist? I argue yes–you may treat them the way you would treat private civilians doing the same thing. Of course, that’s dangerous: Shooting the cops in this case is dangerous—they may send a SWAT team to kill you—and in many places it’s illegal. But it is nevertheless morally permissible, indeed heroic and admirable. You have the right to defend yourself and others from state injustice, even when government agents act ex officio and follow the law. An excerpt: Most people seem to subscribe to what I

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Today at Reason, I have a longer write-up summarizing some of the main moves I make in When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice. Read it here.

If you see, e.g., cops using excessive force, or arresting someone for something that shouldn’t be a crime, may you resist? I argue yes–you may treat them the way you would treat private civilians doing the same thing. Of course, that’s dangerous:

Shooting the cops in this case is dangerous—they may send a SWAT team to kill you—and in many places it’s illegal. But it is nevertheless morally permissible, indeed heroic and admirable. You have the right to defend yourself and others from state injustice, even when government agents act ex officio and follow the law.

An excerpt:

Most people seem to subscribe to what I call the Special Immunity Thesis: the idea that the set of conditions under which it is permissible, in self-defense or defense of others, to deceive, lie to, sabotage, attack, or kill a government agent is much more stringently constrained than the set of conditions under which it is permissible to deceive, lie to, sabotage, attack, or kill a private civilian.

On the flip side, we have what I call the Moral Parity Thesis: the idea that, very simply, you have the same right of self-defense against government agents as you do against civilians. Officials have no special moral status that immunizes them from defensive actions. When they commit injustices of any sort, it is morally permissible for us, as private individuals, to treat them the same way we would treat private individuals committing those same injustices. Whatever we may do to private individuals, we may do to government officials. We may respond to governmental injustice in exactly the same ways as private injustice.

The Moral Parity Thesis has radical implications. It means you may assassinate leaders to stop them from launching unjust wars. You may fight back against a police officer who arrests you for something that shouldn’t be a crime—e.g., marijuana possession or homosexuality. You may escape from jail if mistakenly convicted or convicted of a bogus crime. Your business may lie about its compliance with an unfair regulation and evade excessive taxes. A jury or judge may nullify an unjust statute by refusing to convict those who break it. The Moral Parity Thesis vindicates helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who threatened to kill fellow American soldiers to stop them from killing civilians during the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. It vindicates Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden for sharing at least some state secrets. It vindicates government agents who sabotage unjust efforts from within.

Let’s be clear, this is isn’t an “anti-cop” mentality, though some people will claim it is:

Government agents sometimes work for our benefit. Cops assume a great deal of risk (if not as much risk as lumberjacks, farmers, fishers, roofers, truck drivers, or construction workers, judging by the fatality numbers). Congresspeople, generals, and presidents accept stressful jobs with grave responsibility. We should honor what government does for us. How dare we do any less?

At the same time, officials also take on a greater than normal obligation to protect rather than violate our rights. How dare government agents do any less? And if they do dare to violate our rights, then they—not we—should suffer the consequences.

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Author: Jason Brennan
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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