Reply to “The Moral Status of Political Violence”

In the wake of Charlottesville debacle, something I didn’t want to write about, my friend Paul penned an essay titled “The Moral Status of Political Violence” wherein he argues that political violence is moral insofar as it meets certain criteria. As I told Paul on Twitter, I was considering replying to him and although I really didn’t want to write about ethics, I decided to spend a night and write this. What follows is a reply to Paul’s argument that he abbreviates as follows:

I think political violence is moral if it meets most(or all) of the following conditions:
  1. It will not cause escalation
  2. All other nonviolent options have been exhausted
  3. The person using violence has little to no power within existing legal systems
  4. Nonviolent alternatives would be much less effective1)Paul, “The Moral Status of Political Violence,” on Paul Writes Things, published 8/13/17, accessed 8/13/17, <http://paulwritesthings.blogspot.com/2017/08/the-moral-status-of-political-violence.html>

Fair warning: The following post will be different than most of my others posts insofar as, not only is the content different (I tend not to write about ethics), but the style is reminiscent of my policy debate days. In that vein, I will be responding Paul’s offensive arguments one by one while raising my own objections. Specifically, I would like to raise questions regarding what Paul said, counter some of his points, and briefly provide a statement of my stance. The latter will not be very detailed as this is primarily a critique of Paul’s essay, but hopefully it will get some traction regardless.

“So in other words, yes I do believe beating the hell out of white supremacists in Charlottesville is ok. I don’t usually like antifa, but in this instance they are completely justified.”

In his post, Paul lays out the aforementioned four criteria but does very little work to explicate why they justify violence. Indeed, while each of the four is claim that is made, there are effectively no warrants to support any of them. When looking at the brunt of the essay, Paul briefly mentions James Cone and Malcolm X as well as briefly citing historical examples to vague tie into the criteria, but the criteria themselves are often unjustified. Keeping that in mind, I would like to walk through his argument and analyze the moves the he makes.

First, the question of escalation is not touched anywhere within the essay, but rather is taken axiomatically. Even taken axiomatically, however, the criterion that political violence is moral so long as it does not cause escalation is inherently ambiguous. What do we mean by “escalation?” Do we mean escalation of further, physical force? Do we mean escalation of tensions that are already existent but that don’t lead to physical exchanges? In either case, assuming no escalation occurs does not equal moral permissibility. For example, let us simplify the scenario and place Paul and I on a desert island where we have a minor disagreement over who ‘owns’ a given water supply.2)One might say that a dispute over a water supply is not a political dispute, but such a detractor would be sorely mistaken. Paul, being the silly cat that he is, forgot to bring a weapon whereas I am holding my Ruger SR22 with one in the chamber and ten in the clip. Paul and I are the only people on the island and there is no hope of rescue, thus our actions are necessarily localized. Shooting and killing Paul would not cause escalation insofar as there is no Other to escalate the aggression (either physically or emotionally as the Other, Paul, is dead). Does that make my murdering of Paul “right?” Perhaps, but I see no inherent reason for this to be the case, and I certainly see no justification within Paul’s essay. Adding a twist: what if I’m presented with a choice; I can either shoot and kill Paul (thus preventing any escalation) or I can stab Paul in the leg and lay stake to the water supply (thus allow further escalation once his leg is healed at sometime in the future). Based on Paul’s criterion, it seems as if going for the kill is, counter to what I think most of our intuitions might tell us, the more moral option. This, however, seems far from trivially true and thus I am inherently skeptical. Indeed, Paul’s logic is the same as Emerson’s who, paraphrasing Machiavelli, said “[w]hen you strike at a king, you must kill him.”3)Tim O’Reilly, “Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes,” on Radar, published 9/2/7, accessed 8/13/17, <http://radar.oreilly.com/2007/09/emerson-and-oliver-wendell-hol.html>

Furthermore, the implicit assumption in Paul’s claim that political violence is moral so long as it does not cause escalation is that escalation itself is immoral. This claim, too, goes unjustified and is suspect in its own right. Indeed, if the initial act of violence is morally acceptable, what makes further acts of violence sui generis? Let us return to the desert island and place Paul’s companion, X, next to him. Paul’s companion, unlike our silly friend, did remember to bring a weapon and is hiding their Colt 1911 in the back of their pants. If I shoot Paul, X will shoot me — that is to say, my initial act caused escalation — and thus we have two dead bodies on the sandy beach. According to Paul’s criterion of not causing escalation, there seems to be an assumed difference in kind between my initial act of shooting Paul and X shooting me. While there may very well be — indeed, the first shot was an instigation of violence whereas the second could, arguably, be an act of self-defense –, I do not see a necessary difference. To eliminate ambiguity (as is Shorn Associates’ mentality), however, let us revise the initial scenario. Paul stands at his water supply with no projectile weapon, I stand across from him with a Ruger SR22 with one in the chamber and an otherwise empty clip (all parties are aware that I have one round), and X stands next to Paul with their Colt 1911 with an unknown (and irrelevant) number of rounds. I shoot Paul and escalate the situation causing X to shoot me. X could not reasonably claim that they shot me in self-defense as the fact that my gun was empty post-shooting Paul is public knowledge, thus the question that remains is what is the fundamental difference between my act and X’s? If there is no clear distinction between the two (or if there is no clear way to distinguish between the two), then both acts of violence — my killing of Paul and X’s killing of me — ought to be measured on the same plane and thus the question of escalation seems irrelevant.

Paul’s second point is that political violence is moral if nonviolent options have been exhausted. While briefly mentioned in the text of the essay — specifically in the discussion of a person’s ability to affect change within the system by using legal means — there seems to be little justification for the broader claim that violence is justified when nonviolence fails. Giving Paul the benefit of the doubt for now, however, and assuming that there is some justification for the claim in question, a deeper issue still lurks in the void: the question of “what is violence?” Indeed, the question of what violence is, is paramount to this analysis not only because the distinction between violent and non-violent action is, in and of itself, of vital importance in a world of “microaggressions,” but also because Paul relies upon the distinction. In Paul’s case, he utilizes James Cone’s argument in God of the Oppressed where Cone, in Paul’s words

argues that distinguishing between violent and nonviolent activism is hard(if not impossible,) and therefore there shouldn’t be a distinction at all. For instance, if there was a riot that resulted in the destruction of property, most of us would label that a violent protest. But we wouldn’t label a sit in on a highway violent, even though a sit in could prevent an ambulance from getting to someone in need of medical attention. These two scenarios show that violent acts don’t necessarily kill, and nonviolent acts can kill. Ergo, why differentiate? Why not just choose the most effective tactic without regard to its violent/nonviolent status?4)Paul, “The Moral Status of Political Violence,” web.

While Paul admits that Cone’s view is slightly problematic and thus attempts to refine the Coneian argument to be one about effectiveness (more on this later), the point in question — that is to say, whether violence is acceptable if non-violence fails — still relies upon a differentiation between the two. Given that the point relies upon a differentiation — that is to say, Paul’s statement of “[a]ll other nonviolent options have been exhausted” necessarily implies that there is a concrete distinction between non-violent and violent action –, the difference must be teased out. The main thing that Cone ignores, and that Paul tacitly affirms, is the distinction between passivity and activity surrounding the issue of intentionality. Specifically, in Paul’s explication of Cone, he notes that in one instance there might be a riot that causes the destruction of property — a “violent” protest — whereas in another instance there might be people sitting still on a freeway — a “non-violent” protest. In the former, windows are smashed, fires are set, etc. whereas in the latter, an ambulance is blocked and a gunshot victim dies on the stretcher (perhaps someone came to the desert island?). In the case of the examples presented, the “violent” protest didn’t kill anyone while the “non-violent” protest did. The actions of the protesters in the former, while non-lethal, where actively trying to destroy property — in other words, they had the intention to cause damage — while the effect of the protesters in the latter example, while lethal, were done via. passive means and the protest was not intended to kill anyone. In other words, in the former scenario, the active intention for destruction is there while in the latter scenario, there is passive destruction that occurs with a lack of intention. It seems to me that violence is (rightly) equated with activity and intentionality. If this what our understanding of violence is and should be, it seems unclear as to why intentional acts are granted moral status by the failure (however we may quantify that) of non-intentional acts.

To briefly return to the main point of this criterion, however, it is also unclear why violence suddenly becomes moral if non-violence fails. Further, does the morality only run one way? Let’s say I am petitioning to disenfranchise African Americans in a given city and three out of five city council members vote against me. If I have no other non-violent strategies, is it therefore moral for me to shoot the three dissenters in the hopes of replacing them with members more friendly to my cause? I think one would be hard pressed to find an individual who affirms such a position. More generally, however, the lack of justification for the claim that once non-violence fails, violence becomes morally permissible dooms the argument. While I wholeheartedly agree with John F. Kennedy’s statement that “[t]hose who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” there is no moral aspect to it.5)John F. Kennedy, “86 – Address on the first Anniversary of the Alliance for Progress,” published on The American Presidency Project, speech delivered 3/13/62, accessed 8/13/17, <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9100&st=&st1=> Indeed, the violence that occurs will still be immoral, and the only thing that a lack of success on the non-violent front has accomplished is making the immoral violence inevitable.

Paul’s third point, that if one has no power within existent legal systems, political violence is moral, is only briefly mentioned and barely justified. Indeed, Paul, in his discussion of Malcolm X, notes the following:

The “no alternative” bit is where Malcolm comes in. Like Cone, I think Malcolm is being disingenuous when he says black people have no political power. The constitution is a living, breathing document and thus can(and will) change to include more and more groups over time.
However, I think in certain scenarios Malcolm is right that black people have zero political power within existing legal structures. Therefore, if something needs to be changed but cannot be changed within existing legal structures, you have two options:
  1. Don’t change it
  2. Go outside existing legal structures

The astute reader will notice the slight contradiction within Paul’s argument.6)In fact, there is a rather major one — Paul says “Malcolm is being disingenuous when he says black people have no political power” while then saying “I think in certain scenarios Malcolm is right that black people have zero political power within existing legal structures”; he’s either being disingenuous or not… –, but there’s no point hankering on that when there are more substantive issues to get into. While he affirms the view that the Constitution is a living document and changes to include more groups (indeed, our moral community expands, as Aldo Leopold would say),7)Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949), 202-203. he also says that there are instances where African Americans have “zero political power.” This argument isn’t particularly compelling given that previously Paul has conceded that the Constitution is ever changing. Given that, at any moment in time when a certain group of people don’t have political power, they necessarily have the means by which to acquire it. In other words, while at T1 X group may not have power, they always have the potential to gain power by changing the existent legal framework. The only way Paul’s argument would work would be if X group of people didn’t have the metapolitical8)I am fully aware that metapolitics, in the traditional Gramscian sense, means something quite different (see Tomislav Sunic, Against Democracy and Equality (London: Arktos, 2011), 21, 69-70.), but I am choosing to use it here in a different sense as I can think of no better word. means to change the legal structure under which they live.

But let us ignore the slight contradiction and accept that there are, indeed, scenarios wherein groups of people literally do have “zero political power” and cannot change the system under which they live. As per Paul, the individual has two options: live in the status quo, or operate outside existing legal structures. While these may not be the only two options, I’m willing to grant Paul that they are and simply note that neither of these justifies violence. While going outside legal structures sounds revolutionary and insurrectionary, it is not intrinsically so. For example, let us say that a group of people have been evicted from a building. That group can illegally squat in an abandoned building — that is to say, live outside the zones of legality — without engaging in political violence. They may choose to engage in political violence, but the act of operating outside the law is not intrinsically violent. What’s more, however, even if it were, that wouldn’t be a justification, it would simply be a statement of fact. If operating outside the law was intrinsically violent, our noticing it doesn’t justify the violence, rather we are simply providing a descriptive account of what’s going on. In case it’s not clear, Paul is attempting to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ — a metaethical logical no-no.

Finally, and I don’t want to hanker on this point for much more than a paragraph as Paul has already noted in a tweet to me that he’s “considering following up by elaborating on what I mean by “effective”, re reading it I now realize that’s a nebulous term,”9)via. private twitter conversation I want to briefly raise two issues regarding Paul’s fourth, and final, criterion — effectiveness. The first issue, that he is already aware of, is the ambiguity of the word “effective.” What counts as effective political action? How do we quantify it? At what point does political action become ineffective?” etc. While not the most important issue, I’ll let Paul and any readers sort that one out. The second issue, however, is that even if we have some unambiguous idea of what “effective” means and even if any and all issues with the word “effectiveness” are solved, we are still left with an ‘is,’ not an ‘ought.’ In other words, even if we can determine with absolute certainty that a given political action is ineffective and violence would be more effective — that is to say “better” –, we cannot say anything about the moral status of such an action. Even if the violent outcome is better or more desirable, that alone provides no intellectual heft to morally justify it. To justify it, one either needs to do significantly more work, or attempt to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ and, in this instance, commit the naturalistic fallacy.10)See G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica.

At this point, we arrive full circle and are back at the question of the moral status of political violence. Is political violence moral? I think a clarification of terms is required. By political violence do we mean violence that is done for some political end? Or do we mean the instigation of violence for a political purpose?11)And isn’t all violence political? Carl Schmitt would certainly say so. If by ‘political violence’ we mean the former, then my answer is that it is not immoral as taking that position requires one to either defend either the immorality of violence qua violence or the immorality of political action as such, both of which seem to be impossible tasks. If by ‘political violence’ we mean the latter, however, then my answer changes. I do not think the instigation of physical violence is “moral.” Indeed, not only is it a poor tactical move — something I’ve written about elsewhere –, but the imposition of force to ensure that your ideas are advanced rubs me the wrong way. Under this understanding, presumably the aggressor has X view and is being met with a counter. If the aggressor truly is an aggressor, then the countering party is being non-violent and the aggressor is actively attacking a non-violent person. While I’m sure one could justify such an action under various moral frameworks, I’m inclined to think that such an action is wrong and thus a moral framework that allows such an action is likely incorrect.

I’ve just spent 2,000 words criticizing Paul for not providing a justification for his claim, so I suppose I ought to provide one for mine, right? I think the simplest justification for the claim that the instigation of violence against non-violent parties is wrong is that it forecloses the possibility of discussion and truth about the world being discovered. If one’s ideas require force to justify and cannot be, as Habermas would say, justified by “the strength of the better argument,” then it seems as if communicative discourse has been eroded. Indeed, if humans are rational animals (a suspect claim) that seek to understand the world around us, then communication seems to be the best way to do that. If communication is cut off, then the probability that we will live in a world populated by false beliefs is increased as various access to roads of truth are foreclosed. Indeed, if we are politically violent and say “agree with me or I’ll kill you,” the possibility for truth has been locked away. What’s more, if one takes the survival of our species as a moral priority, the less accurate our view of the world is — that is to say, the more it is informed by dogma and force –, the less likely we are to survive. Ultimately, if we are a community of people who are trying to live together, the initiation of force against dissenting ideas not only produces a hostile living environment, but also inherently precludes the possibility of different peoples living together for any extended duration of time. The problem with totalitarian solutions to problems of inclusion is that pressure builds and groups are necessarily isolated. Given that, the entire project is undermined and ultimately, at a certain point, the project fails.

While there’s certainly more justification that could be done, I’m going to do three things:

  1. Take the easy way out and say that since most people’s intuitions tend to lean towards “violence against non-violent protesters is bad,” there’s at least some merit in that claim
  2. Say that since Paul’s criteria don’t actually justify political violence and the ones dealing with change can be achieved without the initiation of force, then it’s best to err on the side of caution of say that the initiation of force probably isn’t a good thing. While not a strong moral statement, this point is simply pushing us in a certain direction.
  3. Drop in Stefan Molyneux’s principles of Universally Preferable Behavior. While I have a deep seeded dislike for Molyneux, my gut reaction is that he is on to something in his arguments for Universally Preferable Behavior. While I’m not necessarily going to affirm this as being the ideal ethical framework, it’s something to chew on (see below). Perhaps at a later date I’ll analyze his arguments and Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s dialectical ethics.

If, despite all of this, you want a more in-depth justification of a topic I don’t really feel like writing about, let me know and I’ll probably end up writing one at some point. Until then, see my post “The Virtue of Armed Pacifism” for a deeper insight into my ethical views.


Premises of Universally Preferable Behavior:

Based on the following premises:

  1. We both exist.
  2. The senses have the capacity for accuracy.
  3. Language has the capacity for meaning.
  4. Correction requires universal preferences.
  5. An objective methodology exists for separating truth from falsehood.
  6. Truth is better than falsehood.
  7. Peaceful debating is the best way to resolve disputes.
  8. Individuals are responsible for their actions.

I present to you the twelve principles that compose the framework of Universally preferable behavior — or, if you want to, a secular theory of morality. If you want to find out whether a moral principle is true, all you have to do is apply them to the moral principle and you’ll know right away:

  1. Reality is objective and consistent.
  2. “Logic” is the set of objective and consistent rules derived from the consistency of reality.
  3. Those theories that conform to logic are called “valid.”
  4. Those theories that are confirmed by empirical testing are called “accurate.”
  5. Those theories that are both valid and accurate are called “true.”
  6. “Preferences” are required for life, thought, language and debating.
  7. Debating requires that both parties hold “truth” to be both objective and universally preferable.
  8. Thus the very act of debating contains an acceptance of universally preferable behaviour (UPB).
  9. Theories regarding UPB must pass the tests of logical consistency and empirical verification.
  10. The subset of UPB that examines enforceable behaviour is called “morality.”
  11. As a subset of UPB, no moral theory can be considered true if it is illogical or unsupported by empirical evidence.
  12. Moral theories that are supported by logic and evidence are true. All other moral theories are false.

Using them, you can verify that the most obvious moral principles are, in fact, obviously true:

  • Initiating aggression (use of force) is wrong.
  • Stealing is wrong.
  • Rape is wrong.
  • Murder is wrong.
  • Fraud is wrong.
  • Lying is wrong.12)See Rudd-O.

References   [ + ]

1. Paul, “The Moral Status of Political Violence,” on Paul Writes Things, published 8/13/17, accessed 8/13/17, <http://paulwritesthings.blogspot.com/2017/08/the-moral-status-of-political-violence.html>
2. One might say that a dispute over a water supply is not a political dispute, but such a detractor would be sorely mistaken.
3. Tim O’Reilly, “Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes,” on Radar, published 9/2/7, accessed 8/13/17, <http://radar.oreilly.com/2007/09/emerson-and-oliver-wendell-hol.html>
4. Paul, “The Moral Status of Political Violence,” web.
5. John F. Kennedy, “86 – Address on the first Anniversary of the Alliance for Progress,” published on The American Presidency Project, speech delivered 3/13/62, accessed 8/13/17, <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9100&st=&st1=>
6. In fact, there is a rather major one — Paul says “Malcolm is being disingenuous when he says black people have no political power” while then saying “I think in certain scenarios Malcolm is right that black people have zero political power within existing legal structures”; he’s either being disingenuous or not… –, but there’s no point hankering on that when there are more substantive issues to get into.
7. Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949), 202-203.
8. I am fully aware that metapolitics, in the traditional Gramscian sense, means something quite different (see Tomislav Sunic, Against Democracy and Equality (London: Arktos, 2011), 21, 69-70.), but I am choosing to use it here in a different sense as I can think of no better word.
9. via. private twitter conversation
10. See G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica.
11. And isn’t all violence political? Carl Schmitt would certainly say so.
12. See Rudd-O.

One comment

  1. Hello, Mr. Heft,

    You are one of the few non-libertarian philosophers that mentions Molyneux’s Universally Preferable Behavior. Molyneux has a disappointment in recent years, as he has drifted closer and closer to conservative talk radio and the red tribe. What specifically is the source of your “deep-seeded dislike for Molyneux?”

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