Is extreme political violence ever justified?

Pictured: Antifascist militia fighter Marina Ginestà in Barcelona, July 1936

Through a mutual Facebook friend, I came across this Facebook post by John Faithful Hamer, a philosophy professor at John Abbott College:


I share Hamer’s distaste for loose talk about political violence, but I don’t like bad arguments either, and I think this argument is very bad indeed. But because it’s bad in an interesting way, I’m going to pick it apart in some detail.

To start, consider the claim “there’s gotta be stuff you just won’t do to your fellow citizens, even if you can’t stand them, even if they infuriate you, even if they make you sick.” This is the second sentence of the post, but it’s the conclusion of the argument he presents in the remainder of the paragraph. Taken at face value, I suspect that literally no one would disagree with this claim. But if no one would disagree with the conclusion, it’s not clear who Hamer is trying convince. One explanation might be that Hamer is actually caricaturing the view of people who advocate insurrection or assassination on the grounds that some person or group of people in power are especially dangerous or harmful, and insurrection or assassination are on balance more likely to succeed or otherwise preferable to the alternatives under the circumstances. People who advocate insurrection or assassination on these grounds do exist. Because it’s more likely that Hamer is trying to convince others that a view held by some people is wrong than it is that he’s trying to convince others that a view held by no one is wrong, I think it’s reasonable to proceed on the assumption that Hamer is simply caricaturing the target of his critique. The statement of the conclusion, then, should be revised to read something like “you should not kill or revolt against fellow citizens, no matter how dangerous and oppressive they are and what alternatives are available.” This conclusion looks highly implausible, but let’s have a look at the reasons Hamer offers in support of it.

As I understand it, the argument is something like this. In order for political communities to exist, members must observe norms that forbid certain means of achieving private (individual or factional) ends. A political community is not just a happily coincidental state of affairs where, at a certain time and place, the purely instrumental considerations of every individual and faction just happen to favour nonviolence ; rather it is a state of affairs based on a shared commitment to subordinate purely instrumental considerations to norms of group solidarity transcending individual and faction. With instrumental considerations thus subordinated, the prospect of short-term — or even long term — private gain is never sufficient to justify certain actions. Because such non-instrumental norms are partly constitutive of political community, violating them threatens the existence of the political community itself. Acts of violence against politicians are among the actions forbidden by these norms; acts of violence against politicians therefore threaten the existence of the political community. The destruction of a political community is a great evil, and it carries the promise of greater evils to come in the chaos that follows. This is why violence against politicians is always wrong.

If this is the argument, then the conclusion needs to be revised again. If Hamer’s argument is intended to support the conclusion that violence against fellow citizens is never justified, it is clearly invalid. At best, it might support the conclusion that violence against politicians is never justified. The suitably revised conclusion would then read something like “you should not kill or revolt against your own country’s politicians, no matter how dangerous and oppressive they are and what alternatives are available.”

This conclusion is also very hard to swallow — it implies, for example, that the Operation Valkyrie conspirators did wrong in attempting to assassinate Hitler. But regardless of how distasteful it is, does it actually follow from Hamer’s argument? I don’t think it does. His argument stipulates (plausibly) that political community can only be sustained if the people refrain from using violent means to achieve private goals according to the demands of strictly instrumental considerations. But this doesn’t rule out the use of violent means that are justified by public or non-instrumentalist considerations. These can include other constitutive norms of political community in general, such as the minimum demands of the concept of justice, or guiding norms of a specific political community (such as respect for certain key individual rights, or principles of collective self-government). For example, the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights even seems to invoke a right to “rebellion against tyranny and oppression” when others means have failed as part of the basis for protection of human rights by the rule of law. Hamer’s failure to deal with this possibility means it is possible for the conclusion to be false even if all the premises are true. The argument is not valid.

The idea behind this kind of argument, I gather, is to set aside views regarding the specific circumstances readers find themselves in; the argument should be equally acceptable to supporters and opponents of any particular politician or political group, because it seeks to render the identity and characteristics of any particular politician or political group totally irrelevant to the question of whether it would be appropriate to use some measure to oppose them or remove them from power. Similar arguments can be spotted popping up all over whenever the budget gets blocked, there’s a filibuster, a court ruling on some matter of public controversy, etc.; people will argue that no matter which side of the issue you’re on, you should agree that resorting to certain means is just beyond the pale. Such arguments are rarely rhetorically effective, and they’re rarely any good either. Hamer’s argument will (or at least should) fail to persuade serious proponents of extreme political violence. I agree that serious talk of insurrection and assassination is inappropriate (and obnoxious) — not because insurrection and assassination are wrong no matter what, but because they’re wrong under the circumstances. Effective arguments against the content of such talk cannot avoid engaging with the other side’s perspective on the circumstances or the relevant principles simply by appealing to a categorical prohibition against extreme political violence.


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