Category Archives: Philosophical Friday

Philosophical Friday: Revolution

Almost everyone knows that Martin Luther King Jr. stood for equality.  They know he strove for equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of color or creed.  What some may not know however; is how he set out to achieve this goal.  MLK Jr. was a revolutionary in the way he sought change.  Non-violent protests were his weapon of choice in fighting injustice within the United States.  He did not burn houses or public buildings.  He did not seek vengeance against those who had instituted the Jim Crow Laws that segregated much of the South into “separate but equal” public facilities.  His philosophy worked.  It is difficult to persecute and condemn a group of protestors that knows the consequences of their actions and willingly accepts them.  It worked in the United States at least.  He was not combating genocidal crimes against a nation though.  While civil disobedience and non-violent protests may have their place in civilized nations, what of those still developing or those under tyrannical rule?  There is a realm of existence where MLK Jr.’s philosophy will not work.  There exist circumstances that may require violence and active revolution to combat and correct injustice.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy was simple, straightforward, and effective.  He chose peaceful civil disobedience as his way of fighting injustice.  Those who chose to demonstrate with him needed to show an understanding of what they were trying to accomplish.  In his Letter from a Birmingham City Jail he outlines his philosophy in a real world setting.[1]  There are four main steps in his campaign of nonviolence.  These steps are: (1) collection of facts to determine whether injustices are alive, (2) negotiation, (3) self-purification, and (4) direct action.[2]  The necessity of the first step is obvious.  It would be pointless to demonstrate against an injustice that isn’t present in the place you are protesting.  The second step, negotiation, is a civilized attempt at solving the injustice.  Many repeated failures at this stage are necessary before moving on to the third stage, purification.  This stage is central to MLK Jr.’s campaign of nonviolence.  It forces the participants of the demonstration to “make peace” with their actions and accept the fact that they may break the law and they may be punished for it.  It forces the demonstrators to remain true to their cause by making punishment a real and possible, sometimes inevitable, consequence of their actions.  The fourth step is where the rubber meets the road.  Direct action refers to the actual demonstration.  In the case of Birmingham, direct action was used after repeated failed attempts at negotiation.  In MLK Jr.’s own words, nonviolent direct action of this nature “…seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.  It seeks to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”[3]

Change was instituted in Birmingham, Alabama after these demonstrations, and eventually in the entire country.  In the face of injustice, Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers prevailed.  They sought change and equality and received it through their peaceful and violent free protests.  MLK Jr. was an incredible leader and unifier of the oppressed.  He is still looked to today for revolutionaries and those being oppressed as an example of what to do and how to conduct themselves to enact change.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a pioneer in fighting injustice.  He faced institutionalized racism, oppression and bigotry endorsed by the government and won.  He saw injustice in the form of segregation and discrimination.  There are far greater evils than the things he faced however; genocidal states, rebellious nations, and countries that threaten the very lives of their citizens.  While nonviolent direct action worked in the United States it would be difficult to believe his philosophy would work under these types of circumstances.  While it is true that nonviolent direct action has its place in social and governmental revolution; there exists a realm where that is not enough.  There exist circumstances that require a more direct course of action, a more violent one.  Violent, but controlled, revolutions are necessary to correct injustices that have arisen in the past.  Had the Jews used nonviolent direct action to protest against Hitler, they would have just made what he was trying to accomplish easier.

In order to justify using violence as a form of revolution, one must consider is violence ever truly justified.  Entire essays have been written on this topic but that is not the purpose of this particular essay.  The combination of violence and just conduct must still be discussed however, in order to fully explore the topic of violent revolution.  In a perfect world no; violence would never be justifiable, but we do not live in a perfect world.  One must consider the world they live in before they consider how the world ought to be.  Living as though the ideal world will come about by one person living the way they’re supposed to be is not only foolish but dangerous.  Injustice does not quiver at the sight of the just.  Unjust beings do not become just merely out of proximity to justice.  So what types of violence can be justified in an unjust world?  The main, and possibly only type, would be in cases of self defense.  Self preservation in the face of threatening circumstances must certainly be considered just, as long as the threatening circumstances are unjust.  Therefore; retaliation towards an unjust person or act that threatens one’s life would be considered a just act.  If you accept this principle, it is not difficult to see how violent revolution could be justified.

The idea of violent revolution is not a new one.  In fact, it may be one of the oldest to date.  Violence has frequently been the tool of revolutionaries around the world.  It is also one of the most harshly criticized ideas in recent decades.  Everywhere you look you can find someone willing to denounce violence in every form.  People hear the words “violent revolution” and they instantly think of uprisings or religious zealots willing to do anything to further their cause.  However, that is not the context in which “revolution” will be discussed in this essay.  Webster’s online dictionary states that revolution is “a fundamental change in political organization; especially the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed.”[4]   James C Davies, a professor at the University of Oregon, describes revolution as “most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal.”[5]  For this essay, the term “revolution” will represent; a dramatic change in or complete overthrow of an established government (or other forms of ruling parties) by the people through violent means caused by an injustice (or injustices) suffered by the governed and perpetrated by the ruling group.  An injustice incorporates extreme mental, physical, or emotional harms (or any combination of the three) that is unwillingly forced on a group of people who have not given their consent freely to the treatment previously mentioned.  A beautifully written piece of French realism paints a picture of a justified revolution.

Emile Zola’s Germinal is a story of revolution against the ruling bourgeoisie in mid 1860’s France.  It is a story about a coal miner, Etienne Lantier, who sets about overthrowing the owners of the mines.  The workers are exploited so thoroughly by the bourgeoisie that there is absolutely no hope of escaping their circumstances.  They are born into poverty, forced to work every day, typically for more than 18 hours a day and in terrible and life threatening environments, and are taken advantage of by the store owners, who are also working for the bourgeoisie.  Eventually, Etienne organizes a revolution to destroy the mines as a way of breaking the owners after many failed negotiation attempts.  While the revolution does not produce all the desired results, they become free of the ruling class and are able to take more of the profits of their work.[6]

This example illustrates two key points that should be followed when considering whether or not a revolution is justified.  First, and most importantly, negotiation attempts must be made.  If a group does not make its protests known, it has no right to violently demand change.  Revolutionaries who act but do not speak are not revolutionaries, but terrorists.  Repeated attempts must be made to bring about change without violence.  Revolution must be the last resort of a group wishing to institute change.  In this Martin Luther King Jr. is correct.  The demands of the oppressed must be known to those in power, and need to be ignored or discounted by those with the power to change them, before revolution can ever be justified.

The second key point is that the miner’s attacked the mines, not those who owned them.  No deliberate attempt can be made to end the life or lives of those in power.  When one soul falls to a revolution, dozens typically follow.  The government itself is what must be revolted against, not the individuals within the group.  To show prejudice against, or even favoritism towards, an individual within the government is to treat them as the revolutionaries were treated.  This has the potential to create a vicious cycle in which the revolutionaries are committing the same injustices as they are revolting against.  The government or ruling group must be considered a separate entity in and of itself.  This distinction allows the revolution to occur against a gaseous invertebrate as opposed to flesh and blood.  Also, when attacking individuals within a group, it becomes difficult to draw clear conclusions as to who is actually perpetrating the injustices.  Attacking the individuals within a corrupt or oppressive government allows for mistakes to be made and blame to be incorrectly placed on the innocent.  It would be like reproaching a puppeteer because something a character did in a puppet show was morally wrong.  One has no way of knowing whether or not the puppeteer is actually the one controlling the puppet or not, or if the puppeteer truly wanted to commit the moral wrong or if he was just playing a part in a much larger performance.

A third distinction that must be drawn between a just and an unjust revolution is the type of harm being done to those wanting to revolt.  In the case of Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement, they were being oppressed, but their lives were not in jeopardy.  While some may say that to be oppressed is to have one’s sense of well being stolen and therefore their way of life threatened, that was not the purpose or result of the Jim Crowe laws they were combating.  Another objection would be that many blacks were lynched or killed during the civil rights movement; these acts were not committed by the government that instituted segregation, but by racist bigots who could not stand to see blacks and whites living together and took matters into their own hands.  In this case, a case where the lives are not being threatened by the oppressors, revolution could not have been justified.  During the 1860’s however, when slavery threatened the lives of African Americans in the South, revolution would have been justifiable.  Lives were threatened and injustice was rampant in the South during this time.  It would have been easy to justify a revolution under these circumstances.  Furthermore, revolution against the establishment is necessary so that the instruments used to bring about injustice are effectively disabled.  Take away the tools of oppression and the need for violence against those using them disappears.

This allows for the third premise of justified revolution to become clear.  There must be a tangible threat to the lives of those who are to revolt.  It cannot be simply oppressive circumstances in which their lives are lessened or their standards of living reduced, but circumstances in which they are at risk of being killed or where their continued existence has become impossible.  Non-violent oppression calls for civil disobedience, which was the case in America during the 1960’s.  Violent oppression, which was the case in 1940’s Germany, calls for revolution.  This is a very important place to make the distinction between ideal reality, what we ought to do, and actual reality, what is ideal.

In the ideal world, people’s lives would not be threatened by those ruling them.  In the actual world however, examples abound of oppression and genocide.  The fact that there are those who do not do what ought to be done entirely changes what courses of action are permissible.  This form of revolution; following the previously mentioned criteria of failed negotiation attempts, revolution against the government and not those within it, and a threat to the lives of those being oppressed, is the purest form of self-defense.  An easy way to illustrate this is to narrow our sight to an individual, as opposed to an entire social revolution.

Imagine a dark alley where two people meet each other and one draws a gun on the other.  Person A, the gunman, demands all the money Person B, the victim, has or he will be shot and killed but if the victim gives the gunman his money he will be set free.  The victim has three choices: comply, flee, or fight.  If the victim complies he is giving up all the money he has, which depending on extenuating circumstances may or may not be a big deal, but he is now in a dark alley with the gunman and has given up any leverage he had, trusting a man with a gun who is willing to kill someone to keep his word.  If the victim flees he will be running away with what the gunman wants down a long and very dark alley, making it possible for the gunman to shoot him and take the money anyways.   If the victim fights, his chances of survival may be slim, but he hasn’t given that decision up to the gunman.  The victim has expressed his dismay at the situation and his unwillingness to be robbed.  He also has a clear and immediate threat to his life present in the form of a firearm.  This victim, fortunately for him, has the tools and training to disarm the gunman without hurting or killing him, effectively removing the threat to his life.  You would be hard pressed to claim the victim committed an injustice or some moral wrong by disarming the gunman and removing the threat to his life.

From this example it is easy to draw parallels in which it would be acceptable for a group of “victims” to fight (or defend themselves from) a group of “gunmen.”  Change the gunman to a tyrannical ruling party and the victim to an oppressed minority.  Change the gun to laws and regulations made to objectify the aforementioned minority group.  Change the long and dark alley to a country rampant with censorship and a world willing to turn a blind eye to injustice.  Compliance with those in power results in destitution and poverty with a still present risk of death.  Fleeing the situation would result in lowered defenses and the threat of extermination with little to no resistance.  While fighting against the oppressive may still result in death, there is a possibility of life as well.  Not just life either, a better life; one free from oppression and injustice.

While some may argue that for the first two options death is only a possible, not a guaranteed, consequence; the point of this essay is not to discount viable, if somewhat undesirable responses, but to argue that revolution is a morally acceptable choice.  While fleeing and complying both carry with them a chance at survival, it is not guaranteed and therefore do not endorse nor oppose revolution as an acceptable course of action.  The fact that there are alternatives speaks nothing to the options already given.

Revolution may be an acceptable course of action in certain cases; but it must be considered and carried through with in only the most extreme circumstances.  First; there must be an immediate threat to one’s life or the prevention of someone’s continued existence through laws or stipulations that target a specific group of governed people.  Second; there must be attempts at peaceful negotiations with the ruling party to have aforementioned conditions changed, and these attempts must be met with repeated failure before revolution can be considered.  Once these two conditions are met a plan may be developed for enacting change in the ruling party or parties.  This plan must include the prohibition of harm to individuals within the ruling group and instead focus its attention solely on the ruling body itself.  The oppressive government must be considered its own entity, separate from the individuals that comprise it; and it is this larger entity that must be the target of the revolutionaries before a revolution can ever be justified.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s process for civil disobedience had four steps: (1) collection of facts to determine whether injustices are alive, (2) negotiation, (3) self-purification, and (4) direct action.[7]  The process for revolution would be similar, but not identical.  First, the injustice would have to be rampant and incredibly apparent to those in the situation so the collection of facts would have been done far before revolution was even considered.  The negotiation step has been discussed earlier in this essay; but in short, negotiation attempts must be made and denied before revolution is a viable option.  The “self-purification” stage in this model would include the barring of attacks on any individuals within the oppressive group as well as the full disclosure of all possible outcomes; both on a large and a small scale.  This would ensure that no members of the oppressed group would be unwillingly coerced into a course of action they did not endorse and would ensure that those willing to participate in a revolution fully understood the consequences of their actions.  Finally, direct action would be taken.

At the center of revolution, despite all the guidelines and the process outlined earlier, lies a component that still leaves a sour taste in most people’s mouths.  Violence is still not something easily endorsed, no matter how strong the arguments may be.  One particular objection is that violence breeds nothing but more violence.[8]  While this argument is certainly one that can prove to be true in certain cases, it is not guaranteed.  Police apprehend out of control criminals through the use of violence; this does not always lead to more violence.  Go further and the arguments against violence only become more sensationalized.  Some absolute nonviolent supporters claim that violence will only lead to our complete destruction.[9]  While it may lead to this in some cases; not all types of violence lead to annihilation.  This argument does nothing to discourage the use of violence in instances where there is no possibility of destruction on a massive scale.  This seems to be a slippery slope argument; that while possible, the chances of occurring are extremely remote.

While Martin Luther King Jr. pioneered civil disobedience as a way of enacting change and bringing about the end of injustice; he did not extinguish the necessity for revolution.  Civil disobedience is certainly preferable to revolution; in some cases it may simply not be enough.  There are cases in human history where violence was the only way to end injustice and cases where revolution was the just cause.  While it has the potential to become the go to type of social reform; the things argued in this essay provide safe guards against its misuse.

The three criteria that must be met before revolution can be enacted provide protection against its overuse and against its unjust or immoral use.  1.) Negotiation attempts must be repeatedly made and refuted before revolution can be justified.  This allows those participating in the revolution to know that all other options had been considered, tried, and rejected.  2.)  The oppressive group must be treated as an entity separate from those that comprise it.  This ensures that the unjust institution is what is being destroyed as opposed to those within it.  When individuals are attacked the blame is much more difficult to cast; which is not the case when attacking the institution as a whole.  3.)  There must be a direct threat to the lives of those being oppressed or circumstances instituted that make it impossible for their continued existence.  This ensures that the threat to the revolutionaries is real and tangible.  It helps to argue that the injustices being suffered are so terrible that it is threatening their very lives and not just lowering their standards of living.

The path towards revolution is based roughly on Martin Luther King Jr.’s path for civil disobedience.  The repeated negotiation attempts that were step one of MLK Jr.’s process have been previously discussed as being a part of the criteria that must be met before revolution can be considered.  The first step towards revolution must be education of the revolutionaries.  After the revolutionaries are prohibited from attacking the individuals within the oppressive entity and after they fully comprehend the consequences of the actions they are planning to take the revolution may continue.  This step ensures the justness of the revolution and also ensures that all parties involved are not coerced into revolution out of ignorance of the consequences.  Finally, direct action can be taken against the oppressive entity.

While it may seem undesirable to use force or violence to enact change; once considered, circumstances in which it would be acceptable arise.  MLK Jr. laid the groundwork for his own type of revolution; a nonviolent one, but he did not eliminate the necessity for violent revolution.  While it can be said “we ought not to use violence under any circumstances;” this is an archaic way of thinking.  It is a way of thinking that holds on to the ideal world and refutes the one that exists.  The real world demands real courses of actions.  Revolution, if used properly, can be a tool to correct the injustices that are rampant throughout history and throughout the world today.  While certainly not the only way to social reform; it is a viable option in some cases.  Injustices perpetrated by those in power gave rise to the notion of morally justifiable revolution.  Until the ideal world philosophers cling to so much nowadays exist; revolution will remain a morally justifiable course of action for those wanting to correct injustices.

[1] Cahn, Steven M., and Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.” Classics of political and moral philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 1212-1221. Print.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail”

[3] Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” 1214

[4] “Revolution – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Dictionary and Thesaurus – Merriam-Webster Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <;.

[5] Davies, James C.. “Toward a Theory of Revolution.” American Sociological Association 27.1 (1962): 5-19. Print.

[6] Zola, Émile. Germinal. New York: Scribner, 1951. Print.

[7] Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail”

[8] Marty, William R. “Nonviolence, Violence, and Reason.” The Journal of Politics 33.1 (1971): 18. JSTOR. Web. 13 Dec. 2011.

[9] Marty, William R. “Nonviolence, Violence, and Reason.” 19


Philosophical Friday: Freedom Of Speech

            “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  The first amendment of the Constitution has guaranteed the freedom of speech since December 12, 1792.  “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”  The United Nations have recognized the freedom of speech as a Universal Human Right since December 10, 1948.  The freedom of speech is present in more than 150 countries that are members of the United Nations.  It is obvious that the freedom of speech is extremely important to any civilized country.  The right to freely express one’s thoughts and opinions is at the forefront of what it means to be a free nation.  When one typically thinks of an infringement of the freedom of speech they envision an authoritarian government squashing the citizens who cry out for freedom and equality or the end to some other mistreatment.  That is not the only type of speech defended by these many countries.  It is not the “freedom to speak what others will not be offended by and to (only) think what may offend others.”  If the freedom of speech operates in a way that it defends the rights of one person to offend someone else, should it be changed? Is offensive speech something that should be restricted? Or do we, as a civilized society, need to tolerate the ignorant or dogmatic views of some so that we do not become dogmatic ourselves?  And if the freedom of speech does not operate as it should, what alternative do we have?

In his essay, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill addresses the issue of freedom of thought and expression.  He illustrates the benefits of having the freedom of speech.  In the case of a false opinion, which Mill believes we can never fully prove, allowing it to be heard and expressed only serves to reinforce the correctness of the opposing argument.  In the case of a true opinion, it allows us to exchange falsity for the truth.  While some may view opinions to be subjective, and therefore neither absolutely correct nor incorrect, there are certainly areas in which an opinion can be concretely right or wrong.  Take slavery for example.  The opinion would be “slavery is acceptable” or “slavery is acceptable if and only if such and such requirements are met” or some other variation.  Slavery helped to draw the line between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War.  In this example there are large bodies believing in either opinion, but would the belief that slavery is immoral have been any less correct had there been only one person to believe it?  It is a commonly held belief that only the “true opinions” will prevail long enough to become the popular opinion, but that would require massive amounts of people to reconsider all of their opinions at the same time.  The rejection of incorrect opinions serves a unique purpose in how society functions.  It allows us to review an opposing opinion and reject it, thereby allowing our own opinions to be strengthened.  Allowing people to freely express their ideas becomes more important when you consider a correct opinion held by another.  Without the ability to express opinions and thoughts the world would be stuck in a dogmatic funk.  Society would be a one-minded almost robotic being that functioned without thinking and without innovating.  With the inclusion of opposing opinions in society, our own reasoning is tested and either validated or revised, based on the portion of truth contained in the opposing argument.  When one considers a reasonable opinion held by another, there is no downside.  They either strengthen their own by incorporating correct portions of the differing opinion, or they reinforce the opinion they already held by rejecting a false opinion.  The benefits outweigh the harms in this scenario, but what if the opinion is not reasonable?  Is it still permissible to allow an “incorrect” opinion if the harms outweigh the benefits?  Would we be justified in reinforcing our own opinions by rejecting an opinion that caused harms to others?  Would it be moral for a person to allow hateful speech, which has no other discernible upsides than strengthening our own opinions, if it in fact harmed others?  I am of course alluding to the Westboro Baptist Church.

The Westboro Baptist Church, headed by Fred Phelps, has been actively picketing the funerals of homosexual males, AIDS victims and dead soldiers since 1991.  They have conducted over 45,000 demonstrations at funerals of homosexuals and other events including “funerals of impenitent sodomites (like Matthew Shepard) and over 400 military funerals of troops whom God has killed in Iraq/Afghanistan in righteous judgment against an evil nation.” (About Westboro Baptist Church)  They picket using signs depicting extremely offensive material such as: God hates fags, Thank God for AIDS, Fags burn in hell, Thank God for Dead Soldiers and other ridiculously hateful speech.  Recently, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church 8 votes to 1. (Washington Post) The justices said that “no matter how hurtful the speech employed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, the First Amendment protected them from having to pay damages to the grieving father they targeted.”  The one dissenting judge, Samuel A. Alito Jr., stated that the protestors did not have a right to “brutalize” the family.  Is this the kind of behavior a civilized nation allows?  According to a survey done by the Associated Press, 78% of American’s think that Freedom of Speech should mean that “people should have the right to say what they believe even if they take positions that seem deeply offensive to most people.” (Washington Post)  Is this really the way our Freedom of Speech should operate?  Would Mill defend this type of speech?  If he did, it would be only because this type of speech did not cause harm to others.

Mill’s harm principle lays out a guideline for the interference of the Government on individual liberties.  Only when harm is caused to an individual outside the person committing the act is a government permissible in making a law to restrict an individual’s right to act.  In the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, it would be impossible to prohibit this type of action if one believed in Mill’s harm principle.  The actions of the protestors cause no harm to the grieving family; they are just incredibly disrespectful and offensive.  Mill draws a distinct line between offensive behavior and harmful behavior.  The fact that a behavior is offensive is not sufficient cause to make a law against it, no matter how offensive.  The offended have to suck it up and deal with it.  The fact that the Westboro Baptist Church is verbally assaulting a family at their time of grieving would not matter.  Mill would defend their right to thought and action, as did the Supreme Court.  Is this what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind?  Did they envision a future where religious zealots were able to verbally attack and harass grieving widows and family members of soldiers of their own country?  Would we be justified in prohibiting such behavior?  Or would we merely become oppressive bigots who silence the opinions of anyone who has a differing opinion?

Whenever a government throws around the word censorship, people tend to perk up their ears.  They get jumpy when “big brother” attempts to tell them what they can or cannot say; which is why freedom of speech is so important.  Would the restriction of hate speech truly be considered censorship?  While it would obviously restrict people’s freedom to speak or act how they see fit, perhaps some people need to be regulated.  There are certainly people who the vast majority of the population would like to be quiet but is putting a clamp on their freedoms the way to get them to stop spewing their hatred upon the masses?  Probably not.  While the Westboro Baptist Church has absolutely no intention of changing their ways because they are unpopular, a public demonstration that their behavior is unacceptable would surely discourage some from joining their ranks or starting up a loud and boisterous cult of their own.  Their website even claims zero as being the number of “nanoseconds of sleep that WBC members lose over your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiiings.”  True bigots or religious zealots who portray their views in such a distressing way seem beyond help short of anything but a miracle, but the masses as a whole need to publicly demonstrate that this type of behavior is not acceptable in a civilized society.  In the case of the WBC, an anti-protest would be a solution to the problem, not government involvement.  This has in fact worked in the past.  One march was planned for April 30th, 2011 and has become an annual event.  In some areas people have protested the WBC in such a way that they have just given up on their demonstration and gone home.  This is the type of reaction needed, not government intervention.

Hate speech is an interesting topic for many reasons.  First, the speakers are typically extremely enthusiastic about their opinions.  Second, they tend to be close minded, so much so that no amount of reasoning or logic will change their minds.  Third, it seems to be passed down from one generation to another, which the grown generation teaches their children to be the same way they are.  Fourth and finally, they care absolutely nothing for those they are speaking to; no amount of consideration is given to the feelings or opinions of anyone but themselves, or those that think like them.  In times of crisis or disaster, this type of behavior appears to be infectious.  After 9/11 an alarming number of anti-Muslim opinions were voiced.  People throughout the United States wanted someone to blame so they chose the Islamic community without considering the fact that there are individuals within that religion and that the ones who were responsible for that tragedy were in fact extremists of Islam and not the overarching population.  During the years preceding the Second World War, the common belief amongst the German people was that the Jews were responsible for all of the misfortunes that had befallen Germany.  Both of these examples did not last to become the common opinion throughout the world.  The German opinion took a little longer to change but eventually it did.  Yet these opinions still prevail.  The Neo-Nazi party is still active, putting forth a candidate for the presidency for every election.  These examples make it clear that hate speech has been around for a long time, and will remain for a long time, if not forever.  The fact that it seems to be here to stay does not mean that it should be tolerated however.

While people will always maintain their own opinions, there exist behaviors that are universally unacceptable.  These behaviors should not be curbed by ruling governments or institutions, but rather those who are forced to listen to them.  In the face of “adversity,” the Westboro Baptist Church backed down.  The Patriot Riders, a biker gang started in August of 2005, seem to be a direct response to the WBC.  The Patriot Riders mission is to “attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family.”  At each of these funerals they have 2 main goals.  The first goal is to “show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities,” and the second is to “shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors.” (Patriot Guard Riders)  This is a prime example of how the public should respond to such ridiculous behavior.  The Patriot Guard works within the law and non-violently to lessen the effect the Westboro Baptist Church can have on the grieving families.

While the government may not be justified in restricting hateful speech, something can be done to limit such outrageous behavior.  While Mill may not be able to set forth an example of harmful and hateful speech that would justify the interference of the government, I don’t think he would have a problem with people of differing beliefs voicing their own opinions.  In fact, he would probably encourage it.  While dogmatic minds may not be changed easily, if at all, that does not mean that it is pointless to try.  If nothing else, we may discourage less enthusiastic bigots to keep their mouths shut by showing them that there are real consequences for their actions.  There is no point in allowing people to express their idiotic, disrespectful and just plain stupid opinions if we express our intolerance for such opinions.  The government may protect the freedom of speech for those who use it to spew their hateful nonsense, but it also protects our right to loudly and publicly disagree with them.

Philosophical Friday: A Critique on Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism has a great deal of appeal, especially when you consider what most people boil it down to.  The phrase “the greatest benefit for the greatest amount of people” gets thrown around quite easily when the term “utilitarianism” is introduced.  While this may be an incredibly oversimplified version of Mill’s idea, it does have its root in the theory, even if his idea of utilitarianism does not translate directly to this common phrase.  This theory of morality leads individuals to very provocative questions.  Is the sacrifice of one to save the many a just sacrifice? Is one life worth just as much as another?  Utilitarianism, while an excellent basis for a workable moral theory, requires certain adjustments so that it does not endorse morally incorrect courses of action and so that it takes into account the value of one life against another.  Only after such considerations and adjustments can Mill’s theory of utilitarianism truly stand up against scrutiny.

In order to argue against utilitarianism, we must first understand what it stands for.  While the saying presented earlier gives us a vague idea, it does not reach the heart of Mill’s theory.  For Mill, utilitarianism is a code of ethics that seeks to produce the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest amount of individuals while avoiding the greatest amount of pain for the greatest amount of people.  Mill states that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”[1]  It is a subtle balance between enhancing pleasure and avoiding pain for the largest amount of individuals.  Essentially, enhancing pleasure or reducing pain for one individual would result in a “+1” and reducing pleasure or enhancing pain would result in a “-1.”  Now, the number may vary, depending on the types of pleasure or pain that is being enhanced or avoided, but the general formula still stands; enhancing pleasure and avoiding pain results in a positive consequence and avoiding pleasure or enhancing pain results in a negative consequence.  By this formula, the greatest happiness does not mean for the individual, but for society as a whole.

I must again repeat what the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned.  As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.[2]

This leads me to the first critique of utilitarianism.  The theory Mill presents does not address the issue of whether or not one individual is equal to another in terms of value.  For instance, can it be said that a homeless man’s life has as much value as that of a neurosurgeon?  If they were to both be rushed into an emergency room in need of a blood transfusion, and for some reason or another the hospital could only facilitate the needs of one, how would the attending doctor respond?  If he were a utilitarian, he would preserve the life of the one who is most likely to produce the larger amount of pleasure while avoiding the larger amount of pain.  But this distinction does not provide us with an answer.  The neurosurgeon is a known variable, during any given month he saves X amount of lives which produces pleasure in the families associated with his patients.  The homeless man, however, is an unknown variable.  Perhaps he too is producing pleasure in individuals; perhaps he is instructing youths that have fallen on hard times how to survive.  A more likely possibility is that he sees his brush with death as a turning point within his life.  The potential he has to produce pleasure and to prevent pain is unknown.  The issue is not that one life is worth more than another; the issue is that Mill’s theory does not present us with a workable set of criteria for discerning the value of one individual against another.

While this example may seem far-fetched, there are examples that hit a bit close to home that will illustrate the point just as well.  Consider the same neurosurgeon but replace the homeless man with that of a loved one.  “Individuals may be under more obligation to a special set of persons (family or close friends) than to society in general.”[3] Can a legitimate code of ethics endorse letting one’s own family die in sacrifice of another?  A strict utilitarian would save the lives of three unknown individuals over the lives of two close family members.  They would preserve the greater number because they would have a farther reaching network of pleasure and pain than what the lesser number would entail.  I, for one, cannot accept a code of ethics so rigid that it forces me to forsake those close to me merely because there are a greater number of those who are unknown to me that would benefit.

These examples also hold pieces of another objection to utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is a consequential theory of ethics, meaning the correctness of any action is judged by its consequences.  In the emergency room cases there isn’t time to weigh the consequences of the decisions.  If the case hasn’t been considered prior to its emergence, the attending physician would be either moved by indecision, putting both lives at risk, or, and this is more likely the case, rushed into a decision that may or may not be morally correct, according to utilitarianism.  “However, discerning the consequences of every possible act could be a horrendous burden, that in many cases, could not be carried out with much certainty.”[4]

Yet another critique is that utilitarianism can be used to endorse unsavory courses of action in order to prevent courses of action much worse.  It can produce a “lesser of two evils” choice.  “The deontologist refuses to approve of committing one act, bad by his lights, to prevent the occurrence of more than one of the same bad acts. Consequentialist theories – whether they value only welfare or things in addition to welfare – do not face this paradox, and so they are, in this respect, attractive.”[5]  It is this “unfaced paradox” that causes many to question utilitarianism.  How great must the difference be?  What despicable things could be “morally just” if faced with the greatest amount of pain imaginable?

One final critique is that utilitarianism simply isn’t always possible, that its demands can be too high to realistically achieve.

As a result of its flawed and shallow moral psychology, the critics claim, utilitarianism makes demands on agents that are too high, and of the wrong kinds, with a range of damaging effects, not just to the well-being of agents, but also to their moral capacities and performance. This line of objection holds that people cannot, need not, or even ought not to try to do what utilitarians say people should do, for reasons that ultimately appeal to some notion of actual or potential human nature.[6]

A code of ethics that forces individuals into unachievable courses of action is not a very good code of ethics.  Another quote from Riette furthers illustrates the point: “Utilitarianism may be taken to be unrealistic in relation to our actual capacities – if we are not able to foresee the future well enough to perform the required calculations, for instance, the limitations on our knowledge, foresight and computational abilities may be psychological obstacles to our meeting the demands made by the principle of utility[7]” With these objections in place, the appeal of utilitarianism is diminished.  The supposed “value of an individual” that Mill fails to address leaves us with questions in desperate need of an answer.  The lack of consideration for ones loved ones leaves us with a theory that forces us to ignore familial and peer relationships.  The need to consider the consequences of an action before engaging in one means in immediate situations the theory may be altogether worthless.  When faced with two unsavory courses of action, utilitarians may be forced to choose the lesser of two evils, despite it still being evil.  Finally, the courses of action endorsed by utilitarianism can sometime be too high to be realistically achieved.

The solution to these objections is not to abandon utilitarianism, but to shift it away from a personal code of ethics.  A single utilitarian faces too many challenges for it to be a realistic code to guide their actions.  They simply don’t have the resources to take into consideration all of the variables that exist.  Nor can they maintain the objectivity needed to follow as a true utilitarian.  That’s not to say that utilitarianism is useless, it would serve its purpose, while maintaining its rigidness, in another sector.  Utilitarianism would provide governments with an excellent framework for taking action.

By shifting utilitarianism from the private sector to the public sector you immediately eliminate one of the objections.  Governments hold no family or peer relationships, while they may value the lives of their constituents over the lives of those out of their reach, those out of their reach have their own governments with their interests in mind.  They are not forced into weighing the value of one person against another because they rarely deal with one individual.  The choices and decisions they make are far reaching and are not limited to the individual.  This helps to combat the objection that one soul may be more “valuable” than another.  Simply by being widespread, governments eliminate two of the previous objections.  The fact that utilitarianism offers no way of measuring the potential pleasure or pain in a given individual becomes irrelevant because governments do not deal with people on an individual basis.  Also, the fact that governments hold no individual allegiances, only an allegiance to their constituents, eliminates the need for them to consider peer or family relationships.  Upon further consideration, more of the objections previously raised are eliminated.

Governments have the necessary resources needed to consider the consequences of the actions they may take.  By their very nature, they are slow and deliberate entities that weigh the pros and cons of the actions they may take.  Under the guidance of utilitarianism, governments would consider the consequences of their actions.  A consequentialist theory of ethics fits perfectly within the public sector.  It forces the powers at be to consider what would produce the greatest amount of pleasure while reducing or preventing the greatest amount of pain.

Governments are also more readily equipped to deal with the “lesser of two evils” types of situations.  Sometimes it becomes necessary for governments to commit acts that would otherwise be considered unethical.  Such a case would be WWII.  The United States went to war to stop the atrocities Nazi Germany was committing and to prevent further horrors of the holocaust.  While not readily accepted, under extreme circumstances, war can become an essential course of action.  Under the guidance of utilitarianism, the justness of such a course of action can be measured and the correct decision can be made.

Finally, the scope of influence of any individual government is much larger than that of an individual.  While not entirely impossible, the likelihood that a government would encounter a problem beyond their influence is greatly diminished.  This, while not eliminating it, helps to reduce the complaint that utilitarianism may endorse courses of action that are beyond the grasp of realistic options.  While not sufficiently dispelling the complaint that utilitarianism can endorse actions that are not realistically possible, shifting utilitarianism from an individual code of ethics to the public sector, along with the expulsion of the other objections raised, allows us to recategorize utilitarianism as a viable code of ethics.

Utilitarianism is an incredibly enticing code of ethics.  Producing pleasure and reducing pain is something everyone can be on board with.  When considering utilitarianism as an individual code of ethics, however, objections arise that not only make utilitarianism a complicated code of ethics to endorse, but a code that may be downright impossible.  By shifting the reach of utilitarianism from the individual to the collective, in this case the government, all but one of the objections raised in this essay can be dispelled, with the remaining objection being diminished to such a small complaint that it may be swept under the rug.

It is through this shift, the shift from the private sector to the public sector, that the objections raised can be eliminated.  The question of the “value of an individual” becomes irrelevant because governments do not deal with their constituents on an individual basis.  The question of relationships too becomes irrelevant because governments do not hold individual biases; they are loyal to those under their influence as a whole, not any single individual.  The question of consequences and their calculation is no longer relevant because governments, by their very nature, are slow and contemplative; they do not rush into courses of action before thoroughly considering the fallout of those actions.  The objection of choosing between two undesirable courses of action is eliminated due to the acceptance of governments engaging in activities “for the greater good” such as war.  The final objection that utilitarianism may demand courses of action beyond the realm of possibility can be reduced to such a small chance that it is realistically irrelevant.

The objections to utilitarianism do not call for it to be cast aside, but for it to be moved.  The objections that were brought to light in this essay show that utilitarianism is poorly suited for the individual, but that it fits perfectly in the public sector, particularly within government.  While individuals may be poorly equipped to follow utilitarianism, governments, with their far reaching hands and broad spanning influence, are much better prepared to follow the demanding, unbiased guidelines of utilitarianism.  They can do what no individual can.  They can adopt the harshest, most rigid theory of ethics, and they can thrive while doing so.

[1]John Stuart Mill, 1861 “Utilitarianism”

[2]John Stuart Mill, “Utilitarianism”

[3] Samuel Knapp. 1999, “Utilitarianism and the Ethics of Professional Psychologists.” Ethics And Behavior 9, no. 4: 383-392. Philosopher’s Index, EBSCOhost (accessed December 5, 2012).

[4] Samuel Knapp, “Utilitarianism and the Ethics of Professional Psychologists.”

[5] Robert Shaver, 2004. “The Appeal of Utilitarianism.” Utilitas: A Journal Of Utilitarian Studies 16, no. 3: 235-250. Philosopher’s Index, EBSCOhost (accessed December 5, 2012).

[6] Sophie Riette, 2009. “Utilitarianism and Psychological Realism.” Utilitas: A Journal Of Utilitarian Studies 21, no. 3: 347-367. Philosopher’s Index, EBSCOhost (accessed December 5, 2012).

[7] Sophie Riette, “Utilitarianism and Psychological Realism”