Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: May the Use of Violent Civil Disobedience Be Justified as a Response to Institutional Racism?

2: The unpredictability of VCD
[15] Frazer & Hutchings, Can Political Violence Ever Be Justified?, p.39.
[11] Lai, Ten-Herng. “Political vandalism as counter-speech: A defense of defacing and destroying tainted monuments.” The European Journal of Philosophy. Forthcoming. p.1.
Civil disobedience is the refusal to obey the demands of an occupying power. Some definitions suggest that non-violence—“civility”— is a necessary condition for political disobedience to qualify as civil disobedience.[2] I reject this definition, under which  “violent civil disobedience” is a contradiction in terms, and set out weaker requirements for disobedience to qualify as “civil disobedience.”[3] An act counts as civil disobedience if it is a political act, is carried out conscientiously and publicly, and aims to evoke some change in the practices of a social institution.[4] For something to qualify as “violence,” it must make a reference—directly or indirectly—to “violating” persons.[5] As the destruction of private property impacts the owner of the property, VCD encompasses violence against private property. The duty to act non-violently is the duty to refrain from harming or violating objects and persons.
My response does not wholly undermine Frazer & Hutchings’ objection; there is no guarantee that VCD is effective, or allows activists to carry out higher moral obligations. However, the success of any civil disobedience—violent or non-violent—is difficult to guarantee. While the non-violent 1960s civil rights movement is publicly commemorated as having transformed race relations in the USA, Black Americans still suffer from rampant discrimination and state-sanctioned violence.
3: Violence against persons/objects
[1] I recognise that I have bracketed certain questions here, such as whether we have the right to private property at all, whether those who suffer from institutional racism can engage in certain forms of VCD that others cannot, and other cases in which VCD is a justifiable response to unjust institutions. My central aim, however, is to articulate specific cases in which VCD may be justified as a response to institutional racism, and to explain why this is the case.
[14] Frazer, Elizabeth & Hutchings, Kimberley. Can Political Violence Ever Be Justified? Cambridge: Polity Press. 2019. p.40.
For a form of VCD to be a justifiable response to institutional racism, it must be discernibly political, such as political vandalism or political looting.
[18] Shelby. “Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto.” p. 152.
The important obligation to raise awareness about unjust institutions overrules the less weighty pro tanto right of individuals, businesses and the state to own property. Admittedly, some looters do not carry out looting in an overtly political way. Looters who fail to choose their targets carefully may be causing an unjustifiable level of harm to those who are least well off, such as small business owners. Under my account, unplanned, non-conscientious, non-political looting does not qualify as VCD; my account consequently does not justify non-political looting.
The strongest objection to my argument is that there is no guarantee that the outcomes of VCD will avert whatever triggered VCD. Elizabeth Frazer and Kimberley Hutchings endorse this view, arguing that the specific desired effects of political violence are ‘neither guaranteed nor determinable in advance.’[14] Violence cannot be justified primarily because violence is too uncontrollable to guarantee that its outcomes —which may lead to unintended consequences on innocent actors—will be good enough to justify its use.
Violence against objects can certainly have damaging effects. However, the most severe forms of violence are those which violate an individual’s personhood. Mugging someone at gunpoint is unjustifiable because it violates someone’s personhood; shoplifting does not directly violate someone’s personhood in the same way.[18] One’s right to one’s body and person is a powerful right; for the violation of this right to be permissible, the outcomes of violence against persons must be very good, and more-or-less guaranteed. In comparison, the right to property is a less powerful right. We can thus justify violence against objects with less weighty reasons than those needed to justify violence against persons. VCD against objects—against private or public property—may be justified by sufficiently weighty moral considerations, such as the obligation to rouse discussion about institutional racism.
[13] I recognise that this point is contentious, and regret that I cannot justify it further. For a more thorough analysis of why people engage in looting, see Khazan, Olga. “Why People Loot.” The Atlantic.
[8] Shelby. “Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto.” p. 144.
[3] I do this to avoid debating the semantics of specific words, such as “civility.” For a more detailed account of how the terms “violence”  and “civil disobedience” are used in the literature, see Morreall, John. “The Justifiability of Violent Civil Disobedience.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 6, no. 1, 1976, pp. 35–47.
[2] For a paradigmatic example of this kind of definition, see Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1999. p.320.
[5] Morreall, “The Justifiability of Violent Civil Disobedience.” p.37.
[10] Pasternak, Avia. “Political Rioting: A Moral Assessment.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol, 46, no.4, 2019, p.398.
[7] Mills, Charles. The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press, 1999. p. 7.
[4] Rawls, A Theory of Justice. p.320.
This essay was the joint runner up in the graduate category of the 7th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.
[6] Shelby, Tommie. “Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 35, no. 2, 2007, p. 129. Contractarians claim that justice stems from people forfeiting their ability to do as they wish—such as engaging in violence—and placing this ability into the hands of the state. In exchange, the state and its corresponding institutions should protect certain entitlements held by citizens. Since major socio-political institutions have a profound impact on the quality of each individual’s life, we all can legitimately claim that institutions should treat us fairly.[6] However, the state and corresponding institutions do not always fairly deliver on their responsibilities (here, “responsibility” encompasses both duties and obligations). Institutional racism exists when the outcomes and enforcement of laws and practices in an institution regularly disadvantage members of certain racial groups. Racism is the broader system that assigns white people with greater social and economic privileges, opportunities, and freedoms than racial minorities.[7]
Overall, I have argued that VCD against objects may —at times— be a justifiable response to institutional racism, as the right to private property is a pro tanto right. Acknowledging that there are always issues with justifying violence of any kind, I emphasize that violence against objects is much more justifiable than violence against persons. Despite claiming that VCD against objects may sometimes be permissible, I maintain that VCD against persons is impermissible.
[12] The Rhodes Must Fall campaign refers to the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes (the British imperialist) from Oriel College, Oxford University. See Srinivasan, Amia. “Under Rhodes.” The London Review of Books, vol. 38, no.7, 2016.
[19] Some may object here that there are alternative, non-violent communication channels available to oppressed citizens in democratic societies. However, this undermines the debilitating, politically alienating impact of institutional racism on oppressed people. For further justification of this claim, see Pasternak, Avia. “Political Rioting: A Moral Assessment.” pp.401-404.
The summer of 2020 saw people across the world participating in racial justice protests, demanding the end of state violence against Black people, and calling for the eradication of institutional racism. While these protests were largely peaceful, the use of violence by some protestors was criticised. I argue that some forms of violent civil disobedience—henceforth, VCD— may be justified as responses to institutionalised racism. By “justified,” I mean that something can be made morally permissible—that its outcomes are good enough to warrant the “badness” of its means.
To understand why someone may permissibly forfeit their natural duties, a useful distinction is one that separates absolute responsibilities from pro tanto responsibilities. Absolute responsibilities hold universally, and cannot be overruled by other moral considerations. In contrast, pro tanto responsibilities may be overruled under certain circumstances. Many commentators in the mainstream media claim that the responsibility to act non-violently is an absolute duty.[9] Instead, I classify the responsibility to act non-violently as a pro tanto natural duty. The duty to act non-violently is not absolute; there are exceptional circumstances in which other considerations may overrule this duty, and someone may permissibly default on it. The use of defensive violence may be justifiable if there is a reasonable likelihood that it will avert whatever triggered it.[10]
Rights-based justifications of violence rely on confidence that there is some reasonable likelihood that the intended outcomes of violence will be delivered. Consequently, justifications of VCD may be criticised for neglecting the broader, long-lasting effects of how violence is practiced and experienced.[15] Violence has powerful and damaging side effects, including marginalisation, pain and trauma.[16] Since the act of “justifying” VCD is to claim that certain forms of violence are morally permissible, political actors who justify violence may be justifying something that ‘cannot be made right.’[17]
Here, I consider two common types of VCD: political vandalism and looting. Political vandalism is the ‘unauthorized defacement, destruction, or removal’ of state-owned or state-funded political symbols (such as statues or buildings).[11] Respecting public property is a pro tanto civic obligation; it may be superseded by higher obligations, such as the obligation to ensure that all members of society are treated with equal respect.
When condemning justifications of violence, Frazer and Hutchings focus on the impact of severe violence against persons—violence that directly violates the personhood and bodily autonomy of individuals—such as murder. Severe forms of violence against persons cause immense psychological trauma and pain, tending to disproportionately disadvantage minorities (such as women impacted by sexual violence). The uncontrollable nature of violence means that straightforward instrumental justifications of violence are not always convincing. Violence is not always an effective means to attaining specific desired ends, as its “goodness” may be overwhelmed by undesirable side effects. While I acknowledge that it is genuinely difficult to guarantee that the outcomes of violence will be good enough to overrule the “badness” of its means, this does not necessitate that all VCD is unjustifiable.
[17] Frazer & Hutchings, Can Political Violence Ever Be Justified?, p.42.
Although violence may be too uncontrollable to guarantee that its outcomes will be good enough to justify its means, this only undermines the permissibility of violence against persons, which is less justifiable than violence against objects. As an individual’s right over their body and right to life are powerful rights which generate weighty considerations, it is almost impossible for a consideration to be weighty enough to overrule these rights. Consequently, VCD against persons can rarely be justified. The right to private property generates less weighty considerations; the right to life is weighty enough to overrule the right to private property.
The practice of VCD is indicative of widespread frustration at the lack of social change and the profound pervasiveness of institutional racism. For those who suffer from exclusion, underrepresentation and political alienation under racist institutions, VCD may be a “last resort” measure; VCD is one of the limited channels through which oppressed citizens can communicate their concerns.[19] Even when VCD may not guarantee success, VCD still holds considerable communicative power. VCD expresses to fellow citizens and the state that institutions require reform, and creates the type of disruption that is essential for communicating concerns to the public. As VCD attracts significant media coverage and generates discussion, VCD tends to be a more effective way of drawing attention to the harms of institutional racism than non-violent civil disobedience. VCD against objects may still allow activists to partially fulfil moral obligations that supersede their duty to act non-violently. As a powerful communicative tool, VCD against objects may be a justified response to institutional racism.
During VCD, looting tends to be conscientious and overtly political. Political looters usually target stores that typically serve affluent neighbourhoods, see looting as a way to compensate for their own poverty under unjust social institutions, and use looting to rebel against the racialised dimension of capitalism. While the labour of racial minorities is integral to sustaining global institutions and the global capitalist system, racial minorities are rarely paid enough for their work. As political looting is one way for impoverished citizens to publicly communicate their concerns about the racial injustice perpetuated by existing economic systems, those who engage in political looting are simply carrying out their moral obligation to raise awareness about exploitative, racist systems.[13]
Some contractarians claim that the government’s failure to uphold their terms entails that those oppressed by institutional racism no longer have the civic obligation to demonstrate their respect for the state’s authority. However, this argument fails to recognise that the obligation to obey the law and the duty to act non-violently are two different types of responsibility. Obeying the law is a civic obligation, grounded in the notion of reciprocity; it is owed to others by virtue of them being citizens, and is owed to the state in exchange for the state protecting its citizens. The duty to act non-violently is a natural duty; it is ‘unconditionally binding’ since it is owed to people qua moral persons, regardless of whether they are fellow citizens.[8] Although the oppressed may forfeit their civic obligation to respect the state’s authority, this argument alone does not entail that they may permissibly forfeit their natural duty to act non-violently.
[9] For an example, see Bloomberg Editorial Board. “Anger is Right. Rioting is Wrong” Bloomberg News, May 31, 2020.
Written by University of Oxford student Oshy Ray 
First, I argue that some forms of VCD may be justified as a response to institutional racism. Then, I consider the objection that instrumentally, violence is too uncontrollable to guarantee that desired ends (such as successful social change) may be brought about. In response, I distinguish between violence against persons and violence against objects. Acknowledging that violence against persons may rarely be justified, I claim that violence against objects is more easily justifiable. Finally, I conclude that VCD against objects may be justified as a response to institutional racism. I do not argue that violence can always be a justified response to institutional racism. Rather, my claim is more moderate; I claim that certain forms of VCD may be justified as a response to institutional racism.[1]1: The case for VCD
Political vandalism can be a powerful way to fulfill a higher moral obligation because it publicly raises awareness about the pervasiveness of institutional racism, encouraging people to condemn disrespectful symbols of racism. Acts of political vandalism also draw public attention to causes that are marginalized by mainstream politics. For example, before the beginning of the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, almost nobody in the UK knew who Rhodes was, nor did they discuss the legacy of racism at Oxford University. [12] Through the use of attention-grabbing “shock tactics,” political vandalism can spark discussions about racism and educate people about how widespread racism is in ordinary society. Political vandalism therefore represents a justifiable form of VCD.
[16] Frazer & Hutchings, Can Political Violence Ever Be Justified?, p.40.