Essays on the Morality of Violence
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Flanigan, Edmund Tweedy
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CitationFlanigan, Edmund Tweedy. 2021. Essays on the Morality of Violence. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation defends the moral permissibility of certain acts of violence and protest, particularly in cases in which the harms involved would not achieve strategically productive ends—or in other words, in cases in which “resistance is futile.”
I argue that existing frameworks for thinking about justified violent resistance are unable to account for a range of central cases of intuitively justified violent political and interpersonal resistance, and that the solution to this difficulty lies in understanding resistance as having an essentially expressive dimension whose normative standard is one of fit. Thus, when an act of violent protest is justified, this is at least in part because it is the fitting response to the injustice or wrong to which it responds.
This approach offers a novel framework for thinking about the perennial debate between proponents of violence and non-violence in political struggles. The project also critically intervenes on recent work which casts political resistance as self-defense, and it contributes to the emerging literature on the normative category of the fitting itself.
The dissertation is presented as three papers, which investigate the dissertation’s motivating idea from different directions:
• “Futile Resistance as Protest” addresses the morality of futile interpersonal harms, such as those involved in some cases of resistance to assault, which pose a puzzle for existing accounts of the grounds of permissions to harm. I argue that acts of futile resistance—harms against an attacker which could not reasonably hope to avert a threatened harm—are best understood as expressive acts of protest, and are justified not by the principles of defensive ethics (as prior literature has suggested) but rather by the fit between their expressive content and the thing they serve to protest.
• “From Self-Defense to Violent Protest” develops a novel framework for think- ing about the justification of political protest, including violent protest. I argue, contrary to a major strand of literature on resistance to oppression, that the permissions licensed by the principles of defensive ethics are substantially limited with respect to wrongs faced by subjects at the hands of the state. I propose that the appropriate response to these circumstances is not defense but protest, and I argue that in some circumstances, the regulative norms for protest may permit violence against the state and its agents.
• “The Ethics of Political Rioting” critically engages Avia Pasternak’s recent account of political rioting as collective self-defense, and applies lessons from action theory to the moral assessment of riots. I argue that because rioters constitute what have been called “minimal” and “ephemeral” group agents which lack an “executive intention,” we cannot assess riots according to their collective aims or ends, and therefore cannot assess them as defensive acts. Rather, we must ask whether participants are individually justified in violently expressing their dissent.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37368405
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