A Theory of Human Dignity, #23–Permissible Uses of Force and Civil Disobedience (With Special Reference to Martin Luther King, Jr).
By Robert Hanna
This long essay, “A Theory of Human Dignity,” presents and defends a general theory of human dignity, with special attention paid to spelling out its background metaphysics, formulating and justifying a basic set of dignitarian moral principles, and critically addressing hard cases for the theory.
“A Theory of Human Dignity” is being made available here in serial format, but you can also download, read, and/or share a .pdf of the complete text of this essay HERE.
This twenty-third installment contains section V.5.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
V.3.4 Kindness to Animals Revisited: Harming without Torture or Cruelty
V.5 Permissible Uses of Force and Civil Disobedience
VI. Enacting Human Dignity and The Mind-Body Politic
Permissible Uses of Force and Civil Disobedience[i]
The opening sequence [of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai] with [the masterless samurai] Shimura has shown a gratuitous action [of rescuing a peasant child], one for which he expects neither reward nor acclaim. The laborer, and now Mifune, have indicated that one need not expect to find generosity, gratitude, or other such civilized luxuries among the peasants. At the end, therefore, when the three remaining samurai are ignored by the farmers, who are, obviously, only waiting for them to leave (and in a scene carefully prepared since it was just those three — Shimura, Kato, and Kimura — who were present when the leader asks Kato: “Tired of fighting?), Shimura … say[s]:
Shimura: And again we lose.
Shimura: We lose. Those farmers…they’re the winners.[ii]
If one’s heart is not righteous, neither is his sword.[iii]
How we should think about the use of force from the standpoint of broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory? The two basic claims I want to assert and defend in this sub-section are these. First, not only are there permissible and sometimes even obligatory uses of what we call minimal sufficiently effective, last resort, defensive, protective, and preventive moral force, but also second, there are permissible and sometimes even obligatory uses of civil disobedience.
Perhaps the most obvious objection to the broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical theory I’ve been defending in this essay is this one:
“Supposing that a broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical theory and politics were to be enacted, then how then could its proponents ever defend and protect innocent people against the bad acts of bad people, or prevent these bad acts from happening?”
Or, phrased slightly differently:
“How would a broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical theory ever be able to survive the brutality of the real world? Does it have moral and sociopolitical staying power, such that it can be preserved over a realistically long period of time?”
And here’s my reply, in a nutshell. Although all coercion is rationally unjustified and immoral, nevertheless minimal sufficiently effective, last resort, defensive, protective, and preventive moral force is morally permissible, precisely because its fundamental aim is to support and sustain human dignity.
Correspondingly, I’ll contextually define “minimal sufficiently effective, last resort, defensive, protective, and preventive moral force” as follows:
A high-level Kantian real person, that is, a human moral agent, X is using minimal sufficiently effective, last resort, defensive, protective, and preventive moral force if and only if X, as a last resort, only either uses the smallest sufficiently effective level of violence or threat of violence, or deploys the smallest sufficiently effective threat of appreciable, salient harm, in order to defend against, protect against, or prevent, X themselves, or someone else’s, being coerced, or having their human dignity directly violated.
In view of that, when innocent people are threatened, or about to be harmed, by bad people, we not only morally can but also morally should protect and defend those innocent people against those bad people, and prevent this harm from happening, when we’re in a crisis situation and as a last resort, by using minimal sufficiently effective, defensive, protective, and preventive moral force.
The upshot, put in much simpler terms, is that if some would-be coercive thug tries to punch you and/or innocent oppressed others into submission, and the only minimally sufficient way of defending against, protecting against, and preventing, harm to yourself and/or the innocent oppressed others in that context, is to punch the thug, then that’s permissible and perhaps even obligatory — but that’s not coercion, instead it’s simply the defense and protection of one’s own human dignity, and the prevention of violations of human dignity of those who cannot defend themselves. Nevertheless, whenever that kind of force is used, one always has to be hyper-careful not to cross over the line between non-coercive force and coercive force, and fall into the original Statist state of sin (although, of course, Statists aren’t the only ones who coerce), even in the name of “social justice.” For example, in the hypothetical case I just mentioned, if some would-be coercive thug tries to punch you and/or innocent oppressed others into submission, and the only minimally sufficient way of protecting yourself and/or the innocent oppressed others is to punch the thug, then that’s permissible and perhaps even obligatory; but then it would be strictly impermissible to go on and shoot or strangle the thug, or to arrange to have him executed “humanely” by lethal injection, or even to arrange to have him tortured while many people watched on TV and experienced high levels of sanctimonious, vengeful, vicarious enjoyment.
Of course, in order never (intentionally or knowingly) to cross the line between non-coercive force and coercive force in any given real-world context, we’ll need to know, far more precisely, what “crisis situation,” “last resort,” “protective,” and “preventive” all mean, not only generally but also as applied to a wide variety of different kinds of contexts, although I’m not going to attempt that fairly strenuous task in this sub-section. But I’ll also specifically note that in any given real-world context, in which an attacker is already launching an attack, there’s rarely if ever enough time to try out an appropriate array of different kinds or levels of force, or an appropriate array of different kinds of weapons, so longstanding experience, training, and skill, and various context-sensitive rules-of-thumb, will simply have to take over. For example, in the hypothetical punching case, if you are fairly certain that the would-be coercive thug will try it again and again, even despite his being punched by you on the first round, you might have to break his arm or his leg in order to incapacitate him.Indeed there’s an argument, used for example in a classical text on Samurai ethics by the Okinawan karate master Choki Motobu and his Japanese student Hironori Othsuka,[iv] for consistently using more force than might seem initially minimally necessary. The idea is to make the first defensive strike count, so that the first cycle of force — for example, trading punches and kicks — doesn’t escalate into a progressively worse series of cycles of force, thereby spiralling downward into uncontrollable danger and violence. So, on this view, to incapacitate an enemy initially is what it means to protect oneself adequately. The downward spiral of violence is halted before it becomes uncontrollable.
In these connections and also in relation to classical Samurai culture, I’ve often thought about Akira Kurosawa’s amazing film Seven Samurai when trying to formulate a set of working principles for the permissible or even obligatory non-coercive use of force; and there are also, as I’ve already indicated in passing, several classical texts on Samurai ethics and Martial Arts ethics that provide further important and directly relevant ideas and proposals.[v] All things considered, the crucial things about the overlap between broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical theory on the one hand, and Samurai ethics and Martial Arts ethics on the other, it seems to me, are the emphases on (i) the use of force only in crisis-situations and as a last resort, (ii) defense, incapacitation, protection, and prevention, never coercion (hence never aggression or cruelty or the purely punitive uses of force), (iii) minimally sufficient effectiveness, which would naturally involve some genuine or even great competence or skill in the actual use of the means of force, and (iv) rigorous spiritual discipline and training, as vividly cinematically exemplified by the seven Samurai in Seven Samurai.
Martial Arts training is especially focused on (i): that is, the permissible or obligatory use of force and a crisis situation are one and the same, because they constitute the point at which the Samurai has already done everything in his power to prevent this from happening. Moreover, as Kurosawa brilliantly points out via the Shimura character, the Samurai always lose whenever they win, that is, only the farmers (the oppressed, mortally threatened, innocent people) really win, and the Samurai simply have to face up to this “human, all-too-human” fact with humility, irony, and a tragic sense of life, affirm it, internalize it, and live accordingly.
This line of thought is deeply existentialist, because the pain and suffering of martial arts training, the continuous, rigorous discipline involved, and the trauma of having to incapacitate someone else, induce an existential crisis. The person defending himself or another must face up to this crisis, grapple with it, and ultimately accept deep moral responsibility for the consequences of the actions he’s performed. This deep moral responsibility cannot be shrugged off, because there is no one else to hold responsible. Thus the deep moral responsibility bestowed by martial arts upon an individual constitutes, as it were, the deepest and most penetrating look into the existential mirror. Therefore, this fundamentally existential dimension must be directly incorporated into the set of working principles guiding the permissible or even obligatory non-coercive use of force in a broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical framework. In Martial Arts practice, the discipline required for handling one’s skill responsibly is woven into partner exercises. Taking deep moral responsibility for the well-being of one’s partner (not opponent!) is a powerful tool for becoming acquainted with the existential burden, moral content, and moral form of this responsibility.
Now I’ll shift gears and accelerate forward, by extending my broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral theory-driven view on the permissible use of force to Martin Luther King Jr’s famous doctrine of civil disobedience,[vi] according to an eight-step argument, occasionally supplemented by explicative comments. That there’s a close connection between, on the one hand, moral and sociopolitical issues concerning the permissible use of force in a broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian framework, and on the other hand, moral and sociopolitical issues concerning civil disobedience in that same framework, should not be surprising. As I’ve argued, the use of force in a broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical framework carries with it not only stringent rational and moral constraints, but also serious existential responsibility. So it’s obvious that not every public demonstration employing force is going to meet these robust requiremements. Therefore, I’ll spell out how the broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian theory of permissible uses of force can be clearly and smoothly extended to civil disobedience, as follows.
1. By violence, I mean the use of actually or potentially destructive force, and by nonviolence we mean the refusal to use actually or potentially destructive force.
2. Violence with respect to people is rarely if ever rationally or morally justified; indeed, except in crisis-situation, last-resort cases of self-defense against violent attack or in order to protect the innocent from violent attack, universal non-violence with respect to people is rationally justified and morally obligatory. It’s crucial to note here that unlike coercion, which is strictly and unconditionally rationally unjustified and immoral, violence with respect to people is only generally rationally unjustified and immoral, under the assumption that we aren’t encountering a crisis-situation, last-resort case. But if we are encountering such a case, then violence with respect to people is rationally justified and morally permissible or even obligatory, and this is part-and-parcel of the broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical policy of non-violence. Indeed, in connection with step 1, I’ll say that the moral and political policy of non-violence concretely emerges in the following simple formula:
I can hit you, if you do hit me: hence both of us will experience pain and suffer; and as long as you do not hit me, then I will not hit you.[vii]
This is, as it were, a “barbed pacifism.”
3. Nevertheless, sometimes it’s not only permissible, but even rationally justified and morally obligatory, to be non-violent with respect to people yet also violent with respect to private property, if the relevant private property represents a basic and widespread source of violations of sufficient respect for human dignity–for example, if it’s private property owned by advanced capitalist conglomerates or corporations, that expresses and implements an inherently oppressive sociopolitical system, such as the symbiotic combination of structural racism, advanced capitalism, and the coercive authoritarianism of the State (for example, of the police and the legal justice system of mass incarceration)–and the purpose of the violence with respect to private property of this kind is solely to change this inherently oppressive social system into something fundamentally better, in that it sufficiently respects human dignity.
4. Martin Luther King Jr (henceforth MLK), argues that massive non-violent (with respect to people) civil disobedience is required in order to effect fundamental, lasting social change for the better in inherently oppressive social systems, and also that this non-violent civil disobedience can include “direct action” such as the disruption of the daily operations of the inherently oppressive symbiotic social system of structural racism, advanced capitalism, and the inherent coercive authoritarianism of the State, perhaps even including violence with respect to private property owned by advanced-capitalist conglomerates or corporations.
5. Although MLK does not explicitly draw this distinction, there is nevertheless a basic difference between (5a) coercion, which (as I spelled it out above) is either (5a1) imposing or threatening to impose violence on people (primary coercion), or (5a2) imposing or threatening to impose salient although non-violent harms on people (secondary coercion), in order to compel those people to do various things, or heed various commands or demands, in order to bring about the purely consequentialist or instrumental — that is, either egoistic and privately beneficial, or non-egoistic and publicly beneficial, for example, Utilitarian — ends of the coercer, and (5b) non-coercion, which is the refusal to engage in coercion. This refusal, it should be noted, is something that is morally and politically essentially different from merely refraining from engaging in coercion or violence with respect to people for purely consequentialist/ instrumental reasons of any kind, whether egoistic and privately beneficial or non-egoistic and publicly beneficial.
6. Since coercion treats other people as mere means or mere things, and not as human real persons with dignity, it violates sufficient respect for human dignity, as well as harming them in various ways; hence all coercion is rationally unjustified and immoral, even if it is beneficial either for oneself (egoism) or many people (for example, Utilitarianism). This especially applies to cases in which coercion is or would be beneficial to oneself, if we focus again on the Samurai: if one falls into coercion in order to help oneself, it is a reliable sign that one’s spiritual training has failed. And in this way, if one’s spiritual training has held up, as for example the seven Samurai’s spiritual training has, then they are the warriors who always lose: they are the ones who have to do a job they see as necessary, but not necessarily — and indeed in all likelihood — neither nice, nor pleasant, nor rewarding for themselves. They have to live with the knowledge of what they had to do in a crisis-situation, last-resort case, and that is the tragic part of it: to be prepared to be violent, even if it’s rationally justified and morally permissible or obligatory, hence fully consistent and coherent with their moral and political policy of non-violence, exacts a heavy existential cost.
7. So only non-violent (with respect to people — except in crisis-situation, last-resort cases), non-coercive civil disobedience is rationally justified and morally acceptable for the purposes of effecting fundamental social change for the better in inherently oppressive social systems, and only non-violent (with respect to people — except in crisis-situation, last-resort cases), non-coercive civil disobedient “direct action” or “disruption” is fully consistent with MLK’s overall moral and political philosophy, and with a broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical theory. Civil disobedience in the morally permissible or even obligatory sense, then, is the refusal to heed, or the direct violation of, rationally unjustified and immoral commands or laws of the State, for the sake of sufficiently respecting universal human dignity; or preventing States and/or corporations from continuing to harm universal human dignity.
As prefigured in the parenthetical material mentioned in step 7 of the argument I just spelled out, it might turn out that when massive non-violent, non-coercive civil disobedient “direct action” or “disruption,” including some violence with respect to private property, for example, trampling on someone’s flowers or grass, or spray-painting some cars or office windows, but essentially a peaceful demonstration, is permissible or even obligatory, and actually taking place, then the government will suddenly shift into “elite panic” mode, send in the riot police, and/or SWAT teams, and/or troops, and use primary coercion. And in that case, the otherwise essentially peaceful and non-violent demonstrators might also have to use minimal sufficiently effective, last resort, defensive, protective, and preventive moral force, possibly even including violence with respect to people.
Finally, by way of concluding this sub-section, I’ll return again briefly to my seven Kantian Samurai. One can easily imagine a sequel to Seven Samurai in which the three remaining masterless Samurai, with four new recruits, not only permissibly but even obligatorily, engage in massive, non-violent, non-coercive civil disobedience against the Shogunate, leading the peasants in open rebellion. And in fact, in an excellent but relatively little-known 1946 film by Kurosawa, No Regrets For Our Youth, this theme is explored in a 20th century context. More specifically, No Regrets is about non-violent civil disobedience by university students in Kyoto against the Shōwa regime in Imperial Japan during the 1930s, and its plot-line was jointly inspired by the 1933 Takigawa incident[ix] and also by the Hotsumi Ozaki spy case,[x] in which a Japanese journalist was hanged for treason by the Japanese government in 1944. So one can easily further imagine our seven Kantian Samurai smoothly transported forwards in time into the basic plotline of No Regrets For Our Youth, because the existential crisis of the moral choice they had to make is a timeless theme. Whenever coercive, violent social institutions emerge, people who are committed to a broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical theory must make, at the very least, existentially-laden choices and at the very worst existentially tragic choices, in order to defend, protect, and preserve their own human dignity and that of others, especially innocent others. My conclusion, then, is that even though people who are committed to a broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical theory are fundamentally non-coercive and non-violent people, they are also far from being defenseless, passive, or quietist. And that’s my segue to the next and penultimate section.
[i] This sub-section is a partial adaptation of an article co-authored with Otto Paans. See R. Hanna and O. Paans, “On the Permissible Use of Force in a Kantian Dignitarian Moral and Political Setting, Or, Seven Kantian Samurai,” Journal of Philosophical Investigations 13 (2019): 75–93, available online at URL = <https://philosophy.tabrizu.ac.ir/article_9431.html>. I’m grateful to Otto for his creative collaboration.
[ii] D. Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (3rd edn. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1998), p. 103.
[iii] H. Otsuka, H. (1997) Wado Ryu Karate, trans. S. Ishida (Ontario, CA: Master Publishing, 1997), p. 14.
[iv] See, e.g., C. Motobu, Okinawan Kempo (Ontario, CA: Master Publishing, 1995); and Otsuka, Wado Ryu Karate.
[v] See, e.g., Motobu, Okinawan Kempo; Y. Munenori, The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War, trans. T. Cleary (Boston, MA Weatherhill, 2006); and Otsuka, Wado Ryu Karate.
[vi] See, e.g., M.L. King Jr, “Nonviolence and Social Change.” Jacobin (4 April 2018)., available online at URL = <https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/04/martin-luther-king-jr-nonviolence-direct-action>.
[vii] Notice that this formula is plausible even if one doesn’t subscribe to broadly Kantian nonideal dignitarian moral and sociopolitical theory. E.g., on Utilitarian, or otherwise non-egoistic and publicly beneficial consequentialist grounds alone, one can argue (i) that reducing the overall amount of pain and/or suffering in the world is a moral obligation, and (ii) that preventing violence does this. In such cases, the defender will not be hit, and the attacker will (if he ignores the warning) either be hit the minimum number of times, or, (if he heeds the warning) not be hit at all.
[viii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 4) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), esp. part 2.
[ix] See, e.g., Wikipedia, “The Takigawa Incident” (2022), available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takigawa_incident>.
[x] See, e.g., Wikipedia, “Hotsumi Ozaki” (2022), available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotsumi_Ozaki>.
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