Sunday, July 5, 2020

Violent Protest and Harmful Intent

The demonstrations against racial injustice have generated varied reactions, some showing support, others showing anxiety and distress. Here I assume that the protests are substantively justified. In the parlance of just war theory, protesters have a just cause: to end racial injustice. (I do not define racial injustice; I just assume that ending it is a worthwhile goal.) But many protesters destroyed the property of innocent parties. Can protesters justify this harm by pleading a just cause?

Some have answered yes. To them, sometimes innocent persons must bear the cost of rectifying injustice, especially if they suffer harm to their property and not to their life or limb. As the saying goes, to make an omelet you must break some eggs.

I think this view is questionable. To see why, consider an analytical framework used to evaluate collateral destruction in war: the doctrine of double effect (DDE). A major problem with an otherwise justified war is that the just warrior is bound to harm innocent persons. This may be enough to condemn war altogether and be a pacifist, as some have done. But those who believe that some wars are justified have tried to distinguish between direct and oblique harm in pursuit of the just cause. Direct harm to innocents is almost never justified, while oblique harm to innocents may sometimes be justified. The DDE is complex and there are many versions in the literature, but reduced to its bare bones it claims the following:

An act with two effects, one good, one evil, may be performed (1) if the evil effect is not directly intended but merely foreseen, and (2) if the good achieved by the good effect is significant enough to permit the evil of the evil effect to come to pass.

The DDE, then, poses an intent condition and a proportionality condition. These are each necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for the permissibility of acts that harm innocent persons in the pursuit of a just cause.

Now let’s apply the DDE to violent protests against racial injustice. To justify harm to innocents, the protesters must not directly intend that harm, even as a means to end racial injustice elsewhere.  The harm to bystanders can only be justified as a collateral effect of the protesting actions. This difference can be illustrated in two scenarios.

In the first scenario, protesters confront the police. The protesters, let’s assume, are justified in using proportionate violence against the police, perhaps by throwing stones at them. In the course of this confrontation, the property of neighbors is damaged, as they are caught in the middle of the riot. This harm complies with the DDE. The protesters did not intend to harm the neighbors (intent condition), and the cause pursued, ending racial injustice, is important enough to justify such collateral damage (proportionality condition). While the protesters could foresee that harm, they didn’t centrally want it, it was nothing to their intent.

In the second scenario, protesters, after having confronted the police, marched through the neighborhood burning the residents’ property. This harm violates the DDE because it does not meet the intent condition. Protesters directly intended to burn those buildings as a way to demonstrate against racial injustice. The harm is not collateral harm but direct harm. This is true even if the action meets the proportionality condition. It may be that the end of racial injustice is important enough to allow the destruction of some property. But it must be done right, with the right intent.  Protesters willed the burning of property; that harm was central to their intent.

Someone may retort: “Racial injustice is systemic, so no one, and especially not property owners, can claim to be an innocent party. These persons benefit from a racist system, so burning their property is a direct action against culpable persons.” This reply is unconvincing. It justifies any act of violence against anyone who happens to live in a community saddled with the social problem in question (here, racial injustice.) Such reasoning would have justified the 1971 Munich massacre and similar acts of terrorism against innocents.  Whatever the usefulness of the idea of systemic racism in other contexts, it cannot be used to justify directly harming third parties in this way.  (By the way, the reply illustrates conceptual difficulties of the idea of systemic properties, but that is a matter for another post.)