Is It Ethical to Protest?

How virtue ethics might help you decide.

Posted Jul 27, 2020

The protests against the killing of George Floyd have been the largest (by number and other measures of size) in US history. Those polling for participation estimate 10-26 million people have joined these protests. They have taken place in over 40% of the counties in the US, as well. (Reporting on this is here.)

Of course, US history can seem like one endless story of protest. In school we all learn about the Tea Party, and perhaps Shays's Rebellion, but once you begin to track the protests that have gone on throughout our history it begins to seem as if we hardly had a time without them. Off the top of my head: before the Tea Party was the Stono Rebellion, then Denmark Vesey’s efforts, John Brown’s, the Hooverville riots throughout the country, the “Battle of Evarts” in Kentucky. Historians and political scientists will soon be assessing the protests going on today, but in the meantime, I wonder if we can think about the decision every participant in a protest has made before joining? Though later analyses might make these decisions seem merely political, aren’t they, at the time they are being made, a matter of personal ethics?

For example, when a protest is available to us, that night in our own city, we still might wonder if it is right to join in. Even if you are sure that you support the idea that the killing of George Floyd was intolerable, of course other questions hang in the balance when it comes to whether to protest over it.

There is our own safety. There is the safety of police officers to consider. We might fear we will be seen as “moral grandstanding,” and worry about how our standing in public for something might cause a backlash among those who are turned off precisely by our doing so. (More on this here. I have even heard from people that they will feel they are moral grandstanding if they wear a BLM shirt.)

We consider the effectiveness of protest. It seems as if researchers have concluded that various factors impact how effective a protest is in changing policy. Here's one recent summary. Here is a take on the indirect positive effects. If we were looking for signs that these protests against George Floyd’s killing were resulting in changes, we have a lot. There are already a large number of policies that have changed in the past two months of protests. See here.

This list might lean us in the direction of finding the protests likely effective. But, of course, this only serves as the lower bar to our decision. The possibility that they will not be effective is always there, and that our own contribution will not be a deciding factor in that can require facing, too.

Henry David Thoreau, protestor, one of the most influential American thinkers, tries to answer these worries. He wrote these lines:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. Civil Disobedience

His recommendation was so simple: have the courage to follow your conscience. He wrote that we should be like him, willing to sacrifice in opposition to what is wrong, rather than like his ridiculed neighbors, who shared his opposition to slavery but would do nothing about it. (See Civil Disobedience; see Thoreau's A Plea for Captain John Brown.)

But it is easy, from the perspective of ethical theory, to imagine objections to Thoreau’s famous advice. Some people do not have very good guides if they are only relying on their conscience, to put it plainly. And many of us do care about the answers to the questions above, and put our own participation in a larger context, and might see protests as sending mixed messages, some of which we do not sign on for.

This is why I would recommend the use of virtue ethics to think through our decision to protest or not. The boldest suggestion virtue ethics makes is that a level of understanding of what we are doing, a personal, non-technical, easily-elicited understanding, contributes to our own good behavior and understanding. The standard of intelligibility is one matched to what regularly motivates us. While we now recognize that we regularly represent to ourselves the norms we think we ought to follow, virtue ethics asks us to include ethical norms into this set. And even our political commitments can become vivid and be integrated into the rest of how we think about right and wrong.

As author Ryan Holiday has put it, virtue ethics “cuts through the Gordian Knot of complex problems by zooming in on them at their smallest level: Not “How do I solve this enormous issue all by myself?” but “What can I do by myself, for myself, in response to what has happened?” Virtue ethics makes “what to do about the police killing of George Floyd”" a matter about which we are to develop some self-guidance. That happened, now what do I do? The answer might be any number of things, "work with local police" or "develop a use-of-force policy for my state" or even something more passive like "I will not actively support that" would do. But certainly “street killing is unacceptable in a public role” and “I protest in response” would work as well. 

By committing to various ethical norms like these, we can then attempt to test their consistency through their application in practice. (You tried protesting, how did it go?) Virtue ethics suggests good results can come to a person who does this, regardless of the political end-game: we sort through our other ethical commitments, looking for ways to improve them. We develop confidence in the face of unethical behavior. We are able to recognize it and we see the cost of simple ethical claims being violated by it.

In other words, virtue ethics would not regard it as laughable, as so many “opinion makers” in our magazine and newspapers have, that women marched against Trump’s words about women. As Vaclav Havel explained about the protests against communism, even when he assumed they could be futile: lived commitments to honesty, decency, and dignity are “living in truth” even when the effort is ridiculed by the status quo or those in power.

And finally, using virtue ethics as a frame for the decision brings this benefit as well: it means that there are checks on our behavior in protests. A virtue ethicist will never think that just because there is a political fight that decency is out the window, wishing harm on others becomes fine, or that “all bets are off.” If you protest, as a virtue ethicist, the whole point will be to do so ethically (so for reasons you can and do understand).

Does that help?

When politics seems overwhelming in the sense of impossible to direct or predict, I hope so.