A Philosopher's Blog

Ferguson, Police & Race

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2014

On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson. Repeating an all too common pattern, Brown was unarmed when he was killed. While some claim that Brown was murdered, others claim that the shooting was justified because Brown was attacking the officer. While this might strike some as implausible, unarmed people do attack police officers and, though this might seem odd to some, an officer can be morally justified in using lethal force against an unarmed attacker. As this is being written, the facts of the matter have not been established so I do not know whether Brown was shot down in cold blood or in a legitimate use of force. Obviously enough, if the officer used force legitimately (that is, in defense against an unprovoked attack), then he acted in a morally acceptable (though regrettable) manner. If Brown was not a threat or if Brown was a threat but could have been subdued without killing him, then the shooting would be immoral. This is, of course, a matter of the ethics of the incident taken in isolation. That is, was the officer morally justified in shooting Brown or not, regardless of the broader context? Settling this will require knowing the facts of the matter.

In discussing this matter, I have found that some people consider this aspect of the incident the most important one. That is, the critical issue is whether or not the officer was justified in shooting Brown or not. This view is clearly reasonable, but has an obvious defect: it does not consider the broader context. Roughly put, it could be the case that the officer was morally justified in shooting Brown in what could be regarded as the individual context of one person facing off against another. However, there is also the broader context that involves the social roles of the individuals, the social context, the history of race in America, the political context and so on. That is, the incident is not just a matter of two men who confronted each other. It is also a confrontation of class and race heavy with the weight of history. These considerations lead to the broader moral concerns regarding why Brown and the officer were in that situation.

One obvious part of the answer is the history of race in America, both recent and in the more distant past. This history, as it has done so many times before, has set the stage for death. To state a truism, being black in America is generally rather different from being white—despite the untrue claims that America is post-racial. Since I look very white, my experience has been the white experience. However, I have taught at an HCBU (Historically Black College and University) since 1993 and this has given me a perspective somewhat different from most other white folks. One rather obvious difference between whites and blacks in general is how they tend to be treated by the police. It is a considerable understatement to say that blacks tend to be treated rather worse by the police and young black men tend to be singled out for some of the worst treatment. It is, of course, important to note that many police officers are decent people—one should no more stereotype people by profession than by race. Not surprisingly, young black men tend to look at the police rather differently than white folks and the dynamic between young black men and police is often a rather bad one. I have had indirect experience with this dynamic: many years ago I was training for a marathon with a fellow grad student who happened to be African American. While running through a neighborhood we apparently did not belong in, we were stopped by a cop who inquired what we “boys” were doing. I have never been fond of being called “boy” and my friend clearly hated it. Not wishing to be arrested so close to the race, I reigned in my pride and engaged my diplomatic skills while my friend stood in silent anger. The cop let us go and we left the area at a good clip. I am not sure how things would have gone if my friend had been alone—but I suspect it would have not gone quite so well. I have been stopped by police while running one other time and also while biking—although I was not doing anything illegal on any occasion. From these incredibly limited experiences, I can only imagine what it would be like to be subject to such police attention on a regular basis. Once again, to be fair to the police, I have also had many positive experiences with the police and it would be unjust to sweepingly condemn all police because of the actions of some. However, there is clearly a serious moral problem in America in this regard.

Another obvious part of the answer is the philosophy of order held by many in power. While perhaps not familiar with Hobbes, they tend to operate in accord with his view of order and morality. The practical application of this view is that force is the primary (sometimes sole) tool in the toolbox of order.  The most visual manifestation of this is the militarization of the police: even small town police forces have combat gear and sometimes even armored vehicles. As Thoreau noted, “thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” That this approach leads to violence is hardly surprising.

When the context of race is combined with a philosophy of force, it is hardly a surprise that violence and death are all too often the results. As such, even if the officer was justified in his individual actions, they were taken in a context that is fundamentally morally flawed.

 

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13 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on August 22, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    The bookshelves of the “Philosophy” sections of the (university and other) bookstores are filled with books by Nietzsche and Foucault. It’s dog eat dog… survival of the fittest. Morals are for the weak and unenlightened.

    • Ian James said, on August 23, 2014 at 7:40 am

      Reading this comment just minutes before the one above was somewhat amusing, AJ.
      As Rev. Lovejoy of Springfield would say: “Constancy, constancy.”

      Also, this quote from the same thread:-

      Adam Smith had this sort of view: individuals acting from selfishness would result in a general good. That is old school consequentialist capitalism.

      Sounds like Griefing – would that be Neutral Evil, Professor?

      Apologies for straying off-topic…

      Destroy when by destruction the world must advance,
      but hate not that which thou destroyest, neither grieve for all those who perish.

      ~ The Baghavad Gita.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 26, 2014 at 4:16 pm

        Smith seemed to hold the view that if people acted in a neutral evil manner, the overall result would be lawful good. That seems to not be true.

        • Ian James said, on August 27, 2014 at 10:37 am

          Did you ever play with Rubik’s Cube, Professor?
          The logical solution is to complete the bottom layer, then the middle, then the more difficult top layer. At every stage, to get the smaller cubes into the right place with the correct orientation, it is necessary to destroy what one has achieved, albeit temporarily. As few as half a dozen moves from perfection the thing can still appear a complete mess.

    • Ian James said, on August 23, 2014 at 8:08 am

      Now with working links…
      Reading this comment just minutes before the one above was somewhat amusing, AJ.
      As Rev. Lovejoy of Springfield would say: “Constancy, constancy.”

      This quote from the same thread:-

      Adam Smith had this sort of view: individuals acting from selfishness would result in a general good. That is old school consequentialist capitalism.

      Sounds like Griefing – would that be Neutral-Evil, Professor?

      Apologies for straying off-topic…

      Destroy when by destruction the world must advance,
      but hate not that which thou destroyest, neither grieve for all those who perish.

      ~ The Baghavad Gita.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 26, 2014 at 4:14 pm

      Nietzsche is at least an interesting read, but existentialism is for freshmen and cats.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 12, 2014 at 6:27 am

        Nietzsche is plain spoken, which I appreciate. Existentialism is where it’s at man ;)

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 12, 2014 at 1:09 pm

          As long as it’s not Hegel.

          • ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 19, 2014 at 12:35 pm

            I can’t stand Hegel :P I can’t stand Heidegger either! Suffice it to say Germans are great engineers but horrible philosophers!

  2. T. J. Babson said, on August 23, 2014 at 10:43 am

    All you need to do is to look at typical police T-shirts to understand that the relationship between the police and society is broken:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/21/what-cop-tshirts-tell-us-_n_3479017.html

  3. T. J. Babson said, on August 23, 2014 at 10:45 am

    From the above link. See the problem?

    - “In God we trust, all others get searched,”

    — “A picture of an electric chair with the caption: JUSTICE: Regular or Crispy”

    — “B.D.R.T Baby Daddy Removal Team on the back and the initials on front with handcuffs. You should see peoples faces when I wear it….HAHAHAHA”

    — “Human trash collector. ( above a pair of handcuffs )”

    — “Take No Guff, Cut No Slack, Hook’em, Book’em and Don’t Look Back!”

    — “‘Boys on the Hood’ Pic had two gangbangers jacked up on the hood of a patrol car with two officers.”

    — “SWAT T-shirt: ‘Happiness is getting the green light!'”

    — “I have one that sates “SWAT SNIPER” on the front and on back it has a picure of a “terrorist” with a shell ripping through his skull and the “pink mist” spraying from the back of his head. Below the picture it reads, “Guerillas in the mist”.

    — “Save the police time, beat yourself up”

    — “An ounce of prevention is fine and dandy…….. But we prefer 168 grains of cure.”

    — “Be good or you might get a visit from the bullet fairy.”

    — “Sniper – When you only have 1 shot at an opportunity……We’ll make it count”

    — “Law Enforcement……Helping perps slip down stairs since 1766″

    — “Math for Cops………2 to the chest + 1 to the head = problem solved”

    — “I had a couple of ‘em a loooong time ago….1 showed a cop leaning on his rather long nightstick, saying “Police Brutality….the fun part of policework.”……obviously not very PC….another was a picture of a LEO with smoke coming from the muzzle of his pistol, with a badguy falling backwards (lookin’ like swiss cheese) with the caption…..The best action is OVERREACTION….also not very PC….”

    — “Cops make good roommates…they’re used to taking out the trash.”

    — “There was also one I saw where there was a big burly looking Sarge behind his desk and the cation read ‘It doesn’t say kindness and sympathy on the badge.'”

    — “happiness is a confirmed kill”

    — “Park Ranger T-shirt: One of funniest I ever saw: Picture of Smokey the Bear with Riot Gear and he’s just poked a protester in the chest with a riot baton. The Caption Reads: “Smokey Don’t Play That”. Funny!”

    — “My Daddy can Taser your Daddy”

    — “School Patrol – You fail em, we jail em”

    — “Got one that says, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be misquoted and used against you.”

  4. Elias Garcia said, on August 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    These are all valid points, but I feel one thing really needs to be emphasized. We should be skeptical of all power relations and institutions. So maybe your second point. We should really analyze how the situation fell through the lens of power relations between the people and government and/or blacks and government. I feel the answer of what should of happened and what was right becomes clear under these forms of analysis.


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