The Ethics of Protesting
This past year has witnessed many protests ranging from those in the Middle East to the latest Occupy protests that are spreading around the world. Most recently Melissa Brookstone of the Tea Party Nation decided to get in on the protesting by calling on America’s small business owners to take the following pledge:
I, an American small business owner, part of the class that produces the vast majority of real, wealth producing jobs in this country, hereby resolve that I will not hire a single person until this war against business and my country is stopped.
This is being presented as an act of protest rather than as being an attempt to damage the American economy more in an attempt to lower Obama’s chances of being re-elected in 2012. Rather than debate this issue, I will, instead assume (for the sake of the discussion) that this is an act of protest. Likewise, I will take the Occupiers as being engaged in an act of protest rather than attributing to them any sinister motives.
In some cases protests raise little in the way of ethical concerns. To be specific, a protest that does not cause any meaningful harm or interference can generally be regarded as morally inoffensive. For example, if a group of people peacefully assemble on private property and make a statement of protest against some perceived injustice, that would most likely be morally inoffensive. However, some protests do cause actual harm or interference and this would tend to make them of greater moral concern.
For example, the Occupy protestors occupy areas and thus interfere with access on the part of other people. Police are often deployed in response to the protestors and this uses up police resources. As another example, people who protest by going on strike or by boycotting a business can do harm to that business (and the employees of that business). As a third example, if small business owners decide to take Brookstone’s pledge, they would presumably be harming the people they would have otherwise hired.
In the case of protests that interfere with others, these can clearly be such that they violate other people’s legitimate rights. For example, if protestors occupy a park, then other people are denied access to do what they would otherwise do. As another example, if protestors occupy a business, they are interfering with the rights of the owner and the employees. As such, these sorts of protests would seem to require some moral justification.
One rather obvious and sensible standard is that the harm done by the protest should be proportional to the harm that is being protested. It also should go without saying that the harm needs to be real rather than merely imagined or a fabrication. Another reasonable standard is that there should not be a less harmful redress available that could be reasonably expected to solve the problem. After all, if the conflict can be resolved with less harm by these means, that would certainly seem to be the right (and sensible) thing to do. A third standard worth considering is whether or not the harm of the protest is suffered primarily by the target of the protest or by others. After all, protesting a wrong by primarily harming people who are innocent of wrongdoing (or who are less significantly less responsible than others) would certainly seem to merely create more wrongs than it would protest them.
To use a simple example, imagine that a student fails my class because s/he never does the work and then disrupts my office hours and classes with shouts of “LaBossiere is unfair!” This would seem to be unacceptable. After all, the harm was self-inflicted and would hardly warrant interfering with the education of other students (who had no role in the student’s failure). Also, there is an established process for disputing grades that do not require such behavior.
In the case of protests that are boycotts or non-hiring protests, these would seem to be well within the rights of the individuals involved in said protests. After all, I am under no special moral obligation to patronize a business or, if I owned a business, to employ anyone. As such, these protests would seem to fall clearly withing the realm of being morally acceptable (although there could be some exceptions).
That said, it does seem reasonable to hold that a person could be acting within his/her rights, yet still be acting unfairly and thus perhaps in a way that is at least somewhat wrong. Such protests, it would seem, could still be evaluated by the suggested standards given above.
For example, suppose that people are protesting a business that practices racial discrimination (such as giving minorities worse rates on loans simply because they are minorities). Provided that the protest is aimed primarily at the decision makers and the harm inflicted is in balance with the offense (for example, boycotting the company as opposed to fire bombing their offices), then the protest would seem to be morally acceptable (and perhaps laudable).
As another example, suppose that people are protesting an oil company that has poor environmental practices. The protestors focus on not patronizing the independently owned gas stations (which follow the rules regarding the environment) that fall under the brand name of the company and end up putting some of them out of business, but this has almost no impact on the parent company’s bottom line. In this case, there would certainly be some very reasonable doubts about the morality of such protests.
As a final example, consider the call to not hire people to protest the alleged war on business and America. Even if it is assumed that such a war exists this sort of protest would seem to inflict the actual harm on the innocent potential employees rather than the alleged perpetrators of the war. To use an analogy, this would seem to be like protesting against a business not by boycotting or protesting that business, but by going after individual employees in the hopes that the protest would someone impact the business. Also, there is a clear means of redress in regards to this problem, namely the upcoming elections. As such, this sort of protest would seem morally dubious (at best).