For her first “Talking Politics”, Sarah Glynn explores some fundamental issues with the political theorist, Dr Steve De Wijze; and what could be more fundamental than resistance to oppression – and, as a last resort, violent resistance to oppression? When, and how, that last resort can be justified is a subject that has been debated over the centuries. In this interview, Dr De Wijze discusses how those pursuing resistance and revolution need to observe moral constraints to minimise harm and to prevent reproducing tyranny.
After emphasising the obligation to find non-violent methods wherever possible, Dr De Wijze looks at what sort of extreme situations can justify crossing the moral boundary into violent action. He discusses ‘supreme emergencies’, when the threat to a person or a community is existential and violent resistance is the only way to prevent destruction, and ‘great evils’ that make it impossible to live a decent or tolerable life; and he notes that every case needs to be looked at in detail.
In addition, he stresses that it is also necessary to consider whether violent resistance has a reasonable chance of success, and to be as sure as possible that violent resistance will not be simply suicidal or likely to make the situation even worse.
As in just war theory, to which these ideas are closely related, constraints don’t just apply to the decision that violence is justified, but also to the nature and extent of that violence. Dr De Wijze explains that it must be targeted as much as is possible, and kept to the minimum necessary to achieve the object. Essential to this, is not attacking non-combatants. He acknowledges that, in the real world, all these distinctions are not always easy to define or to observe, but he points out that failure to do so means risking replacing one tyranny with another.
Rejecting the common aphorism that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, Dr De Wijze argues that there is a real distinction, based on morality, and that it is observation of these ethical principles that makes someone a freedom fighter and not a terrorist.
Finally, Dr De Wijze emphasises the moral responsibility required of those who take on leadership roles. It is especially important that they have moral integrity and follow these principles: and, while individuals have a right to resist, a leader, who is responsible for others, also has a duty to do so.
Here are links to papers mentioned in the discussion:
Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen from the French Constitution of 1793
Iain McDaniel (2018) [Introduction] Resistance in intellectual history and political thought. History of European Ideas
Norman Geras (1989) Our Morals: the ethics of revolution
Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist – check her website and follow her on Twitter @sarahrglynn