Doing better : the next revolution in ethics
This section, drawing on the distinctive features of revolutionary wars set out in the preceding section, identifies the special moral issues faced by the aspiring revolutionary leadership, showing that the actions they must undertake to have a good prospect of succeeding in war against the most oppressive regimes are extremely morally problematic. At present, no set of competing theories of the morality of revolution is currently available for critical comparison.
Consequently, the emphasis will be more on laying out the problems such theories should address, rather than on setting out all of the alternatives for addressing them. Some important empirical work relevant to the morality of revolutionary war is to be found in studies of civil war. The latter is sometimes defined as a large scale armed conflict between state forces and one or more nonstate parties. This definition may be too restrictive, however, since it would exclude a large-scale armed conflict between two or more nonstate parties under conditions in which the government had disintegrated entirely or still existed but was not capable of fielding forces.
A broader understanding of civil war that would encompass that kind of case would be simply that of a large-scale intrastate armed conflict. The preceding terms are not always sorted out in this way in actual political discourse.
For example, the government of the United States labeled the secession of the Southern states from the Union as a rebellion, while many Confederates called their enterprise the Second American Revolution; and the American colonists who strove to secede from the British Empire tended to call themselves revolutionaries, not secessionists or rebels. Similarly, the Algerian secession from France is often referred to as the Algerian Revolution and wars of colonial liberation are rarely called secessionist conflicts, though their goal is secession from a political order centered on a metropolitan state.
On this way of sorting out the various terms, secessionists and revolutionaries are necessarily rebels, while rebels need be neither secessionists nor revolutionaries they may be anarchists , and secessionists, as such are not revolutionaries. Thus some scholars on the Left have contended that the so-called American Revolution was not really a revolution, because it did not create or even aim at anything other than a new form of the bourgeois state—a state controlled by and in the interest of the class that controls the means of production Zinn , Jennings Many American historians have concluded otherwise, asserting that it was a revolution in the stronger sense because it replaced a monarchy with a republic Nash ; Wood On this stronger understanding of revolution as involving a fundamental change in the type of government, secessionists would also be revolutionaries, if the new government they attempt to establish in part of the territory of the state would be of a fundamentally different type.
It is worth noting, however, that the morality of revolution in the stronger sense is, if anything, more complex than that of the weaker sense, because the former involves not only the extra-constitutional overthrow of the existing government but also the extra-constitutional establishment of a new type of government. One more distinction is needed. Revolutions may be violent or nonviolent and may begin nonviolently and become violent.
This distinction, though obviously important, is not so crisp as one might think, because what counts as violence may be disputed. For example, attempts to overthrow a government by disruptive techniques for example conducting general strikes, disabling power grids, or blocking main transportation routes are not violent in the way in which discharging firearms or detonating explosives is, but they may nonetheless cause lethal harms. It is well worth noting, however, that there is a position on revolution that obviates the need for a theory of just revolutionary war, namely, the view that large-scale revolutionary violence is never morally justified because the risks of such an endeavor are so great and because nonviolent revolution is more efficacious.
If there are any such cases, there is a need for a theory of just revolutionary war. No attempt can be made here to conduct a survey of views on revolution across the history of Western Philosophy, much less one that encompasses other traditions. Instead, it must suffice to say that the typical attitude toward revolution of major figures in the Western tradition prior to the modern period was to condemn it or to acknowledge its moral permissibility only in very narrow circumstances Morkevicius Augustine City of God and Aquinas Summa theologiae , for example, both condemn rebellion and hence revolution, unambiguously urging obedience to the powers that be.
Hobbes , whom some consider the first truly modern political philosopher in the Western tradition, explicitly denied that revolution could ever be justified, holding instead that a subject could only rightly resist government authority as a matter of self-defense and then only when the perpetration of lethal harm against her was imminent. Views that reject revolution outright or hold it to be permissible in only the most extreme of circumstances typically have either or both of two rationales.
The first is an overriding aversion to the perceived risk of violent anarchy posed by attempts to overthrow a government the Undue Risk Argument. The second is the conviction that the requirement of rightful authority cannot, as a matter of logical necessity, be met in the case of revolutionary war The Conceptual Argument. Consider first the Undue Risk Argument for the conclusion that revolution is never or only rarely justified.
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Put most simply, the idea here is that virtually any government is better than none and that while it is true that revolutions as opposed to mere rebellions aim not merely to destroy existing government but to replace it with something better, they may succeed only in the first, destructive task, or not succeed in the second, constructive task until an unacceptable decrement in physical security has occurred. Such views have often been grounded in a rather pessimistic view of human nature. On this interpretation of Hobbes, where there is no government—no power capable of enforcing rules conducive to physical security—it is rational for individuals to try to dominate others for purely defensive reasons, even if there is only a minority of individuals who seek domination for its own sake.
At least in the classical liberal tradition, according to which individuals have rights prior to the institution of government and in which governments are viewed as trustees, agents of the people, the attitude toward revolution is generally more permissive. There is a right to revolt when government violates those natural rights for the protection of which it was created. They could, for example, dissolve the government in order to form a new one that they simply thought was more efficient.
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Locke apparently attempts to dull the edge of this rather radical conclusion by assuming, quite gratuitously, that revolution will not occur unless the people as a whole have already suffered greatly at the hands of the government. He might also have thought that in cases where the present government was not violating natural rights, dissolving it was only permissible if done through a constitutionally sanctioned process, not through revolution. Locke does not explicitly consider two possibilities that have frequently been realized in actual revolutionary circumstances: first, that governmental oppression may not be universal but instead may target only certain groups within society, for example, religious or ethnic or national minorities or those who criticize government; second, that even if there is general oppression there may not be a sufficient spontaneous mobilization of forces to overthrow the government.
Consequently, Locke conveniently sidesteps two questions that a theory of the morality of revolution ought to address: 1 whether revolution to end special as opposed to general oppression is justifiable; and 2 what means may those already committed to revolution employ to mobilize enough others to participate in revolution to make success possible.
The first question is significant because of the possibility that the harm to innocent people—including a general decrease in physical security—that revolution may entail, has somehow to be weighed against the benefit in terms of relief from injustice that the oppressed minority will get if the revolution ultimately succeeds. Even if the injustices done to the minority ought to be given greater weight in the balancing exercise, there may come a point at which revolution fails a proportionality test if the harms to others that will result from remedying minority rights-violations are great enough.
The second question arises because even where oppression is general there may not be sufficiently widespread participation in revolution to achieve success, either because significant portions of the population, in the grip of an ideology that purports to justify the existing political order, do not see themselves as seriously oppressed, or because of the failure to solve collective action problems. If either of these two conditions obtain, mobilizing enough people to have a good chance of successful revolution may require coercion under conditions in which those who would wield it lack legitimacy and in which the institutional resources that could confer legitimacy are unavailable.
Locke took a more favorable stance toward revolution than Hobbes or his medieval predecessors, because he did not believe that the risks of physical insecurity attendant upon the destruction of an existing government were as high as those thinkers did.
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That more optimistic view as grounded, in turn, in his belief that the destruction of the political order need not entail the destruction of society—that is, of social practices and habits that effectively control the most serious forms of violence. It is a mistake, however, to conclude either that Hobbes was right and Locke was wrong or vice versa about the consequences for physical security of the destruction of government. A generalization either way would be unhelpful.
A more reasonable view is that the risks of the destruction of government and hence of revolution vary, depending upon the circumstances. If that is so, and if the justifiability of revolution depends even in part on the severity of the risks of physical insecurity it involves, then it appears that the content of a theory of just revolutionary war must be shaped by empirical considerations. Yet it is fair to say that many philosophers who have had something to say about just revolutionary war, whether explicitly or by implication in their work on interstate wars, have not taken this point to heart.
They have either not understood the importance of empirical assumptions about the risks of revolution or made the relevant empirical assumptions but without supplying sufficient evidence for their validity. Without a well-evidenced empirical account of the conditions under which attempts to overthrow the government are likely to cause violent anarchy, and an account of the conditions under which violent anarchy is likely to continue for some significant period of time, both pessimism and optimism about revolution, and the calculations of proportionality on which the justification for revolution is supposed to depend, will be more a matter of faith than reason.
The second or conceptual argument or denying that revolution is justifiable is attributed to Kant on what might be called the Rousseauian interpretation of his view, as articulated perhaps most clearly by Christine Korsgaard and Katrin Flikschuh This argument against revolution, unlike Hobbesian-style undue risk arguments, does not rely upon unsupported empirical assumptions about the uniformly dire consequences for physical insecurity of attempts to destroy existing governments.
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It is vulnerable, however, to a different objection, namely, that when government is sufficiently tyrannical and destructive, the lesser of evils may be for someone to act without possessing authority—in other words, that the use of coercion, if it is necessary to achieve the conditions for basic justice and involves the minimal amount of coercion needed to accomplish that, can be morally justified even if it is not wielded by an agent that possesses legitimacy Buchanan , Framed in Kantian terms, this is the view that in extreme cases the imposition of the basic order needed for the realization of rights can be justified even if it is the imposition of a private will, so long as the object of that will is the common good of justice properly conceived, so long as the coercion employed is the least needed to do the job, and so long as the agent undertaking to create order is likely to be capable of succeeding in doing so.
In more contemporary terms, it is an argument against revolution based on a strong interpretation of the Natural Duty of Justice, the obligation to help bring about and sustain the conditions for justice. The Natural Duty Argument is vulnerable to an obvious objection: If the existing government is so awful as to thwart even a decent approximation of the realization of universal right, and if revolution presents a better prospect for doing so, then the moral obligation to create the conditions for the realization of universal right speaks in favor of revolution, not against it Finlay 19— On this interpretation, Marx held that the very concept of rights is an ideological construct that is fostered by and in turn reinforces the egoistic psychology of bourgeois society and will be discarded once the transition to developed communist society occurs.
If the very concept of rights is thus both tainted and fated for obsolescence, then the question arises as to how else the justification for proletarian revolution might be framed Finlay According to this account, the question of whether revolution is justified is idle; it will occur, because the revolution in the mode of production that marks the transition from capitalism to communism will produce a fundamental transformation of all social relationships that will carry human beings beyond the state and beyond politics Critique of the Gotha Programme , Part IV, in MER : — Call this the Amoralist interpretation of Marx on revolution.
To the extent that the Amoralist interpretation includes an account of the motivation as opposed to the justification of proletarian revolution [ 7 ] , it is simple and rationalistic: eventually the workers will realize that overthrow of the capitalist order is in their interests and will act accordingly. There are two apparently fatal problems with such a view. Marx believes that this is bound to occur because the capitalist system gives every capitalist an overriding incentive to keep squeezing as much labor out of his workers as possible, even if every capitalist reads Capital and can foresee that that the aggregate effect of such behavior will result in the overthrow of the system.
But this means that Marx assumed that the capitalists as a class were afflicted by a collective action problem they could not solve—that even though it is in their collective interests to avoid the immiseration of the proletariat, each will find it rational to act in a way that will contribute to immiseration.
On the contrary, it can be argued that the capitalists solved their collective action problem by the creation of the modern welfare state—a device that sufficiently alleviates the plight of the workers to thwart mobilization for revolution, but without destroying the dominance of the bourgeoisie. Second, while Marx gives us no good reason to think that the capitalists will succumb to an insoluble collective action problem, he fails to take seriously the collective action problem faced by the proletariat Cohen , Elster As with revolutions generally, each individual may reason that either enough others will mobilize to enable a successful revolution or they will not, that her own participation in revolution is likely to come at a significant cost, that she will reap the benefits of the revolution if it succeeds, and that therefore the rational course of action is to abstain from participation.
The key point here is that the workers lack the resource for solving their collective action problem that the capitalists can use to solve theirs: control over the state and hence access to enforcement of rules that can change incentives for refraining from contributing to a public good. A natural Marxian reply might be to abandon the claim that interest-based motivation is causally sufficient for successful proletarian revolution, holding instead that the proletariat can come to see that capitalism is incompatible with the dignity of human beings or with the full realization of their potential for harmonious, creative, collective control over the natural and social world and the abolition of all forms of exploitation and exploitation.
On this view, the motivation for revolution is a kind of perfectionist ethics or, more modestly, a desire to end human degradation. The idea would be that the proletarians only encounter an insoluble collective action problem if each worker or enough of them operates in the calculating mode, weighing the costs and benefits of participation, as they decide whether to revolt. One might think that it is a distinctive feature of some types of moral motivation that they can lead individuals to escape the calculating mode that produces collective action problems.
Not all types of moral motivation would do the trick, of course. If the workers were overall utility-maximizers, each might still decide to refrain from revolution, reasoning that either enough others will participate to enable the revolution to succeed or they will not, regardless of whether she participates and that her participation would simply be an unnecessary subtraction from overall utility. But there would still remain two problems, one internal to the Marxist view and the other independent of it. Marx apparently thought that the curtain of ideology would be torn aside by the immiseration of the proletariat—that when they reached the full depths of deprivation and degradation they would come to see that capitalism had to go.
But Marx was wrong in his prediction that immiseration would occur: in most societies under capitalism, real wages have risen and the welfare state has alleviated the plight of the workers--just enough. The second problem is that recent empirical work on revolutions indicates that in many cases—perhaps most—what determines whether an individual will participate in the revolution or even support it in any way is whether the regime or the revolutionaries control the area in which the individual lives Kalyvas , Weinstein If that is so, then it appears that in many cases moral motivation is causally irrelevant; it is the interest in avoiding the costs imposed by those who wield coercive power over the individual, whether they be agents of the regime or those already committed to the revolution, that determines participation or nonparticipation in revolution.