Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Temi Ogunye

Do you think you can do politics innocently?

There are many illuminating ways to understand politics, but one is as the practice of attempting to shape and direct the collective life of one’s community. Those who do politics typically seek to influence the collective life of the community with what they regard as morally good objectives in mind. Hence, at least according to this understanding of politics, outcomes matter enormously.

This goes part of the way to explaining why consequentialism is an approach to morality that has such purchase in politics. Simplifying a bit, consequentialism is the view that the moral rightness of an act depends only on its consequences.

Perhaps the most well-known objection to consequentialism is that it seems to permit acts which most people believe are obviously morally wrong. Familiar examples of such acts include lying, breaking promises, failing to show gratitude or loyalty, and imposing harm on others. This implication is typically illustrated via highly unrealistic thought experiments, but let me use three quite different recent examples from British politics instead.

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More attention is being paid to formal activism. Informal activism matters too

A common complaint made about contemporary political theory is that it is far too focused on describing what a perfect society looks like, and not focused enough on exploring the means by which we are to move toward the ideal. This criticism seems to me to be basically right. But it would not be correct to say that nothing has been said about the means by which to improve society. Political theorists have had a fair amount to say about ‘civil disobedience’, for instance.

Moreover, in recent years, scholars have increasingly turned their attention to allegedly ‘uncivil’ forms of activism, from hacktivism to hunger strikes, rioting to revolution. What all of these forms of activism have in common is that they typically have laws and policies as their targets. Hence, when political theorists think about activism, they tend to have what you might call ‘formal activism’ in mind.

While formal activism is of course essential, I want to draw attention to forms of activism that have social phenomena other than law or policy as their targets. Let’s call this kind of activism ‘informal activism’. There are at least three reasons why informal activism is important.

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Is disruptive climate activism morally controversial?

We are in the midst of an emergency. Drastic action by states, businesses, and individuals is required if we are to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change. Activism is a necessary part of and precursor to this action. And increasingly it is disruptive climate activism that is being advocated and engaged in. To many people, this kind of activism will seem morally controversial and perhaps even unjustified. But is it? And, if so, why exactly? Let’s examine three worries one might have.

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