Brian Leiter on Political Violence and Wisconsin, or, I Guess We Might Have Resorted to Cannibalism a Bit Early

The eminent philosopher and law professor Brian Leiter, of the University of Chicago Law School, posts this comment on his philosophy blog (I just saw Eugene’s post below, but I’ll leave this up as is, closing comments on this post):

Meanwhile, the Republican criminals in Wisconsin forced through their attack on workers’ rights, leading to an uproar in Madison …  At some point these acts of brazen viciousness are going to lead to a renewed philosophical interest in the question of when acts of political violence are morally justified, an issue that has, oddly, not been widely addressed in political philosophy since Locke. (emph. added)

I humbly tug my academic forelock before Professor Leiter, whose greater brains and greater virtue I’ll cheerfully concede upfront.  Still, the rapidity with which Professor Leiter reaches, however coyly or indirectly or teasingly or hintingly, to justifications, or thinking this suddenly would be a good moment for talking about justifications, for political violence did put me in mind of this news item from the Onion of several years ago.

In Retrospect, I Guess We Might Have Resorted To Cannibalism A Bit Early

I have no idea how long we’d been marooned when we started edging toward Jerry. Twenty, thirty minutes, time has little meaning when you’re in a situation like that. It wasn’t a spoken decision, either. We just all looked at each other and knew something had to be done.

It might have been an animal act, but it had a certain logic. Jerry lived alone and had nobody special in his life–no kids, no wife or girlfriend, and his parents had died a long time ago. And, most important, he was the biggest. We figured there was enough meat on him to keep the rest of us alive for days, maybe weeks.

Peter held him down while I tore at his forearm with my teeth. Not surprisingly, Jerry resisted. He struggled ferociously and shouted, “Hey, what the hell are you doing?” But he knew exactly what we were doing: We were doing whatever it took to survive.

Eventually, we were able to knock Jerry out. And, as for what we did next, I’m sure you’ve read about it in the papers. Maybe it was savage. Maybe it was an animal act. But human teeth are pointed and sharp in front for a reason.

Besides, we had no way of knowing that, at that very moment, an Otis Elevator repairman was working to free us. We only knew that we were between floors, and that it had been more than five hours since we’d had lunch.

I feel somewhat the same about Professor Leiter’s call (purely in the philosophical abstract, you understand) to reconsider political violence – you know, this might be an appeal just a tad early in the saga of criminal and illegitimate and unjust oppression.  I leave it to Professor Leiter to say definitively, but I wonder if Locke might not also agree.

(Update: While I’m thinking of it, let me flog a journal subscription.  If you’re interested in political violence as an academic topic, you should definitely be reading, and getting your library to subscribe to, The Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence.  I’ve been on the editorial board for a couple of decades (now there’s a reason to subscribe!) and it is the cool specialist journal on political violence  from an interdisciplinary perspective.  Adv. – eds.)

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