Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and the Ethics of Mass Action

Massive demonstrations have a place in society: many people get more attention than a few. And if you want to make a point make a splash. The more people the more splash. But they’re ethically troublesome.

I’ve written recently about the twin dangers of mass demonstrations: the cover that a lot of peaceful people can give to wrongdoers, and the potential for an incendiary clash of wills with the authorities. Fortunately America has escaped both dangers in the case of the Tea Party demonstrations, and—so far—in the case of Occupy Wall Street, the latter only when cool heads in New York government prevailed on Brookfield Properties, the owner of Zuccotti Park, to call off their plan to expel the demonstrators.

Rome wasn’t so fortunate, as the Occupy Wall Street movement spread there and erupted in violence (Photo).

Many in the Occupy Wall Street crowd have stated their intention to stay indefinitely. That’s especially troublesome. One- or two-day demonstrations can be policed and controlled, and with forbearance on all sides can end peacefully. But where there’s no time limit impatience and irritability can build up and inevitably lead to confrontation, and usually ends in violence.

America is a nation of laws, and when the laws don’t serve the country well it’s up to the lawmakers to change them. And the lawmakers must be able to operate without being under threat of violence—no matter how much you may want to brain Eric Cantor (just to name one lawmaker).

So a one-day demonstration is OK if its organizers take care to control it. An unlimited demonstration is not. One of the best tests of whether an act is ethical is the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant: an act is ethical only if it would be acceptable for universal practice. If everybody in the world demonstrated against corporate greed there would be anarchy and chaos.

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2 Responses to “Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and the Ethics of Mass Action”

  1. Occupy Wall Street: Unethical Demonstartion, Unethical Supporters | Ethics Alarms Says:

    […] Bob” Stone recently posted about the ethics of mass demonstrations like “Occupy Wall Street,” noting that long-term, open-ended demonstrations begin crossing ethical lines once they accomplish […]

  2. Report from Zuccotti Park, and what’s next for Occupy Wall Street « Ethics Bob Says:

    […] next for Occupy? I’ve written about the ethical issue of mass action in a democracy. The movement has changed public conversation […]

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