The Ethics of Nonviolent Action

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Events in recent years such as the Arab Spring, Occupy movements and “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong, have contributed to highlighting various ways in which people form movements to bring about political and social changes they desire, despite the oppression they face from their own governments. Images of repression and violence, like the ones of Hong Kong police brutally halting protesters using pepper sprays, flood the internet. Through the internet and social media, we are able to become witnesses of such events abroad and add our voices to support those activists, as part of an international community.

That those groups are often nonviolent and peaceful, while the state and police use violence to repress them, may seem to indicate that the one side is good and the other bad. Many also associate nonviolent action with “moral force.” Yet in reality, those movements pose more complexity.

I was personally faced with this dilemma in 2014, while reading reports about the protests in Venezuela in newspapers and social media. Although I almost automatically thought those protests must be “good” because they were initiated by the people, I saw some of my Venezuelan friends advocating their support of President Maduro and denouncing the protesters. This made me ask myself: Are those movements of civil resistance inherently good? Are they ethical? How do we decide that, and does it matter at all?

When I took a course on ethics in global affairs as a graduate student at Rutgers this year, I decided to explore “ethics of nonviolent action” as my research topic. I thought: If I am to be a scholar and advocate of nonviolence, I have to contemplate some uncomfortable questions, including:

  • Is it possible for a group to use nonviolent methods to achieve unethical objectives?
  • Who are “people” in a civil resistance movement? Whose voices are they representing?
  • To what extent is it ethical to disobey the law or disrupt the normal activities of community (i.e. blocking the public road) in order to make demands?

While I have not explored many areas of contention, I found a few points useful in examining ethics and morality of nonviolent action. These are just a few takeaways; by no means is this list exhaustive:

  • For a movement to be deemed legitimate, it has to stick to nonviolent discipline.
  • Motives, means and consequences matter. In other words, why did the movement start, what methods do they use, and what are the results?
  • “People” are not uniform. They have varied perspectives, opinions, and interests.
  • When a movement consciously violates the law, it is because the law itself is unjust; thus, not by protesting it, one becomes part of injustice.

When we support, join, or initiate a nonviolent action, we should ask ourselves, rather than assuming that it is the right thing to do: what are the ethical implications?

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    By: Anna Ikeda

    A board member of Metta Center for Nonviolence, Anna Ikeda also serves as Program Associate at the Office for UN Affairs of Soka Gakkai International, a lay Buddhist movement linking more than 12 million people around the world. She is a PhD student at the Department of Global Affairs, Rutgers-Newark.

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