Tuesday, June 02, 2009


A member of the studio audience asks:

Alonzo, I would be interested to hear what DU says about vigilantism. Is it ever justified? If so, when?

First, I want to take this opportunity to say that what I think about vigilantism in applying desire utilitarianism to the best of my ability, and what desire utilitarianism says about vigilantism, are not necessarily the same thing.

Desire utilitarianism says that there are objective right answers to moral questions, and that they are based on the degree to which malleable desires tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. I can offer a hypothesis regarding some of those relationships. However, there is no guarantee that, because I said it, then this must be the gospel according to desire utilitarianism.

It is quite possible for two desire utilitarians to disagree on a moral conclusion, just as it is possible for two dinosaur experts to disagree on whether the T-Rex was primarily a scavenger or a predator.

Second, in general I would hold that we are better off promoting an overall aversion to vigilantism. A codified system of laws enforced through trials will tend to fulfill more desires (and thwart fewer desires) than a system where people take the law into their own hands.

Vigilantes are often wrong. One story I read recently involved a high-school aged girl who told her father that a neighborhood man had raped her. They hunted the man down and cut off his penis. Only, they got the wrong person. One of the reasons for courts and a system of law is to make sure that the people who are punished are actually guilty. To do this, the state is required to present its evidence before an impartial body. This does not guarantee that the innocent go free and the guilty are punished, but it does help.

Also, a great deal of social violence is motivated (or, at least, rationalized) on the basis of vigilantism. The members of one gang feel that they have been ‘wronged’ by the members of another gang, and they go out to address this wrong. The target gang then adopts the attitude that they have been wronged and seeks vigilante ‘justice’ against members of the first gang. An overall aversion to vigilantism (including the condemnation and holding in contempt those who practice it) will go a long ways to reducing this type of violence.

Black lynchings in the South after the civil war represent another example of vigilantism. The KKK and similar organizations (or citizens with similar sentiments) adopted the attitude that the state could not be trusted to administer justice to black suspects, so they delivered justice themselves. The same type of attitude can be found in the slogan, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

A police system and courts of law exist for a reason, and people should be given a preference to using those institutions. Where those institutions do not exist, then it is better for the people (driven by an aversion to vigilantism) to shy away from vigilante justice and to establish a system of police and courts instead.

One of the main features of desire utilitarianism rests on the fact that desires have weight, and can be outweighed when put up against a sufficiently large load of counter-weighing concerns. Even the torture of an innocent child can be justified if, for example, it were the only way to prevent the torture of all humans (including that child).


So, if a gang of criminals were to take control of a region - becoming pretty much a government unto itself where conventional authority cannot reach, then there may be no better option than to "take the law into one's own hands." Yet, even here the preferred option would be to establish a legal institution of fair hearings over blind vigilantism.

The United States, or any country that has relatively free (not necessarily perfect) elections is a country where its citizens have no right to dispense private justice through acts of violence outside the law.


Michael said...

Sorry to sound like Batman Begins, but what if the system is corrupt? Should we still leave it up to the system or take it into our own hands and do what we know is right?

Fortunately our system here in the US is great....not perfect, but no system really can be. But just hypothetically...

Rebeca said...

Utilitarianism is described by the phrase the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Therefore, it is also known as the greatest happiness principle. Utilitarianism can thus be characterized as a quantitative approach to ethics. It can be contrasted with deontological ethics as well as with other varieties of consequentialism.