The Implicit Danger of Moral Crusades
Katherine Revello (Classical Liberalism)
The Public Sector and Moral Sentiments
When a government uses laws to forcibly impose standards of moral conduct over its citizens, often justifying such actions by claiming they encourage behaviors conducive to the greater welfare of the nation, it commits two wrongs. First, it infringes on the ability of citizens to dissent—a fundamental element of the right of conscience. For law cannot be protested without incurring repercussions that jeopardize one’s status as a citizen in good standing. Second, when a government uses to promote certain values, it truncates personal sovereignty; it takes away from individuals the ability to make their own value-judgments and decide how to pursue those values in their personal lawsendeavors.
The history of limited government’s evolution is a history of divorcing the will of men from public policy. Governments need the energies of men to enervate its organs and perform its tasks. But access to power is notoriously dangerous. All men are self-interested. But social interactions create ties between men that keep their baser impulses in check: the rational man does not alienate the neighbor whose aid one may mean the difference between life and death.
Supreme power, however, insulates men from consequence. When one’s moral compass holds survival as its unitary pole, and one has a monopoly on legitimate power, one can act with impunity. Again, the tyranny implicit here is twofold: it is in the use of force to bend others to one’s will and in taking from individuals the ability to make determinations about right and wrong for themselves.
The Private Sector and Moral Sentiments
This power can just as easily corrupt those outside of government as within it. Indeed, groups that wrap their mandate in a mantle of moral authority—civic organizations, interest groups, etc.—and exist outside of a formal power structure are in some ways more dangerous than politicians motivated by a moral monomania.
Reining in the excesses of government is far less of a Sisyphean task than is reining in the excesses of prominent social organizations. Changing government’s behavior is a matter of changing laws. While by no means an easy task, nor one to be undertaken lightly, democratic processes—elections, citizens referendums, recalls, etc.—afford citizens ample opportunities to check political power.
For protest groups like Antifa, however, which exist in the largely unregulated and anarchic space of the private sphere, there are far fewer opportunities for checking power. Popular sovereignty is the fundamental mandate of democratic power, both in and out of government, because politics is downstream of culture.
Antifa’s aggressive, in-your-face tactics are a self-catalyzing force. Antifa’s power in society is proportional to its membership: the more their message resonates with the people at large, the more supporters it gains and the more prominent a place it is given in cultural and civic discourse. They require for their approval nothing more than the assent of their own members and the nonresistance of others, which functions as tacit approval. The controversy of many of its statements and actions also benefits from a bias built into laws that protect freedom of speech and freedom of association; such laws exist specifically to protect the rights of those who run up against a motivated majority desirous to silence those with whom they disagree.
The danger of Antifa, however, is that while it benefits from the freedom and tolerance that civil liberties breed into private interaction, it often fails to respect the rights of others. In the past, Antifa has shut down debates between people whose ideas it finds unpalatable, notably a debate at King’s College in London between objectivist Yaron Brook and anti-political correctness activist Sargon of Akkad (Soave, 2018). It has shouted down protestors who support political figures it deems hateful, notably overrunning properly permitted “Unite the Right” rallies and attacking police and journalists (Williams, 2018). It has invaded the private homes of individuals with whom it disagrees, notably gathering outside Fox News Host Tucker Carlson’s residence and trapping his terrified wife inside (Chiu et al, 2018).
In all of these actions, it has failed to respect the rule of law which others, regardless of their moral compunctions, obey when navigating public and private actions. This disregard for the deference others show to civic etiquette insulates Antifa from consequence. When others voluntarily accept limitations upon their actions—in respect for the rights of others, which they wish others to respect in themselves—they create ties that bind themselves. But Antifa, in using moral justifications to absolve itself from any such restraint, places itself above such standards.
Antifa’s Moral Failings
Antifa paints itself as a modern-day crusader; it claims to stand against racism, hate and oppression. Its actions are guided by a morally-rooted desire to root out these things. Perhaps there is some nobility in these goals, but its tactics promote the kind of extremism and nontolerance it descries in others. Antifa does not tolerate dissent and often utilizes on force and coercion to force its values on others bring them to a place of prominence in society. By doing so, however, it takes from others the rights of conscience from which it derives its moral mandate: the right to make and govern one’s life by the values one deems, by way of careful analysis, most virtuous.
Were Antifa a government actor, such behavior would rightly be ruled tyrannical, for it represents an imposition of will more proper to a king than to an actor in a democratic society. With Magna Carta, the idea that law needed a grounding more absolute than the mercurial temperament of a king, whose sense of right and wrong was entirely wrapped up in his own interests, became codified. Morality may be conceived of in absolute terms of right and wrong by the individual mind, but its application is not delineated so neatly.
Life, in the grand scale which law requires considering, is relative. Material goods are disparately distributed between individuals; the conditions of life diverge depending on one’s profession; men have different characters and ideas. All these elements lead to different arrays of choices that may present themselves in the course of life; where the moral choice lies is a matter of one’s options and one’s values. Morality may be absolute, but its application is relative. And if each individual, by dint of their nature, has a right to define and pursue right and wrong as he or she sees fit, the law cannot deal with moral sentiments, but only the causal results of one individual’s over-zealous actions infringing on the rights of another.
This principle is true regardless of whether the actor in question is a private member of society or an elected official.
of another’s the aidIndividual will is a juridical force only over those things immediately within one’s control. Anything one gains by labor depends upon that person’s volitional participation; it is a transaction that requires both parties’ consent to participate and contribute to a mutually-agreed-upon end. Anything begot in this way, however, is not a right: one has a right to speak one’s mind, but not a right to be heard. It is this line Antifa, in its attempt to forcibly impose its ideas and values upon the world, neglects to heed.
Rights are reciprocal: a love of one’s own freedom of speech demands respect of another’s, even if the values that underlie that speech stand in direct contradiction to the values one holds dear. To fail to respect the content of speech made by dissenting voices, but the right to freedom of conscience implicit in that speech is to undermine one’s owns rights. Silencing others with whom one disagrees sets a precedent that allows one’s opponents to one day silence their opponents should they gain power.
Freedom of association requires society have a pluralistic framework: one seeks out and patronizes the goods and services that resonate with one’s values, thus bolstering their place in the world; others are left free to do the same. Antifa’s messaging and tactics rest on a monistic society: they are not content to let others be but are determined to forcibly cajole others into conforming with their worldview. They do this in the name of a particular strain of moral thinking. But their actions are not moral, for they violate the individual right of conscience and take away the ability of others to make and pursue their own moral ideas.
Chiu, A.; Stein, P. & Brown, E. (8 November, 2018). Anti-fascist protestors target Tucker Carlson’s home. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:
Soave, R. (5 March 2018). Antifa shut down a planned debate between Yaron Brook and Sargon of Akkad at the King’s College. Reason. Retrieved from:
Williams, J. (12 August 2018). Antifa clashes with police and journalists in Charlottesville and DC. Vox. Retrieved from:
Katherine Revello holds a BA in political science and another in journalism from the University of Maine. She is a freelance writer and the founder of The Politics of Discretion, a political commentary website dedicated to promoting an individualist epistemology.