An Ethical Exploration of Looting and Rioting

After the horrible death of George Floyd recently, there have been a lot of riots. This is something we expect, but less expected are the many instances of looting that have been done in the name of protest against this injustice. This is a much less common and much less discussed phenomena. How do we think about this?

Understanding Some Ethical Theories

First, a way-too-brief summary of the very deep area of philosophy known as ethics. Ethics is the study of moral values and moral obligations. A moral value is a value based upon which an action or behavior of a person is judged to be good or bad. Values are generally defined first by what is good (eg. love) and then that which is bad is defined as an absence of (eg. apathy) or twisting of (eg. hatred) that which is good. A moral obligation is a kind of behavior that we are required to do in light of relevant moral values. In less complicated words, moral obligations are those things which we ought to do (or ought not to do) – the key word here being ought.

Ethics is a complicated area, and there are many competing ethical theories that attempt to provide a framework for how to differentiate between right and wrong (moral obligations) ad between good and evil (moral values). While not comprehensive, the following list will summarize a few very different views of ethics (focusing primarily on the right/wrong distinction).

  • Consequentialism – This theory holds basically that an action is right exactly when the consequences of that action are good (or that the good consequences outweigh the bad consequences).
  • Deontological ethics – This theory holds that an action is right exactly when that action is aligned with a foundational set of moral rules. A common version of such a theory would be divine command theory, within which the foundational set of moral rules is based upon the character and commands of God.
  • Virtue ethics – This theory holds that an action is right exactly when it helps the person develop within themselves greater virtue.

It might seem like these are not so different – after all, I think every one of us operates in these modes of thinking at various points in time, and each of them has some face-value plausibility to it. However, debates arise because often these ethical theories contradict one another in various situations. It is then that philosophers who study ethics work to attempt to untangle the weeds, so to speak, and improve upon these frameworks to more accurately reflect what we all mean by the words good and right.

In What Way is Rioting/Looting Justified?

With a few important ethical theories laid out, we can explore how these theories speak to the heated debates today about riots and looting.

The consequentialist holds that a riot is justified (i.e. right) when the consequences of the riot bring about more benefit than harm. In the current situation, a consequentialist might place on the positive side of the balance the attention brought to the problem of racism and police brutality in our country. On the negative side, they would place things like the damage caused by riots and looting or making different political parties less willing to cooperate in the future (if they believe that will in fact be a consequence). A consequentialist would attempt to weigh these and behave accordingly. We see this approach in social media today. Those whose cite the fact that peaceful protests have not worked in solving the racism problem as justification for riots and looting are applying consequentialist ethics.

Deontological ethics, of course, depends on what foundational set of rules you are using, since different sets of rules will lead to different conclusions. Since the view of ethics that I hold most firmly to is a type of deontological ethics, I will use that view. In particular, I hold to divine command theory based upon the God of Christianity, so that when I am trying to determine whether some action is right or wrong, the first thing I want to do is reflect on teachings and commandments of the Bible. The most central teaching here is the doctrine of imago dei – that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore are of infinite moral value and have intrinsic rights, freedoms, and obligations towards one another. The imago dei consists attributes shared by all humans, including but not necessarily limited to emotions, thoughts, reasoning abilities, memories, and the ability to communicate using language. The inestimable value of human life, combined with proper understanding of moral commands found in Scripture, form the basis of thought for the question. Take the example of looting. There are clear commandments against stealing, and since looting is a form of stealing, it would follow that we ought not loot. However, there is also clear precedent in the Bible that there are some moral commandments that are more essential than others (see Luke 10:27 and surrounding verses). Therefore, if there is some more essential moral command that would justify these actions of looting, then looting would be justified. An example of a possible justification would be that the looting is done in protest of murder stemming from racism – and both murder and racism are clear violations of the value we possess in light of the imago dei. An adherent of divine command theory based on Christianity would then have to try to decide whether looting as a form of protest actually does line up with the full scope of commandments in the Bible, of which I have laid out a few.

The virtue ethicist would ask themselves whether engaging in riots and looting are beneficial to the character of the individual participating in them. Since these are being done in protest of the murder of an innocent man, it could be argued that these actions would increase within a person their sense of justice, which would make the action right. On the other hand, one might think that engaging in any form of violence, even in protest, causes within a person a tendency towards more violence, which would make these actions wrong. Perhaps you think this increases a persons tendency towards rage, which would make the action wrong. Or perhaps you think by identifying with people who have been killed that it will increase their compassion, which would make it right. An adherent of virtue ethics would then have to contemplate how engaging in a violent protest would affect their ‘pursuit of virtue’ so to speak, and would have to make a decision based upon those.

I hope it is clear from this discussion how different theories of ethics lead to quite different patterns of thought, and how they might even lead to different conclusions.

Personal Thoughts and Reflections

Having laid out a philosophical framework to convey how truly complicated this topic really is, I will try now to lay out some of my own reflections. As I stated earlier, I operate in my ethics from a Christian divine command theory, which is a kind of deontology. So, my reasoning about right and wrong stems from moral obligations found in commandments in the Bible and their implications. As I have also already stated, two primary considerations for the moral rightness or wrongness of these lootings, which are repeated over and over again in the Bible, are ‘do not steal’ (see Exodus 20:15, Ephesians 4:28 for examples) and ‘defend the oppressed’ (see Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 9:9, Proverbs 14:31 for examples).

Now, before going into the points I think are meaningful, I will first handle some that I think are not meaningful. As a deontologist, I reject consequentialism, and therefore I reject any justification for looting that relies on the consequences of the action. I also reject justifications that are purely internal in nature. That is, there is more to this than what motivates a person to protest in this way. In effect, this is a rejection of virtue ethics – I believe that people can do bad things for good reasons. I’m not actually saying anything good or ill of rioters at the moment – I am merely pointing out that I do not believe that those types of reasons are probably entirely invalid, and at least they are not the most important thing to consider.

On an emotional and pragmatic level, I understand exactly why people are rioting and looting. What I have perceived in terms of the reasoning of those who riot and loot might be summarized briefly as follows: “Racism is a huge problem. Furthermore, the problem is not so much racist individuals as a system that is either unwilling or unable to punish racist behavior. Therefore, our protests are not directed at individuals, but at a system. The system we are targeting with our protests (let’s say the at-large culture of the USA) places an extremely high value on monetary wealth. Therefore, protests that do financial damage are likely to shake this system into changing, and looting is then an obvious choice of method.” This seems to me to be the pattern of thought that leads to riots. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with these conclusions, I think that this train of thought is something we can all understand. And someone operating within this train of thought does not view these instances of violence as directed at a person, and that changes the moral framework within which they process the violence.

While I empathize quite a lot with the summary I gave, I don’t fully agree with it. I have two primary issues with this train of thought as I understand it. Firstly, it is very rooted in consequentialism, since the motivation is about how to accomplish something. Secondly, I think the logic presupposes a much stronger separation between ‘systems’ and people than is realistic. The ‘system’ is not a physical thing out there that violence can be directed towards – violence against a system seems to me to be violence against a member of that system. And violence against a person, in my view, can only be morally acceptable when it is used as a form of defense against a pressing danger to you or an innocent person (eg. self-defense) or by a governing body given protective responsibilities attempting to enforce justice (eg. prison or capital punishment) or prevent a significant future danger (eg. police officers killing a mass shooter, war against the Nazis). So, I am convinced that in order for looting to be justified, it must be justified on the grounds of either the enforcement of justice or as a form of violent self-defense.

Can riots or looting be justified on these grounds? Well, enforcing justice in this way is the job of the government and not individuals (see Romans 13:1-7), and so I don’t think the enforcement of justice would work. As for self-defense, I can understand these actions being undertaken as a kind of preventative self-defense, meant to cause a cultural shift that will decrease the frequency and/or severity of these tragedies in the future. Quite honestly, I am still not quite sure whether I am on board with that ethically. On the one had, the imago dei ethic does provide reason to undertake even very extreme actions in defense of the oppressed. On the other hand, it does seem like much of what is happening falls into the category of doing the wrong thing for the right reason.

What I am sure of is that we will be far better as a country when we can get past systematic mistreatment of black people like this. It is a tragedy and is profoundly anti-Christian. The Bible explicitly teaches that we are not to bring division by treating some ethnicities as superior to others, or for that matter any other category, because people in different categories all have the image of God and are therefore all of incomparable value (eg. Galatians 3:28). I am thoroughly ashamed that so often these things are done by those who identify themselves as Christians, because the Bible does not condone such senseless evil towards anyone. In fact, the kind of evil most thoroughly condemned by Jesus is the sin of the ‘hypocrite’ – putting on an outer shell of piety and holiness while committing horrible evils and holding hatred in your heart (see Matthew 23:1-33, a scathing criticism of this kind of hypocrisy). Apart from preaching this Biblical truth and convincing people who have been led astray into racism to come back to the God of love, I am not sure what the best way is to solve this problem, or even if this problem can be solved in this broken world in which we live. But we still must try, because calling out racism wherever we find it is the right thing to do.

For Curious Readers

My most extensive ethical exploration here was done from the context of deontological ethics, and in particular divine command theory based upon the Christian Bible. A similarly lengthy discussion can be produced from other viewpoints on ethics, and similar discussions can be had for other ethical issues. If seeing these ethical theories laid out has piqued your interest, here is an exercise that I think will help you understand better the differences between these ethical theories and to explore your own ethical thinking.

Apply the foundational ideas of ethical theories to another currently discussed topic – is it morally acceptable for the government to mandate the wearing of medical masks in public? Furthermore, do individuals have a moral duty to wear masks during the pandemic in every situation, or only some situations? If only some situations, why? For any of the questions that interest you, form some responses from the perspective of a consequentialist, a deontologist, and a virtue ethicist, being sure to adequately consider all sides of an issue. Which of your responses is closest to how you actually think?

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