I have sometimes participated in boycotts in the past. But it seems to me that I’m seeing more and more boycotts attempted all the time, and I’m becoming uncomfortable with them.

Boycotts now seem to me to more like force than like argument. They do not work (as Gandhi’s and King’s might have) by precipitating a general re-consideration of the ethical questions involved; they just seem intended to hurt people for doing what they want to do, and what they might be entitled to do, until they cannot resist the stronger party exerting the force.

Two comments made me doubt that I made my point clear. If a boycott is intended to force someone (a state, a university, a company) to have some policy (concerning homosexuality, or Israel, or guns, or abortion), then it is force precisely because it is organized en masse. It's not clear to me (as one comment suggested) that an individual who decided not to buy from Jews would be as much within his rights as an individual who decided that he could not afford a product; but in either case he does not seem to be exerting much force, compared to someone who organizes thousands of people to produce a particular change in policy, and who informs his victim of just what he must do to end the boycott.

Boycotts are effective because we are more numerous or otherwise more powerful than the people whose choices we are undermining. Isn't that just bullying? Isn't it just common courtesy to acknowledge that other people can make moral choices and do not require our approval?

Anyone have any thoughts for me on when boycotts are right?


Definition of boycott transitive verb : to engage in a concerted refusal to have dealings with (a person, a store, an organization, etc.) usually to express disapproval or to force acceptance of certain conditions

My question is not about language, so let me just say that I consider the following Revlon story as an example of a boycott, and please consider my question as if you did too. My question is not legal. Also, let’s not debate whether the “facts” of the Revlon story are actually facts. I don’t know whether they are, but again, I don’t think that is important to my question.


At some past time, PETA demanded that Revlon stop testing products on animals, representing that a lot of customers would accordingly buy (or not buy) Revlon products. In order to win this business Revlon stopped testing products on animals.


Let’s make the following added assumptions. (1) PETA could possibly have asked Revlon to stop testing products on animals, without organizing the boycott, although of course everyone would have understood that some volume of business might be at stake. (2) This issue of animal testing had nothing to do with the price or effectiveness of Revlon products (in making your fingernails red, or whatever it is they’re supposed to do). (3) Revlon cooperated with PETA because the proposed boycott led Revlon to believe that their revenues would be better if they cooperate. (4) There are some people who don’t use Revlon products for reasons unrelated to animal testing (they don’t like red fingernails, they don’t think red fingernails are worth the price, etc.), and they are perfectly within their rights to abstain from these purchases although such purchases would be lucrative for Revlon. Nobody owes anyone a “steady state” or an occupation. (5) Animal testing is bad, and all else being equal the end of animal testing would be good.

My question is, is it clear that PETA acted properly in organizing the boycott? Or is it possible that their boycott represented an appeal to force rather than reason, and that an appeal to force is only justified under certain circumstances that might have been lacking here?

Suppose that PETA had a magical wand, and by pointing the wand and telling Revlon to stop animal testing, PETA could magically force Revlon to obey. Would PETA be right to do this, or would it violate Revlon’s right to make choices about their own behavior? Are the cases different because (in the original Revlon story) Revlon still has a choice to accept the harm that PETA might have inflicted by the boycott, while in the magic wand story they lack this choice? Is that a question of degree, so that the greater the harm that PETA can inflict by a boycott, the more the boycott grows to resemble the magic wand?

  • Since you have no obligation to interact with anyone (with a few exceptions that are not applicable for this question) then choosing to not interact with someone cannot be wrong.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 18:06
  • I also don't see how simply choosing to buy brand A instead of B becomes wrong just because your reason for doing it is political rather than, say, price or quality. It might be a different story if, say, you are picketing in front of the store and preventing people from going in. Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 18:47
  • It would be hard to argue that boycotts are unethical (as @MichaelK says, you're under no obligation to purchase from a vendor in the first place). However, I think that there are some ethical considerations in deciding to do a boycott; particularly in the internet age, it is easy for the effects of a boycott to be entirely out of proportion to whatever offense triggered it. Is it ethical to spread an outraged meme worldwide, potentially bankrupting a restaurant over one incident with a rude waiter, for instance? Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 21:56
  • Do you mean to say that you initially viewed boycotts as arguments? They are of course actions aimed to alter other people's behavior, sometimes people who are impervious to arguments, but that does not make them either ethical or unethical. The latter depends on what behavior one seeks to alter, and how, people are not always entitled to doing what they want to do, not even if they think it "right". If it is your decision to (not) boycott it is your ethical standard that matters, and you are entitled not only to arguments but also to actions, even use of force sometimes, to follow it.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 22:54
  • @Conifold North Carolina still has separate mens' and women's' bathrooms. They're not "impervious" to argument in general, but they disagree with some powerful players who organize a boycott. How can they tell if they are right to organize this boycott? It cannot always come down to the original substantive question (whether men should be able to use women's' bathrooms), or else all boycotts would pass the test and all boycotts would be proper.
    – Chaim
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 17:32

4 Answers 4


In a liberal economy, purchase is a form of speech, if freedom of speech has value, we are free to make our choices of purchase in any way we choose. The ability to choose between providers is the lynch-pin of functioning capitalism.

It is not unethical to ask someone not to do something unethical. It is not even unethical for someone to assemble hundreds of people to demand it in unison. So it is not unethical to coordinate purchases in order to send the same message.

Speech is not force unless it involves threats. Refraining from contact, outside an existing obligation, is not a threat, even when it causes harm. Refusing to give money to a homeless person is not force, even if it causes him to die. (Whether it is ethical remains open, but it is not force.)

Many people refuse to give to various homeless people because they fear that the use of that money would be unethical and harm either others or the person it is given to, perhaps from previous observations of that person's behavior. This is exactly the position one is in when one participates in a boycott -- you are refusing contact, and not giving money because you fear its use would not be ethical, based on previous observations of the recipient's behavior.

Edit in response to comment:

Detachment is actually far less of an imposition than constant argument, and it does not risk the choice of words becoming abusive. So boycotts are actually often more ethical than actual argument, if the disagreement in question places the individual in a minority position facing a number of people who disagree.

The supposed inability to find a resolution is a pretense. If you want to turn the action into an argument, you can do so at any point by asking. People who are coordinating action against you want something, and they are asking to be engaged -- pretty much on your timetable.

So there is no distinction here, boycotts are ethical when arguments would be ethical. That comes down to perspective and proportionality to the intended result, not form. If your position is actually important, a fairly aggressive argument may be totally ethical, as may other forms of direct action, and a rather stark ostracism may be equally so.

  • 1
    You move into a new neighborhood with your family, and it becomes clear that nobody will associate with you or your family unless you display some political sign on your lawn, or join the Klan, or attend some church, or do something odious to you. Nobody will speak to your wife. Children won’t play with your children. Nobody will patronize your business. I’m not asking about legal rights protected by the first amendment; I’m asking whether you think their behavior is right, and if not, what distinguishes the proper boycotts from the improper ones.
    – Chaim
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 17:22
  • It would seem to me the be related in some way to the open-question character of whatever it is that they want you to do in order to end the boycott, and to be related in some way to the severity of the punishment they’re imposing on you, and perhaps on other considerations too.
    – Chaim
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 17:22
  • @Chaim You asked about force. I answered what you asked. Social pressure is clearly distinct in every way from force, and it is a major part of modern moral processes. By what mechanism other than free speech can any moral process be managed? People have to retain the right to control the definition of morality in some way other than subjecting themselves to the State. The State is notoriously incapable of actually being fair.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 18:25
  • @Chaim Say you move into a neighborhood and every neighbor wants to talk to you about the same topic, even when you make your position clear. (E.g. From personal experience, being gay in a wealthy part of Charlotte, NC while they are trying to pass the amendment against gay marriage.) The topic is everywhere, you stay at work to avoid it. Same difference. Equally obnoxious. Still not force. In no way improved by being 'more like an argument'.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 18:28
  • When I mentioned argument, I didn't imagine browbeating; I imagined reasoning together. I think that you're saying that talk and silence can both be abusive, and you disapprove of abuse. But if a baker would be driven out of business, his wife and kids unable to find a friend, that could be abusive too. Would it be right to do this to people, even admitting that we can all distinguish it from, say, lynching or battery? Does it depend on whether their view, while differing from yours, is still "legitimate" in some way?
    – Chaim
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 19:00

Boycotts are non-violent and in that sense do not involve force. However, they are a form of coercion or attempted coercion - the moral equivalent of force. And looked at another way, a boycott is the use of coercion (by economic or other sanctions) to force a person, group, institution or state to act as the boycotters want. So a clear line between the boycott and force cannot be drawn.

One point against the boycott is that it intends harm. There is always meant to be some direct injury to the interests of the party the boycott is directed against.

Incidentally there is always likely to be some incidental harm - harm to persons or groups whose situation makes them suffer along with the boycotted party even though they may themselves oppose that party and have no complicity in its actions and policies. For convenience call them non-players.

It strikes me that a boycott, if it is justified, is only justified after argument has failed - repeatedly and decisively failed. It should be a last and not a first resort.

Against (say) state actions and policies that are plainly wrong - wrong by the standards of international law or the universal declaration of human rights - the boycott is justified if the harm caused to the boycotted party is no worse than the harm it is causing and if the incidental harm done to non-players through the boycott is no worse than the harm the boycotted party is causing.

That's my theoretical position. I am willing to revise it but not until I know what the objections to it are.

You are perfectly correct to say that there is a qualitative difference between an individual's deciding (say) not to buy from a company or a state because s/he has moral objections to company or state actions or policies. This inflicts no harm and probably isn't meant to; the scale of impact is minimal. When a mass boycott is organised, or a state imposes a boycott on another, harm is intentional, real, serious or even disastrous.

This poses the question of what could justify such a scale of intentional harm. I can only safely rely on the criterion hinted at above : state actions and policies that are plainly wrong - wrong by the standards of international law or the universal declaration of human rights. Other criteria are not being dismissed; I just think of can't them.

Your question shows serious moral sensitivity. Tentatively I think boycotts can be justified but not all are; and I have tried to indicate conditions and constraints that might justify some of them and by implication rule out others. Others may have better, deeper, more incisive points. I have offered what I can.


(1) Margaret Doxey, 'Oil and Food as International Sanctions', International Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, Food and Fuel (Spring, 1981), pp. 311-334.

(2) Ruth N. Reingold and Paul Lansing, 'An Ethical Analysis of Japan's Response to the Arab Boycott of Israel', Business Ethics Quarterly Vol. 4, No. 3 (Jul., 1994), pp. 335-353.

(3) 'Protest Boycotts under the Sherman Act' Source: University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 128, No. 5 (May, 1980), pp. 1131-1165 Published by: The University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

(4) Gordon M. Orloff, 'The Political Boycott: An Unprivileged Form of Expression', Duke Law Journal, Vol. 1983, No. 5 (Nov., 1983), pp. 1076-1094.

  • It seems like the "clearly wrong" standard would be pretty hard to meet, if we're talking about the policies of democracies for example.
    – Chaim
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 17:37
  • Sorry to delete the comment, I am turning it into a separate answer.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 18:22

I would say yes boycott is relatively ethical because THOREAU said individual duty to protest against unjust laws as if you passively allowing such laws to be enacted effectively gave them justification.. THOREAU proposed idea of non cooperation and civil disobedience non violent resistance they were later adopted by martin Luther King and mahatma gandhi..And at the same time he proposes a alternative mechanism to oppose unjust as there was revolutionary spirit in Europe that time ie Marx....


There is a separate thread here from the direct defense I gave already. You have the right to act, and others have the right to respond. No one owes you a stable state, and the possibility that you might not get what you are used to is not a threat.

A culture might need to be constituted in such a way that everyone can get various minimal things. That might mean everyone deserves a job or a business. But at no point is anyone owed the particular job or business they have chosen. We come to treat patterns of behavior as if they are property. But they are not, and cannot be treated that way. Patterns of behavior require maintenance, and if they are not properly maintained, they will cease of their own accord.

A boycott 'threatens' a business, but it is not a threat. It is not our job to support that business -- it is that businesses job to serve others as they wish to be served, this is the only thing a business should be doing. If that means those served do not wish to be served in a way that supplies resources to people who think specific actions are reasonable, that remains their prerogative.

In Lockean terms, on which the modern notion of citizenship is loosely based, ostracism of a real person is a different sort of thing, because a society makes a given offer to everyone who signs on to its social contract. If ostracism extends to depriving you of any productive role, the society has failed, and causing your society to fail is a violation of the social contract.

Someone who won't buy from conservatives in general, or more pointedly Jews, is not really boycotting. They are doing something more like personal ostracism. They intend to deprive people of a fair shot at life. They are not asserting a punishment that, if it were to become expected, would improve the society in general. It is not about behavior, it is about creating unfairness on purpose, which is itself a violation of most modern social contracts.

But in the ordinary case, boycotting a business only insists that those who constitute it should find a different business, or behave in a different way. And that happens for all kinds of other reasons, many of which are ethical, and may even be absolutely necessary. We expect businesses that cannot control their spending to fail, they need to find a different business because they have chosen to behave in an inappropriate way.

By analogy, not giving money to a homeless person is not necessarily unethical, if at the same time you ensure they have other options that they are simply choosing not to take. Preaching against giving them money, and getting as many others as possible on board may even be proper, especially if the goal is really in their own best interest. This is basically a boycott of the business of panhandling, which is ethical if those people have other options.

  • 1
    I am not suggesting that we need to buy chocolate although we don’t like chocolate, just to support the chocolate-makers. I'm talking about the motivation to hurt people. Isn't a boycott an attempt to control what is properly the free choice of someone else? Shouldn't we respect the rights of other people to make choices to the extent of not trying to hurt them for differing with us, at least in some case? If so... what is that case?
    – Chaim
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 18:43
  • @Chaim Total nonsequitur. Choosing to avoid giving money to someone who has offended you does not involve a motivation to hurt. It involves an instinct for self-protection. No one boycotts someone because of what they think. They act because of something that someone does, usually an action that harms them. You can believe whatever you want. If you act on that in a way that affects me, I am free to respond, the minimal meaningful response is to avoid helping you continue to offend me, in the hope you will stop.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 20:02
  • @Chaim Perhaps we have a problem with definitions here. A boycott has as stated goal to stop an ongoing abuse -- a real abuse, not just the holding of a given position. I went out of my way to point out that avoiding people because of who they are or what they think, and not something they are actually doing does not mean the same thing. (See that paragraph on conservatives and Jews). Unfortunately, you seem bound and determined to ignore the content my actual answers and respond only to my comments.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 20:21

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