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?
BACK TO THE DRAWING-BOARDS
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.
THE REVLON STORY:
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.
SOME ADDED ASSUMPTIONS:
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?