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Usually in common media, protests are seen in a good light and for causes we may agree with. However, if one really thinks about it, in reality what is happening is a small group of people showing some sort of negative feedback to the whole population and system which doesn't follow their type philosophy.

In a democracy, would this be ethical? I think not, because if then they'd have to change it by voting and through the process.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 11 at 9:44
  • Are you sure that you mean protests (including demonstrations as a pillar of pluralistic democracies) rather than civil disobedience where groups of people deliberately ignore democratically legitimated laws?
    – LMD
    Jun 12 at 19:49

11 Answers 11

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In a democracy, would this be ethical? I think not, because if then they'd have to change it by voting and through the process.

Before any vote, campaigning happens where each small group or person can try to inform and influence every other person. Protests are a valid form of doing so. Voting and demonstrating go together, they are not opposites.

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  • this is true but misses many other reasons for protest
    – Mike M
    Jun 12 at 11:47
  • I really like all the other answers too. But the question was just about voting versus protesting.
    – tkruse
    Jun 12 at 13:43
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It seems you are assuming the laws of any given population always mirror the ethical views of that population, but that is never totally true, in fact it's most often not even remotely true.

In my experience, this appears to be the case for a number of legal, social, and political reasons, but certainly in large part because a non-trivial amount of people do not truly seem to understand what's good for them because they have been kept in the dark, quietly indoctrinated into the cult of capitalism and individualism, and further manipulated by propaganda and self-serving politicians. This can be observed simply by asking the average person what they want, and you'll find it will frequently come down to finances: they want a higher paying job, cheaper food, cheaper gas, lower rent, lower taxes, affordable health care, affordable childcare, etc. yet they do not consider that what they really want is a world that is setup to provide for them without the need to trade our time and labor for survival (often in the form of a barely livable wage). Similarly, in America—a country widely considered to be a symbol of wealth and economic success—about half of voters voted for Donald Trump in 2016, believing that he would be the best option for their future. Even without assuming that the voter population roughly mirrors the general population, this fact in and of itself shows that a huge amount of people in America (~75 million people or approximately 1/4 of the US population) do not really understand what is in their own best interest, given what we know about Donald Trump [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] . When people's judgment is impaired because they have not been given the tools to combat misinformation and the perspective to see the bigger picture, it's easy to see how a country's laws could fail to mirror the ethical positions of the population.

To make matters worse, there are also structures in place (institutions, laws, etc.) which tend to favor certain groups over others, so some groups of people get more favorable treatment than others, on top of the fact that any given law or institution may be extremely susceptible to corruption.

Consider the situation in the U.S. right now with abortion. If you look at the polls of public opinion, around 65% of Americans do not support overturning Roe vs. Wade. And yet, it will likely happen anyways, against what the majority want. This is because as I mentioned there are systems in place that are extremely susceptible to corruption: voters are susceptible to lies and manipulation because in many places our education systems have been shaped by capitalism, which is to say they "reinforce a reward system based on consumption, acquisition, and status increases". People are educated to become the next generation of laborers, so the focus is technical acumen not personal and moral development, which means many people lack a holistic, systems-based perspective, as well as the basic critical thinking and media literacy skills which would help make them more resilient to manipulation. This is on top of the fact that there is no legal requirement for political advertisements to be truthful; states run by self-centered legislators can make new laws violating voting rights and suppressing votes from certain groups, which can take years to resolve; gerrymanding — the drawing of district boundaries to favor one political party over another — still exists and continues to disenfranchise voters everywhere; the filibuster allows for a minority party to gridlock a nation from producing any new legislation, causing us to stagnate; the flawed electoral college system continues to diminish the power of voters; businesses and wealthy individuals have far more say in government than regular citizens, allowing them to shape the government to their needs and preferences; Citizens’ United continues to reduces the power and influence of the average citizen and hand it to wealthy corporations; Supreme court justices have no term limits, cementing partisanship in our laws for decades; the list goes on and on...

There are so many holes in the U.S. constitution... it's such an old document and it's notoriously hard to amend, so much of our time today is spent interpreting the "original intent" of the founding fathers, as if that has any relevance today, hundreds of years later in a vastly different social, technological, and political environment.

Your original question was about whether protests in a democracy are ethical, but as you can see there are many subtleties involved. Are all countries labeled as democracies actually democracies, and do their laws perfectly mirror the will of the people? When someone is protesting, does that necessarily mean what they are protesting against does not align with what the general population wants? While people may have an understanding of what they want, do people always know what's truly in their own best interest?

The reason we cherish free speech in America is because our founding fathers understood that communication and public discourse are healthy and productive ways to raise grievances and spread awareness of issues, which hopefully (eventually) leads to the resolution of those issues. They understood that the laws of the government may not necessarily always align with the will of the people, and established the first amendment for that very reason — to protect people's right to speech as well as their right to protest (though neither are unilateral — there are certain kinds of speech that are not protected, just as large protests that obstruct roadways generally need to follow certain permitting rules to occur).

You were right though when you mentioned protests as 'negative feedback'. In a very real sense, protests are the barometer of a healthy society.

If a society is healthy and functioning well, you would expect everyone to be cared for equally and their needs met, thus no one would have anything to complain about. When people aren't cared for or treated fairly and equally, that's when you get protests and people speaking out. Of course, some countries have few protests because their authoritarian governments harshly suppress such activities, but in a typical pseudo-democracy like America, protests are a sure sign that something is not right with our country, for one reason or another.

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Protests happen for various reasons and the number of people participating is not always indicative of the actual appeal of the central issue of the protest.

People also have various reasons for not participating actively in protests even though they agree with the matter.

So number of protesters is not always indicative of appeal in the general population.

For example, during the first austerity measures in Greece, only a few thousands actively protested in the central square of the capital, although it is widely admitted that the vast majority of the population agreed (something that later became clear in a referendum).

With this out of the way, lets talk about democracy.

Democracy is not equivalent to tyranny of the majority. Majority (or any authority) cannot decide anything conceivable about others or some affairs. For example it would be absurd if majority decided what you want to have for dinner or what shoe size to wear.

Moreover what is majority can change and different views should have same chance of becoming majority.

Since majority is not predetermined, this means everyone has same chance, same right, to propagandize a view as the next person.

This (and other rights) cannot be taken away from the minorities (at a given instant) without at the same time abolishing the founding principles democracy is based on (regardless if officially acknowledged as such or not).

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Attempts to decide what is ethical or unethical can be quite difficult. Kant spilled a lot of ink trying to lay out a system for establishing the categorical imperative of his deontological framework. Some ethicists believe the situation or context of an action determine what is ethical. Virtue ethicists hitch their claims about what is ethical to moral virtue. Pragmatists see the question of ethics from an entirely distinct lens.

Note, that each of these ethical positions are a function of one's metaphysics andaxiology. From WP:

Axiology (from Greek ἀξία, axia: "value, worth"; and -λογία, -logia: "study of") is the philosophical study of value. It includes questions about the nature and classification of values and about what kinds of things have value. It is intimately connected with various other philosophical fields that crucially depend on the notion of value, like ethics, aesthetics or philosophy of religion. It is also closely related to value theory and meta-ethics. The term was first used by Paul Lapie, in 1902, and Eduard von Hartmann, in 1908.

For some, one's system of government and ethical beliefs may be disconnected. Democracy, as a matter of fact, is a broad category that extends from small, direct democracies (like a board room) to larger republics where representation is indirect. As a general rule, contemporary democracies often advocate liberalism which generally includes the right to protest. In fact, one form of protest actually advocates not only opposing the majority at times, but breaking laws. This is known as civil disobedience. From WP:

Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal of a citizen to obey certain laws, demands, orders or commands of a government (or any other authority). By some definitions,[specify] civil disobedience has to be nonviolent to be called "civil". Hence, civil disobedience is sometimes equated with peaceful protests or nonviolent resistance.

A classic example of this sort of protest was the resistance of African-Americans to Jim Crow segregation in the 1960's in the US. The Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote a treaty advocating civil disobedience. As is often the case, immoral laws create ethical problems, even if passed by majorities. This sort of resistance is a way to point out abuses of the tyranny of the majority.

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    So your answer is essentially "the question is illframed ", but even in the ambiguity could there be any chance of a general answer be given? Jun 9 at 17:20
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    I think there is no logical necessity between a system of government requiring a system of ethics, however, systems of government are generally based off political philosophies which are predisposed to types of broad ethical precepts...
    – J D
    Jun 9 at 17:32
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    The driver of democracy historically is recognizing the rights of the individuals of a society broadly, and therefore rights concomitant with individual rights like speech, assembly, press, petition, and association tend to inhere to the cultures that have such a government. That's why imposing democracies on authoritarian cultures fail over and over. If people are moral absolutist then their intolerance of individual dissent undermines both thd right to protest as well as the right for suffrage.
    – J D
    Jun 9 at 17:35
  • It's a correlation.
    – J D
    Jun 9 at 17:36
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    Oh, I call that the Dinner Menu: "What's for dinner?" "Well, you have 2 choices tonight!" "What are they?" "Dinner is on the table, you can take it or leave it." Much of life amounts to just that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 9 at 19:46
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Protesting = speech

(Roughly speaking.)

So yes, protesting is compatible* with democracy and doesn't in principle violate any democratic principles (assuming you consider the same to be true about speaking up about issues).

There isn't much more to it.

By protesting you're making your voice heard on a particular issue, both towards the politicians making the decision, as well as the general public (who may change their mind as a result of the protest). This is a fundamental part of trying to get everyone as informed as possible and making sure politicians know what the general public wants.

If those who disagree feel strongly enough, they can counter-protest or express their disagreement in other ways.

* Similar to what others have noted, I wouldn't necessarily say protesting is "ethical" (nor unethical), as you asked, because democracy is a system of government, not a moral framework. A moral framework is necessary for ethics to come into play (although some may consider democracy itself to be ethical).

... except when protesting isn't speech

As soon as protests start e.g. blocking roads or harassing politicians at their homes (or they turn into riots), this is no longer simply an expression of free speech, and may violate democratic principles.

Some possible justifications for such protests may be:

  • The democracy has failed in this regard and the politicians aren't enacting the will of the people. This justification would ideally be supported by some concrete data, such as a poll showing that the majority of people disagree with what a politician is doing (otherwise you may indeed just have the few overriding the will of the many by force).

  • A decision is just a moral atrocity. In such case the argument is more in terms of good and evil, which may trump whether something is strictly democratic according to some (and the protest may or may not also be supported by the majority).

  • A decision is attacking democracy itself. If most people think a certain group of people should not be allowed to vote, this may apply.

* "politician" here may include any governmental or judicial decision maker, whether directly elected or not.

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Taken absolutely, democracy means that every public policy should be determined by the preferences of the majority on each particular issue. In other words, each policy issue should follow the preference of the median voter with respect to that issue. (This assumes that policy preferences can be ordered so that the median exists.)

The preferences of a minority on the subject would not matter, nor would the average policy preference (assuming real-valued policy preferences so that the mean exists). And especially, this means that no weighted average would matter, where voter weights might be amplified by strength of opinion, level of "expertise", access to wealth / resources, or ability to organize.

Of course, no such political system exists in the world today. Lobbying amplifies according to the first and third factors above. Activism (including protests) amplifies according to the first and fourth factors above. Bureaucracy and technocracy amplify by the second, third, and fourth factors.

Are these (extremely common!) violations of absolute democracy unethical? They (and thus, protests) would be unethical if (and only if) the promulgation of absolute democracy were an absolute deontological moral duty for every individual. I know of no moral philosopher, political philosopher, or even regular person, who has ever made a formal case for such a moral principle. Of course, such a moral principle could still be true! But without providing an argument for such a principle, it is unreasonable to expect others to be persuaded to live according to it, and to deny themselves the power of protest.

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  • Maybe we should settle that question first?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 12 at 12:50
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The initial question is very interesting to ponder about but the way you boil protests down here is lacking in nuance. One point I would like to particullarly point out is this.

...in reality what is happening is a small group of people showing some sort of negative feedback to the whole population and system which doesn't follow their type philosophy.

From this statement, one would assume that any protest is by it's very definition negative feedback, but the writing of it makes it sound as that is something bad.

Feedback is invaluable and a necessity for growth. Consider the places in which feedback is provided. Whether that is at work, in a university or in your private life. The feedback in these places, as long as it is constructive, is not given in order to accomplish the goal of changing philosophies but right the wrongs and hopefully improve upon the things that are already good.

It is not unlikely that you may know someone that is grateful towards the feedback they received at some point in their life because it helped them grow in some way or the other. These people can attest that providing and receiving feedback can help anyone involved and isn't simply someone shoving their beliefs down the throat of another.

In regards to politics, how can you provide feedback to the large entity that is the government? Peaceful mass disobedience is one of the best ways available to us to make a change.

It is something that has proven itself time and time again and are part of the reason why we enjoy many liberties that our grandfathers didn't a meager 40 years ago. Women didn't get their rights by sitting idly by and voting once every 4 years to hope that the next candidate will ensure to represent their rights. Black people didn't wait until basic human rights would someday magically be granted to them. They all took to the streets, made their voices be heard and the people that led these movements such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi are now important historical figures that have improved the lifes of billions of people many years down the line.

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I mean that depends highly on how you protest and what that protest is meant to accomplish.

Like what you seem to have in mind is that a minority of protestors forces the government to do something in their favor, thereby getting around the necessity for a majority or even consensus affirmation of consent.

And the thing is whether that is unethical or not kinda depends on what they are asking for. Like do they want privileges or is the system as-is so unbearable that it needs to change as soon as possible? Well in the former case you could argue about it being unethical and the latter you might even argue that the system is unethical while the action is just necessary.

However what that would be is "undemocratic". Because you shifted the sovereign of the country, which in a democracy should be the people, to whatever group is actually making the rules of the game, either explicitly (the government) or implicitly (whatever lobbying group has the most influence on them).

And contrary to popular believe voting =/= democracy. Voting is usually a democratic act because the legitimization for any ruling comes from the people, who are thus the ones who make or break a government. And that is usually done without making preferences among them so that no individual has more power, which would defeat the ideal of democracy, because that person would rule rather than the people.

But if it were just a vote then democracy would end right after the election. Because after that the person/group in charge would no longer be the people but the government. So ideally any power that a government holds is just the ability to speak with the multitude of voices that gave them their trust. Or ideally not even their trust but their mandate to do a certain thing that they promised to do. Which is often conveniently forgotten after the election.

And conversely who could hold them accountable and revoke that trust and mandate. Otherwise the power would come from the institution not the people. Usually you might have rules and regulations in your constitutions or whatnot to impeach a government, demand reelections, sue them or whatnot.

Also often there are 2 ways to interpret representative democracy, one way is that the people are able to chose their representatives, the other is that the representatives are the ones to actually practice democracy. Like they have these regular plenum meetings, the discussions, negotiations and votes on what should be done on the issues, that you would expect from a real, direct, no adjective democracy.

So whether that counts as a "real" democracy is something that you can hotly debate. It has some features that are undemocratic like institutionalized power and free mandates (voting a person, not their policies and not being able to return them before time) on the other hand compared with other systems it's usually still more democratic than many other systems, so one often agrees on grouping in somewhere in the spectrum of democracy.

Anyway back to protesting. So first of all this forcing the government to do something overriding consent is hardly the only thing that can be accomplished by protest and many protestors don't even dream of getting there that easy. Like first of all it's just raising awareness of certain points. And if that creates a discussion about the issue, then that is perfectly valid within the scope of democracy.

Though it opens a whole different can of worms in terms of who has a right to attention. Is advertisement unethical, is placating every free space with ads unethical, are demonstrations and protests unethical, are public speeches unethical, is broadcasting unethical. Generally speaking there's nothing wrong with it and being able to hear different voices and being able to gather your information freely is a prerequisite to making an informed decision which is the basis for having a truly democratic process. Otherwise the one controlling the information shapes the narrative and is ruling, not the people.

And so usually democracies try to make that as free and accessible as possible to everybody, but there are still elements that are tricky. So who is allowed to get "in your face" with their narrative and who isn't. Who's got the time and resources for that? Are those equally distributed? If you have them all just write up their stuff and drop it somewhere, who's providing the search&sort function algorithms that almost inevitably favor one thing over another? Like people naming their kid AAron cause of the alphabetic advantage and shit like that.

So yes there are a ton of pitfalls as to what can be used to subvert the ideal of a democracy. Though at the same time you kinda need mechanism to petition and raise awareness for problems, because given that the state of democracy is hardly perfect, that is also vital to become aware of these pitfalls and patch them.

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However, if one really thinks about it, in reality what is happening is a small group of people showing some sort of negative feedback to the whole population and system which doesn't follow their type philosophy.

Couldn't you say that about just about any kind of speech that disagrees with the majority, though? Any time someone gives a speech, writes a book, or publishes a letter to the editor, they're forming a very small group (themselves) that is giving negative feedback to the whole population that doesn't follow their philosophy. You could even say that about your own question - you're a very small group (consisting of one person) who is disagreeing with a practice that you admit that most people agree with.

So really, this argument proves too much because by that logic no one would ever be allowed to disagree with the majority.

To make things even more fun, you could also say "which majority?" For example, most people used to believe that the sun revolved around the earth, but now only conspiracy theorists believe that. So, anyone who disagreed with the majority then agree with the majority now and vice versa.

Finally, others have pointed this out already, but:

... because if then they'd have to change it by voting and through the process.

Free speech (including protest) is the process - in a democracy, you get changes to happen by persuading other people that they ought to be made. Protest is just one type of free speech to help bring that about.

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When Europe had democracies that were barred to female voters, it was ethical for the women to demonstrate. It achieved a different result than a purely written protest.

Protest is a basic right for established democratic countries because it was historically useful.

Democracy is also a label like "environmentally friendly"... which is used by petrol companies (Shell/BP) and ethical companies alike. It's fallible.

Protest is most ethical in faulty democracies with deeper societal problems and less necessary for an idealized democratic technocracies where the democratic ideals of upholding popular opinion are the most stringently privileged.

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You’re right, protests are unethical in a perfect democracy, where people actually have equal influence regardless of their wealth and privileges, and are all adequately informed on all voting topics.

Unfortunately this is not the case, so I’d say protests are ethical.

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    why would it be unethical? protests are also a way to show that an issue is more important than others, rallying for support. People have different priorities, even in a "perfect democracy", whatever that criterion actually entails. Not agreeing with the majority is not undemocratic in any case.
    – Chieron
    Jun 10 at 12:19
  • @Chieron it was tongue-in-cheek. Guess it was too hard to comprehend. Jun 10 at 14:10

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