Leonard Higgins recently was convicted up in Montana for shutting off an emergency valve on an oil pipeline. As he explained in an Oregonian op-ed, "the climate emergency necessitated our closing of the emergency valves." Months earlier, Higgins and several allies had appeared before a Corvallis audience which gave them ovations. I was astounded by these ovations, which brought back interesting memories to me.
I remembered Edmund Burke, who noted when the French Revolution broke out that the French people were now free to do as they pleased but warned that before applauding people should wait and see what it pleased them to do. Later, of course, tens of thousands were killed, starting with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
I remembered a movie from the early 1970s: "Dr. Cook's Garden." It was in an isolated village, which had only one doctor and was incredibly nice, a virtual utopia. It transpired that Dr. Cook, regarding the town as his garden, for decades had weeded it by systematically poisoning all the bad residents. In courts, punishment can be inflicted only after someone is been convicted of a crime based on evidence beyond any reasonable doubt. But Dr. Cook felt free to kill anyone he believed — rightly or wrongly — might do something bad.
Then I recalled a Detroit crack house which police were unwilling or unable to shut down. Some neighbors took up a collection, bought a can of gasoline, and burned the house down. Problem solved! They freely admitted what they had done. When they were brought to trial I joked with my students that they could sue their lawyers for malpractice if they were convicted. But they weren't convicted.
As the crack house arson case suggests, it is easy to sympathize when private actors do something illegal in pursuit of a goal we regard as a good one. So perhaps I should not have been astounded by the ovations for the people who shut down the pipelines. After all, their goal was to prevent destruction of our planet's climate by the combustion of fossil fuels, a very important goal.
But do we really want to applaud vigilante “justice?” Do we want to live in a world where private individuals, frustrated because government has not punished something they believe should be punished, are free to inflict punishment themselves?
Let me just recite a few examples of actual vigilantism: Lynchings. Killing of a doctor who performs abortions. Destruction of laboratories by people who object to the use of animals in medical research. Armed seizure of government facilities over in Eastern Oregon. Assassinations of political leaders. Terrorists who object to U.S. foreign policy by killing randomly selected crowds of people.
We live in a free country. Opponents of fossil fuels are free to try to persuade people to stop using them and to persuade governments to make their use less attractive (as with a carbon tax with dividend) or even illegal. But they are going too far if they sabotage perfectly legal pipelines. They need to remember the implications of Kant's “categorical imperative,” namely that we should act according to principles such that we would be willing for everybody else to act on the basis of the same principles.
When we think about it we probably don't want to endorse a principle that it is OK for private groups to use force against people whose legal actions they think ought to be illegal. Before we give standing ovations out lightly, we need to remember what the road to hell proverbially is paved with.