In August of this year, Ferguson, Missouri, found itself in a state of mayhem after the murder of 18 year old Michael Brown. Ferguson now, for the second time this year, has descended into total chaos following a grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson for any charges. This decision has not only lead to widespread riots in Ferguson, but also protests across the country in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Oakland. This issue is extremely difficult and multifaceted, and analyzing the situation from the perspectives of John Stuart Mill and John Locke evinces this complexity.
When examining the situation in Ferguson, the question of whether they are justified necessarily arises. After all, the protesting of Michael Brown’s murder has not been peaceful or consequence free, as several cars have been torched and businesses have been vandalized. Ironically, these protests seem to be, in a sense, counterproductive, as many of the destroyed businesses in Ferguson are minority owned. Thus, if we analyze the Ferguson riots from the perspective of John Stuart Mill, the people of Ferguson are undoubtedly harmed because their ability to pursue life as before is significantly curtailed. Are these riots justified if they are harming people, especially if it harms those who are meant to benefit the most? Not only would Mill thus see the riots as harmful, but because they are other regarding, they should be punished. It seems Mill would not support the outrage in Ferguson.
If we consider Ferguson through the lens of another political scientist, John Locke, we again see a potential condemnation of these riots. This is clear in his conception of tacit consent–the idea that citizens give their consent to be governed simply by living on government territory. Though the people of Ferguson are outraged with their government, they have, by living in Ferguson, consented to be governed by the local authorities. They have given their tacit consent to governance. Thus, despite their frustration, they are obligated to fulfill their social contract and obey the laws, something they are not doing.
Notwithstanding the seeming clarity of our previous analysis, both political thinkers can also be analyzed in such a way that supports the protests. Mill, it is important to consider that he is a utilitarian–believing that what is best is that which produces maximum aggregate goodness. According to Mill, outcome is more important than intention when evaluating the morality of an action. Thus, if these protests end up producing greater goodness and equality they could be justified.
Moreover, despite the clear disregard of tacit consent illustrated in Ferguson, John Locke‘s opinion on the matter is unclear, and this ambiguity emerges from his beliefs on the state of nature. His philosophy permits revolution because he believes humans in the state of nature are all equal and that government exists only to protect the rights they already had in the state. Thus, the people of Ferguson have the right to break their social contract if the government deprives them of their rights (which the government may or may not have done).
The situation in Ferguson is extremely delicate and complex, and analyzing it through the perspectives of Mill and Locke demonstrates this lack of clarity.