Why We Need a Just Rebellion Theory

| January 2014
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While broad political support was voiced for uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, the responses to protests in Bahrain and Morocco were muted. The swift decision to intervene in Libya stands in marked contrast to the ongoing hand-wringing on Syria. While political realists might see these contradictions as evidence that geopolitical concerns determine foreign policy, from an ethical point of view these responses also reveal a fundamental tension in Western thinking about rebellion. On one hand, rebellion is viewed with a distrustful eye—as a disruptive, chaotic force that threatens to destroy the day-to-day order on which civilization is built. On the other, rebellion is perceived more optimistically—as a regenerative, creative force that can leave a better civilization in its wake. These two radically disparate ways of thinking about rebellion have deep philosophical and theological roots. The pessimistic view has historically dominated just war thought, as James Turner Johnson’s contribution to this roundtable illustrates; whereas the perspective of Enlightenment liberalism offers a more optimistic judgment, as found, for example, in the works of Locke and Rousseau.

Because these two influential streams of thought are in such tension with each other, our thinking about rebellion in the West tends to be piecemeal, driven more by gut reactions than by philosophical reasoning and careful political analysis. As a result, our responses to rebellion are scattered, unpredictable, and unfortunately often tragically misplaced.

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Category: Issue 27.4, Roundtable: The Ethics of Rebellion

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