Law in Contemporary Society

Another Lesson from John Brown

-- By AnthonyTiberio - 15 May 2012

John Brown exemplifies courage. John Brown also exemplifies unbridled courage. Fortunately, unbridled courage can be mitigated with a dose of self-reflection and self-doubt.

We would be wise follow John Brown’s lead in adhering to and defending our core values when faced with strong opposition; yet, there is an important qualification. We cannot become too convinced that we are correct in all aspects of our core values and belief system. Listening to the worries of others and being sensitive to new information and alternative perspectives is essential to making the proper revisions to our beliefs and values in order to put ourselves in the best position possible to choose the best means to bring about and defend those values. This requires being open to self-revision. Being able to revise and supplement one’s values and belief system, in turn, requires some degree of self-doubt. We are forced to do a difficult task: simultaneously cling to our core values while also revising them in light of new circumstances and new information. Performing this balancing act is difficult. While John Brown did not perform this balancing act perfectly, he did have the courage to confront society’s poor values. The next step for us (i.e. where we can learn from his imperfections) is to also have the courage to self-edit our own values and beliefs via the possession of some self-doubt.

John Brown is well-deserving of respect for his courage. He refused to passively acquiesce to the fact that persons were bound to others as property. Many people recognized the injustice, but many were in denial or simply chose to wait to rectify it. He forced these people to slip further into their denial, to rationalize their complacency, or, in some, to reevaluate their attitudes.

Coupled with his courage, however, was his zeal. While not necessarily a shortcoming, his attitude was indicative of a myopic fanaticism that appeared to leave him too confident in his methods. In fact, he is often portrayed this way and is how many remember him. Of course, by itself, this is an oversimplified and an unfair characterization, but it does contain some semblance of truth. He was not irrational or insane, as he is often portrayed, but his attitude implied that there was no presence of some degree of self-doubt in his methods. This is concern for pause. Taking lives as a means to achieving a beneficial result is almost always a risky bet since it is almost always very hard to predict whether or not your intended aim will in fact result. That is, even if the end that would justify the means if the means were successful, as a matter of fact, it is very difficult to know whether the means will be successful. In this case, it is entirely unclear that emulation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s or Gandhi’s nonviolent, peaceful style of civil disobedience would not have achieved the same or even better results. John Brown was rightfully frustrated by this possible approach because he wanted immediate “action!” Rather than aiming to end slavery altogether, John Brown simply aimed to save as many particular slaves as he could. This, he thought, required taking up arms. Perhaps this was so, but he could not have been so confident, and epistemically justified in being so confident, that it was better to attempt to free some individuals (using arms) rather than aiming at a bigger picture solution via nonviolent means – and this justifiable confidence seems needed in order to use the threat of death and killing as a means.

It might be unfair to label his killing of particular slave-owners as a means to freeing particular slaves rather than as a foreseen, unintended consequence of trying to free those particular slaves. This is probably true; yet, this is a side issue. Whether or not one views his killing either as a means or as an unintended but foreseen consequence of his actions is irrelevant to whether or not it would have been better to manifest some expression of self-reflection and self-doubt in the means he chose. While self-doubt is seen as a weakness, and self-confidence essential, for a leader in combat, we can still question whether combat was appropriate in the first place. This is why we pity those who have fought for frivolous causes, even though they did so in a way that a leader in combat ought to have done qua ‘leader in combat.’

Whether or not the killing was a means or was merely foreseen, John Brown knew that serious harm could result from his attempt to free particular slaves. If he did not know this, then he was not deserving of the level of courage that we typically assign to him because courage requires a perceived risk. Since he probably knew that serious harm was likely to occur to not only himself but to others as well, a higher level of self-doubt is apt.

By focusing on the moral status of his action to free particular slaves with the use of force, we are not missing the lesson of John Brown. Properly emulating John Brown’s courage to confront grave instances of injustice, which is hopefully our goal, requires not only having courage in the first place but also requires asking ourselves: how am I going to bring about an end to particular instances of injustice? This requires development and frequent revision of one’s values through careful, honest, and thoughtful reflection. Taking the appropriate action to remedy a wrong requires understanding of the nature and severity of the wrong, knowing the possible courses of actions available, knowing how the courses of actions might achieve the intended result and at what cost, and then weighing the considerations together in order to determine the best possible courses of actions.


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r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:48 - IanSullivan
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