The Philosophy of Social Movements

I’ve been doing a lot of work studying social movements and philosophy. Being that I study philosophy and social justice, I try to connect them a lot, and I find social movements really interesting because they rely a lot on the concepts of human nature, community, and political philosophy and ethics. Under the cut is a very rough paper outlining some of my thoughts about modern social movements as seen through some different philosophical lenses.

Since the 1960s, the United States has seen many movements for civil rights, but none quite as big as those that fight for the end of systemic and institutionalized racism. In more recent times, though, these movements have become less effective because of disorganization, lack of competent leadership, lack of a unified end-goal, and a great misunderstanding of how to use the standing structures in society to help their message rather than hurt it. I believe, though, that looking of the philosophy of Eric Mack, Socrates, John Rawls, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, the new civil rights movements can find ways to create a new model that revolves less around protest and more around understanding human nature and working within the status quo. These philosophers all present ideas that the civil rights movement would ultimately benefit from: finding ways to change mentality, appealing to the sense of individualism, changing tone and rhetoric, changing how people learn about racism, and learning to utilize white allies in different ways through proving beneficial to their flourishing. Through explaining the philosophy of those listed above, I will show that the modern civil rights movement should focus more on using individual flourishing as a means of equity instead of traditional forms of protest.

I am going to first explain how Socrates’s idea of persuasion as drawn out in Plato’s Crito as a form of protest would be most effective. Martin Luther King, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” says that mere persuasion, while keeping the peace, would ultimately not serve to fix injustice and oppression will not be corrected. He says this would only serve to benefit the privileged and continue the status quo. I believe, though, that persuasion as a form of protest actually addresses ignorance as the root of injustice because persuasion aims to educate the privileged. Persuasion can actually help create allies out of people who were once ignorant, and having the privileged class as an ally is extremely beneficial in getting the extremely intolerant to listen to the plight of the oppressed. It can also be said that Socrates’s idea of persuasion as a form of protest can end up using the rhetoric and laws of the state against itself. If people go and actively break laws- unjust or not- you’re bound to have the ignorant privileged class stereotype protesters as criminals which will only hinder the process of fixing injustice. Turning protesters into educators is what will change hearts and minds.

We can see that pushing the government to change laws to “create” or “promote equality” ultimately lead to some kind of conservative push-back. This is because, instead of educating people about oppression and the many forms of racism, the word “racist” is thrown about as a personal attack and seen as something a person is instead of a mentality people perpetuate that can bleed into our institutions. An institution here is defined as: 1. a stable, valued, recurring pattern of behavior and 2. a structure or mechanism of social order that governs the behaviors of a certain community. These institutions can be formal (government, schooling) or informal (the media, certain laws.)

It is not enough, then, that anyone says they want to end systemic and institutional racism and create equality. That is because- even though we may define institutions and even when we can see how these institutions perpetuate racism- it is hard to define equality, and even harder to discuss the differences between equality and equity. Equality is providing the same institutions to people of color and white people. But equity would be providing those institutions and have them be of the same quality. For example, many schools in neighborhoods that are inhabited by mostly people of color underperform as compared to their white counterparts. The schools lack equal resources, have higher turnover rates, get less funding, and so on. This can help perpetuate the stereotype that students of color under-perform because they are somehow genetically and biologically inferior. That is why Socrates’s method of education and persuasion would work, though. If true equity would entail basic rights and economic and social advantage, i.e. schools to be very good, the hospitals to function, unimpeachable and fair access to the law, and decent housing for everyone, then the goal of the civil rights movement would not be to protest laws, but to fix the mentalities that stop the laws that attempt to create equity from working in the first place through a proper education. This seems to be the view of John Rawls, at least.

Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has a basis in the idea of justice as fairness, and details something called the “veil of ignorance.” Under this veil of ignorance, one would be able to stand at an original position and stop judging people by status, occupation, wealth, et cetera. This would allow people to make decisions without bias or predisposed advantage. Someone looking through this veil who was enacting laws, let’s say, would enact laws that would benefit everyone equally because they wouldn’t be coming from a place of advantage. Rawls asks that people step outside of their upbringing and economic status and think of a society where none of that matters. He says those things are purely luck, and no one does anything to deserve that luck. He says the same of skin color- that it is merely a thing of luck or chance and should not benefit nor disadvantage someone because no one earned their skin color or the treatment they receive because of it.

Rawls would be a huge proponent of affirmative action and even possibly reparations. In his book, he talks a bit about the principle of redress. He says we need to redress the bias of contingencies in the direction of equality. In order to treat all persons equally, society must pay more attention to those who unfairly and undeservedly were born into less favorable social positions and have fewer assets. Rawls isn’t saying to create complete equality. Rather, he is saying inequality is permissible as long as the well being of the least advantaged groups is maximized through providing equal opportunities and allowing for people to gain back their human dignity.

I would even go far as to say that people who are morally opposed to these ideas of redress only feel that way because they are unable to see themselves in the position of the people who need help because of their social and economic standing. Many white people in the lower class do not believe in white privilege, for instance, because they may see people of color who have more wealth, but they are unable to truly understand the other types of benefits they receive because of their white skin- benefits they perceive as things they deserve. White privilege is a complicated thing to define without first looking at how minorities are perceived. Minorities face stereotypes that portray them as lazy, aggressive, primitive, useless, and other negative attributes. Because of these stereotypes, it is harder to assimilate, find a job (often times just because of an “ethnic name”), get an equal education, or be treated equally in the eyes of the law. Minorities are told to go back to their country if they speak in their native tongue, don their traditional garb, or complain about life being difficult (this is specific to what I’ve seen in the U.S.) We see in the media that young black men are portrayed and directly called thugs because of what they choose to wear, leading to more stereotypes, pre-judgment, and harsh treatment. Many are stopped by police who expect them to be criminals. Now, understanding this, I would like to define white privilege as the absence of these things. That is to say, white privilege is being able to appropriate cultures without facing the usual consequences, having an easier time finding a job, having an easier time in a disproportionately better school, and it means that stereotypes about your race do not have real-life consequences.

The issue of privilege is much deeper than skin color. It is also about what white people are perceived as being, even when they aren’t visible to you, much in the case of a digital job application. We are seen as more hardworking, less violent, more intelligent, more highly skilled, and more professional. White people may say that we didn’t ask to be perceived this way, and now it more of a burden to us, but in reality, despite not asking for these things or realizing that they exist, many of us still benefit from them, even when we are economically disadvantaged. In a way, it’s easier to say the privilege doesn’t exist because if we do acknowledge that it is something to be rectified, then we end up having to level a playing field that has benefitted us time and time again. We’ve historically stereotyped black men as aggressive, hyper-masculine, and primitive, and then use these stereotypes to stop them in the streets because we’ve become afraid of the very things we’ve created. We have stereotyped the black youth as lazy, unconcerned, and unintelligent, but when they are accepted to universities, they are told they only got in because of affirmative action programs and quotes, and not of their own merit or value.

White people tend not to understand this because they don’t see it happening to them in their daily lives. If nothing is really happening to you, you can’t really address it, and so when it happens to someone else, you almost instinctually believe they must have done something to deserve it. That, to me, has been the mindset of many people who ignore their privilege while they see blatant racism. Their arguments tend to be that black people kill each other, and that police also kill white people, and that all lives matter, and that someone got into college unfairly just because they were black. They think the small things the government uses to try to even the playing field becomes an unfair advantage that people of color have over white people. I also think one of the hardest things to do for white people when talking about privilege is be objective or even imagine how their lives might be different as a black individual. As it’s a lack of discrimination towards us, we really have no valid experiences with racism, systemic or otherwise.

Many white people also perpetuate- or benefit from- the idea that people of color who utilize government assistance are abusing the system or not working hard enough to support themselves. This creates an idea that these people don’t deserve assistance, and thus don’t deserve the dignity that comes with being able to support oneself and one’s family. This goes even further in perpetuating the idea that if someone is unable to support him or herself through his or her work, it is because he or she isn’t working hard enough, or or if someone can not find a job, it is because they aren’t looking hard enough. These ideas are extremely harmful, especially to people of color, because they allow people to continue thinking that if you work hard enough, you will somehow be rewarded, and that nothing happens because of luck or chance. Rawls would say that these very ideas are what keep perpetuating the levels of inequality we see today, especially in the white/people of color dichotomy.

Rawls says that the “only just standard is the judgment of society as to what admissions criteria are most likely to promote equality.” In the same vain, people find that the argument for something like reparations unfairly promotes the taking of money from those who have earned it and giving it to people who may not need it or spend it to achieve their own equality; or the idea that affirmative action takes a job or spot in college admissions from someone deserving and gives it to someone of color who may not have been given the spot solely based on merit. Rawls would say that these arguments do not matter, as those who have less only have less because of things they had no control over, and those who have more benefit from a system of racial and socioeconomic inequality without their deserving it.

Without understanding of these key concepts, people involved in the movement for equity are unable to create goals that would actually benefit them long-term. Essentially, making the case for reparations and affirmative action is fine, and wanting to change laws to help promote equity is a great thing. That being said, changing laws will not change the mentalities of people or get them to see why things need to be changed and even get them to accept those reasons. Educating people is so very crucial when it comes to the movement for racial equality.  I would say we need to rely on education before action. You can’t get people to mobilize for change if they don’t really understand what they’re changing and especially why it should be changed. I think that the first thing to do is show people that equality doesn’t take anything away from them. Not having privilege doesn’t take away any opportunities, it just gives some more to others. I think that this really needs to be made a point, especially talking to white people about equality, because in reality, this is the group that really need to be educated because it is the group in control of many of this country’s institutions. This will not only create some allies, but those allies can use their own privilege to change the way institutions perpetuate oppression of people of color and bring the fight for equity into majority-white spaces.

These institutions and majority-white spaces are crucial if any movement is going to succeed. One problem is that we have two different types of racial discrimination and are really only ever taught about one. De jure discrimination means “of the law” and is discrimination enacted through law by the government, while de facto discrimination means “by the facts” and occurs through social interaction. De jure and de facto discrimination are both forms of racial prejudice, but we really only ever consider de facto. As a matter of fact, when most people think about the definition of racism, they think of it as “person A discriminates against person B because of his or her skin color” and this isn’t exactly true. While that’s a part of racism, racial discrimination goes much further; we see it in housing policies, the way certain communities are policed, the way people are jailed, the way schools are funded, etc. If we are truly going to create equity, we need to face that it is not just about individuals, but about an entire system build on oppression perpetuated by laws, widely believed stereotypes, the rhetoric of some people in power, and so on. Reparations and changes in law to promote some kind of equality do not actually equate to true equity in the long run because they will do literally no good until the mentality of white people is changed, because then and only then will the white/PoC dichotomy change for the better and not see racism reflected in our institutions.

I would now like to discuss the ideas of Thomas Hobbes as the perspective of the conservative, non-ally white man in modern society. Essentially, in Leviathan, Hobbes says that everyone feels a sense of entitlement and will fight to keep what they see as their own. He says we enter in a social contract because otherwise we would exist in a constant state of war. In this world Hobbes speaks of, there is only uncertainty because all humans will be irrational. Humans become defensive and do whatever they want without regard for consequence. There is a constant fear that people will kill or take from you, and so in Hobbes’s argument, humans choose to steal and kill first so that it doesn’t happen to them, and they fight to the death to try to protect what’s theirs. I would say that this sense of entitlement and ownership is what keeps people from seeing the possible overall benefits of and reasons behind things like affirmative action and reparations. People feel that they are deserving of everything they receive, and once it is their, they will fight so it is not taken away. They may even believe this of things that they only see as their own, like a certain job or a spot at a college. Some of these things are intangible and subconscious, as well. Because people feel as if they’ve earned all of the things given to them- no matter how unjustly or luckily- they would be less willing to admit that those things maybe shouldn’t be theirs to begin with and especially less willing to give up the power that might come from their socioeconomic or even political standing. Because it isn’t acceptable to go and be violent over these things, the most entitled white men in society have taken positions of institutional power and used them to hinder black people from ever being truly equal.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, offers up a much nicer point- we are only the way we are because of society, and in reality we would be living in a state of peace if not for the social structures we have built or continued to follow/perpetuate (A Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind.) Rousseau says that as society advances, people will always find new ways to judge or value/devalue others. Rousseau challenges Hobbes’s conclusions that humans naturally exist in a state of desire and war by clarifying that humans are surrounded by these conditions and must adhere to them, but these conditions are not human nature. When we stop living just with the things we need to survive, we end up having excess, which may result in some people lacking necessities. Eventually, people will want what you have and you will defend it even though you don’t need it. Eventually you start to think of yourself as better than others, even when you didn’t deserve or even need what you have to begin with. This isn’t a natural state but a learned behavior. What we end up with is people seeing the value in excess and luxury rather than the value of nature being able to provide enough for everyone to survive comfortably and contentedly.

When we brought race into the mix, we essentially told people that they were better and had more value solely because of their skin color. This allowed people to profit off of the idea of racism- since it was essentially a way to divide slaves and the peasant-class white people who were first brought to this country. As time went on, though, white people continued to benefit off of that system and, even as the entire society advanced, we still see gross inequalities based off of skin color. Because we’ve allowed this belief to go on for so long, white people now actually believe that they have more intrinsic value, even if that is deep in their subconscious. White people continue to own and profit off of the majority of resources in society. White people will profit off of the racial inequalities that exist between themselves and black people, and then continue to make black people and other people of color dependent upon them, especially through the use of government assistance programs (people of color, especially those with non-American names, tend to have less success with finding jobs). When a person of color can’t find a job for a long period of time and needs to support his or her family, he or she may choose to use a government assistance program. The more people of color can’t find jobs because of discrimination, the more end up utilizing these programs, and the more the stereotypes surrounding these people continue to exist and get passed on.

In his article Poverty vs. Democracy in America, journalist Daniel Weeks says that the politicians upon whom many impoverished citizens rely do not rely anymore on those citizens, as most lobbying and fundraising is done through the wealthy. He goes on to say that poverty is so persistent in society because millions of impoverished people have become silenced in the political sphere. Statistics show that many impoverished people of the voting age choose not to vote because they don’t feel as if their voices are being listened to. As a matter of fact, studies indicate that non-voters are much more liberal than voters, and would vote for fairer wealth distribution than those who do choose to vote. In a study done by professors William Franko, Nathan Kelly, and Christopher Witko, findings showed that in states where there were smaller voting gaps between the wealthy and poor, policies tended to favor the poor more, states had “higher minimum wages, stricter lending laws and more generous health benefits” than states that had a higher voting disparity. Even further than being just a class issue, though, this has become a huge issue between whites and non-whites.

According to the United States Elections Project, black voters tend to show up between 10 and 20% less for elections when they feel as if their votes don’t count. Black people are far less likely to participate in the political sphere, partly because of their race and also because of the economic implications that come with their race. The disparity in income between the wealthy and the poor has caused people to stop relying on politicians and democracy. The inequality that grows in a system where people don’t feel confident enough to vote for their own progress leaves many people unable to flourish and therefore the common good ends up out of reach for many. This leads us to Eric Mack.

Eric Mack says that our natural rights are grounded on the separate moral importance of each person, and our moral rights provide the basic framework for a society of free, cooperative, tolerant, and prosperous individuals. Because this idea isn’t at the center of political conversation anymore, people are choosing instead to be envious, to lust for power, to hate others, etc. So we might feel inclined to say that if we slowly reintroduced this idea to politics, things would get better for everyone and equity would be achieved. But Mack also says that the flourishing of one person should never be put above the flourishing of another, which we could see as an argument against things like affirmative action and reparations- things that might also help the black community while the political system gets fixed. So what does this mean?

Essentially, it means that we have to present these ideas as things would help all people, and not just the black community. Mack points to John Stuart Mill, saying that when each individual is given the chance to flourish and be happy, then this adds to the overall happiness and flourishing of society. My real-world example for this would be that in fixing things to help the black community- who are typically at a lower socioeconomic status- we would also be helping the white middle and lower class in many ways. Mack’s main argument is that the good of the individual should never be sacrificed for the common good. I would say that instead of presenting the white community as sacrificing things in the name of equity, we present equity as something that would contribute to their flourishing, as well, because it helps create a more equal, fair society and democracy- something we would all benefit from in the long run.

Another thing we should look to in Mack’s philosophy is how he weighs the importance of the value of the individual. In our society, black individuals are undervalued, and thus we essentially cut their flourishing off right there- and eventually entire black communities face the repercussions. Stanford professor of psychology Jennifer Eberhardt says that her findings showed that not only do white people undervalue the black individual, but also undervalue the spaces of the black community. “… researchers discovered that participants who viewed the allegedly black-owned home, compared with participants who viewed the allegedly white-owned home, assumed the surrounding neighborhood had worse-maintained property, lower-quality schools and municipal services, less access to shopping and financial institutions and lower safety. Participants who viewed the black-owned home also reported feeling less eager to move into the neighborhood…many Americans continue to consider black places to be of lower quality, less desirable and less valuable. Many Americans are also more willing to potentially pollute black neighborhoods than white neighborhoods.” We see evidence of this in environmental racism, like in Flint, Michigan. Essentially, we sacrifice the well-being, safety, and health of the black community by subconsciously (but somewhat intentionally, as noted in the study) polluting the spaces in which they are concentrated, creating or not fixing discriminatory housing policies, not maintaining their neighborhoods as well as white ones, etc. How can we say we are providing an equal chance for all people to flourish when we are risking the health and the well-being of 13% of the population? That being said, instead of looking at reparations and affirmative action and other seemingly “reverse discriminatory” practices and policies as bad things that take away from people, we can look at them as things that will begin to truly equalize the possibility of flourishing for every individual in our society, once and for all.

In conclusion, understanding these points from Mack, Rawls, Socrates, Hobbes, and Rousseau, people fighting for equity and the end of systemic and institutional racism would greatly benefit. Through understanding how to appeal to those who cannot directly relate to the cause, the black community can begin to truly create a progressive society that benefits them and also creates a free and equal society for all.

Works Cited

Franko, William W., Nathan J. Kelly, and Christopher Witko. “HOW ROADBLOCKS TO

VOTING MAKE INCOME INEQUALITY WORSE.” (n.d.): n. pag. Scholars Strategy Network. Jan. 2014. Web. July 2015.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London: Dent, 1973. Print.

Kubota, Taylor, and Jennifer Eberhardt. “Stanford Researchers Find Places, Not Just People, Are Targets of Racial Bias.” Stanford Researchers Find Places, Not Just People, Are Targets of Racial Bias. N.p., n.d. Web. Dec. 2016.

McDonald, Michael. “Voter Turnout Demographics – United States Elections Project.” United States Elections Project. N.p., n.d. Web. Dec. 2016. <;.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. N.p.: n.p., 1971. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Lester G. Crocker. The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Mankind. New York: Washington Square, 1967. Print.

Weeks, Daniel. “Poverty vs. Democracy in America.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d. Web. Dec. 2016.

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