A few basic principles about boycotts.
1. Politically-motivated choice is legitimate
1.1. Jane is purchasing a good, which we’ll call G. What G is doesn’t matter – some oranges, a magazine subscription, a cultural event which her organisation will host. G1 and G2 – the offerings from suppliers S1 and S2 – are more or less equivalent in Jane’s estimation. She has to choose one or the other; she chooses G1 over G2 not because of anything to do with the good itself, but because political principle P predisposes her against supplier S2.
1.2. This choice, as described, is plainly legitimate. It’s a familiar kind of calculation: under apartheid, South African apples and wine were (probably) as good as similarly-priced alternatives; like many other people, I chose not to buy apartheid produce. Ultimately it is no different from a politically-motivated positive choice: the choice to shop at the Co-op rather than Tesco, say, or to take out a subscription to Red Pepper rather than the New Statesman.
1.3. Of course, we may not agree with the specific principle P which motivates Jane’s choice, and if so we may not approve of the choice. But we should not expect to approve of all Jane’s choices, unless we already know that we are in complete agreement with Jane. If Jane’s purchases are guided by her enthusiasm for veganism or her support for the Liberal Democrats, she is not going to make the same choices that I would make. Her choices are her concern.
1.4. One person’s choices may have effects on other people. If I disagree with Jane’s principles, then – to the extent that her choices affect me – I may well not be happy about them; if Jane is doing my shopping for me, I may even end up asking somebody else, with more sympathetic principles, to do it. But Jane’s choice – like my choice in this second scenario – remains legitimate: she is a free and rational individual who has the right to hold her own set of principles P and choose how to follow them, as are we all.
2. Boycotts are legitimate
2.1. A boycott is a special type of politically-motivated choice. Jane boycotts supplier S when she chooses to go without good G altogether rather than offend against principle P. It is intrinsic to a boycott that G is valuable. (If G were not of particular value – if it were a matter of choosing between broadly equivalent rival Gs – we would be looking at a choice rather than a boycott; and if G were of no value to Jane she would not have chosen to purchase it in the first place and the question would not arise.) A boycott is a sacrifice: Jane is giving up G, which she values, for the sake of P.
2.2. Somebody carrying out a boycott imposes a disproportionate cost on herself – disproportionate in the sense that P is taken as an absolute constraint, not to be weighed as one factor among others. This, too, is legitimate. When I was younger I had a particular fondness for Granny Smith apples – no other fruit hit the spot – but I would and did deprive myself of them rather than buy South African. Again, we can liken the disproportionate cost of a boycott to the disproportionate cost of a positive choice: the decision to take out a subscription to Red Pepper in the certain knowledge that one wouldn’t read it, for example. (Perhaps because one already had a subscription. It’s really quite good these days; the cultural coverage has improved a lot.)
2.2.1. The value of G is not an argument against boycotting S. A boycott is a sacrifice; the more valuable G is, the greater is the sacrifice undertaken in boycotting its supplier S. A boycott cannot be challenged by emphasising the value of G (but you really like Granny Smiths!). If anything, the value of G counts in favour of the boycott: if G is extraordinarily valuable, the boycott is an extraordinarily powerful demonstration of Jane’s commitment to P.
2.3. We saw, in the broader case of political choices, that one person’s choice can affect other people, and that someone who disagrees with P may not approve of choices motivated by P. Both of these points necessarily apply in the case of a boycott. Suppose that Jane is an extreme right-winger who supported the Pinochet regime and holds a grudge against all subsequent Chilean governments. Most people reading this will not approve of Jane choosing not to buy Chilean produce, all other factors being equal, on those grounds; a fortiori, we would certainly not approve of Jane applying an absolute boycott to Chilean goods on those grounds.
2.4. Nor would we be happy about Jane doing our shopping for us, if we were housebound or incapacitated. But Jane’s choices are still legitimate, despite the repugnance of their grounds – and hence of their consequences, or rather of the implications which can be drawn from their consequences.
2.4.1. The value of G to a third party is not an argument against boycotting S. The argument at 2.2.1. holds: the message of the boycott is now that Jane’s commitment to P is such that she is willing to bear the cost of disappointing other people by depriving them of G. An ethical greengrocer could choose to refuse to stock South African produce, even in the knowledge that its customers had a particular fondness for Granny Smiths and did not share her beliefs. The choice might not be good business, but it would be legitimate and should be respected as such.
3. Politics come first
3.1. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as harmful or costly: a boycott is a sacrifice. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as disproportionate: it is in the nature of boycotts to be disproportionate.
3.2. A boycott is a costly and disproportionate act carried out in commitment to a political principle. To the extent that we do not share that commitment, we will not approve of the boycott.
3.2.1. However, to the extent that we do not share that principle, we would not approve of any action motivated by it, just as we would not agree with any statement made to advance it.
3.2.2. The political discussion is separate from the question of the legitimacy of the tactics used.
3.3. The key question to be asked of a boycott is: assuming rational actors motivated by a genuine commitment to a political principle which can legitimately be held, can this disproportionate sacrifice be justified? (The question is not whether we believe that it is justified.)
3.3.1. This is a question expecting the answer Yes. A boycott is, in principle, a legitimate political tactic, irrespective of our position on the political cause involved. (It may on occasion not be the best tactic to use, but this is a question for the people using it.)
3.3.2. To say that a boycott is not a legitimate tactic is, generally, to say that the principle for which it is undertaken is not a legitimate political cause.
4. Inconsistency is irrelevant
4.1. If I have never stolen, I can steal for the first time. If I have never handled other people’s money without stealing, I can choose not to steal for the first time. Perhaps the acts I have never carried out are political: I have never taken out a magazine subscription on the basis of a positive political commitment, or crossed ‘apples’ off my shopping list on the basis of a negative commitment. This has no bearing on whether I choose to do either of these things in future.
4.2. The value of an action is not determined by whether the actor has ever done it before; the legitimacy of a choice is not determined by whether the actor has ever made that choice before.
4.3. To criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle one supports, would amount either to holding them to account for something they are no longer doing or criticising them for an improvement in their conduct.
4.3.1. We may believe that the boycott is an aberration and that in future their conduct will return to its original course; however, this in itself does not give any grounds for criticising their present behaviour, which by definition we approve of.
4.4. We may criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle we do not support; in this case, however, we would not be criticising their inconsistency but (simply) the fact that they were taking action in support of a principle we did not support.
4.5. The fact that a boycott is being imposed for the first time cannot make it illegitimate.
5. Selectivity is inevitable
5.1. In one light, selectivity at a given time and inconsistency over time are the same concern, and are equally irrelevant. Why did I steal from that particular newsagent when I’d never stolen before? Because that was where I happened to be. Why did I hand over this purse untouched when I’d always stolen from them before? Because that was the one I was handling when the pangs of conscience struck. There is no reason to ask these questions.
5.2. Someone boycotting a particular supplier S, on the basis of a particular (legitimate) principle P, can be accused of ‘singling out’ S. There may be many potential suppliers – S1, S2, S3… – whose deserve to be boycotted on the basis of P. Moreover, there are many legitimate political principles – P1, P2, P3… – on the basis of which boycotts could be implemented. Why this principle? Why this supplier?
5.2.1. To guide one’s conduct by every imaginable political principle (P1, P2, P3…) is an obvious absurdity.
5.2.2. To guide one’s conduct, to any significant extent, by every political principle to which one assents would in practice be impossibly burdensome, unless one’s political commitments were extremely limited.
5.3. The narrower goal of applying a single principle with complete consistency – boycotting every supplier who infringes it (or else boycotting none of them) – may seem realisable in theory, but reflection shows that complete consistency would require complete knowledge and the willingness to take any imaginable cost.
5.3.1. Complete consistency in the application of a single principle is an ideal rather than a standard: in Fuller’s terms, part of a morality of aspiration (a set of excellences one aims to realise) rather than a morality of duty (a set of minimum requirements one undertakes to meet).
5.3.2. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one supports is to criticise them for failing to realise an ideal, not failing to meet a standard.
5.4. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one does not support is, in general, to criticise them for acting on that principle at all (see 3.2.1.).
6. Equality is difficult
6.1. Although the effects of a boycott on third parties do not, in general, affect the legitimacy of the boycott (see 2.4.1.), a boycott whose effects tend systematically to disadvantage a particular population group – by depriving them of goods or services, or even by causing them offence and distress – may be illegitimate for that reason.
6.1.1. This is true of any action which has such effects; there is nothing about boycotts making them particularly liable to delegitimation on these grounds.
6.2. The principle of non-discrimination is unproblematic in the case of innate characteristics such as gender and ethnicity, and relatively unproblematic in the case of religion (which very often amounts to an innate characteristic, at least in the perceptions of the believer herself).
6.3. Extending it to political beliefs – even long-held and hard-to-change beliefs – is problematic, however.
6.3.1. To hold a political belief is to believe that certain changes should be made to the distribution of wealth, power and relatively advantage, and that certain arguments should be made and listened to more widely.
6.3.2. To pursue a political belief is to make arguments which may offend one’s opponents, and to attempt to realise changes which will disadvantage them.
6.4. There is an asymmetry built into prejudices against innate characteristics: the political actor who aims to disadvantage Jews, Muslims, women or children has many opponents who are not political actors.
6.4.1. By contrast, political prejudice is symmetrical: to be prejudiced against Liberal Democrats, for example, is to be prejudiced against political actors like oneself.
6.4.2. Within the political context, animosity towards other political actors is normal; within this context, the idea of political prejudice has very little meaning.
6.5. To delegitimate political discrimination is to cantonise politics as a specialised pursuit, only engaged in at set times and in certain places.
6.5.1. This is undesirable.
6.6. To delegitimate political discrimination in a given area is to delegitimate political action in that area.
6.6.1. In some areas (e.g. the employer/employee relationship) political action should in fact be illegitimate, making the delegitimation of political discrimination unproblematic.
6.6.2. In others, outlawing political discrimination (and hence political action) may be the only way to be sure of outlawing racial or religious discrimination.
6.7. In all cases, delegitimating political discrimination has a cost and should only be undertaken with that cost borne in mind.