Protesters jump on a street sign near a burning barricade near the White House during a demonstration against the death of George Floyd on May 31, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

Why should rioters not riot? Why should they not burn, loot, or kill? Amid all the commentary on the latest rioting, little attention is being paid to a basic question: “Why not?”

One might point to the civil law, by which their behavior is obviously criminal, or to God’s law? Perhaps these will provide reasons for you, reader, not to riot, but clearly they do not provide compelling reasons for the rioters, unless punishment under the law is considered, and here it is not the sanctity of the law that would stop the rioters, only their self-interested fear of violence. In other words, they may submit to sufficient force.

We confront a huge risk taken by modernity. Will Durant states, “Law and myth have gone hand in hand throughout the centuries, cooperating or taking turns in the management of mankind; until our own day no state dared separate them.”

When the mandate comes from heaven and the state represents the embodiment of God’s will on earth – “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – the answer to “Why not?” is simple: God’s law, manifested in the civil law. But when the mandate lies within the state itself, meaning within the passions of human beings, the only earnest answer is the fear of violence.  

The rioters are not criminals in the ordinary sense. They are not slipping around in the dark burglarizing shops or robbing individuals. They confront the state by confronting the civil order. They have significant grievances, some of which are recognized by large numbers of people. Instead of working within the law, they reject the law in principle, rather than simply breaking it as does the common criminal. The rioters reject the legitimacy of the state. This is their choice.

Secularism leaves the state without a ground of legitimacy. The rioters are pointing this out. The state has contingent legitimacy in the sense that citizens make a social contract and agree to live by the law. But the rioters reject the contract, and the law that goes with it. For them, the state, which is a pragmatic construction, has failed. They are outside the law, but it is not their law. They might yield to greater physical force, but there is no moral argument against them.  

Rather than acting with ersatz moral indignation, those who criticize the rioters should do so lucidly. Groundless moralizing is not going to influence them. Without God, your position has no more moral sanction than theirs. It is fine to declare that you disagree with them and that, from your conception of law, they are criminals, but admit that from their conception of law, if they have one, they might consider you a criminal.

At the core of modernity there remains the fundamental proposition articulated by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche: If God is dead, then everything is lawful. There is no Christian good to appeal to. Human beings can come together and contingently agree that some things are not legal. But this is an artifice built by people for their own self-interest. Many would agree that burning, looting, and beating are not lawful. But the rioters disagree, and what god is going to tell them something different?

So long as the US accepted the proposition that there are God-given natural rights, there was a moral ground at which the law could aim. Thomas Jefferson, following John Locke, proclaimed the fundamental rights as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (for Locke, property). These come from God. People come together in a state to form legal structures, which at their base should protect these fundamental rights. The US formulation lies in its Constitution.

But the US, as have other modern states, rejected the concept of natural rights coming from God. Hence, the law has no moral basis outside of mankind, and exists merely for the exercise of power grounded in the human will. Democracy does not change that. The will of the majority is still a human will, devoid of a transcendental moral code. The rioters may be a minority, but why should their will be subject to other wills? Democracy has no special calling; rather, it is just a method for distributing political power. The rioters seem to understand this.

The consequences of law by raw power are seen whenever one group demands what it calls “rights.” These do not emanate from God, as Jefferson or Locke would have them. They are simply privileges exacted from society via the will of the group. A group looking for privilege may use reason, block traffic, or burn down a building to achieve its ends. These are just tactics to gain power. There is no moral ground from which to judge one tactic more just than another.

In daring to separate myth and law, modernity has traded in a mixture of fear of violence in the afterlife and the earthly life to control anti-social behavior to only fear of violence in the earthly life. While this has left its political life naked before the human will to power, it has also freed mankind from the constraints of clerical domination and opened the door to knowledge. In the famous words of Immanuel Kant, humanity can now “Dare to know.”

But what we now know, and what was so keenly perceived by both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, is that killing God does not necessarily open up the road to liberty and knowledge. Their insights were brutally validated by the twentieth century in which socialist governments killed approximately 100 million of their own citizens. The rejection of God-given rights and His judgement leaves open the door to man-made rights and man’s judgement.

No one has summarized the potential danger of this judgement better than Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev:

Everything is allowable when it is a question of the unbounded freedom of the superman (extreme individualism), or of the unbounded equality of all (extreme collectivism). Self-will arrogates to itself the right to decide the value of a human life and to dispose of it. The control of life and the judgment of mankind do not belong to God; man, as the depository of the ‘idea of the superman,’ takes them upon himself and his judgments are pitiless, impious and inhuman at the same time.

The rioters are not Mao Tse Tung or Joseph Stalin, but they are a harbinger of what could await a society that does not draw back from the extremes of self-will. Modernity has chosen pragmatism over faith. Implicit in that choice is a willingness to accept modest and incremental solutions to grievances, and to moderate the passions.

Most of the rioters are young and have grown up in a society in which group animosities and invective against ones adversaries have dominated political life. Their unbridled passions are evident in their actions. They have personalized the political and are ill-suited for a pragmatic approach to the political. They do not debate those with whom they disagree; they hate them.

Given the size of the country, the riots are relatively small and will be papered over by platitudes, but the day may come when hatred is too great for such easy resolution. For us moderns this is not a moral issue, but a pragmatic one. It is one that has been given far too little attention. To be seriously treated, it must be addressed within the context of the separation of myth from law. Perhaps careful consideration will show that there is no solution within that context and modernity will choose to revisit, in some way not yet perceived, its daring choice.

Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.