Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Is Graffiti Ever Morally Permissible? written by Areti Theofilopoulou
This essay received an Honourable Mention in the graduate category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics
Written by University of Oxford Dphil candidate Areti Theofilopoulou
On March 4th 2015, the graffiti team “Icos & Case” covered the National Technical University of Athens with an enormous black and white mural[i]. The graffiti was viewed as a political statement regarding the country’s socioeconomic crisis. In fact, the University was chosen due to its history as a centre of resistance during Greece’s dictatorship. Although public opinion over the permissibility of the graffiti was divided, the media and the state overwhelmingly opposed it. Eventually, the state decided to remove it, claiming it was an act of vandalism.
This recent example gives rise to the following question: is graffiti ever morally permissible? In other words, are the actions of graffiti artists always blameworthy? Taking “graffiti” to mean writing or drawings created on a public building or other public surface, I will argue that, under certain circumstances, it is morally permissible. If we grant that all morally permissible actions should be legal, we may further conclude that governments should not prosecute graffiti artists. Even if one does not accept this corollary, however, the argument regarding permissibility still stands.
As addressing the issue of private property is not possible on this occasion, the discussion will be limited to graffiti on public buildings. Moreover, an abstract commitment to equality and liberty will be assumed.
The Argument from Dissent
I contend that, under certain circumstances, graffiti is morally permissible. The argument takes the following form:
- It is morally permissible to express political dissent.
- Actions that affect others are permissible as long as they could be justified to reasonable persons.
- Therefore, it is morally permissible to dissent, as long as that dissent could be justified to reasonable persons.
- One way of dissenting is through graffiti.
- Graffiti could be justified to reasonable persons.
- Therefore, it is morally permissible to use graffiti in order to express political dissent, as long as it is justifiable to reasonable persons.
The Requirement of Ethical Reasonableness
As premises (ii) and (v) are the most controversial ones, I turn to the issue of justifiability. Individuals’ actions that affect others are viewed as morally unproblematic when they express sufficient respect for those they affect; one way in which this is possible is by requiring that they could be justified to reasonable people. Following Martha Nussbaum’s definition, the term “reasonable” has an ethical dimension, referring to persons committed to the abstract concepts of freedom and equality[ii]. Our intuitions and considered judgments regarding morally permissible actions can be formulated in the following way: an action that comes to have an impact on or otherwise implicates persons besides the one performing the act, must be justifiable to those persons. If, for example, we are both waiting to park our cars, but only one space becomes available, I should only take it if I can justify this to you. If, on the other hand, I take the space, even though you were waiting before me, my action will be blameworthy; by doing something that affects you negatively, without being able to justify this to you, I demonstrate a lack of respect that should exist among citizens. This principle can be applied to every action that we view as permissible.
The pertinent question here is whether (v) is true; in other words, whether graffiti can ever be justified to other persons. Suppose that in Nazi Germany, a person decides to paint a graffiti in order to make the occurring atrocities known to all, and to urge others to reflect on them and oppose them. It seems that this person’s action could be justified to persons committed to freedom and equality, and come to be accepted as permissible. Reasonable persons would presumably recognise that the reasons for creating that graffiti would override most reasons they could express against it. Therefore, there are at least some circumstances under which graffiti can be justified to reasonable persons.
Clearly, any expression of dissent ought to be reasonable in both its substance and form. A graffiti would then have to be justifiable in terms of its meaning and symbolism, as well as in terms of the means of creating it. Some types of graffiti, such as tagging, would clearly not pass the substance test; for, signing one’s name on a building cannot be justified to others. Similarly, even if destroying a monument would pass the first test of substance, it would not pass the test of form. For example, painting the Parthenon would not be permissible. Generally, when we have good reasons to believe that specific buildings should not be painted in any way, whether due to the materials they are made from, or because they are viewed as monuments, or perhaps because they are part of a group’s cultural heritage, graffiti would be impermissible. Unfortunately, deriving an exhaustive list of such cases is not possible here; we may conclude, however, that there are buildings that would not raise such concerns.
The Costs of Removing Graffiti
Now, it may be objected that graffiti could never be justified to others because others have to bear the costs of removing it through their taxes. If we come to view graffiti as permissible, all public buildings will become covered in them, thereby imposing very high costs on taxpayers. This seems to be particularly worrying, given that this part of government expenditure could have been spent on public goods.
However, firstly, the consequentialist aspect of this claim is exaggerated. As my argument only justifies graffiti under certain circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that we would not suddenly see graffiti everywhere. Secondly, this objection begs the question, as it assumes that the government will have to repaint the buildings; yet, in the cases of permissible graffiti, it is far from clear that governments should erase them. In fact, an implication of my argument would be that governments should not repaint those buildings, unless this is necessary for reasons unrelated to the graffiti in question. In any case, when debating the permissibility of an action, we may not take for granted that the government’s reaction to that action would be justified, nor that it should determine the permissibility of the action. For example, if political dissenters in Nazi Germany painted a political graffiti, we would not argue that, because Hitler would want to erase it (through people’s taxes), the graffiti was impermissible. Similarly, the fact that governments don’t repaint Banksy’s graffiti does not by itself establish the permissibility of his creations.
Public Buildings Do Not Belong to the Public
Opponents of graffiti may object on the basis of property; it could be argued that public buildings are public only in the sense of use, while they ought to be treated as the state’s private property. The requirement that political dissenters respect the state’s private property would then block my argument.
Let us grant that public property is indeed the state’s property. We may still reject the objection by imagining the following case. A well-off individual has committed an injustice and benefited financially from it; as a result, thousands suffer. A group that represents these persons realises that, by drawing something on that individual’s property, the issues that the injustice caused will be expressed, while informing the rest of society. In this case, our consequentialist considerations of the effect of that drawing, as well as the responsibility of that person in causing the injustice would outweigh the reasons we would have to respect her property. Similarly, then, even if public property were the state’s private property, there would be cases in which graffiti would be permissible.
Although it is not possible to delve fully into the issue of property rights, it is not clear that states have full property rights to public buildings and spaces. According to most accounts of political legitimacy the state has, at best, a fiduciary duty to act on behalf of its citizens. In virtue of this duty, it is not plausible to view public property as the state’s private property; rather, it is the citizens’ collective property, which the state has a right to manage. Of course, the account of political legitimacy endorsed would largely determine the nature of public property and the rights that citizens have to it. I suggest, however, that there is at least one widely held conception of legitimacy that would be consistent with my argument; namely, that political power ought to be justifiable to its subjects conceived as reasonable persons[iii]. If, therefore, citizens have good reasons to endorse the permissibility of graffiti, the state cannot legitimately interfere with that decision.
The Imposition of an Aesthetic View
The most common objection states that it is not permissible to express dissent in a way that imposes a controversial view on others. Since most people disagree about aesthetics, and since most citizens inevitably see public buildings, graffiti inevitably imposes a controversial aesthetic view on those who disagree with it; for this reason, it ought to be viewed as an impermissible action.
This objection echoes the political liberal commitment to equal respect; if a state favours a controversial view on which citizens disagree, it fails to demonstrate equal respect for all[iv]. However, this objection can be plausibly discharged only against states, not against individuals. There is consensus that only other individuals’ rights can constrain the set of actions that are available to each; the freedom to act in certain ways or to express certain views cannot be sacrificed, unless there are duties or rights that act as side-constraints. Unless we are prepared, therefore, to accept that we should not be permitted to decorate the exterior of our houses, including our gardens and balconies, according to our taste, we may not argue that graffiti is impermissible just because some individuals find it aesthetically disturbing. Doing so would impose too high a cost on our freedom to live our lives according to our conceptions of the good. In any case, the argument that buildings should not be decorated in ways that could possibly offend individuals’ aesthetic views is absurd, given that buildings must be painted and decorated in some way; any decision on this matter is bound to face reasonable disagreement.
Now it may be objected that this argument only implies that graffiti artists should not be penalised; the fact that they choose, as individuals, to impose their aesthetic views on others, when they know that many will disagree with them, may be morally blameworthy, even if they have a right to do so. Indeed, this claim would seem uncontroversial if my argument applied to all kinds of graffiti. For example, drawing pink hearts with glitter on public buildings, just because I happen to enjoy looking at them, even though I know that most people do not share my taste, would clearly express disrespect for my fellow citizens. It is important to remember, however, that the argument defended here only applies to cases where graffiti could be justified to others; this justification ensures that the necessary respect for others is shown.
Assuming a commitment to the values of freedom and equality, the argument from dissent would fail if one argued that graffiti could never be justified to reasonable persons. The burden of proof thereby falls on those who object to graffiti. If, however, as I have argued, it is possible to imagine cases in which graffiti can be justified to reasonable persons, then we may conclude that graffiti is, under certain circumstances, morally permissible. We are now faced with the question of whether this could be true in contemporary societies. It seems that as long as there are grave injustices, as happens, for example, in Saudi Arabia and Syria, reasonable persons would agree that dissent may be expressed through graffiti. And we may also conclude that graffiti artists should generally not be faced with presumptive blameworthiness; rather, the moral assessment of each case of graffiti, as that of any act, will depend on the particular reasons that can be presented for it.
[i] “Athens Polytechnic: Reactions to mysterious graffiti”, Proto Thema, http://en.protothema.gr/athens-polytechnic-divided-views-over-mysterious-graffiti-photos/. Accessed on 25/01/2016.
[ii] Martha Nussbaum, “Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 39 (2011), p. 17.
[iii] John Rawls, Political Liberalism: Expanded Edition, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 137.
[iv] See Jonathan Quong, Liberalism Without Perfection, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
John Rawls, Political Liberalism: Expanded Edition, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).