Intending and Foreseeing in Selma

I recently saw the movie Selma, and it prompted some thought about the distinction between intending to do something, and foreseeing but not intending to do something. This distinction is a controversial one. Some think it makes all the difference and allows for a variety of actions that would normally be condemned, for example diverting a runaway trolley on to the one rather than the five or bombing civilians in a raid on military targets. Proponents of the Doctrine of Double-Effect affirm this distinction–call this ‘position A.’ Others think it makes no difference; if one foresees a consequence of one’s action, and acts anyway, then one intends to bring about that consequence. Utilitarian ethicists like Henry Sidgwick deny this distinction as does the author of a book I’m reading right now, Ethics Without Intention. Call this ‘position B.’

How does this relate to Selma? Well, here’s my question: did the protesters who marched on Bloody Sunday intend to be violently repressed or did they they merely foresee, but not intend it? (Yes, I realize only a philosopher could be so irreverently pedantic to reflect on such an abstract question in the wake of such a solemn event. For what its worth I shed tears while watching the movie and gasped while reading the first-hand accounts of it afterwards–I didn’t think about this question until later.).

Argument in favor of position A. No, they did not intend to be violently repressed. They intended to to disturb the peace and bring attention to the injustice of being denied the right to vote. The knew full well from experience, however, that they would likely be violently repressed. They made preparations for this. The movie depicts a mock protest where marchers carrying signs are verbally abused, pushed, and their signs violently ripped out of their hands. The principles of nonviolence require such practice, because following them does not come naturally. But even though they prepared for suffering such things, they did not want them to happen, and it makes no sense to intend something without wanting it. Hence, they clearly foresaw that they would be violently repressed, but did not intend it.

Argument in favor of position B. The organizers were not naive. They knew that there was a high risk of violent repression, and accurately predicted that Sheriff Clark would act like Sheriff ‘Bull’ Connor of Birmingham. Conor’s infamous attack-dog and fire-hose tactics were nationally televised and evoked great national sympathy for the civil rights movement. Indeed, the movie portrays Dr. King preferring to confront authorities like Clark and Connor instead of those like Laurie Pritchett, an Albany police chief who used nonviolent means to arrest his protesters in Georgia. Old church ladies being beat up by racists cops makes the news. Humane police officers putting up with “agitators” does not. Thus, they intended to be violently repressed, though perhaps not to the extent that they were (who could have foreseen that?), because the national attention drawn to it would serve to further the goals of legal reform.

As with any analysis of action or set of actions, it’s hard to know exactly what is intended and what is not, especially when we start considering the actions of groups. But it seems absurd to conclude that the organizers of the protest on the Edmund Pettis Bridge intended to be beaten bloody. Perhaps this is because they did not foresee being subject to such violence. That is certainly possible. Still its hard to know. After all, it was the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson at the hands of a State Trooper that sparked the Selma march. The organizers certainly had evidence of what the Alabama police were capable of, and yet bravely and peacefully confronted them anyway. That is why we, rightly, valorize them.

All of this is to say, that given the complexities of the event, I cannot say for certain that position B is wrong, but I am inclined to side with position A. Still both sides can agree that the protesters were not intending to be violently repressed per se; rather, they intended to confront their oppressors, draw attention to their oppression, and thereby expose their injustice… until “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”