Is It OK to Punch a Nazi in the Face? Leading Ethicists Weigh In: 'No'

Richard Spencer
Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute arrives on campus at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, to speak at an event not sanctioned by the school, on December 6. Spencer Selvidge/Reuters

In Donald Trump's America, it can be hard to find the joy in life.

On Friday—mere hours into Trump's presidential term—many liberals found it: in a video of self-described white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. (You might recall Spencer as the prominent "alt-right" figure who, shortly after Trump's win, was seen leading his supporters in what very much resembled a Nazi salute.)

Richard Spencer got punched in the face during the protests at Trump's #inauguration

— Gender🚁Professecs (@gprofessx) January 20, 2017

This brief clip has become a viral sensation. It is a meme, a phenomenon. The internet is awash in "remixes" set to various musical cues. (My favorite is "The Boys Are Back in Town"; there are literally hundreds more.) Watching this neo-Nazi get socked in the face, writes Natasha Lennard in The Nation, is an experience of pure "kinetic beauty," like seeing Roger Federer play tennis.

But is it…ethical? Like, is it ethically OK to punch a Nazi in the face? That's the moral quandary that raged across social media for much of the weekend, with pundits, celebrities and jokesters all weighing in.

everyone's so basic. I WILL CELEBRATE RICHARD SPENCER GETTING PUNCHED IN THE FACE & NOT CARE. he's an actual nazi. punch him again!

— Kevin Allred (@KevinAllred) January 21, 2017

If a nazi getting punched disturbs your peace more than when a cop assaults an unarmed Black child, you're part of the problem.

— Bree Newsome Bass (@BreeNewsome) January 23, 2017

I wonder how many people cheering the Nazi Punch realize that a punch to the head can kill or permanently disable a man.

— Griswold Christmas Vacation (@HashtagGriswold) January 23, 2017

Civility is not broken when you punch a Nazi

Civility was broken when you gave a forum to those that want the eradication of others

— Baronesa ⚧ 🏳️‍⚧️ (@Baronesa1980) January 21, 2017

For guidance, I reached out to the highest moral authority I could think of, or at least the highest moral authority who might conceivably respond to my emails: writer Randy Cohen, the longtime author of The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine. (He was fired from the post in 2011, and is very much missed.) During a phone conversation, Cohen became somewhat agitated: No, he insisted, his voice cracking, it is not OK to punch a Nazi. It is perfectly fine, however, to watch and delight in those videos of a neo-Nazi getting punched.

Here is how our conversation went:

Are you familiar with this video of Richard Spencer getting punched?
Yeah. Do you really not know if it's ethical to punch someone even though they have odious politics? I mean, should we call your mother? Or my mother? Or anybody's mother?

I don't think my mother would very much like to be involved in this discussion!
My mother would! I mean, we do understand that just because someone's politics are vile—and Richard Spencer's are—you don't get to punch them. Why is that a question?

Well, many people on the internet seem to be quite conflicted about—
Well, I weep for our country in yet another way. No, you do not get to punch people even though they're ideologically despicable. You're not the first person who's asked me this! And it's deeply disheartening, I have to say! I gather the rationale is that because Richard Spencer and his ilk would punch us, if I can use that pronoun, then therefore it's OK to punch them? But Richard Spencer isn't our moral teacher. We're not supposed to imitate Richard Spencer's behavior. Richard Spencer is despicable! We're supposed to aspire to the decent values that we were raised on and that make us proud of our country. Martin Luther King and his cohort during the Civil Rights Movement had a profound commitment to nonviolence. They deserve our esteem and reverence! Even when they were being beaten with clubs, they would not physically fight back against those who assailed them. They set such a luminous example for us, that has come to this—that you're asking if it's OK to punch people!

Are there any circumstances in which you think it's OK to punch someone with Nazi-sympathetic views?
Yes. In self-defense. But it has nothing to do with their Nazi views. You have an ethical right to defend yourself against a physical assault. But you do not have the right to respond to contemptible beliefs with physical violence. You organize politically. You struggle. You resist. You march. You vote. You run for office. We are not thugs and we don't respond with thuggery!

Let me read to you one comment that I saw on Twitter: "If you don't punch Nazis, Holocausts happen. That's what we learned from letting Nazis speak in public the last time. You have to punch them."
That's ridiculous. That's nonsensical. One does not flow from the other. Because one of the most monstrous catastrophes in human history occurred, it is not because people failed to punch Nazis. It simply doesn't follow. Nor does it follow that if you fail to punch Richard Spencer, there will be dire consequences. It would seem to me Gandhi's example or King's example are quite to the contrary. Where even allied against incredibly powerful armed opponents, genuine social change is possible without resorting to the gutter tactics of people like Spencer.

Related: White supremacist Richard B. Spencer's Twitter account reinstated

There are two different arguments here. One is: Is the behavior justified on its own terms? Is physical violence a morally justifiable response to the expression of odious ideas. In my view, it is not. The argument you're reading on Twitter is what's called a consequentialist argument. So this person is asserting that the only way to stop the rise of Nazism is with physical violence. And I think that's a quite dubious assertion. Even if one were doing a consequentialist analysis here, this is a dubious assertion. The assertion becomes: It is necessary to punch Richard Spencer in order to halt some impending Holocaust, and I just don't think that's true. It seems to me this fails both on the grounds of moral reasoning and on the grounds of political strategy.

This next question is not really an ethical question. But did you personally watch the video of Richard Spencer being punched?
I did not. It wasn't because I was averting my glance; I just didn't see it. I would make one other exception. I have read about images of Richard Spencer being punched set to music. That sort of thing. To delight in a kind of comeuppance when someone is hoisted by his own petard—when someone who advocates violence against others meets a kind of of nonlethal violence—to enjoy hearing about that, that's not a crime. That's not an ethical transgression. That's asking more of human beings than they can resist. When someone who's truly despicable gets punched in the nose, you commit no ethical transgression by enjoying that idea. Now we're describing—

Yes, yes. In the recesses of my heart, do I take any pleasure in this? Well, yes. Would I advocate this as an action or defend the action? Well, no. There are no thought crimes. If in your heart of hearts you're enjoying this, well, you do no one any harm. But no, you do not get to go out and respond to contemptible political ideas with physical ideas.

Well, thank you so much for your time and your wisdom.
Really, call my mom! She would say the same thing. And she would love being quoted!

Your mother?
Yeah. Ahh, don't call my mother. But she would say the same thing.

In journalism, when faced with a troubling question, it is customary to seek more than one source. So I reached out to another authority on ethical matters: scholar Aine Donovan, the director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth. She concurred. "I would make the case that even repugnant comments do not warrant a physical attack," Donovan wrote in an email. "Violence begets violence. Civil society is predicated on civil discourse. This means that we use language, argument and persuasion to make our positions known—not a fist."

I also contacted Thomas Scanlon, a Harvard professor specializing in moral and political philosophy. He responded to my email in just seven minutes.

"No, it is obviously not 'OK,'" he wrote, "but it is not nearly as bad as Donald Trump's lying, or many of the things that he and his associates are proposing to do. So why are you writing about this relatively trivial question rather than something important?"

Now that's a punchy answer to an ethical query about punching.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Cohen "abandoned" his Ethicist post. "I was fired," Cohen tells us. "A new editor took over the magazine and cleaned house.​"