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Quiet Resistance: The Value of Personal Defiance


What reason does one have to resist oppression? The reasons that most easily come to mind are those having to do with justice—reasons that arise from commitments to human equality and the common good. In this paper, I argue that there are also reasons of love—reasons that arise from personal attachments to specific people, projects, or activities. I defend a distinctive form of resistance that is characteristically undertaken for reasons of love, which I call Quiet Resistance. Contrary to theories that build reasons of justice into the definition of resistance, I argue that we have strong reason to consider Quiet Resistance a genuine form of resistance. Finally, I argue that the reasons in favor of engaging in Quiet Resistance help to explain its distinctive value. In short, when one engages in Quiet Resistance, one’s actions are valuable in large part because they allow one to maintain respect for one’s personal values and meaning in life under oppressive conditions.

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  1. I will use the term “love” very broadly to include a range of attitudes of care, affection, admiration, and attraction. For discussion of “the reasons of love” see Frankfurt (2004) and Wolf (2014). I am using the phrase in much the same way that they are using it.

  2. See Shelby (2015) for a critical discussion of Reed’s view.

  3. See, for instance, Gottlieb (1983) for the normative implications of describing an act as resistance.

  4. See McGary and Lawson (1992) and Baptist (2014) for discussion of how historians of slavery denied that slaves resisted, and used this to justify slavery. See Gottlieb (1983) for discussion of a parallel trend in historical narratives of the Holocaust. Many thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this insight and related points.

  5. See in particular My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).

  6. Egypt’s ‘Stubborn’ Women’ Enjoy Bike Riding in Cairo. (June 16, 2016). Africa News, Reuters.

  7. For instance, this would likely be an instance in which one has, as Bernard Williams (1981) famously put it, “one thought too many”. More neutrally, we can at least say that there would not be anything wrong with someone who failed to have the second thought – love seems to be a sufficient reason on its own.

  8. Such reasons can, of course, be undercut or outweighed by other considerations. For more general discussions on how love can generate normative reasons for action, see especially Wolf (2015) and Frankfurt (2004). See Manne (2014) for a helpful discussion on the distinction between normative and motivating reasons.

  9. Obama, Barack (June 14, 2016). Remarks by the President at United States of Women Summit. Washington, D.C., White House archives:

  10. Giving special focus to what Williams (1985) takes to be the fundamental question of ethics, “How should one live?”, the answer to which need not appeal exclusively to considerations of morality, impartiality, or justice.

  11. There is a tendency to understand the nature and value of resistance in terms of what grounds the obligation to resist. For instance, Silvermint (2013) argues that “what counts as resistance depends on why we think an agent is obligated to resist in the first place” (2013: 407). Cudd’s view is an instance of this general approach. On her view, the obligation to resist oppression is grounded in the more general obligation to minimize harm to others. Thus, only acts that attempt to lessen oppressive harms count as resistance. Moreover, the value of such acts is limited to their potential to lessen oppressive harms. I depart from this way of understanding resistance and its value. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to defend this claim, I think the notion of moral obligation provides only partial insight into the various reasons that count in favor of (or against) resistance. Theories that conceive of the value of resistance exclusively in terms of what would discharge the obligation to resist fail to account for cases in which resistance may be worthwhile independently of whether or not one has an obligation to engage in it.

  12. For discussion of appraisal respect and recognition respect see especially Darwall (1977).

  13. Hill (1991: 19–25) considers this form of self-respect outside of the context of his discussion of protest.


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Thanks to Bernard Boxill, Roy T. Cook, Thomas E. Hill, Jr., Sarah Holtman, Jennifer Kling, Douglas MacLean, Ram Neta, Cat Saint-Croix, Geoff Sayre-McCord, Valerie Tiberius, Susan Wolf, and three anonymous referees for valuable feedback on previous drafts of this paper. I am also grateful for helpful discussions with audiences at The University of North Carolina, The University of Minnesota, The 2018 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, and the 2019 Pacific APA. Special thanks to Philip Bold for crucial feedback throughout the development of this paper.

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Correspondence to Tamara Fakhoury.

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Fakhoury, T. Quiet Resistance: The Value of Personal Defiance. J Ethics 25, 403–422 (2021).

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  • Oppression
  • Resistance
  • Protest
  • Love
  • Reasons of love