Controversy has arisen recently regarding the installation of anti-homeless spikes on sidewalks. Spikes of various descriptions have reportedly been installed, for example, in the pavement outside an apartment building in London and a commercial building in Montreal. No doubt there are other examples of the use of such spikes. They are presumably intended to stop certain people—to wit, the homeless—from sitting, lounging, or sleeping in those locations. Outrage has naturally ensued. Advocates for the homeless criticized the spikes as a cynical, heartless approach to the problem of homelessness.
This example nicely illustrates the difference between having a right to do something, and it being right to do it. On one hand, property owners have the right to exclude anyone they want to exclude. In general, no one is obligated to share their property with random strangers.
So the owners of apartment buildings or commercial properties are within their rights (assuming they’ve installed these spikes on their own property, and not, say, on a public sidewalk). They are operating, in other words, within the limits of the set of conventions and legal protections that insist that we respect each other’s entitlement to control access to our stuff.
But being within their rights doesn’t imply that the owners are doing what’s right.
As philosopher Jason Brennan points out, even libertarians—and libertarians are, shall we say, fond of property rights—do not regard property rights as absolute. Property rights are important, and our society is predicated on the basic assumption that each of us has the right to control the stuff we own, to do what we want with it and to invite onto our property those we want to invite and to exclude those we want to exclude. But—to borrow Brennan’s example—if I need to step onto your lawn to avoid being hit by an oncoming car, I am ethically justified in doing so, despite the fact that I am thereby invading your space, your property.
And even if property rights were absolute, it would still sometimes be the right thing to do, ethically, to allow other people access to your property. And one set of conditions under which allowing people access to your property would consist in situations in which the other person is in desperate need and lacks real alternatives, and in which allowing them access to your property doesn’t diminish your own enjoyment of your property in a meaningful way.
So even if property owners are within their rights to install anti-homeless spikes, they may be wrong to do so. But the fact that these property owners may not be doing right—the fact that they may, in other words, be acting immorally—doesn’t immediately license others to do anything about it. Such wrongdoing certainly doesn’t, for example, justify vigilante efforts on the part of private citizens to cover the spikes with fresh cement. If spikes are the “wrong solution” to homelessness, then vandalism is also the wrong solution to the spikes.
Nor does such wrongdoing warrant government action. The fact that you (or someone else, or all of us) find something morally abhorrent doesn’t automatically justify calling for government intervention. Consider, for example, the outrage over Canada’s new anti-prostitution law, which attempts to (re)criminalize behaviour more or less simply because some people think it morally reprehensible. Critics have rightly called the legislation wrong-headed. (A sane law would try to minimize dangers, but without criminalizing the behaviour of consenting adults.)
Taking ethics seriously isn’t simply about passionately insisting on ethical behaviour. It means a commitment to learning better and more subtle ways of thinking and talking about ethics. And that is especially important, perhaps, when the behaviour in question pushes our buttons emotionally.