Yesterday, a Georgia chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had their request to “adopt” a portion of state route 515 denied. While my initial reaction to this decision was “well of course they were denied, it’s the KKK,” a closer examination of the arguments given for the decision somewhat tempered my support for this ruling. Although I’m no fan of the KKK, there are good arguments for allowing them to adopt a highway if they wish to do so.
First, we can examine the argument for denying the KKK’s request, and see that it’s really not particularly good. The request was denied on the basis of concerns for public safety, with the thought being that allowing the KKK to adopt a busy stretch of highway with a high speed limit might lead to “potential social unrest, driver distraction, or interference with the flow of traffic.” In other words, people might slow down and stare, and then get mad about what they see.
Now, there is some basis for prohibiting certain activities in order to prevent harm to others. This is an invocation of Mill’s famous Harm Principle, and it’s a significant part of our current political and legal system. However, the burden of proof lies squarely with the state to prove that the cited harm is both likely, and serious enough to justify infringing on the liberty of others in order to prevent it. I don’t see that this burden of proof has been met in this case.
In fact, the KKK has been allowed to adopt a highway once before, in Missouri, and they were kicked out of the program for failing to keep the highway clean, rather than due to any concerns about driver safety. If the KKK should not be allowed to adopt a highway because permitting this will lead to unsafe conditions for others, we should’ve seen some evidence of this in the Missouri case. We did not.
In fact, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling which allowed the KKK to adopt a highway in Missouri. So in addition to an unsupported argument for prohibiting the Georgia KKK from adopting a highway, there is a legal precedent for permitting it.
Finally, we should consider what sort of principle might justify prohibiting the KKK from adopting a highway, and ask whether that principle is a good one. Perhaps a principle might be something like this: We shouldn’t allow social groups with morally objectionable beliefs to engage in activities which are charitable or civic minded.
One might think that this is a pretty good principle. After all, charitable and civic-minded activities create an impression that persons who engage in such activities are good people, and we wouldn’t want to send a message like that about the KKK.
On the other hand, one might think that we should encourage people to participate in these sorts of activities, whatever troubling beliefs and viewpoints they might have, because these sorts of activities might help them to form better beliefs, and thereby become better people.
Alternatively, we might think that this principle puts us in the awkward position of deciding which viewpoints count as “good” or “bad,” and that while this is relatively easy with an organization like the KKK, it will quickly become impractical. Should an anti-abortion or pro-choice group be allowed to adopt a highway? What about a group of atheists or wicca practitioners? What about a group of people who love Rush Limbaugh, or question Barack Obama’s citizenship?
The list goes on and on, and although it’s very tempting to say that we shouldn’t allow the KKK to adopt a highway because they are simply a bad organization, the principle that underlies this assessment is not one that we ought to adopt. Not only would it be difficult to apply, it would also force us to make moral judgments about the beliefs of groups whose moral status is not obvious. This principle implies a degree of moralizing about the beliefs of others that is not defensible.
Thus, although it’s somewhat disturbing to admit, I am forced to conclude that the KKK should be allowed to adopt a highway if they wish to do so. I don’t particularly like the idea, but there’s an important difference between liking something and thinking it’s the right thing to do.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.