Civil Disobedience



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Civil Disobedience
Civil disobedience is “the active refusal to obey certain laws, demands and commands of government or an occupying power without resorting to physical violence.”
Protestors deliberately violate a law- either a law they find objectionable or sometimes one they do not, e.g. trespass or safety laws.
Means- are non-violent and there is a willingness to accept legal penalties and punishment.
Purposes: (1) To publicize unjust law or just cause; (2) appeal to the conscience of the public; (3) force negotiation with recalcitrant officials; (4) to “clog the machine” with political prisoners;” (4) to get into court where one can challenge the constitutionality of a laws; (5) to exculpate oneself; or (5) to put an end to one’s person complicity in the injustice which flows from obedience to unjust law or a combination of any of these.
Can civil disobedience be justified in a democracy? - Unjust laws can be changed.
Reply: Henry David Thoreau- sometimes the constitution is the problem and legal channels can take too long. In addition, individuals are sovereign and the government holds power by delegation from free individuals.
Martin Luther King- Legal channels may provide for change, but in practice they may be closed or unfairly obstructed. In this case, the system is not democratic and civil disobedience is justified.
Even if civil disobedience is justified- should not the legal channels be exhausted first? Legal channels can never be exhausted. King- “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
We must obey the law because we are under social contract. Socrates and Crito. Thoreau and Gandhi- those who object deeply to the injustices committed by the state can, and should, relinquish the benefits they receive from the state by living a life of voluntary simplicity and poverty. This form of sacrifice is in effect to evoke one’s tacit consent to obey the law. Further, one’s consent is never tacit. Natural law tradition tells us if a law is unjust then it is not a law.
What if everybody did it? Anarchy may be bad, but despotism is worse. Also, this is a slippery slope. Few in fact will actually disobey.
Utilitarian- the harm of disobedience can be the lesser evil.
Gandhi and King deliberately made their example difficult to imitate. They accepted blows from police without retaliation; accepted arrest and punishment. Both engaged in self-purification, courage and sacrifice.


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