Critically discuss the claim that civil disobedience is never justifiable



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Critically discuss the claim that civil disobedience is never justifiable

Civil Disobedience is, in short, breaking the law with a political agenda; it is different from dissent, which is disagreeing with something political, e.g. a law, without breaking laws. Civil Disobedience is also different from revolution because it tries to make political change within the state whereas revolution tries to change the whole state or remove the state entirely. It is debatable whether Civil Disobedience is never justified, but of course this depends in the way you define civil disobedience and its aspects. As well as the act being contrary to law, civil disobedience must also be conscientious and political, secondly it must address justice for the majority of the community, and therefore to do this the act must be public. The last aspect of Civil Disobedience is non-violence, but this is less definite than the others and some violent acts can be seen to be civil disobedience, which raises the question of justifiability.

In Crito Socrates puts forward an argument against civil disobedience. In Crito Socrates is in jail, charged with corrupting the youth with his teachings. Socrates, a firm believer in the state, argues with his friend about why he believes that he should not escape from prison. In Socrates view Laws are absolute, because they are, he believes, there to protect us. Socrates does deem that we must live honourable lives and we have duty to do what is right however he says laws come above your ideals. He thinks that the state can only work effectively if all its laws and decisions are followed. If the laws are broken and decisions disobeyed the state will be harmed. So in the context of civil disobedience he believes that however strong your ideals are you must never break the law even if you disagree with it, because it is for you own good. As one of Civil disobedience’s defining features is that is must be contrary to law, in Socrates eyes, it is never justified however right its cause.

Socrates argument is flawed because he bases his argument on the idea that the state is always right and just. But this is clearly not the case, all throughout history it can be seen that state is often are corrupt and oppresses the individual or groups of individuals. What is just is subjective and must always come from the conscience not from the state. The individual must maintain the power. And sometimes the only way this can be done is through Civil Disobedience. So if the state can in fact be unjust then, of course, so can its laws. If the law is unjust you have no obligation to obey it.

Another side of this argument is Anarchism. Henry David Thoreau puts forward an argument for civil disobedience. Thoreau says that government is just a system used to execute the peoples will and is therefore liable to corruption and perversion. Thoreau says that there numerous people who know that state is often wrong yet doing nothing and take no action. Voting, he says, is simply expressing your belief, not taking action. He also states that try and change something by lobbying the government and going through all the legal channels takes far too long, so each man must take action in accordance with his own conscience and what he thinks is right and wrong, not what the state deems right and wrong. This gives justifiability to civil disobedience, if the state can be wrong then a need for change arises, for to not oppose an unjust government, says Thoreau, is to support unjust activities of the government. To avoid such cases one must engage in civil disobedience.

Opposition to Thoreau would say that through civil Disobedience you undermine the state and risk harming it and those within it. That by living in and gaining from the state you tacitly consent to follow all laws lay down by its government. If you disagree with a law then you must persuade and negotiate it with the government within the legal restraints of the state. But this argument is close to the Fascist concept that, as Noam Chomsky put it, ‘says the state is your master, and if the state does something for you, you have to be nice to them.’ And this is the complete opposite of democracy. The people control the state, the state is not an entity or a person it is a concept, a mode of organization among a collective of peoples.

After discussing the justifiability of Civil Disobedience as a whole, the question of when and how arise. Most who believe that it is justified say that it is when it is in accordance with your own conscience, and when its aim is for good. The one aspect of Civil disobedience that creates most disputes is the idea of non-violence. Some say that non-violence is an essential part of civil disobedience. Their argument is that violence should never be used because it is not morally justifiable and it conflicts with the aims and intentions of civil disobedience. Our conscience tells us that hurting or even killing other people is wrong; we must always act in accordance with our conscience. This absolute principle must never be broken so leaves no exception in the complete criticism of all violent acts of civil disobedience.

However problems arise here in how you define violence, In this case only psychical violence is being referred to. But there are other philosophers who say this is not the true definition and this leads to discussion on its justification. John Morreall says that ‘violence’ is not just psychical acts but it’s also mental and emotional ones as well, and destruction of property is also psychical violence, and loss of property for someone could lead to mental or emotional harm as well. So if this is the true definition to say that violent civil disobedience is unjustified is to say all civil disobedience is unjustified. Civil disobedience is about coercion and if you are coercing someone you are forcing them to do or not do something. By superseding their Prima Facie rights you are mentally harming them and so therefore being violent. Morreall goes on to say to rule out just physical violence is pointless; he uses examples where violence is justly used to supersede someone’s Prima Facie rights, e.g. hurting a slave owner to stop him catching and killing a runaway slave. Morreall comes to the conclusion that an act of violence is justifiable if it reinforces a moral principle that itself more justifiable than an unjust law.



I think that civil disobedience is justified, when there is no time or oppourtunity for legal dissent it is a powerful and invaluable tool against injustice and corruption. If it is established that all civil disobedience is violence, then I cannot rule out all physically violent civil disobedience acts as unjust. It depends on the situation and the severity of the corruption or injustice being addressed. But generally speaking, and certainly in more liberal democratic states, physical violence civil disobedience is unjustified because there are more effective means of addresses the community’s sense of justice. To persuade being to join your cause you need their support and that is made harder to do if the media vilify you more you violent acts.


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