Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King all engaged in civil disobedience, and are widely admired for doing so.
Civil disobedience is a great tradition. Particularly in America, where we have Thoreau, who refused to pay a poll tax, because the money supported the Mexican War and the Fugitive Slave Law. Then, there’s Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. And the Viet-Nam War protester. But then, as philosophers, we must ask, what exactly is civil disobedience? Suppose Henry Thoreau and Henry Schmo both refuse to pay their poll tax. Thoreau does it for the noble reasons you mentioned, but Henry Schmo does it because he’d rather spend the money at the pub. They're both disobeying a civil law; they're both, in a literal sense, civilly disobedient. What’s the difference? Just that Henry has good intentions?
Thoreau was trying to influence policy; his non-payment a speech act. Is that the important difference? What if Thoreau’s grouchy uncommunicative cousin Larry Thoreau didn’t pay his poll tax, either. He also didn’t want to support the fugitive slave law and the Mexican war, but he didn’t tell anyone why. So it wasn’t really a speech act, no attempt at communication. The war and the slave act made him sick; he couldn’t bear to pay his taxes, so he didn’t. Still seems kind of admirable. But no speech was involved. Is that Civil Disobedience?
Well, Civil disobedience clearly isn't a scientifically precise concept. I can’t give you a definition. But I bet we can list some traits that a paradigm case of civil disobedience will have. For one thing, it will be a refusal to obey or follow a law that is itself unjust, like the law against making salt that Gandhi broke, or a law that supports unjust policies, like the poll tax. That’s a start, but it doesn’t tell us the difference between famous Henry and grouchy Larry.
Gandhi and Thoreau weren’t just disobeying the law, but protesting law and policy by doing so publicly. Their acts were of speech as well as disobedience. They were done openly, and they didn’t attempt to escape punishment. The same for draft-card burners, and those who sat in at shops that refused to serve blacks. So grouchy Larry Thoreau gets eliminated, at least as a paradigm civil disobeyer. That doesn’t mean we can’t admire him.
To continue with our paradigm, usually we have in mind non-violent activities, like sit-ins and marches. And of course there is the intent is to change things; to get the law repealed, or the policy changed.
Putting it all together, a paradigm act of civil disobedience includes: Disobeying or refusing to follow a law or policy believed to be unjust, or supportive of injustice, publicly and non-violently, with the intent of drawing attention to the law and policy, and getting it changed.
That leads to the next question. We admire all those people we mentioned --- Thoreau, Gandhi, King, the student boycotters in the Civil rights movement, and so on. Does that mean that they were right to break the law? How can it be right to break the law?
We, the admirers, think the laws or policies were unjust. How about a crowd non-violently blocking the entrance to an abortion clinic? I don’t happen to think the laws allowing abortion are unjust. But these people do. Does that make them morally right?
We admire those who protest the laws we think are unjust. But we're all part of a democracy full of people with very different values. We're supposed to settle things by voting, or having our representatives in legislatures and congress vote. But any law or policy on a controversial issue is going to go against someone’s deeply held beliefs. Does that give them the moral right to disobey it? That would create chaos.
Other things being equal, it seems in a society like ours, where there are other remedies, like voting and taking things to the courts, those methods should be tried first. But other things aren’t always equal. Time may be of the essence in setting the injustice right, but courts take time --- and money. Sometimes it seems civil disobedience has to be a first resort, not a last resort, because it's the only way to make anyone care about an unjust policy in time to do anything about it.
That doesn’t exactly solve all the issue or answer all the questions. Luckily, Ken and I will be joined by Kimberley Brownlee, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Manchester, to help think things through. I hope you join us!