Civil Disobedience

19 November 2010

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  And of course there is the intent is to change things; to get the law repealed, or the policy changed.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!

Comments (7)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 20, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I wanted to help stop the BLM's round-up of our fr

I wanted to help stop the BLM's round-up of our freedoms, our wild mustangs on our free land in Nevada last week. I had a dream that I could go out there and help the lives of fellow Americans remain free for another day. But the dream became a nightmare of reality as I was surrounded by people with guns and then decided to only watch them trap and segregate and haul the innocent frightened mustangs away. I also found that terrible day, the act of civil disobedience took more courage than me.
=
MJA

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, November 20, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I suppose if we took certain things literally, i.e

I suppose if we took certain things literally, i.e., democracy; representative government; rule of law/equal justice under law, etc., there would be no such category as civil disobedience. No shades of gray (or is that grey?---I can never remember)only law-abiders and law-breakers. But governance, no matter how altruistic it pretends to be, is imperfect and fraught with injustice. And there will be grumpers, as you have illustrated, who will happily grump because they are free to do so. Some will happily grump and spend years in prison for their dissent. It is the principle of the thing.
In another sense, dissent/civil disobedience gives a soapbox to the do-gooders who need fifteen or more minutes of fame to make them feel better about themselves---making a difference, we have called it.
So, civil disobediance fills a niche and sweetens our rebellious nature; makes the obscure famous and the infamous acceptable. Occasionally, it even changes something that needs to be changed.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 20, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

How's this for a general definition? Civil Disobed

How's this for a general definition?
Civil Disobedience- a conspicuous act that is contrariwise to the legislative manifestation of the cultural dogma of a time and place.
Genruk

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 21, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I was moved by MJA's comment regarding the mustang

I was moved by MJA's comment regarding the mustang roundup and his witnessing a nightmare of reality in the execution of that event. Referring to a comment on your other recent post, levels of reality, this appears to have been both a factual and a conditional reality. Conditional because of the BLM's charge to get a job done. Factual, because there appears to be no legally viable way to challenge BLM's authority to do so. The sporadic attempts we have heard of have attracted inadequate support---or so it would seem. Well, this post has been about civil disobediance.
I agree that we need it and that, at times, it has impact. The founding fathers must have felt the same way. But it is becoming a tough sell in an increasingly conservative culture, where individuals and groups do not want to appear anarchistic. The liberal label has come to symbolize anarchy for many. A learned friend has told me that we all have our models. He also said that the trick is to be able to see around them. I think he must be right---right, as in CORRECT. Otherwise, rose colored glasses turn into tunnel vision.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 22, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

So. Go bargaining with the devil now, amigos. See

So. Go bargaining with the devil now, amigos. See where it gets you. Have we covered this? No? Let the moderators decide. It has been stimulating.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 29, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

civil disobedience is the quasi-political tool of

civil disobedience is the quasi-political tool of the disenfranchised member of a society. being unable to vote, and unwilling to submit, he breaks the law. he should be regarded as a law-breaker, tax-dodger and saint should share the same cell.
friends of the saint should publicize his case and invite others to join him.
in a democracy, citizens could interpose a valuable step between submission and jail: a citizen initiative.
americans don't have this, because they don't have democracy. neither are they 'citizens,' merely civilians.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 29, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

On Mr. Loomis' comment: Now that's what I call dis

On Mr. Loomis' comment: Now that's what I call dissent. That's what I'm talkin' about. I have to wonder if he is right about his assertion regarding democracy. The indicators are growing, it would seem.

 
 
 

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