Civil Disobedience

Sunday, November 21, 2010
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 18, 2009

What Is It

Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King all engaged in civil disobedience, and are widely admired for doing so.  But how can democratic society function if each person's conscience has to be satisfied for a law to be obeyed?  When is civil disobedience justified?  When is it required?  How does the concept fit with the great ethical and political philosophies?  John and Ken discuss the ethics of protest and punishment with Kimberley Brownlee from the University of Manchester.

Listening Notes

In this episode, John and Ken ask whether it’s ever okay to disobey an unjust law. Suppose there are two people that decide to disobey a law, Thoreau and Schmo. Thoreau decides not to pay his taxes because they would support an unjust war. Schomo refuses to pay the same tax, but only because he likes to hold on to his hard earned money. Is there are moral difference between Thoreau and Schmo?
What is civil disobedience? Maybe it’s a sort of speech act—a way of getting a point across. Maybe it’s a way of getting publicity for a cause. It seems like we don’t have clear criteria for what means, but we have plenty of examples as well, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King. It seems that there are plenty of heroes in the history of civil disobedience that we love to adore—but does that make it right? What about people who disagree with their ideas? What should they think?

Kim Brownlee, Moral and Political Philosopher from the University of Manchester, joins John and Ken to help them work through these questions. They discuss the fact that nonviolence is not necessarily central to civil disobedience. For instance, civil disobedience often involves property damage, and that’s a form of violence, isn’t it? Moreover, nonviolence can lead to harm. After all, an ambulance strike can do more harm than a group of animal rights activists that throw stuffed animals at police officers.

So, when is civil disobedience justified, if ever? One thing we might want to think about is how we know that a law is unjust. Are we morally right just because we feel strongly about a law? Some theorists have argued that civil disobedience can function in a democracy to highlight injustices and correct for democratic deficits.
The three philosophers also consider Roe v. Wade. Almost everyone has an opinion, and some people’s opinions are strong enough to inspire civil disobedience. What can we make of that?

Maybe civil disobedience has the role of educating society about important issues. But then how should we think about punishing civil disobedience? One thing to think about is that civil disobedience is a philosophical concept, and not a legal one. Thus, judges must often impose harsh penalties even if they sympathize with the defendants.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:35): Julie Napolin, calls in from Berkeley to talk about the Bay Area’s proud history of protests and civil disobedience. Stony, a local protestor, breaks social codes whenever he can to demonstrate the injustices most of us don’t want to think about in day to day life. He wants to create a community without limiting restrictions. Despite his nonviolent ways, he has been arrested many times, and has paid the price for his unconventional methods.
  • Conundrum (Seek to 46:16):  This caller wants to keep his identity a secret, but he is the assistant to the CEO of a small company. The CEO decided to restructure his department, and ended up firing the Manager. Unable to find a qualified replacement, he hired his girlfriend. What should the caller do? If he reports this behavior to the company’s board of directors, he would almost certainly get fired. Apparently, troublemakers have a history of losing their jobs, and everyone in the company knows this. John and Ken, decide that the most the caller can reasonably do is talk to his boss one on one and let him know that he does not approve. Sometimes, there are limits to how moral we can afford to be.