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Resolved: In a democracy, civil disobedience is an appropriate weapon in the fight for justice

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Background and Context of Debate

This is a classic debate topic, whose roots, at least within an American context, go back to the struggle for American independence when British colonists engaged in acts of civil disobedience to protest against British rule. The Boston Tea Party, an act of civil disobedience, helped spark the American Revolution.

It was a far less dramatic act of civil disobedience, a single individual refusing to pay his taxes in protest of the Mexican-American war and slavery in the nineteenth century that made the term "civil disobedience" a definitive part of the lexicon of American political protest. In July, 1846, Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail as a result of refusing to pay his taxes (he might have stayed in jail longer, but his aunt, against his wishes, paid the taxes on his behalf). His experience inspired him write the classic defense of civil disobedience, "Resistance to Civil Government, or Civil Disobedience Note". This essay is required reading for anyone debating the merits of civil disobedience.

Thoreau's essay continues to have a lasting impact, and served as inspiration for, among others, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.. Gandhi and King, along with Thoreau, should be required reading for this topic. For a convincing argument against a commitment to nonviolence at the expense of justice, see Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State. Gelderloos argues convincingly against applying Gandhi's methods in other contexts.

At the core of this topic is a very basic question: in a democracy, where people have a chance to vote for change, is breaking the law a legitimate form of political protest? Does respect for the democratic process obligate protesters to refrain from breaking the law?

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Long understood as the direct government by the people, the word "democracy" is today used to describe a broad assortment of governments. Indeed, one of the most oppressive regimes in the world today, calls itself the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, more commonly referred to simply as North Korea. Now, of course, no reasonable definition of democracy would include Kim Kong Il's oppressive dictatorship. However, the word democracy has become more elastic over the years, with most every regime trying to describe itself as being in one form of another a democracy. It is worth noting, though, that as recently at the 18th century, democracy was looked on as a form of government unlikely to promote justice. In the Tenth Federalist Paper, James Madison disparaged democracy claiming that "democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths." Instead, Madison and his fellow Federalists argued in favor of what they believed was a wholly different form of government, a "republican form," by which they meant "a government in which the scheme of representation takes place." Today, the form of government that the Federalists described as "republican" is no longer thought of as being in opposition to democracy but rather itself a form of democratic government. The republicanism that Madison championed as an alternative to democracy is now considered a form of government. Similarly, over the years, many of the rights and liberties enumerated in the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man have similarly been incorporated into the popular understanding of what democracy entails. Rights which were originally thought of as checks on democracy are now understood of as a necessary part of democracy.

With the definition of democracy contested and something of a muddle, it will be a challenge for the pro and con to find common ground. For instance, the con side can safely concede that Gandhi acted appropriately since there is no one who would argue that the British Raj was a democracy. However, what to make of the government Thoreau was protesting? Was the United States in the nineteenth century a democracy? If it wasn't a democracy, what was it?

Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is breaking of the law as a form of political protest. Often, those who defend civil disobedience try to build into the definition of civil disobedience the circumstances under which it would be a justified form of political justice. For instance, many supporters of civil disobedience will argue that only non-violent breaking of the law would constitute an act of civil disobedience. Others will add that an act of law breaking can only be considered civil disobedience when the protester willingly accepts the punishments associated with crime he or she committed.

An important thing to keep in mind when discussing civil disobedience is that acts that the laws that the protester may be breaking may themselves not be objectionable. For instance, a common form of civil disobedience is disrupting traffic or trespassing on public property. In these instances, the protester is not protesting traffic laws or the laws of trespass. Instead, the protester is breaking the law in order to make a point. Some will argue that, by definition, civil disobedience includes a willingness to accept punishment associated with violating the law. Like the question of whether civil disobedience is by definition non-violent or whether its justified when it is non-violent, the question of whether acceptance of punishment is part of the definition of civil disobedient or a factor to be looked at when trying to assess the justness in an act of civil disobedience. In the case of protesters who are breaking laws that even they would admit are not in themselves objectionable, the argument that the protester ought to accept punishment for his action is strongest.

However, when the law that the protester breaks is a law the protester objects to, the argument for accepting punishment becomes harder to make.

The easiest form of civil disobedience to defend are:

  • When the law the protester objects to is the law the protester objects to.
  • When the act of law breaking is non-violent.
  • When the protester accepts the punishment for his or her crime.

It is important for the con, however, to point out that civil disobedience is not limited to these situations. A pro side that only defends civil disobedience in these limited set of circumstances could be questioned for not having taken on a suffient burden in the debate.

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In the context of this topic, the word "weapon" has to be understood metaphorically; a dictionary definition of "weapon" would be inappropriate. "Weapon" in this context should be understood to mean "tool." It is worth noting, however, the tension between the common (mis)understanding of civil disobedience being a form of non-violent protest, and the allusion to weapons. Civil disobedience is, of course, more a form of mass mobilization (e.g. Gandhi) than a weapon of mass destruction.

Fight for Justice

While democracy may be the most just form of government available (or, as Churchill famously quipped "the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." "[1]), as a form of government democracy does not always guarantee justice. Indeed, the more narrowly one defines democracy as a government based on a majority rule, the easier it is to imagine how democracy might not guarantee justice. The specter of a tyrannical majority haunts democracy, which is why framers of modern constitutions usually put procedural checks on majority rule. In the United States, for instance, popular participation in government is mediated by a famous set of "checks and balance". These checks and balances are designed to put roadblocks in the path to tyranny, but no matter how well designed a political system is, justice will not always be the short term result of the political process.

In any democracy worthy of the name, there will be some mechanism for a minority to try to sway the majority to see things differently. The question the topic asks us to consider, however, is whether law breaking is an appropriate response to perceived injustice. Of course, one can't assume that right will always be on the side of the protesters. The proponent of civil disobedience cannot discount that those employing it will be wrong-headed. Neo-Nazis who believe that justice demands racial purity may decide to use civil disobedience in their pursuit of their ends.


Circumstances: Are there circumstances which justify breaking the law as a form of political protest?


  • Civil disobedience is just when its cause is just. If civil disobedience is employed as a means to unjust ends or in protest of just government programs, than it is unjust. Therefore, as long as civil disobedience is truly employed in "the fight for justice", it can be seen as a just method of citizen action.


  • Civil disobedience is frequently the tool of unjust causes - The masses often cloak unjust causes in a veil of "righteousness", and justify the righteousness of their cause by the brutal punishment of their opposition. The power of civil disobedience itself to affect the target becomes the interest, motive, and justification for civil disobedience, while the cause itself becomes irrelevant. This is to say that the power of civil disobedience is frequently corrupting in itself.

In democracies? - Is civil disobedience ever justified in a functioning democracy?


Even in democracies, we only have a chance to have a say in how the country is run every four years or so, and then only indirectly by voting for a political party. This is insufficient for the opinions of the people to be heard properly, and in certain circumstances civil disobedience is a powerful method of making the will of the public count if it is being ignored. Against powerful interest groups who dominate politics through their financial muscle and control of the media, civil disobedience is also the only way to get attention for a cause.[2]


In a democracy civil disobedience cannot be justified because sufficient means for change exist. National elections take place regularly, and governments are accountable and can be changed. Members of the public who are unhappy can always lobby their representative or protest within the law, for example by organizing marches, petitions, advertising campaigns, or even running candidates of their own for election. All these provide ways of changing laws and policies without the need for deliberate

Inadequate courts - Are the courts in democracies sometimes inadequate recourses for pursuits of legal change?


Not every just cause can be pursued through the courts (e.g. the campaign for Indian independence). Not every democracy has a written constitution or charter of rights, appeal to which allows the courts to override the will of the legislature (for example, the UK does not). Even in cases where a case could theoretically be taken through legal channels, the courts are often controlled by the same political elite as the government, and there is no guarantee of justice. And in any case, challenging an unjust law in court requires civil disobedience. Someone has to break that law deliberately, in order to be arrested and prosecuted for it, so that the case arrives in court in the first place.[3]


Most democracies allow appeal to the courts against laws which are obviously unjust. If the law can be shown to be in conflict with the country’s constitution or charter of rights, then courts can usually overturn it. People who are unhappy with such a law should take their struggle to the courts, rather than taking to the streets and undermining the rule of law itself.[4]

Universal laws: Can national laws break "universal" laws, and if so, does this mean that citizens have to disobey those national laws?


If a certain law breaks fundamental "natural" or "universal" laws, then that law must be broken. National laws cannot be the ultimate authority - men and women are also under higher laws. It was established in the Nuremberg trials that sometimes international laws must override national ones. Many Christian thinkers (such as Martin Luther King) and other philosophers have argued that the law of God, or “natural law” is paramount, and that national laws which do not accord with it are unjust and should be resisted. Even under the theory of social contract, the state can be resisted if it becomes oppressive and so breaks its side of the contract.[5]


We must obey the law even if we think it is wrong, or anarchy will result. The widely-held idea of the “social contract” teaches that by living under a state we accept the benefits it brings us (for example protection, health care, education, etc.), and by accepting these benefits we consent to its laws. If individuals placed their own values, whatever they are based upon, over the collective laws of the state, the state would dissolve and none of its benefits would be available to any of us.[6]

Effectiveness in history: Has civil disobedience proved successful in history as a way to combat oppression?


Civil disobedience has a history of overcoming oppression and unpopular policies where all other methods have failed: For example, Gandhi’s civil disobedience was instrumental in winning liberty for India, and Martin Luther King’s tactics won basic rights for black people in America. In 1998 rioters in Indonesia successfully protested against the despotic system of government that existed under the Suharto regime. In all of these cases there was no other avenue open to redress grievances; law breaking, whether Gandhi’s non-violent marches or King’s encouragement of the burning of rate books, was the only way to protest effectively.[7] In his letter from Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King Jr. describes 4 steps that must be followed in order to bring peaceful effective change. 1. Collection of the facts to determine whether an injustice has occurred in the first place. 2. Attempt to negotiation. 3. (only if negotiation is unsuccessful) self purification, or willingly accepting the punishment for all actions taken. and 4. the final step is direct action (once again, only if negotiation is unavailable) direct action is things like marches protests, demonstrations, peitions etc... Martin Luther King Jr. agrees that the sole purpose of direct action is "to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." So, if Civil disobedience is done correctly, it is very appropriate and effective weapon in the fight for justice.


Civil disobedience has the risk of breaking down into senseless and violent lawbreaking: Peaceful protest is quite possible in any society, and there is no need to go further into actual law breaking to make a point. For example, the ‘Carnival against Capitalism’ in London in 1999 descended into self-indulgent violence and destruction of property in the city, achieving nothing but notoriety for its cause. The racist attacks on the Chinese in the Indonesian riots also demonstrate how civil disobedience can break down into lawlessness, and indeed can be counter-productive by associating the cause with terror and violence. Some historians argue that the illegal activities of the suffragettes in the UK in the early 20th century actually set back their cause. civil disobedience is also considered one of the greatest "tragidies to order, rightreousnous, and justice" as was said by rosevelt in 1945.[8]

Confrontation: Is confrontation an appropriate aim in civil disobedience as a means to legal change?


It is the conflict with authority that gives the protest its power and urgency, and brings an issue to a wider audience. The suffragettes, the civil rights movement and the anti-Apartheid struggle are all examples of an eventually successful cause that won by its confrontation with authority, where more sedate methods would simply not have succeeded. In all these cases, any violence against people was not initiated by the protesters, but began because of the heavy-handed and violent response of their oppressors.[9]


There is never a justification for 'productive violence' in civil disobedience: Too often civil disobedience involves ‘productive violence’ directed against innocent members of the public, or against the police, often causing serious injuries. The Broadwater farm riots and the miner’s strike are both instances where groups have injured or killed policemen. Animal rights activists and anti-abortion campaigners have also been noted for their violence in the past. No cause is worth the sacrifice of innocent lives; protest must be peaceful or not at all.[10]

Targeting injustice: Is the practice of breaking only an isolated injustice sound?


Given a choice, anarchy is preferable to despotism But this is a false choice, as in the real world campaigns of civil disobedience have not led to the breakdown of law and order generally, or the collapse of the state. Those who advocate civil disobedience are usually careful to set boundaries on their actions, setting out what kind of disobedience is justified and what is unjustifiable. Martin Luther King, for example, held that justice demanded that unjust laws (i.e. segregation laws) be broken, but that just laws (e.g. against trespass, violence against property or the person) must be upheld.[11]

Martin Luther King Jr. says in his letter from Birmingham Jail that "The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws....A just law is a code that squares away with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the words of St. Aquinas. An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust." to add on to what the person said up there, He also agreed that segregation was unjust because "...segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality...[it] ends up relating persons to the status of things."


Even if a particular cause is just, those promoting it should not break the law. By doing so they set an example of illegality and contempt for law and order which others, with less worthy causes or no cause at all, will follow. Winning a change in the law is worthless, if obtaining it has destroyed the ability of the state, its police and its courts to uphold any law, just or unjust.[12]

Violence: Is the use of violence acceptable in civil-disobedience?


  • Violence can be a means to bringing attention to a cause. If the cause is good and just, such violence may be justified. Indeed, the American Revolution was a violent revolution, and many American historians argue that it was a justified reaction to King George III. If a violent revolution can be considered just, than violent civil-disobedience can be just as well, again, assuming the cause is just.


  • The use of violence undermines a moral cause. Violence violates the rights of other individuals, perhaps a policeman in the case of civil disobedience. It is not right to attempt to balance the scales of justice by violating another individual's rights. Greater justice is not obtained by fighting evil with evil or violence with violence. The only acceptable course of action is to maintain the moral high-ground through peaceful civil disobedience.

Notice: Is it acceptable to perform civil disobedience without public notice?


  • Publicity sometimes undermines the attempt to communicate through civil disobedience. If a person publicizes her intention to breach the law, she provides both political opponents and legal authorities with the opportunity to abort her efforts to communicate. As such, unannounced disobedience is sometimes preferable to actions undertaken publicly and with fair warning.


  • Civil disobedience should never be covert or secretive. Civil disobedience should only ever be committed in public, openly, and with fair notice to legal authorities. It is essential to the dissenter's purpose that both the government and the public know the intentions of those performing acts of civil disobedience.

Consequences: Must those performing civil disobedience accept the consequences of breaking the law?


  • Civil disobedience is acceptable as long as those committing it are willing to accept the consequences under the law. Those committing civil disobedience should not deny their binding obedience and fidelity to the law. As long as they are willing to accept the consequences of their action under the rule of law, they demonstrate their continued obedience to the social contract that they have entered with a people and government. By abiding by the rules of justice in this way, they maintain a moral high ground for disputing injustices; presumably more fundamental and significant ones committed by a government (typically).


Consider the thousands of young Americans who evaded the draft for the Vietnam War by going to Canada. Accepting the consequences of their actions would only be an admission they had done something wrong, when they fervently believed they were in the right. By fleeing the country they harmed noone, and if anything, saved the nation the time and money to imprison them. This is not true for all cases, however. Sometimes the point is more effective if the injustice is completed by imprisoning someone for something believed to be entirely reasonable. In modern times, protesters who use civil disobedience know they are breaking the law and willingly accept their small sentences for minor infractions, looking at the reaction and impact of their act as offsetting their personal cost of imprisonment.

See also

Further Reading

External links

Wikipedia Entries

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YouTube Videos

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[http:/ Howard Zinn] on civil disobedience.

An act of civil disobedience. Protesters in Tacoma, Washington protesting the war in Iraq are arrested for their efforts.

Maine Artist/Activist Robert Shetterly discusses the importance Civil Disobedience.

Amateur video on civil disobedience in history.

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