Civil Disobedience Research Paper

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Acts of civil disobedience have their roots in religion and the desire to honor a “higher law.” Today the term civil disobedience refers to any public, nonviolent act against authority. Such acts are not committed for personal gain, and maintain a goal of righting an injustice or abuse of governmental policies and laws.

Civil disobedience refers to a deliberate offense against authority committed openly to protest an unjust, arbitrary, cruel, pointless, or immoral law or policy of the government. It rests on the assumption that there is a “higher duty” or “higher cause” than civil authority. Civil disobedience, however, does not refer to just any kind of deliberate violation of law or government policy. Street crimes such as robbery and burglary are committed from motives such as personal gain and malice. The civil disobedient, on the other hand, is not interested in private or personal gain; rather, the purpose of civil disobedience is to protest an injustice or a wrong.

Defining Elements

The philosopher John Rawls formally defines civil disobedience as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government” (1971, 368). The important defining elements of civil disobedience in this definition are public, nonviolent, deliberate unlawfulness, and conscientious.

A Public Act

Civil disobedience refers to action that is of a public political nature. Acts of disobedience to family and school do not qualify as acts of civil disobedience. Rather, in engaging in openly announced defiance of particular laws or customs, activists are interested in demonstrating that they are withholding allegiance from the state until its alleged abuses are corrected. In addition, civil disobedience is often engaged in with prior notice as well as openly, since the protestors want as much publicity and attention as possible so as to draw attention to the injustice or wrong that is the subject of the protestors’ acts.

A Nonviolent Act

Civil disobedience contrasts with acts of “warfare against the state” such as assassination, sabotage, terrorism, riot, insurrection, and revolution. Civil disobedients engage in a kind of resistance within the accepted political structure, a violation of the law without loss of respect for law and the other basic political institutions. Civil disobedients want their acts to be nonviolent so that they can convince the majority of their fellow citizens that the acts are indeed conscientious and sincere and that the acts are intended to address what they perceive as an injustice or wrong.

Deliberate Unlawfulness

The civil disobedient can use one of two types of deliberate unlawfulness to protest an injustice or wrong. Direct civil disobedience is a type of deliberate unlawfulness that violates the very law that is the target of the protest. White people sitting in the “black section” of segregated buses in the 1950s is a good example of direct civil disobedience. More characteristically, the civil disobedient uses indirect acts of civil disobedience; that is, the act of civil disobedience violates some other law whose reasonableness is not in question. For example, one does not protest capital punishment for murder by committing murder. Rather, one may protest such perceived wrongs by the disruption of traffic into a correctional facility where an execution is scheduled.

A Conscientious Act

This element excludes motives of private or personal gain or malicious emotion as the primary reason for the action. For example, Mohandas Gandhi subverted colonial rule in South Africa and India with acts of passive disobedience. By so doing, civil disobedients suffer inconvenience, expense, threats, real danger, and eventually punishment. Their willingness to suffer these consequences helps to demonstrate that the purpose of the acts is to protest an injustice or a wrong.

Political Authority and Civil Disobedience

Judeo-Christian traditions and political philosophy teach that there is a principle of obligation higher than that of human authorities of the political communities, and that in a conflict between the higher and the lower, the higher takes precedence. Three classic statements on civil disobedience by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929– 1968) can illustrate this relationship between political authority and civil disobedience.

Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” is perhaps the best-known American statement on the right of the solitary individual acting alone against a government that had allegedly abused its authority. Its immediate historical context was America’s war with Mexico. In protest of that war, Thoreau refused to pay his taxes, a gesture that led to his spending a night in jail. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau argues that it was individuals and not the government that created the conditions for liberty. Moreover, societal reform does not occur through politics. The regeneration of society, Thoreau insisted, must begin with self-regeneration not political participation.

Mohandas Gandhi was a Hindu religious leader and social reformer in India who advocated the use of noncooperation and passive resistance to achieve social and political reform. He believed that it was not sufficient to rely on persuasion or appeal to authorities to voluntarily change their unjust ways. The condition that justifies civil disobedience is the fundamental violation of human rights. But Gandhi thought that individuals should resort to civil disobedience only after careful consideration and only those who are qualified should practice it. To be qualified, a person must already have acquired the habit of willing obedience to laws; those who have not learned to obey laws for the right reason do not have the right to disobey the law.

One of the best-known statements on civil disobedience is the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” written by Martin Luther King Jr. King wrote this letter following his arrest for refusing to halt a large civil disobedience campaign. King called upon citizens to become more involved in politics in order to secure the voting rights that had been denied to black citizens. He believed that civil disobedience presupposes recognizing political authority. King also conceived of civil disobedience as a crisis-heightening tactic that would prod government into a dialogue that would lead to a solution.

Contemporary Issues

The historical tradition of civil disobedience lies in religious conscience. Acts of civil disobedience arose because of the individual’s need to remain true to the dictates of “higher law.” Although the tradition of civil disobedience motivated by religious conscience has not disappeared, it is no longer the primary source for its manifestation. The modern discussion of civil disobedience often occurs against a background of acknowledged just constitutions, democratic parliaments, and valid laws. The citizen, in engaging in a disobedient act, makes claims that are based on the nature of his membership in a society.


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