Philosophy 2800
Week 7

Civil Disobedience

Civil Disobedience = Moral Law Breaking

Is there any such thing as civil disobedience?

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) - A Natural Law Approach

"when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience." (283-4)

" there are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all." (284)

When is a law just?
"A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God." (284)
This is an appeal to what's known as Natural Law Theory.

How to Be Civilly Disobedient

"In no way do I advocate evading or defying the law..." (285)

"One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly ... and with a willingness to accept the penalty" (285)

"... an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community ... is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law." (285)


John Rawls - A Social Contract Approach

John Rawls (1921 - ) is arguably the most important political philosopher of the last 50 years or so. In 1971, Rawls published A Theory of Justice, an enormously influential book.


Social Contract Theory

"the principles of justice are those which free and rational men would agree to in an original position of equal liberty." (292)

"principles of justice are understood as the outcome of a hypothetical agreement." (292)

The (hypothetical) agreement is made between rational, largely self-interested contractors.

The 'Original Position'

"the parties do not know their position in society, past, present, or future; nor do they know which institutions exists.  Again, they do not know their own place in the distribution of natural talents and abilities, whether they are intelligent or strong, man or woman, and so on." (292)
They must choose from behind a 'veil of ignorance'.
What sort of principles would be chosen in this sort of situation?

The Two Principles of Justice

(1) "each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all" (293)

(2) The Difference Principle:  "economic inequalities ... are to be arranged so that they are both to everyone's advantage and attached to positions and offices open to all." (293)

But  "even under a just constitution unjust laws may be passed ... the majority may be mistaken." (295)
If so, is civil disobedience morally okay?


"The injustice of a law is not a sufficient ground." (294)

"Assuming that the constitution is just and that we have accepted and plan to continue to accept its benefits, we then have both an obligation and a natural duty ... to comply with what the majority enacts even though it may be unjust ... provided the injustice does not exceed certain limits." (295)



1. Appeals to the majority must already have been made. (298)

2. It should be limited to substantial and clear violations of justice. (298)

3. It must be consistent - dissenters must be willing to have others dissent in similar situations. (299)

4. It must have some reasonable likelihood of success. (301)


Civil Disobedience

"I shall understand it to be a public, nonviolent, and conscientious act contrary to law usually done with the intent to bring about a change in the policies or laws of the government." (296)

It must "address the sense of justice of the majority." (296)

It "is public and nonviolent, ... done in a situation where arrest and punishment are expected and accepted without resistance." (297)

"it is a form of speech, an expression of conviction." (297)

It is "best understood as an appeal to the principles of justice, the fundamental conditions of willing social cooperation among free men." (297)

[Philosophy 2800]