How is Civil Disobedience Best Defined?
Civil disobedience was adopted within political systems in the period 1884. The phrase has its advent on Henry Thoreau who during the same period opposed tariff payments that had been instituted by the American authorities in a bid to pool monetary resources that would be used, first to impeach the Mexican war raging during the same period and secondly, to implement fugitive slave decrees (Brownlee 2). As a result of this initial opposition, history has been dotted with various instances within which political activists and other eminent figures have breached state laws especially those deemed to be oppressive and unjust in nature. Greenawalt describes civil disobedience as “a public and nonviolent breach of the law that is committed in order to change a law and policy, and in order to better the society… those classified as civilly disobedient must be willing to accept punishment,” (1). This definition is widely accepted across diverse scholars as it encompasses the various elements that differentiate civil disobedience from other forms of law breaches.
The first element noted from the definition holds the ground that civil disobedience is a public issue; the operation has to be carried out in an open and unrestrictive manner within the given society, such that the people and government officials are able to monitor the act. Publicity serves as a significant element within acts of civil disobedience in terms of justice infusion where both the nationals and the authorities are offered the opportunities to assess the strength of the argument as well as offer chances for fair retaliation. However, publicity has to be handled with a lot of precaution since some actions mandate public involvement upon the completion or within the implementation phase. For instance, animal rights activists may attack a research facility and free the animals before the action is communicated to the public by the fact that, by making their motives known before the attack would force the facility and the government to plant heavy security around the institution and this would inhibit the group’s efforts. Brownlee however claims that the validation of this reversed process is only realized “when followed soon after by an acknowledgment of the act and reasons for acting” (5).
The second element is identified as non-violence. Note that, civil disobedience has its impetus within the enhancement of public welfare and not haring it. Violence leads to property destruction, injuries and more often than never demises that leave the affected people worse off than before; the opportunity cost attached to violence is high since rationally, most individuals are not willing to pay for societal and political justice by losing their loved ones of property. The non-violent school of thought is however criticized by followers of the view that violence is a relative issue. This latter school of thought argues that the use of “limited violence used to achieve a specific objective might heighten the communicative quality of the act…by emphasizing… seriousness and frustration” (Brownlee 5). However, despite the motivation towards employing violence in cases of civil disobedience, the costs attached to such instances are very high and therefore citizens would rather forego the practice.
The third element is referred to as conscientiousness, which is used to ensure that the movement’s ending attains societal equity. The underlying argument therefore stems from the view that this can only be realized only in instances where the vision career is selfless and propelled towards righting unfair decrees and strategies. Acts of conscientiousness according to Brownlee revolve around the view that “for many disobedients, their breach of law is demanded of them not only be self-respect and moral consistency but also by the perception of the interests of their society” (3). This factor overcomes the weakness noted in political systems characterized by impunity where the leaders often resort to dishonest practices that seem to be propelled by public welfare yet the move is entirely embedded on egotistical gains. Therefore, it should be noted that not all publicly declared law breaches are geared towards the realization of societal equity and justice. Note that, only individuals that are termed as civilly disobedient due to own and communal affairs have the bravery to accept the retribution that accompanies their actions.
Communication has been identified as the fourth element that defines the law, which a given individual seeks to address, by the application of civil disobedience. This element is used to identify whether the act has a direct or indirect causal link to the policy being addressed (Brownlee 3). For instance, the American health structure employs the use of the discriminatory payment policy where the affluent individuals are charged higher than the poor ones in terms of medical services. The justification accorded to this practice is that the extra amount of income accrued from the wealthy is used to fund the deficit infused by poor who lack adequate monetary power to sustain their health needs. Individuals who deem the move as unfair may publicly declare the move as unfair and use masses to demonstrate against the practice. Alternatively, they may lobby masses towards boycotting tariff payments on their incomes as this is used to pay public medical health employees and affecting this indirect point is likely to push health workers into yielding to their demands. This is the importance of clear communication.
Is Civil Disobedience Ever Justified?
Since the inception of the expression civil disobedience, enthusiasts and followers of the same have justified their actions in “three planes: that of legitimacy-the moral justification; that of legal validity-the legal justification; and, that of effectiveness-the political justification” (International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, et al. 44). The same has been condemned in terms related to “authority and reason, between legal absolutism and absolute freedom of individual conscience” (International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, et al. 44). In the publication, The Last Days of Socrates, a dialogue ensues between Socrates and his friend, Crito. The dialogue is set within a visit in which the latter visits the former in prison where he is awaiting a death penalty. The whole setting fits the definition of civil disobedience where the public justification of the smuggling incident would be attested later after the prisoner has been safely removed from the danger zone.
Crito and a few other individuals feel that Socrates arrest was unfair and that his death would leave the world in dire shortage of a significant knowledge base. Therefore, in accordance to the conscientiousness principle, Crito and his friends pool their monetary resources in a bid to use the finances to free their friends. The stratagem is to have Socrates illegally smuggled out of the prison. Their public justification is argued upon the view that Socrates death would deprive the larger part of the population his eye opening arguments and wisdom. The method to be used in smuggling him is actually a non-violent one where the jail bearers have agreed to financial bribes and Crito has made the motive of his visit known to both the security agents as well as Socrates. The prisoner employs the premise “shall we say ‘Yes, I do intend to destroy the laws, because the State wronged me by passing a faulty judgement at my trial’?” (Rosen & Jonathan 79). Even with the various views put forward by Crito, Socrates refuses to escape from prison by personalizing a conversation between him and the country’s laws where he equates the decrees to court judges and he still as a prisoner. He then coins several questions that the law would direct to him and the various responses he would offer in each instance.
In the case introduction, Socrates presented the benefits offered to him by the law like his parents wedding, education, and civil rights among others. Furthermore, the scholar argues that if the laws had done this much good to him, why would they need to punish him. Actually, according to Socrates, the state had to be revered over personal views as noted by his words “compared with your father and mother and all the rest of your ancestors, your country is far more precious, more venerable, more sacred, and held in high honor both among gods and among all reasonable men” (Rosen & Jonathan 79). Socrates exultation of the state above humans and therefore life has been a significant point of contention with the question as to what precedes the other. Enthusiasts for civil disobedience believe that the state is not made up of inanimate objects like minerals, buildings, natural resources, infrastructure and appliances like vehicles but that it comprises of people. Additionally, decrees are instituted by humans as a product of intellectual discussions and therefore it becomes very evident that without man and more so individuals that could govern, and be governed by the law, then its role would be rendered obsolete (Tella & Peter 150).
Consequently, by man’s ability to propose and re-institute decrees, he becomes the inventor of the laws and therefore possessing the freedom to change that, which is considered as erratic. Regarding the moral argument, Thoreau offers the premise “must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the last degree, resigns his conscience to the legislator?” (Rosen & Jonathan 81). The response to this query would certainly be a strong no. Laws are edicts based on human ideals that encompass the interests of a large number of people. Interestingly, the law does not necessarily have to be defined only in written documents as many people think; it only needs to be a widely accepted principle within a given populace. For instance, the Congolese society has strong printed laws in opposition to women rape that has been rated as the worst in the world, yet the ideals that this chauvinistic society holds with regard to women has led to the advancement of the violence with at least two hundred thousand women falling prey. Therefore, very law that is enforced void of conscientiousness is as good as none and although “a corporation has no conscience…a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with conscience” (Rosen & Jonathan 81).
Martin Luther King in his objection against racial discriminatory practices specifically as used by the whites to oppress the black notes that historic advances in terms of human rights had to come through non-violent demands for freedom. The populace at that period termed Luther’s moves as being pretentious since the blacks were exhibiting a high enthusiasm for law breaches and their leader was actually known for his ministerial duties that compelled the followers earlier to obey state laws. Luther validated his actions by noting “there are just and unjust laws…a just law is a man-made code that is out of harmony with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (Rosen & Jonathan 84-85). Referring to our earlier Congolese example, rape is morally wrong across various world cultures as well as God’s law. This global view actually acts as the basis for the institution of international laws that are used to protect the needs of marginalized groups. Although Congo acts as an independent state that has the freedom of governance, it has been held responsible for this actions by human rights groups from other nations, which proves that their system is unjust.
Rawls asserts that when “disobedients coordinate with other minorities” (Brownlee 12) it provides a rational base for the adoption of civil disobedience. This provides a stronger rationalization for the Congo case and any other form of legal and political interventions. In conclusion, civil disobedience is a justified practice but only if it is a selfless act that attempts to institute both individual and societal freedom from oppressive decrees. Note that the move should clearly communicate to the whole public as to the reasons for the movement; any form of clandestine operation must be released to the public. Lastly, the other form of justification is realized by the use of non-violent strategies in the communication process since it leads to life and property preservation that is in accordance to the principle of an enhanced societal welfare.
Brownlee, Kimberley. Civil Disobedience. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 4 Jan. 2007. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.
Greenawalt, Kent. Civil Disobedience. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1998. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.
International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, World Congress, and Arend Soeteman. Pluralism and Law: State, nation, community, civil society. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2003. Print.
Rosen, Michael, and Jonathan, Wolff. Political Thought. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
Tella, Maria, and Peter, Muckley. Civil disobedience. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2004. Print.