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Civil Disobedience

The History Of The Concept, Philosophic Status Today, Disputed Questions, Bibliography

Civil disobedience is an illegal act performed publicly in contravention of a law or laws of the government for the short-term purpose of bringing about a change in the law or laws and for the long-term purpose of improving society as a whole. It is a political act because its underlying principles are the principles of political justice that regulate the state and its institutions, and not those of private conduct. The act is called "civil" because it is courteous in the manner of its performance, not criminal in its methods or revolutionary in its effects. It presupposes the legitimacy of the state and the constitutional order, and its aim is the preservation of an improved state, not its overthrow.

Civil disobedience may be carried out by individuals or by masses of people. Its acts may be symbolic, as in the case of fasts, vigils, the burning of official documents, and so forth, or they may be substantial, as in the case of boycotts, strikes, marches, mass meetings, withdrawal of cooperation with the government and its institutions, sit-ins, occupation of public buildings, and the like.

In the late twentieth century, the idea of civil disobedience acquired a legal standing in international jurisprudence thanks especially to the Nuremberg trials. The latter established the legal norm according to which individuals may be held responsible for not disobeying domestic laws that grossly violate fundamental human rights.

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