3 minute read

Civil Disobedience

Philosophic Status Today

Thoreau, Gandhi, and King were primarily practitioners rather than philosophers of civil disobedience. Even though a philosophy did underlie their practice, they themselves did not elaborate it in any systematic fashion. From the last quarter of the twentieth century onward, however, philosophers and political theorists have taken a keen interest in the philosophic aspects of civil disobedience. The most significant of these philosophers is John Rawls (1921–2002). His Theory of Justice (1971) integrates civil disobedience into the liberal-contractarian philosophy of justice. It grounds civil disobedience in the two principles of Rawlsian justice—namely, those of equal basic liberty of the citizens and equality of opportunity. However, a society built on these principles is not a "perfectly just society," but only "a nearly just society." Though it is a well-ordered society, "serious violations" of justice can and do occur in it. This imperfect character of the justice of the liberal society places the citizen in a moral quandary. There is on the one hand the obligation to obey laws enacted under an agreed upon constitution, yet on the other there is the duty to oppose the injustices of particular laws and the right to defend the basic liberty of citizens. That is to say, the obligation to obey in a liberal society is relative, not absolute—relative to the prior right to defend one's basic liberty and the duty to oppose injustice.

It is here that civil disobedience comes to the rescue of the embattled citizen. It permits the citizen to disobey an unjust law, but only within the bounds of fidelity to the constitutional order. In this way civil disobedience helps test the moral basis of liberal democracy. It also points to the limits of the majority principle. If the majority fails to respect the basic liberty of citizens and equality of opportunity, the grieved citizen or citizens have the right to disobey the law, irrespective of the position of the majority.

However, for Rawls, civil disobedience may not be violent in its methods; it has to be nonviolent for two reasons. First, in a liberal democratic society civil disobedience is a mode of appealing to the latent sense of fundamental justice that the majority is presumed to possess. This appeal can succeed only if the means of civil disobedience remains nonviolent. The civilly disobedient may warn and admonish, but not threaten. Second, nonviolence is a method of expressing disobedience within the limits of fidelity to the constitutional order, and of accepting voluntarily the legal consequences of disobedience. Thus, though contrary to a given law, civil disobedience is a morally correct way of maintaining the constitutional order in an admittedly imperfect society. It becomes part of free government. It gives stability to the constitutional order and helps actualize the capacity for self-correction.

Rawls's theory has the merit of explaining why civil disobedience works only in certain societies and not in others. It works in societies whose contending members can agree on what constitutes justice. Because of this they are able to compose their differences. Civil disobedience tests the solidity of this consensus. In societies whose contending members cannot agree on what constitutes justice, there is no room for civil disobedience, but only for civil war or something close to it. Thus, Rawls's theory can also explain why civil disobedience succeeded the way it did in unjust colonial societies such as South Africa and India. It succeeded because, paradoxically, the higher colonial administration and the civilly disobedient citizens were able to agree on the basic principles of liberal justice.

There is one major difference, however, between Rawls's theory and that of Gandhi and King. Rawls grounds his theory in the principles of liberty and equality, without asking whether they need grounding in some other principle. Gandhi and King ground their conceptions of liberty and equality in the higher principle of the spiritual personality of human beings—atman (the spiritual self) in the case of Gandhi and the immortal soul in that of King. It is because humans have a spiritual personality that they ought to be free and equal in society. Their theory of disobedience has deeper roots than does Rawls's. The latter operates within the limits of European Enlightenment, whereas the other two operate within a broader framework.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterCivil Disobedience - The History Of The Concept, Philosophic Status Today, Disputed Questions, Bibliography