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Are there any necessary and/or sufficient conditions of justified disobedience?


Civil disobedience is a topic which has provoked much debate throughout history, even dating back to Greek mythology. Despite this history, ‘civil disobedience’ as a scholastic concept, free from religious attachment wasn’t instigated until the mid-1800s. The naturalist, Henry David Thoreau was a pioneer in his teachings relating to civil disobedience, with his most prominent stand in his refusal to pay poll tax during the 1840s, due to his disapproval of the USA’s war against Mexico, slavery and the poor treatment of native Indians. After Thoreau, the study of civil disobedience gained momentum, with many scholars and philosophers such as Tolstoy and Gandhi starting to devote attention to it. Early forms of civil disobedience can be identified throughout modern history, for example, the events occurring during the various feminist waves of the 20th century were largely as a result of civil disobedience.  However, despite this, civil disobedience wasn’t recognised as a general political issue or even considered a household term until around the civil rights movement in America during the 1950s. Figure heads such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and –although wavering on belief- Muhammad Ali contributed towards the African-American civil rights movement, which obviously required much civil disobedience to succeed. The definition of the term ‘civil disobedience’ is one which is open to much deliberation amongst scholars, particularly the role of violence and whether the lack of violence, as Hugo Bedau[1] and Richard Wasserstrom[2] argue, is a defining factor of civil disobedience. Generally, civil disobedience is considered as the active public rejection of a particular law through an illegal act against a government on conscientious grounds to reach a limited conclusion.[3]

The study of the justifiability of certain acts of civil disobedience must take into account individual acts of civil disobedience. Things such as the motivations of the individual or group committing the act, the consequences of the action and whether or not the individual had an available alternative action to achieve their goal are all things which must be considered. One way we can distinguish the justifiability of an act of civil disobedience is through assessing the mortality behind it. By assessing the degree to which it is illegal and using consequences and motives to determine the morality of the act- such as any expected or unexpected indirect harm it is causing others, the cause over which the individual is committing the act and the reasons why they are supporting that particular cause- we can attempt to weigh up the justifiability.

To assume that there is any justifiability in civil disobedience is to believe that the ‘political obligation’ theory- which states that people have a moral responsibility to comply with the law of the land[4]- is not applicable. Therefore, one way we can assess how far an act of civil disobedience can be justified, is to assess how far people have a moral obligation to even obey the law. M.B.E Smith argues that the legality of an action is not related to its moral importance,[5] for example, a crime such as rape is already reprehensible and the illegality of the action does not increase its reprehensibility. Similarly, to tell a serious lie to a friend is not illegal, however, it is deemed by many as immoral. Therefore, when considering doing commit an act of civil disobedience, it could be argued that the legality of the action should not affect your decision on whether to do it or not. Following this theory, provided that the act of civil disobedience is morally right, it is justified. However, this idea can be contradicted. Theories of political obligation have been around for centuries. The theory of ‘divine command’-originating from Christianity- declares that there is an obligation to obey the law, as shown in Paul’s Epistle in Romans 13:2, ‘For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.’[6] Due to the universal influence of Christianity on society throughout the centuries, religion has been a source from where many moral decisions of the general public have been drawn and also, in many countries, the law itself is largely based upon religion. Therefore, denial of the authority of the law through an act of civil disobedience can be argued to never be justified, no matter what the cause- particularly since a condition for the act to be civil disobedience is the conscientiousness of the action. A more recent theory of political obligation is the concept of ‘social contract’. Social contract- the idea that people in society are bound by a ‘contract’ of mutual consent, agreeing to follow a certain set of rules in order to protect society as a whole- is a concept which has been heavily studied and theorised in modern history. Famous theorists such as Thomas Hobbes[7] and John Locke[8] have theorised about and used social contract theory in their work. Social contract theory reinforces the concept that the law is a higher authority for the good of society as a whole. For this reason, the objection to it through an act of civil disobedience cannot be justified, as any negative impact a law has on a group or individual’s wellbeing must be endured for the good of society as to go against the law is against the society’s best interests.

Although there has been much in the way of academic support for political obligation, there are many theorists who do not believe in the infallibility of the law. The influential philosopher St Augustine of Hippo set a precedent in the justification of breaking the law in his quote ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’[9] Obviously, a phrase as vague as this is open to differing interpretation amongst those who read it, particularly the interpretation of who is to define what is ‘just’. In the event that an individual believes a law is unjust, there are appropriate political and legal channels to express their objection. However, many argue that despite these channels, causes defended by a group of people are usually opposed by the government anyway, in which case, the appropriate legal channels may not be that effective, therefore potentially justifying civil disobedience as a last resort. It is difficult to quantify, however, when a person has reached their ‘last resort’, making it to almost impossible to judge whether the act of civil disobedience was morally justified. To overcome these issues, John Rawls proposes that if previous attempts to influence government policy have failed due to an unsympathetic or apathetic response and continued action in this way is seen as ineffective, civil disobedience maybe be seen as a justified last resort.[10]

According to Rawls, another justification for civil disobedience is when minority groups that commit acts of civil disobedience synchronise their efforts with other minorities. He argues that providing the groups are equally justified in committing acts of civil disobedience- particularly if their causes are of similar calibre- by working together, the groups are proving further justifiability by not damaging each other’s efforts in requiring attention from the government at the same time. This therefore proves that in these acts of civil disobedience, the groups or individuals have the causes’ best interests in mind whilst limiting the civil disobedience.[11] This justification, however, is not a requirement. Rawls suggested that this justification is one which adds weight to the justifiability of an act of civil disobedience but does not define it, as essentially, this concept replies upon the cooperation of others, which may not be available. In this case, it is open to debate as to whether a lack of cooperation from others should play a role in an individual’s decision making process to commit the act of civil disobedience, since a lack of cooperation may be signalling society’s lack of support for the cause.11

Many who defend the government’s infallibility concerning legal authority oppose any act of civil disobedience, arguing it is for society’s, or even the individual’s best interests, be it protection from judgement by God or societal protection. However, in the constant pursuit of a fairer society, civil disobedience has been essential in society’s progression throughout modern history. Both the feminist movement and the African-American civil rights movement, two of the most successful civil rights movements in history, have owed much of their success to their necessary use of civil disobedience, making society a much fairer place. The zeitgeist during these times was one of inequality and arguably, without these groups’ use of civil disobedience, many would not have known the immorality of society at the time. Many theorists have argued against the legal authority of the government in order to justify acts of civil disobedience, however, particularly within democracies, this approach is unrealistic to rationalise. One of the main strengths of Rawls’ concept of a ‘coordination strategy’ is that it defends the justification of civil disobedience to achieve the best possible result. By coordinating efforts, it is encouraging the promotion of ideas and changes that many people want to see in society those who are committing acts of civil disobedience are maximising the probability of success in bringing about positive change whilst proving that they want to use the least amount of civil disobedience practically possible, arguably maintaining respect for the law and the government whilst fighting for a needed change.



[1] Hugo Adam Bedau, On Civil Disobedience, Journal of Philosophy, LVII, 1961, p.656

[2] (Richard Wasserstrom), H.A. Freeman et al., Civil Disobedience, Santa Barbara Center for Study of Democratic Institutions, 1966, p18

[3] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971, p.366-367

[4] T. H Green, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, Batoche Books, 1999, p.5


[5]M. B. E. Smith, ‘Is There a Prima Facie Obligation to Obey the Law’ in Yale Law Journal 82, 1973, (5), p.950-976

[6] The Apostle Paul, The Bible, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Romans, (13:1-2)

[7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651): Revised student edition, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, [First Edition- Reprinted], 2002, p 92-93

[8] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690): Barnes and Noble Books, 2004, p.47-48

[9] St Augustine of Hippo, On Free Choice Of The Will, Book 1, 387AD, p. 8

[10] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 372-373


[11] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 374-375



Bedau, Hugo Adam, On Civil Disobedience, Journal of Philosophy, LVII, 1961, p. 656


Green, T. H, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, Batoche Books, 1999, p.5


Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (1651): Revised student edition, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, [First Edition- Reprinted], 2002, p 92-93


Hippo, St Augustine of, On Free Choice of the Will, Book 1, 387AD, p. 8


Locke, John, Second Treatise of Government (1690): Barnes and Noble Books, 2004, p.47-48


Paul, The Apostle, The Bible, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Romans, (13:1-2)


Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971, p.366-375



Smith, M. B. E., ‘Is There a Prima Facie Obligation to Obey the Law’ in Yale Law Journal 82, 1973, (5), p.950-976


(Wasserstrom, Richard), Freeman, H.A. et al., Civil Disobedience, Santa Barbara Center for Study of Democratic Institutions, 1966, p18



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