Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Song, Singer, Democracy, Law, Ethics, Criminal Justice, Exercise, Bachelor's Degree

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/12/11

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Civil disobedience. Grounds for justification of non-violent unlawful acts aimed at changing certain practices in a modern democratic society.

This essay deals with the ethical side of the phenomenon, known as civil disobedience. It provides a modern definition thereof and a few basic considerations of whether resorting to any type of civil disobedience may be justified in a modern society. This essay is based mainly on Peter Singers work “Practical ethics” as well as on the citations from some other authors. The thesis argues that in certain cases a well-organized civil disobedience act may be an appropriate method in bringing about a change in a certain practice or legislation. The decision must be well founded and made by a well-informed, educated group of people.
Last years have seen many protest and demonstrations, such as “Occupy” movements in many countries. Some people who engaged in such activities were often on the brink of breaching the law; others did break it, as we all have seen on the news. A number of participants were punished, but most of the convicted were aware the possible consequences. They also believed that the risk of punishment, as well as their actions, was justified by their motivation and the goals they pursued. Anyone can encounter such a moral dilemma. Does one always have to obey the law, even in the face of flagrant injustice, or one has the moral right to resort to unlawful actions to prevent some wrongs from happening. If breaching the law is morally acceptable, how can one conclude that it is justified and find the basis for weighing all pros and cons of such a decision? The attempts to answer lie in the field of ethics and philosophy. The essence of the problem is perfectly demonstrated by Aristotle’s quote: “It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.” The term describing such actions is civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience is defined by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2013) as “a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies.”
There are many considerations to be taken into account before one can make the decision of weather breaching the law would be justifiable or not. The major points are discussed below.
First of all, one must have well-founded belief that the problem is objective and adequately perceived. If one refers to “following one’s conscience” or “internal voice”, it can’t be a sufficient ground to justify any unlawful act, since in this case it is, according to Singer, “abdicating our responsibility as a rational agent” (Singer, 2011, p. 261). This aspect of the problem is rather complicated. To illustrate the delicacy of real life cases, Singer gives an example of anti-abortion activist Joan Andrews, who repeatedly served time in prison for her unlawful actions to thwart abortions. Her motivation is based on Christian faith and “reliance on biblical quotations” (Singer, 2011, p. 270), which makes a scientific claim that fetuses are not the same as older human beings void for her.
Secondly, one must ensure that the legal means of dealing with the problem cannot be effective. In a democratic society there exist lawful channels to effect change in a practice that is deemed wrong or unjust by an individual or a group of people, but the process is often too slow or may seem impossible because of bureaucratic barriers (Singer, 2011, p. 264). For instance, it is often difficult for the protest organizers to get an official sanction for a demonstration due to various reasons (application is incorrectly or untimely submitted, other events are scheduled for the same date in the same area and so on). So people often gather without permission, which can lead to more serious consequences such as clashes with the police and damaging of the state property and, further, to administrative fines and incarcerations. And these are the risks people are willing to take to bring the case to the attention of the public.
One must decide if “the importance of the ends would justify running some risk of contributing to general decline in obedience to law” (Singer, 2011, p. 263). In this chapter Singer claims that any disobedience sets “an example to others that may lead them to disobey too”. Earlier in this chapter he claims that “law and a settled decision procedure” is inherent to any functioning democratic society (Singer, 2011, p.262).
This brings up another important consideration. As a member of a democratic society one has to pay attention to the majority rule, which is the basis of such a society. This adds a moral weight to one’s case and helps one make a decision on weather an unlawful act is justifiable, although the principle itself should not be overstated. In practice the majority is not always right (Singer, 2011, p. 265). In many cases the public is unaware of the problem, and standard forms of disobedience, such as passive resistance, marches or blockades, attempt to inform the majority (Singer, 2011, p. 268). In this case the act is likely to be classified as civil disobedience, which in itself is not a criminal offence.
The majority rule can theoretically go to absurd lengths. For example, if a majority accepts Nazi-style policy of genocide, any means of effective opposition would be justified (Singer, 2011, p. 268). In less serious cases, when we believe the majority is wrong, “we must make our own minds about how gravely it is wrong” (Singer, 2011, p. 269). This is not an easy task, and the ability of moral effort for making such a decision characterizes a person as virtuous, according to Richard Dagger, who wrote that “Socrates and John Stuart Mill have persuaded many people to believe that questioning and challenging the prevailing views are among the highest forms of virtue” (Dagger, 1997, p. 14).
Thus, the primary grounds for justification are following. The problem must actually exist, that is it must be a practice that is repeatedly carried out and all facts regarding this practice are available to a person or a group of people who plan a civil disobedience act, and they must be capable of assessing the impact of the practice. The legal channels of addressing the issue have proven ineffective or too slow by the time the decision to engage in civil disobedience is made. The activists must also be aware of the majority opinion about the practice they want to change, and have assessed the impact of the example they set on the society. If the act is calculated solely to bring the matter to the public attention, and the means are non-violent, it is likely to be classified as civil disobedience. In the end, the question of justifiability of one’s unlawful actions is determined by what one considers to be right in a particular case, regardless of the public opinion. The ability to challenge the prevailing opinion has been considered a virtue throughout the history. But to support one’s point of view in such a case, one must be well informed and highly educated and have a pure motivation. I will conclude with a quote of Henry David Thoreau, the man who coined the term “civil disobedience”: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth--certainly the machine will wear out but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” 


Singer, P. (2011). Practical ethics. Oxford University Press
Dagger, Richard (1997). Civic virtues, New York: Oxford University Press.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2013). Civil disobedience. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/civil-disobedience/

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