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Debate: Civil disobedience

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Is it ever justifiable for protesters and activists to break the law for the sake of their cause?

Background and context

Civil disobedience is the deliberate disobeying of a law to advance a moral principle or change government policy.
It may be confined to breaking only particular laws which are considered unjust, as in the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1960s. Alternatively civil disobedience can include breaking other laws as a way of drawing attention to the perceived injustice, for example by damage to property, non-payment of fines or taxes, obstruction of building work, and trespassing. Those who practice either kind of civil disobedience are willing to accept the consequences of their actions as a means of furthering their cause. Henry David Thoreau first articulated the tenets of civil disobedience in an 1849 essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. He argued that when conscience and law do not coincide, individuals have the obligation to promote justice by disobeying the law. Civil disobedience was a major tactic in the women’s suffrage movement, Mohandas Gandhi’s campaign for independence in India, the civil rights movement in the USA, and the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. More recent examples of civil disobedience campaigns include the refusal to pay the Poll Tax and the Poll Tax riots in the UK in 1990, and the activities of some animal rights and anti-abortion activists.[1]


Contents

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In democracies? - Is civil disobedience every justified in a functioning democracy?

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Yes

  • Even democracies do not necessarily provide sufficient voice. Even in democracies, we only have a chance to have a say in how the country is run every four years or so, and then only indirectly by voting for a political party. This is insufficient for the opinions of the people to be heard properly, and in certain circumstances civil disobedience is a powerful method of making the will of the public count if it is being ignored. Against powerful interest groups who dominate politics through their financial muscle and control of the media, civil disobedience is also the only way to get attention for a cause.[2]
  • Given a choice, anarchy is to be preferred to despotism. But this is a false choice, as in the real world campaigns of civil disobedience have not led to the breakdown of law and order generally, or the collapse of the state. Those who advocate civil disobedience are usually careful to set boundaries on their actions, setting out what kind of disobedience is justified and what is unjustifiable. Martin Luther King, for example, held that justice demanded that unjust laws (i.e. segregation laws) be broken, but that just laws (e.g. against trespass, violence against property or the person) must be upheld.[3]


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No

  • Civil disobedience is unjust in democracies; sufficient means for change exist. National elections take place regularly, and governments are accountable and can be changed. Members of the public who are unhappy can always lobby their representative or protest within the law, for example by organizing marches, petitions, advertising campaigns, or even running candidates of their own for election. All these provide ways of changing laws and policies without the need for deliberate
  • Even just causes do not justify breaking the law. By doing so they set an example of illegality and contempt for law and order which others, with less worthy causes or no cause at all, will follow. Winning a change in the law is worthless, if obtaining it has destroyed the ability of the state, its police and its courts to uphold any law, just or unjust.[4]


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Courts: Are courts sometimes inadequate for pursuing legal change?

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Yes

  • Many just causes can't be pursued through the courts; civil disobedience is necessary. A good example of this is the campaign for Indian independence. Not every democracy has a written constitution or charter of rights, appeal to which allows the courts to override the will of the legislature (for example, the UK does not). Even in cases where a case could theoretically be taken through legal channels, the courts are often controlled by the same political elite as the government, and there is no guarantee of justice. And in any case, challenging an unjust law in court requires civil disobedience. Someone has to break that law deliberately, in order to be arrested and prosecuted for it, so that the case arrives in court in the first place.[5]


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No

  • Unjust laws can be fought in court; civil disobedience is unecessary. If the law can be shown to be in conflict with the country’s constitution or charter of rights, then courts can usually overturn it. People who are unhappy with such a law should take their struggle to the courts, rather than taking to the streets and undermining the rule of law itself.[6]


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Universal laws: Can national laws break "universal" laws, justifying civil disobedience?

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Yes

  • If a law breaks universal laws, then that law must be broken. National laws cannot be the ultimate authority - men and women are also under higher laws. It was established in the Nuremberg trials that sometimes international laws must override national ones. Many Christian thinkers (such as Martin Luther King) and other philosophers have argued that the law of God, or “natural law” is paramount, and that national laws which do not accord with it are unjust and should be resisted. Even under the theory of social contract, the state can be resisted if it becomes oppressive and so breaks its side of the contract.[7]


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No

  • Order requires that laws are obeyed even if they are "wrong". The widely-held idea of the “social contract” teaches that by living under a state we accept the benefits it brings us (for example protection, health care, education, etc.), and by accepting these benefits we consent to its laws. If individuals placed their own values, whatever they are based upon, over the collective laws of the state, the state would dissolve and none of its benefits would be available to any of us.[8]


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Effectiveness: Has civil disobedience proved successful in history?

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Yes

  • Civil disobedience has a history of overcoming injustices. For example, Ghandi’s civil disobedience was instrumental in winning liberty for India, and Martin Luther King’s tactics won basic rights for black people in America. In 1998 rioters in Indonesia successfully protested against the despotic system of government that existed under the Suharto regime. In all of these cases there was no other avenue open to redress grievances; law breaking, whether Ganhdi’s non-violent marches or King’s encouragement of the burning of rate books, was the only way to protest effectively.[9]


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No

  • Civil disobedience risks leading to senseless anarchy. Peaceful protest is quite possible in any society, and there is no need to go further into actual law breaking to make a point. For example, the ‘Carnival against Capitalism’ in London in 1999 descended into self-indulgent violence and destruction of property in the city, achieving nothing but notoriety for its cause. The racist attacks on the Chinese in the Indonesian riots also demonstrate how civil disobedience can break down into lawlessness, and indeed can be counter-productive by associating the cause with terror and violence. Some historians argue that the illegal activities of the suffragettes in the UK in the early 20th century actually set back their cause.[10]


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Violence: Is violence ever justified in civil disobedience?

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Yes

  • Conflict with authority gives power and exposure to protests The suffragettes, the civil rights movement and the anti-Apartheid struggle are all examples of an eventually successful cause that won by its confrontation with authority, where more sedate methods would simply not have succeeded. In all these cases, any violence against people was not initiated by the protesters, but began because of the heavy-handed and violent response of their oppressors.[11]
  • Violence can be a means to bringing attention to a cause. If the cause is good and just, such violence may be justified. Indeed, the American Revolution was a violent revolution, and many American historians argue that it was a justified reaction to King George III. If a violent revolution can be considered just, than violent civil-disobedience can be just as well, again, assuming the cause is just.


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No

  • Violent civil disobedience can never be justified. Too often civil disobedience involves ‘productive violence’ directed against innocent members of the public, or against the police, often causing serious injuries. The Broadwater farm riots and the miner’s strike are both instances where groups have injured or killed policemen. Animal rights activists and anti-abortion campaigners have also been noted for their violence in the past. No cause is worth the sacrifice of innocent lives; protest must be peaceful or not at all.[12]
  • When we look at the creator of civil disobedience, being Henry David Thoreau, we can look at the actions of the said man. When he was arrested, Thoreau didn't fight back with violence, but filled out his sentence nonviolently. Also, Martin Luther King Jr. adopted the idea and never used violence. Same with Rosa Parks, and the list goes on. Once violence is used, civil disobedience is also NOT used.


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Notice: Is civil disobedience acceptable without providing public notice?

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Yes

  • Publicity sometimes undermines the staging of civil disobedience. If a person publicizes her intention to breach the law, she provides both political opponents and legal authorities with the opportunity to abort her efforts to communicate. As such, unannounced disobedience is sometimes preferable to actions undertaken publicly and with fair warning.


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No

  • Civil disobedience should never be covert or secretive. Civil disobedience should only ever be committed in public, openly, and with fair notice to legal authorities. It is essential to the dissenter's purpose that both the government and the public know the intentions of those performing acts of civil disobedience.


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