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Old March 16, 2005, 11:33 PM
Arnab Arnab is offline
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Join Date: June 20, 2002
Posts: 6,069
Default Thoughts on civil disobedience

The morality of civil disobedience

Many remain in genuine doubt about the moral justifiability of deliberately unlawful protest.

The wrong protested may be a thousand times more harmful than the wrong of illegal protest; is that justification enough? The end may be worthy, but does that justify any means?

Civil disobedience, its nature and justification, takes us directly to the core of some of the hardest and most important philosophical quesitons regarding social life: What are the limits of state authority? When, if ever, a man justified in defying that authority? And on what grounds should that jusstification be based? What do we mean by the "rule of law" and how high in our catalogue of values must it remain?

Does the rule of law has an intrinsic value apart from moral ends?

Obedience to law, and the order it promotes, is only one great value, and must sometimes be measured against others with which it may come into conflict - economic justice, human liberty, international peace.

Those who elevate the rule of law to an absolute, and who find every case of civil disobedience unjustifiable simply because it does break the law, and because breaking the law is always wrong, must suffer from serious moral blindness, and must have a cramped and distorted view of history and their own times.

But it is not right/wise to conclude from this that, apart from the benefits achieved by specific good laws, there is no general moral obligation to obey the law. There is. It is a universal and a very weighty obligation upon every citizen stemming from the universal need to live in a society in which one can have reasonable expectations concerning the conduct (and the limitations upon conduct) of one's fellow human beings. In that sense the rule of law in both noble and practical, and it is a value of high moral import, apart from the particular content of individual laws. It is for this reason one does have a "moral" obligation to obey the law even if he is quite convinced the law is bad.

However, it does not follow from the fact that there is a moral obligation to obey the law that such an obligation can never be overridden. It can. It is in such circumstances precisely that civil disobedience may prove justifiable or even obligatory.

But what kinds of circumstances might these be?

Should the person who commits civil disobedience must accept his punishment as right?

Civil disobedience can be roughly categorized into two kinds.

Direct disobedience: the law broken is the very law protested.

Indirect disobedience: the law is broken in some other way, symbolically or conventionally, relevant to issues of the rigthness of protest.

This distinction is importantly relevant to the rightness of punishment in question.

Normally the civil disobedient is not a rebel, but a dedicated reformer within a larger system he is determined both to accept and to improve. So, normally, he does expect to be punished for his deliberately unlawful act.

Should he accept his punishment as right? That depends on what he did, on what kind of law he broke.

If he deliberately disobeyed a law he thought immoral in itself, he can fight punishment in every reasonable way, chiefly through the courts and seek to have the bad law struck down. If he loses in the end, he is likely to accept the punishment, not as "right" but as a painful price he helps to pay for a law-governed community. If the law is genuinely immoral, then the legal system will have done an injustice, but miscarriages of justice do not, in themselves, justify the abandonment of a legal system.

If the disobedient deliberately breaks what he considers a good law to protest some other evil, it is right for him to be punished, not because he is a bad man but because accepting punishment in such cases of indirect obedience is an essential part of the act of protest itself. Indirect protest cannot be as if the system is entirely disregarded. The beauty of this kind of protest lies in the fact that , though the law is broken, the system of laws is respected. To evade the punishment, therefore, is to emascualte the protest.

Edited on, March 17, 2005, 4:35 AM GMT, by Arnab.
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