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Civil Disobedience

What makes a breach of law an act of civil disobedience? When is civil disobedience morally justified? How should the law respond to people who engage in civil disobedience? Discussions of civil disobedience have tended to focus on the first two of these questions. On the most widely accepted account of civil disobedience, famously defended by John Rawls (1971), civil disobedience is a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies. On this account, people who engage in civil disobedience are willing to accept the legal consequences of their actions, as this shows their fidelity to the rule of law. Civil disobedience, given its place at the boundary of fidelity to law, is said to fall between legal protest, on the one hand, and conscientious refusal, revolutionary action, militant protest and organised forcible resistance, on the other hand.

This picture of civil disobedience raises many questions. Why must civil disobedience be non-violent? Why must it be public, in the sense of forewarning authorities of the intended action, since publicity gives authorities an opportunity to interfere with the action? Why must people who engage in civil disobedience be willing to accept punishment? A general challenge to Rawls's conception of civil disobedience is that it is overly narrow, and as such it predetermines the conclusion that most acts of civil disobedience are morally justifiable. A further challenge is that Rawls applies his theory of civil disobedience only to the context of a nearly just society, leaving unclear whether a credible conception of either the nature or the justification of civil disobedience could follow the same lines in the context of less just societies. Some broader accounts of civil disobedience offered in response to Rawls's view (Raz 1979; Greenawalt 1987) will be examined in the first section of this entry.

This entry has four main sections. The first considers some definitional issues and contrasts civil disobedience with both ordinary offences and other types of dissent. The second analyses two sets of factors relevant to the justification of civil disobedience; one set concerns the disobedient's particular choice of action, the other concerns her motivation for so acting. The third section examines whether people have a right to engage in civil disobedience. The fourth considers what kind of legal response to civil disobedience is appropriate.

1.1 Features of Civil Disobedience

1.2 ordinary offences, 1.3 other types of dissent, 2.1 mode of action, 2.2 motivation for acting, 4.1 theories of punishment, 4.2 punishing civil disobedience, 5. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries, 1. definitions.

The term ‘civil disobedience’ was coined by Henry David Thoreau in his 1848 essay to describe his refusal to pay the state poll tax implemented by the American government to prosecute a war in Mexico and to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. In his essay, Thoreau observes that only a very few people – heroes, martyrs, patriots, reformers in the best sense – serve their society with their consciences, and so necessarily resist society for the most part, and are commonly treated by it as enemies. Thoreau, for his part, spent time in jail for his protest. Many after him have proudly identified their protests as acts of civil disobedience and have been treated by their societies – sometimes temporarily, sometimes indefinitely – as its enemies.

Throughout history, acts of civil disobedience famously have helped to force a reassessment of society's moral parameters. The Boston Tea Party, the suffragette movement, the resistance to British rule in India led by Gandhi, the US civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and others, the resistance to apartheid in South Africa, student sit-ins against the Vietnam War, the democracy movement in Myanmar/Burma led by Aung San Suu Kyi, to name a few, are all instances where civil disobedience proved to be an important mechanism for social change. The ultimate impact of more recent acts of civil disobedience – anti-abortion trespass demonstrations or acts of disobedience taken as part of the environmental movement and animal rights movement – remains to be seen.

Certain features of civil disobedience seem vital not only to its impact on societies and governments, but also to its status as a potentially justifiable breach of law. Civil disobedience is generally regarded as more morally defensible than both ordinary offences and other forms of protest such as militant action or coercive violence. Before contrasting civil disobedience with both ordinary offences and other types of protest, attention should be given to the features exemplified in the influential cases noted above. These features include, amongst other things, a conscientious or principled outlook and the communication of both condemnation and a desire for change in law or policy. Other features commonly cited – publicity, non-violence, fidelity to law – will also be considered here though they prove to be less central than is sometimes assumed. The second part of this section contrasts civil disobedience with ordinary offences and the third part contrasts it with legal protest, rule departures by officials, conscientious objection, radical protest (often labelled ‘terrorism’), and revolutionary action.

Conscientiousness : This feature, highlighted in almost all accounts of civil disobedience, points to the seriousness, sincerity and moral conviction with which civil disobedients breach the law. For many disobedients, their breach of law is demanded of them not only by self-respect and moral consistency but also by their perception of the interests of their society. Through their disobedience, they draw attention to laws or policies that they believe require reassessment or rejection. Whether their challenges are well-founded is another matter, which will be taken up in Section 2.

On Rawls's account of civil disobedience, in a nearly just society, civil disobedients address themselves to the majority to show that, in their considered opinion, the principles of justice governing cooperation amongst free and equal persons have not been respected by policymakers. Rawls's restriction of civil disobedience to breaches that defend the principles of justice may be criticised for its narrowness since, presumably, a wide range of legitimate values not wholly reducible to justice, such as transparency, security, stability, privacy, integrity, and autonomy, could motivate people to engage in civil disobedience. However, Rawls does allow that considerations arising from people's comprehensive moral outlooks may be offered in the public sphere provided that, in due course, people present public reasons, given by a reasonable political conception of justice, sufficient to support whatever their comprehensive doctrines were introduced to support (Rawls 1996). Rawls's proviso grants that people often engage in the public sphere for a variety of reasons; so even when justice figures prominently in a person's decision to use civil disobedience, other considerations could legitimately contribute to her decision to act. The activism of Martin Luther King Jr. is a case in point. King was motivated by his religious convictions and his commitments to democracy, equality, and justice to undertake protests such as the Montgomery bus boycott. Rawls maintains that, while he does not know whether King thought of himself as fulfilling the purpose of the proviso, King could have fulfilled it; and had he accepted public reason he certainly would have fulfilled it. Thus, on Rawls's view, King's activism is civil disobedience.

Since people can undertake political protest for a variety of reasons, civil disobedience sometimes overlaps with other forms of dissent. A US draft-dodger during the Vietnam War might be said to combine civil disobedience and conscientious objection in the same action. And, most famously, Gandhi may be credited with combining civil disobedience with revolutionary action. That said, despite the potential for overlap, some broad distinctions may be drawn between civil disobedience and other forms of protest in terms of the scope of the action and agents' motivations (Section 1.3).

Communication : In civilly disobeying the law, a person typically has both forward-looking and backward-looking aims. She seeks not only to convey her disavowal and condemnation of a certain law or policy, but also to draw public attention to this particular issue and thereby to instigate a change in law or policy. A parallel may be drawn between the communicative aspect of civil disobedience and the communicative aspect of lawful punishment by the state (Brownlee 2012; 2004). Like civil disobedience, lawful punishment is associated with a backward-looking aim to demonstrate condemnation of certain conduct as well as a forward-looking aim to bring about a lasting change in that conduct. The forward and backward-looking aims of punishment apply not only to the particular offence in question, but also to the kind of conduct of which this offence is an example.

There is some dispute over the kinds of policies that civil disobedients may target through their breach of law. Some exclude from the class of civilly disobedient acts those breaches of law that protest the decisions of private agents such as trade unions, banks, private universities, etc. (Raz 1979, 264). Others, by contrast, maintain that disobedience in opposition to the decisions of private agents can reflect a larger challenge to the legal system that permits those decisions to be taken, which makes it appropriate to place this disobedience under the umbrella of civil disobedience (Brownlee 2012; 2007). There is more agreement amongst thinkers that civil disobedience can be either direct or indirect. In other words, civil disobedients can either breach the law they oppose or breach a law which, other things being equal, they do not oppose in order to demonstrate their protest against another law or policy. Trespassing on a military base to spray-paint nuclear missile silos in protest against current military policy would be an example of indirect civil disobedience. It is worth noting that the distinction often drawn between direct civil disobedience and indirect civil disobedience is less clear-cut than generally assumed. For example, refusing to pay taxes that support the military could be seen as either indirect or direct civil disobedience against military policy. Although this act typically would be classified as indirect disobedience, a part of one's taxes, in this case, would have gone directly to support the policy one opposes.

Publicity : The feature of communication may be contrasted with that of publicity. The latter is endorsed by Rawls who argues that civil disobedience is never covert or secretive; it is only ever committed in public, openly, and with fair notice to legal authorities (Rawls 1971, 366). Hugo A. Bedau adds to this that usually it is essential to the dissenter's purpose that both the government and the public know what she intends to do (Bedau 1961, 655). However, although sometimes advance warning may be essential to a dissenter's strategy, this is not always the case. As noted at the outset, publicity sometimes detracts from or undermines the attempt to communicate through civil disobedience. If a person publicises her intention to breach the law, then she provides both political opponents and legal authorities with the opportunity to abort her efforts to communicate (Smart 1991, 206). For this reason, unannounced or (initially) covert disobedience is sometimes preferable to actions undertaken publicly and with fair warning. Examples include releasing animals from research laboratories or vandalising military property; to succeed in carrying out these actions, disobedients would have to avoid publicity of the kind Rawls defends. Such acts of civil disobedience nonetheless may be regarded as ‘open’ when followed soon after by an acknowledgment of the act and the reasons for acting. Openness and publicity, even at the cost of having one's protest frustrated, offer ways for disobedients to show their willingness to deal fairly with authorities.

Non-violence : A controversial issue in debates on civil disobedience is non-violence. Like publicity, non-violence is said to diminish the negative effects of breaching the law. Some theorists go further and say that civil disobedience is, by definition, non-violent. According to Rawls, violent acts likely to injure are incompatible with civil disobedience as a mode of address. ‘Indeed’, says Rawls, ‘any interference with the civil liberties of others tends to obscure the civilly disobedient quality of one's act’ (Rawls 1971, 366).

Even though paradigmatic disobedients like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr embody Rawls's image of non-violent direct action, opponents of Rawls's view have challenged the centrality of non-violence for civil disobedience on several fronts. First, there is the problem of specifying an appropriate notion of violence . It is unclear, for example, whether violence to self, violence to property, or minor violence against others (such as a vicious pinch) should be included in a conception of the relevant kinds of violence. If the significant criterion for a commonsense notion of a violent act is a likelihood of causing injury, however minor, then these kinds of acts count as acts of violence (see Morreall 1991). Second, non-violent acts or legal acts sometimes cause more harm to others than do violent acts (Raz 1979, 267). A legal strike by ambulance workers may well have much more severe consequences than minor acts of vandalism. Third, violence, depending on its form, does not necessarily obscure the communicative quality of a disobedient's action as Rawls and Peter Singer suggests it does (Singer 1973, 86). Limited violence used to achieve a specific objective might heighten the communicative quality of the act by drawing greater attention to the dissenter's cause and by emphasising her seriousness and frustration.

These observations do not alter the fact that non-violent dissent normally is preferable to violent dissent. As Raz observes, non-violence avoids the direct harm caused by violence, and non-violence does not encourage violence in other situations where violence would be wrong, something which an otherwise warranted use of violence may do. Moreover, as a matter of prudence, non-violence does not carry the same risk of antagonising potential allies or confirming the antipathy of opponents (Raz 1979, 267). Furthermore, non-violence does not distract the attention of the public, and it probably denies authorities an excuse to use violent countermeasures against disobedients.

Non-violence, publicity and a willingness to accept punishment are often regarded as marks of disobedients' fidelity to the legal system in which they carry out their protest. Those who deny that these features are definitive of civil disobedience endorse a more inclusive conception according to which civil disobedience involves a conscientious and communicative breach of law designed to demonstrate condemnation of a law or policy and to contribute to a change in that law or policy. Such a conception allows that civil disobedience can be violent, partially covert, and revolutionary. This conception also accommodates vagaries in the practice and justifiability of civil disobedience for different political contexts: it grants that the appropriate model of how civil disobedience works in a context such as apartheid South Africa may differ from the model that applies to a well-ordered, liberal, just democracy. An even broader conception of civil disobedience would draw no clear boundaries between civil disobedience and other forms of protest such as conscientious objection, forcible resistance, and revolutionary action. A disadvantage of this last conception is that it blurs the lines between these different types of protest and so might both weaken claims about the defensibility of civil disobedience and invite authorities and opponents of civil disobedience to lump all illegal protest under one umbrella.

In democratic societies, civil disobedience as such is not a crime. If a disobedient is punished by the law, it is not for civil disobedience, but for the recognised offences she commits, such as blocking a road or disturbing the peace, or trespassing, or damaging property, etc. Therefore, if judges are persuaded, as they sometimes are, either not to punish a disobedient or to punish her differently from other people who breach the same laws, it must be on the basis of some feature or features of her action which distinguish it from the acts of ordinary offenders.

Typically a person who commits an offence has no wish to communicate with her government or society. This is evinced by the fact that usually an offender does not intend to make it known that she has breached the law. Since, in most cases, she wishes to benefit or, at least, not to suffer from her unlawful action, it is in her interests to preserve the secrecy of her conduct. An exception might be where a person's breach is sufficiently minor, such as jaywalking, that concealment is unnecessary since sanction is unlikely to follow. Another exception might be where a person wishes to thumb her nose at authorities by advertising that she has committed a crime. By making an exception of herself and by distancing herself from a legal rule, this ordinary offender communicates a certain disregard for the law. This communication, however, does not normally reflect an aim either to demonstrate conscientiously held objections to that law or to lead society to reform the law. Civil disobedients, by contrast, seek to make their disobedience known to specific members of the community either before or after the fact to demonstrate both the seriousness of their condemnation of that law or policy and their sincere desire for policy change. The difference in communication between the civil disobedient and the ordinary offender reflects a deeper difference in motivation for breaching the law (Brownlee 2012).

A further difference between civil disobedience and common crimes pertains to the willingness of the offender to accept the legal consequences. The willingness of disobedients to accept punishment is taken not only as a mark of (general) fidelity to the law, but also as an assertion that they differ from ordinary offenders. Accepting punishment also can have great strategic value, as Martin Luther King Jr observes: ‘If you confront a man who has been cruelly misusing you, and say “Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong,” then you wield a powerful and just weapon’ (Washington 1991, 348). Moreover, like non-violence, a willingness to accept the legal consequences normally is preferable, and often has a positive impact on the disobedient's cause. This willingness may make the majority realise that what is for them a matter of indifference is for disobedients a matter of great importance (Singer 1973, 84). Similarly, it may demonstrate the purity or selflessness of the disobedient's motives or serve as a means to mobilise more broad-based support (Raz 1979, 265). And yet, punishment can also be detrimental to dissenters' efforts by compromising future attempts to assist others through protest (Greenawalt 1987, 239). Furthermore, the link between a willingness to accept punishment and respect for law can be pulled apart. A revolutionary like Gandhi was happy to go to jail for his offences, but felt no fidelity toward the particular legal system in which he acted.

Although civil disobedience often overlaps broadly with other types of dissent, nevertheless some rough distinctions may be drawn between the key features of civil disobedience and the key features of these other practices.

Legal Protest : The obvious difference between legal protest and civil disobedience is that the former lies within the bounds of the law, but the latter does not. Most of the other features exemplified in civil disobedience can be found in legal protest including a conscientious and communicative demonstration of protest, a desire to bring about through moral dialogue some lasting change in policy or principle, an attempt to educate and to raise awareness, and so on. The difference in legality translates into a more significant, moral difference when placed against the backdrop of a general moral obligation to follow the law. If it is morally wrong to breach the law, then special justification is required for civil disobedience which is not required for legal protest. However, the political regime in which obedience is demanded may be relevant here. David Lyons maintains that the Jim Crow laws (racial segregation laws in force in the southern US until 1964), British colonial rule in India, and chattel slavery in antebellum America offer three refutations of the view that civil disobedience requires moral justification in morally objectionable regimes. According to Lyons, there can be no moral presumption in favour of obedience to the law in such regimes, and therefore no moral justification is required for civil disobedience. ‘Insofar as civil disobedience theory assumes that political resistance requires moral justification even in settings that are morally comparable to Jim Crow,’ says Lyons, ‘it is premised on serious moral error’ (Lyons 1998, 39). If one takes the view that there is no general moral obligation to follow the law (irrespective of regime), then both adherence to the law and breach of law must be judged not on their legality, but on their character and consequences. And this would mean that, even in morally reprehensible regimes, justification may be demanded for civil disobedience that either has significant negative consequences or falls below certain moral standards.

Although questions of justification will be addressed more fully in the next section, it is worth noting here one point in favour of civil disobedience over legal protest. As Bertrand Russell observes, typically it is difficult to make the most salient facts in a dispute known through conventional channels of participation. The controllers of mainstream media tend to give defenders of unpopular views limited space to make their case. Given the sensational news value of illegal methods, however, engaging in civil disobedience often leads to wide dissemination of a position (Russell 1998, 635). John Stuart Mill observes, with regard to dissent in general, that sometimes the only way to make a view heard is to allow, or even to invite, society to ridicule and sensationalise it as intemperate and irrational (Mill 1999). Admittedly, the success of this strategy depends partly on the character of the society in which it is employed; but it should not be ruled out as a strategy for communication.

Rule Departures : A practice distinct from, but related to, civil disobedience is rule departure on the part of authorities. Rule departure is essentially the deliberate decision by an official, for conscientious reasons, not to discharge the duties of her office (Feinberg 1979). It may involve a decision by police not to arrest offenders (cf. Smith 2012) or a decision by prosecutors not to proceed to trial, or a decision by a jury or by a judge to acquit an obviously guilty person. Whether these conscientious acts actually contravene the general duties of the office is debatable. If an official's breach of a specific duty is more in keeping with the spirit and overall aims of the office than a painstaking respect for its particular duties is, then the former might be said to adhere better than the latter does to the demands of the office (Greenawalt 1987, 281)

Rule departures resemble civil disobedience in that both involve dissociation from and condemnation of certain policies and practices. Moreover, both are communicative, though their audiences may differ. The official who departs from the rules of her office addresses her action principally to the individuals or groups whom she intends to assist through her breach of a specific duty. Her action demonstrates to these parties both that she disagrees with a policy that would treat them in a certain way and that her actions align with her commitments. Where civil disobedience and rule departure differ is, first, in the identity of their practitioners. Whereas rule departure typically is an action taken by an agent of the state (including juries), civil disobedience typically is an action taken by citizens (including officials acting as ordinary citizens and not in the capacity of their official role). Second these practices differ in their legality. Whether rule departure actually involves a breach of law is unclear. Civil disobedience, by contrast, involves the breach of a law currently on the books. A third difference between rule departure and civil disobedience is that, unlike civil disobedience, rule departure does not usually expose those who employ it to the risks of sanction or punishment (Feinberg 1979)

Conscientious Objection : This kind of protest may be understood as a violation of the law motivated by the dissenter's belief that she is morally prohibited to follow the law because the law is either bad or wrong, totally or in part. The conscientious objector may believe, for example, that the general character of the law in question is morally wrong (as an absolute pacifist would believe of conscription), or that the law extends to certain cases which it should not cover (an orthodox Christian would regard euthanasia as murder) (Raz 1979, 263). While commonly taken to refer to pacifist objections to military service, conscientious objection, says Raz, may apply to any law, negative or positive, that a person believes for moral reasons she is compelled to disobey. A narrower conception of conscientious objection, described as conscientious refusal, characterises this kind of disobedience as non-compliance with a more or less direct legal injunction or administrative order (Rawls 1971, 368). Examples would be the refusal of Jehovah's Witnesses to salute the flag or Thoreau's refusal to pay his taxes (it is interesting that the action of the man who coined the term ‘civil disobedience’ is regarded by many as lying at the periphery of what counts as civil disobedience). Whereas conscientious refusal is undertaken with the assumption that authorities are aware of the breach of law, conscientious evasion is undertaken with the assumption that the breach of law is wholly covert. The devout person who continues to practice her religion in secret after it has been banned does not protest against the law, but breaches it covertly for moral reasons. The personal nature of this disobedience commands respect, as it suggests modesty and reflection, which more vocal and confident displays of conviction may lack.

The differences between civil disobedience and conscientious evasion are easier to identify than those between civil disobedience and conscientious refusal or conscientious objection. Although conscientious objection typically is not characterised by the aim to communicate to government and society either that a law has been breached or the reasons behind the breach, nevertheless many acts commonly classified as conscientious objection – tax avoidance and resistance to conscription – have a public or communicative component. Moreover, when such actions are taken by many people their collective impact can approximate the kind of communicative protest exemplified in civil disobedience.

A more obvious difference between civil disobedience and conscientious objection is that, whereas the former is invariably illegal, sometimes the latter is legal. In the context of military conscription, some legal systems regard conscientious objection as a legitimate ground for avoiding frontline military service.

Radical Protest : Some forms of dissent such as coercive violence, organised forcible resistance, militant action, intimidation, and terrorisation lie further outside the realm of tolerated (or tolerable) political action than civil disobedience does. There are reasons to avoid labelling such disobedience (or anything else) as ‘terrorism’. Not only is the term ‘terrorism’ inflammatory, but also it is bandied about by governments to capture an overly broad range of actions. Whereas ‘civil disobedience’ has developed as a positive term which many people apply to their own protests, ‘terrorism’ is an epithet applied only to the actions of others. Given the highly negative connotations of this term, its (philosophical) usefulness is questionable. Less loaded notions of intimidation, terrorisation, forcible resistance, and severe violence offer greater space for a proper analysis of the justifiability of using such measures in political protest.

While a civil disobedient does not necessarily oppose the regime in which she acts, the militant or radical protester is deeply opposed to that regime (or a core aspect of that regime). This protester uses modes of communication unlikely to persuade others of the merits of her position. Her aims are more urgent and extreme than those of the civil disobedient; she seeks rapid change through brutal strategies of coercion and intimidation, not through strategies of persuasion and moral appeal. And often her action includes force or extreme violence as a key component. Given the nature of her conduct and objectives, she is likely to try to evade the legal consequences of her action. This is less often the case for civil disobedients.

Revolutionary Action : The difference between radical protest and revolutionary action may be as difficult to specify as that between revolutionary action and civil disobedience. One point of difference amongst the three concerns the nature of the objectives. Acts of civil disobedience often have focused and limited objectives. Acts of terrorisation or large-scale coercive violence are typically associated with a general aim of generating fear and insecurity while keeping any specific aims or demands oblique. Revolutionary action is typified by a comprehensive objective to bring about a regime change. Both acts of radical protest and acts of civil disobedience can of course fall within a revolutionary project, and may even coincide with each other (as they perhaps did in the sabotage strategies used by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress).

As a general practice, revolution, like radical protest, does not seek to persuade the government to change established policies. But, unlike much radical protest, revolutionary action may seek to persuade the society under that government that a change in regime is required. If revolutionaries seek to persuade the government of anything, it is that it should cease to be the government. In India, Gandhi had some success in this project. Once the movement became irresistible, the British left India fairly peacefully. But Gandhi's revolutionary project may be contrasted with other revolutions such as the French revolution, or even the South African revolution, where there were endorsements of revolutionary terror. Large-scale resistance that incorporates terrorisation is quite a different enterprise from the non-violent resistance that distinguished Gandhi's protest. Since, as noted above, people may engage in dissent for numerous reasons, acts of civil disobedience like Gandhi's that are guided by conscientious commitments can also be driven by revolutionary aims.

The various points of contact and overlap amongst different types of political protest suggest that there is no one-dimensional continuum from weak to strong dissent. There is more plausibility in the idea of a multi-dimensional continuum of protest, which recognises the complexities in such critical points of contrast as legality, violence, harm, communication, motivation, and persuasiveness.

2. Justification

On many views, an analysis of the justifiability of civil disobedience must consider not only the dissenter's particular action and its likely consequences, but also her motivation for engaging in this act of civil disobedience. Factors relevant to a disobedient's choice of action include: its illegality, its use as a last resort or first resort, any coordination with other dissenters, the likelihood of success, the directness or indirectness of the action, and the expected harm. Factors relevant to motivation include: the merit or lack thereof in the dissenter's cause, her reasons for defending that cause, and her reasons for engaging in this form of protest. Although they are examined separately below, these two sets of factors inevitably overlap.

The task of defending civil disobedience is commonly undertaken with the assumption that in reasonably just, liberal societies people have a general moral obligation to follow the law. In the history of philosophy, many arguments have been given for legal obligation (often called ‘political obligation’). Plato's Socrates, in the Crito , offers at least two lines of argument for legal obligation in order to defend his decision not to escape from prison. First, Socrates emphasises the importance of moral consistency; he would prefer to give up his life than to compromise his principles. A basic principle for Socrates is that a person must never do wrong or injury in return for wrong. To escape without persuading the state would be to try to destroy it and its laws. Second, Socrates maintains that he has an obligation to follow the laws of Athens since he has tacitly agreed to do so and since he enjoys the rights and benefits of citizenship. This voluntarist line of argument is also espoused later by John Locke, who argues that we have a duty to follow the law only when we have consented to its rule. This view contrasts with the non-voluntarist position of David Hume, according to which the obligation to follow the law is rooted in the value of government under law. From these two traditions rise the principal contemporary arguments for legal obligation, which concern respectively consent, gratitude, promise-keeping, fairness, necessary institutions, and public good. Many of the contemporary voluntarist and non-voluntarist arguments have been criticised in recent debates, giving rise to the view that, while there are both ordinary reasons to follow the law and strong moral obligations to follow particular laws, there is no general moral obligation to follow the law. One reason to think there is no such obligation is that the legality of an action does not significantly affect its moral status (Smith 1973). The claim is that jaywalking across an empty street, for example, is hardly reprehensible and its illegality does not make it more reprehensible. Similarly, spitting at someone's feet or refusing without cause to acknowledge that person is reprehensible and its legality does not diminish that.

On the assumption that people have a pro tanto obligation to follow the law (or at least those laws that are not excessively unjust), it follows that people then have a pro tanto obligation to use the proper legal channels of political participation before resorting to illegal methods. On this view, civil disobedience can be justified only when employed as a last resort. But since causes defended by a minority are often those most opposed by persons in power, legal channels may be less than wholly effective. Moreover, it is unclear when a person could claim to have reached the situation of last resort; she could continue to use the same tired legal methods without end. To ward off such challenges, Rawls suggests that, if past actions have shown the majority to be immovable or apathetic, then further attempts may reasonably be thought fruitless and one may be confident one's civil disobedience is a last resort.

Another condition for civil disobedience to be justified, according to Rawls, is that disobedients coordinate with other minorities. Since minority groups are equally justified in resorting to civil disobedience when they have sufficiently weighty objections, these groups should avoid undermining each others' efforts through simultaneous appeals to the attention of society and government. Some coordination of activities is required, says Rawls, to regulate the overall level of dissent (Rawls 1971, 374–5). While there is some merit to this condition, civil disobedience that does not meet it might still be justifiable. In some cases, there will be no time or opportunity to coordinate with other minorities. And in other cases, other minority groups may be unable or unwilling to coordinate. It is an open question then whether the refusal or inability of other groups to cooperate should affect the ultimate defensibility of a person's decision to engage in civil disobedience.

A reason for Rawls to defend this coordination requirement is that, in most cases, it serves a more important concern, namely, the achievement of good consequences. It is often argued that civil disobedience can only be justified if there is a high probability of producing positive change through that disobedience. Only this can justify exposing one's society to the risk of harm. The harms usually identified with civil disobedience are as follows. First, civil disobedience can be a divisive force in society. Second, since civil disobedience is normally designed to attract public attention, it can lead people, as a result, to think of resorting to disobedience to achieve whatever changes in law or policy they find justified (Raz 1979, 262). Third, civil disobedience can encourage more than just other civil disobedience; it can encourage a general disrespect for the law, particularly where the law is perceived as being lenient toward certain kinds of offences.

In response to these challenges, one might question the empirical claims that civil disobedience is divisive and that it has the consequence of leading others to use disobedience to achieve changes in policy. One might also question whether it necessarily would be a bad thing if civil disobedience had these consequences. Concerning likelihood of success, civil disobedience actually can seem most justifiable when the situation appears hopeless and when the government refuses to listen to conventional forms of communication. Additionally, even when general success seems unlikely, civil disobedience might be defended for any reprieve from harm that it brings to victims of a bad law or policy. Tree-hugging, for example, can delay or curtail a clear-cut logging scheme and thereby prolong the protection of an eco-system.

Two final factors concerning a disobedient's choice of action are non-violence and directness. Many theorists regard non-violence as necessary to the justifiability of civil disobedience. But, as noted earlier, there can be good reasons to prefer strategic use of violence in civil disobedience to the harm and injustice of the law. Sometimes the wrong that a dissenter perceives may be so iniquitous that it is right to use violence to root it out. Such violence may be necessary to preserve or to re-establish the rights and civil liberties that coercive practices seek to suspend (Raz 1979). Concerning directness, some argue that civil disobedience is more justifiable the more direct it is since direct disobedience targets the specific legal wrong that prompted it (Greenawalt 1987, 235). While directness may ensure that the objective of the dissent is understood, it has disadvantages; and in some contexts direct action cannot be justified. When direct disobedience would fail to treat others with respect or would cause far greater harm than either adherence to the law or indirect disobedience would cause, then indirect disobedience has a greater claim to justification. But, when indirect civil disobedience would be either misconstrued or viewed in isolation from the law opposed, then direct disobedience, assuming it meets certain moral requirements (which are determined by the content of the law opposed), may have greater justification. People who use indirect disobedience have, other things being equal, no objective reasons to breach the law that they breach. This means that the justification for their disobedience must turn solely on the value of that action as the appropriate vehicle through which to communicate their objection.

As a vehicle for communication, civil disobedience has much to be said for it. It was noted in Section 1.3 that civil disobedience can often better contribute to a dialogue with society and the state than legal protest can since controllers of mainstream media tend not to give unpopular views a hearing unless they are advocated through sensational means such as illegal protest. But, as the above points have indicated, the justifiability of an act of civil disobedience depends greatly on its specific features. Civil disobedience sometimes serves primarily to inform and to educate the public about an issue. But other times, it acts by confronting the majority with the higher costs of retaining a given law or policy in the face of continued, concerted opposition. The nature of these strategies and, as discussed below, the motivations for selecting one over another inform an analysis of justifiability.

On many views, for an act of civil disobedience to be justified, it is insufficient that the dissenter's act meet criteria such as those noted above. It is equally important that she choose that action for the right reasons. The first requirement she must satisfy is that her cause be well-founded. A dissenter may believe that her cause is just and that her disobedience is morally permissible, but she might be mistaken either about the facts or about her principles. Assuming her challenge is well-founded, there are two further issues. The first pertains to her reasons for supporting this cause. The second pertains to her reasons for taking this particular act of disobedience.

Concerning the former, if a person advocates a legitimate cause such as equal rights for black Americans simply for the reason that she seeks re-election or promotion or the admiration of friends while having no real sympathy for this cause, then she acts not for decisive reasons. To be fully justified in her defence of this cause, she must act on the basis of good reasons to support equality amongst peoples; such reasons could include her sense of injustice for the ill-treatment of black Americans or her respect for the dignity of persons or her appreciation that real equality of rights best serves the interests of all American people. It would be appropriate to judge negatively the character of a person who was improperly motivated to take praiseworthy action in defence of others' rights.

Concerning the latter, sometimes reasons apply to a situation but do not favour the particular action that a person takes. When deciding how best to defend a legitimate cause, a person must give thought to the appropriate strategy to adopt. A person may have reasons for engaging in one form of disobedience, but choose to engage in another form that is not supported by these reasons. For example, she may have an undefeated reason to participate in a road block because this action is well suited to her political concerns and is one that her government understands and responds well to or because this action has a public impact that does not greatly harm the interests of others; but, she has no undefeated reason, say, to trespass on government property or to engage in vandalism. In taking the latter actions, she is guilty of a certain error of judgment about which actions are supported by reasons that admittedly apply (See Gardner and Macklem 2002). Given her error, the best she could claim is that her conduct is excused, as she had reason to believe that she had reason to undertake that particular form of civil disobedience. When, by contrast, a person's civilly disobedient action is supported by undefeated reasons that apply to her situation then her choice of action is justified. The justification for her action stems from its appropriateness as the action to take. Its appropriateness is structured in part by the political regime, the tone of the social environment, the actions taken by other political participants, and so on. All of these factors bear on the appropriateness of a given action and the manner in which it is performed, and thus determine to what extent the reasons that support it provide a justification.

The various constraints and requirements discussed above do not amount to a complete defence for civil disobedience. A fuller defence would appeal to the social value of civil disobedience. Justified civil disobedience, says Rawls, can serve to inhibit departures from justice and to correct departures when they occur; thus it can act as a stabilising force in society (Rawls 1971, 383). Justice aside, civil disobedience and dissent more generally contribute to the democratic exchange of ideas by forcing the champions of dominant opinion to defend their views. Mill maintains in On Liberty that if there are any persons who contest a received opinion, we should thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is someone to do for us what we otherwise ought to do ourselves (Mill 1999, 90). In fact, one could argue that those who breach the law in justified civil disobedience demonstrate responsible citizenship or civic virtue. Richard Dagger argues that

To be virtuous…is to perform well a socially necessary or important role. This does not mean that the virtuous person must always go along with the prevailing views or attitudes. On the contrary, 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, 14).

This view of dissent and justified civil disobedience aligns with an increasingly common perception that our responsibilities as citizens go well beyond any obligation to follow the law. Indeed, under certain conditions, our obligations are to resist unjust and unfair schemes, and this can include a duty to disobey the law (Delmas 2014).

An issue associated with, but distinct from, that of justification is whether people have a right to engage in civil disobedience. Most thinkers who have considered civil disobedience defend a limited right to such protest. Rawls, for example, maintains that, even in a nearly just society, a person may be supposed to have a right to engage in civil disobedience when three conditions are met. These are the conditions he sets for justified civil disobedience: it is undertaken 1) in response to an instance of substantial and clear injustice, 2) as a last resort and 3) in coordination with other minority groups. Rawls's approach has been criticised for not clearly distinguishing his account of justified civil disobedience from an account of the disobedience which people have a right to take. There is much disagreement over the kinds of actions that can be captured by rights. Some theorists, such as John Mackie, argue that there can be no right to perform a morally wrong action since wrong actions are acts we are morally required not to perform (Mackie 1978). Others, such as Raz, argue that to restrict rights to morally right actions is to misunderstand the nature of rights. Rights of conduct protect a certain sphere of autonomy and liberty for the agent with which interference by others is restricted, that is to say, rights of conduct imply that interference with that conduct is unjustified even when the conduct is itself unjustified. One does not require a right, Raz observes, to do the right thing. But one often does require a right to do what one should not do (cf. Waldron 1981). On this view, the limits of the right to political participation, for example, are set not by the nature of people's political objectives, but by the form of the actions they employ to realise those objectives.

According to Raz, when one considers the idea of a moral right to civil disobedience, one must appreciate that this right extends to cases in which people should not exercise it. To say that there is a right to civil disobedience is to allow the legitimacy of resorting to this form of political action to one's political opponents. It is to allow that the legitimacy of civil disobedience does not depend on the rightness of one's cause (Raz 1979, 268).

In his account of a right to civil disobedience, Raz places great emphasis on the kind of regime in which a disobedient acts. Raz argues that only in an illiberal regime do certain individuals have a right to civil disobedience.

Given that the illiberal state violates its members' right to political participation, individuals whose rights are violated are entitled, other things being equal, to disregard the offending laws and exercise their moral right as if it were recognised by law… [M]embers of the illiberal state do have a right to civil disobedience which is roughly that part of their moral right to political participation which is not recognised in law (Raz 1979, 272–273).

By contrast, in a liberal state, Raz argues, a person's right to political activity is, by hypothesis, adequately protected by law. Therefore, in such a regime, the right to political participation cannot ground a right to civil disobedience.

Against Raz, one could argue, as David Lefkowitz does, that when a person appeals to political participation rights to defend her disobedience she does not necessarily criticise the law for outlawing her action. Lefkowitz maintains that members of minorities can appreciate that democratic discussions often must be cut short so that decisions may be taken. As such, persons who engage in political disobedience may view current policy as the best compromise between the need to act and the need to accommodate continued debate. Nonetheless, they also can observe that, with greater resources or further time for debate, their view might have held sway. Given this possibility, the right to political participation must include a right to continue to contest the result after the votes are counted or the decisions taken. And this right should include suitably constrained civil disobedience because the best conception of political participation rights is one that reduces as much as possible the impact that luck has on the popularity of a view (Lefkowitz 2007; see also Ceva 2015).

An alternative response to Raz questions whether the right to civil disobedience must be derived from rights to political participation. Briefly, the right to civil disobedience could be grounded on something other than participation rights such as a right to object on the basis of conscience. Whether such a right to conscience would fall under participation rights depends on the expansiveness of the latter rights. When the right to participate is understood to accommodate only legal protest, then the right conscientiously to object, which commonsensically includes civil disobedience, must be viewed as distinct from political participation rights.

A further challenge to Raz might be that real societies do not align with this dichotomy between liberal and illiberal regimes; rather they fall along a spectrum of liberality and illiberality, being both more or less liberal relative to each other and being more or less liberal in some domains than in others. Given the stringency of Raz's notion of a liberal regime, it is unlikely that any society could be wholly liberal. So, although Raz may have grounds to hold that in the truly liberal society a right to civil disobedience would not exist and that, to the extent that our society approximates such a regime, the case for such a right diminishes, nevertheless in the majority of real societies, if not all real societies, a right to civil disobedience does exist. Note that to make legally protected participation fully adequate, the liberal society would have to address Russell's charge that controllers of the media give defenders of unpopular views few opportunities to make their case unless they resort to sensational methods such as disobedience.

Ronald Dworkin rests the right to civil disobedience not just on a person's right to political participation, but on all of the rights that she has against her government. People may be supposed to have a fundamental right against the government, such as freedom of expression, when that right is important to their dignity, to their standing as persons equally entitled to concern and respect, or to some other personal value of consequence. A person has a right to disobey a law, says Dworkin, whenever that law wrongly invades her rights against the government (Dworkin 1977, 192). Thus, the moral right to breach the law is not a separate right, like a right of conscience, additional to other rights against the government. It is that part of people's rights against the government which the government fails to honour.

Together the three above positions bring out some key points of disagreement amongst philosophers on the issue of a right to civil disobedience. First, philosophers disagree over the grounds of this right. Is it derivative of a right to participate in the political decision-making process? Is it derivative of other rights? Is it founded on a person's equal status as a being worthy of concern and respect? Second, philosophers disagree over the parameters of the right. Does it extend to all acts of civil disobedience or only to those acts that meet certain conditions of justifiability? Third, philosophers differ over the kinds of regimes in which the right arises. Does it exist only in illiberal regimes or does it hold in all regimes including just regimes? A final issue, not brought out in any of the above views, is whether the right to civil disobedience extends to indirect civil disobedience. Presumably, it should, but none of the above positions offer arguments on which one could base such a claim.

4. Punishment

The final issue to consider is how authorities should respond to civil disobedience. The question of appropriate legal response applies, first, to the actions of law-enforcers when deciding whether and how to intervene in a civilly disobedient action, whether to arrest, whether to charge, and so on. It applies, second, to the actions of prosecutors when deciding whether to proceed to trial. Finally, it applies to the actions of judges (and juries) when deciding whether to convict and (for judges) how much to punish. The focus here will be the issue of appropriate punishment.

To determine when, if ever, punishment of civil disobedience is appropriate, it is necessary first to say a few things about the nature, purposes, and justification of lawful punishment by the state. The three basic issues of punishment are: Why punish?, Whom to punish?, and How much to punish? The justifications for punishment can be forward-looking, backward-looking or some combination of the two. Jeremy Bentham, for one, takes a forward-looking, consequentialist view of punishment. He holds that punishment is an evil that is only ever justified if its employment prevents some greater evil that would arise from not punishing (Bentham, 1789, 158).

A key variant of the consequentialist approach focuses on deterrence. Punishment is justified on deterrence grounds if it prevents and/or discourages both the offender and others from breaching the law. Deterrence theories are criticised for treating people as brutes not rational agents capable of responding to moral reasons because the deterrent element of punishment gives people a prudential reason (relating to the prospect of punishment), not a moral reason, to refrain from breaching the law. Deterrence theories also are criticised for allowing persons who are not proper objects of punishment to be punished when this succeeds in deterring other people from breaching the law. Finally, deterrence theories are criticised for making the parameters for appropriate punishment excessively broad in allowing that whatever punishment is needed to deter people is the justified punishment.

Desert theory, by contrast, takes a backward-looking view of the purpose and justification of punishment, focusing on what the offender deserves for her action. Desert theory is much more concerned than is deterrence theory with punishing only persons who are the proper objects of punishment and with punishing those persons only as much as they deserve. Desert theory aims at a response to the offence that is proportionate to its seriousness as an offence. Seriousness is determined by two factors: an offender's culpability and the harm caused by her action. Desert theories are criticised for insufficiently defending the view that the guilty always should be punished. Although the intuition that the guilty deserve to suffer is widely shared, it is not obvious why they deserve this. Desert theories are also criticised for assuming both that fact-finders can determine what offenders deserve and that the deserved punishment is necessarily the justified punishment: should people always be punished as they deserve?

A variant of desert theory is the communicative theory of punishment, which takes both a forward-looking and a backward-looking view of the purposes of punishment. The purposes of punishment on a communicative account are both to convey the state's condemnation of the action and to lead the offender to repent her action and to reform her conduct. On a communicative conception of punishment, the state aims to engage with the offender in a moral dialogue so that she appreciates the moral reasons she has to follow the law. According to some communicative theories, condemnation itself sufficiently justifies punishment. Punishment may be seen as a secular form of penance that vividly confronts the offender with the effects of her crime (Duff 1998, 162). According to other, less monistic communicative theories, communication of censure alone is insufficient to justify punishment; added to it must be the aim of deterrence (von Hirsch 1998, 171). Still other communicative theories add different considerations to the grounds for justification. On one pluralistic view, a distinction is drawn between the punishment that is deserved according to justice and the punishment that is actually justified. When, for example, an offender demonstrates repentance for her offence prior to punishment, the law has reason to be merciful toward her and to impose a less severe punishment than that which she deserves (Tasioulas 2006). Mercy involves a charitable concern for the well-being of the offender as a potential recipient of deserved punishment. Given this offender's repentance, the justified punishment in this case is less than it would be were there no grounds for mercy.

Deterrence systems of punishment recommend a simple approach to civil disobedience. Since the purpose and justification of punishment is to deter people from breaching the law, a deterrence system would impose on civil disobedients whatever punishment was necessary and sufficient to achieve that end. Whether that punishment would be less or more severe than, or equal to, that imposed on ordinary offenders depends on empirical considerations. Sometimes greater punishment than that required for ordinary offenders would be in order since disobedients who are serious in their moral conviction may not be deterred by standard punishments. Other times, however, less punishment than that for ordinary offenders would be in order since disobedients usually are not ‘hardened’ criminals and thus may need less severe treatment to deter them from offending.

In contrast to deterrence systems, monistic desert systems and communicative systems of punishment would only punish civil disobedients if, and to the extent that, they deserve to be punished. A pluralistic communicative system, which gives weight to considerations of mercy as well as retribution or desert, would only punish to the extent that the punishment was justified (not to the extent that it was deserved) since mercy toward the offender might recommend punishing her less than she deserves according to justice. The pluralistic approach raises the question whether being motivated by civil disobedience might give the law a reason to show mercy towards an offender. One might argue that a disobedient's conviction and commitments, which make it very difficult for her both to adhere to norms that violate those commitments and to desist from using effective means of protest, are facts about her circumstances that give the law reason to show mercy toward her. This would lessen the severity of any justified response from the law.

For desert and communicative theories concerned solely with justice-based desert, the key question is whether disobedients deserve censure, and if so, how much? There are at least three possible replies. One is that disobedients deserve the same punishment as the ordinary offenders who breach the same laws. There are several reasons to take this view. First, as Greenawalt puts it, the demands of proportionality would seem to recommend a uniform application of legal prohibitions. Since trespass is prohibited, persons who breach trespass laws in protest of either those laws or other laws are equally liable to persons who breach trespass laws for private purposes. Second, also from Greenawalt comes the suggestion that any principle that officials may excuse justified illegal acts will result in some failures to punish unjustified acts, for which the purposes of punishment would be more fully served. Even when officials make correct judgments about which acts to excuse, citizens may draw mistaken inferences, and restraints of deterrence and norm acceptance may be weakened for unjustified acts that resemble justified ones (Greenawalt 1987, 273). Therefore all such violations, justified and unjustified, should be treated the same.

But much of this turns on the assumption that civilly disobedient breaches of law are in fact comparable to ordinary offences and deserve a comparable response from the law. The discussion in Section 1 of the key features of civil disobedience showed that it differs greatly from ordinary offences both in motivation and in mode of action, let alone moral justification. This would suggest that civil disobedience should be regarded in the eyes of the law as a different kind of disobedience from common crimes. This leaves two options: civil disobedience deserves greater censure or it deserves less censure than ordinary crimes do.

There are reasons to believe that civil disobedients should be dealt with more severely than ordinary offenders are. First, there is the fact that disobedients seem to have put themselves above the law in preferring their own moral judgment about a certain issue to that of the democratic decision-making process and the rule of law. (Although some judges have endorsed this caricature, it is worth noting that it clashes with how both dissenters and many theorists characterise their activities; cf. Rawls 1971; Greenawalt 1987; Markovits 2006.) Second, the communicative aspect of civil disobedience could be said to aggravate such offences since it usually is attended by much greater publicity than most covert violations are. This forces legal authorities to concern themselves with the possibility that law-abiding citizens will feel distressed, insecure and perhaps imposed on if no action is taken. So, notes Greenawalt, while authorities may quietly let minor breaches pass, failure to respond to violations performed, in some respect, in the presence of authority, may undercut claims that the rules and the persons who administered them deserve respect (Greenawalt 1987, 351–2). Third, any use of violence would seem to aggravate civil disobedience particularly when it increases the harm of the offence or when it directly incites further and unjustified instances of violence. And although violence may eloquently communicate a dissenter's seriousness and frustration, it changes the nature of the dialogue. It pushes authorities to respond in ways consonant with their stance on violence – responses which may be harsher than those they would otherwise wish to make toward acts of civil disobedience that defend values they can appreciate.

The final possible view is that civil disobedients should be dealt with more leniently than ordinary offenders are, at least when their disobedience is morally justified. These offenders are conscientiously motivated and often their protests serve the interests of society by forcing a desirable re-examination of moral boundaries. That said, moral justifications do not usually translate into legal justifications and disobedients have been notoriously unsuccessful at advancing a defence of necessity (a defence that their action was legally justified being the lesser of two evils). Whether the law should be more accommodating of their conscientious motivation and efforts to engage in moral dialogue with government and society is a topic for further debate.

Some theorists maintain that civil disobedience is an outdated, overanalysed notion that little reflects current forms of political activism, which tend toward more extreme modes of engagement. Herbert Storing has suggested that ‘The most striking characteristic of civil disobedience is its irrelevance to the problems of today.’ (Storing 1991, 85). He said, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, that the fashion of civil disobedience is as likely to die out as it was to burst forth under the words of King. There is of course much evidence to show that Storing was mistaken in his predictions for the popularity of civil disobedience as a mode of dissent. Certainly though there have been shifts in the paradigm forms of civil disobedience in recent years; yet these shifts have occurred largely within the framework of conscientious communication discussed at the outset. The historical paradigms of Gandhi, King, the suffragettes, and Mandela are representative of that kind of civil disobedience which aims to guarantee legal protection for the basic rights of a specific constituency. Such disobedience contrasts with much contemporary civil disobedience, which focuses not on individuals' basic rights, but on broader issues or special interests such as the environment, animal rights, nuclear disarmament, globalisation, foreign policy, and so on.

Civil disobedience taken in support of concerns such as the environment or animal rights may be seen in part as a response to some breakdown in the mechanisms for citizen engagement in the decision-making process. This breakdown might be termed a democratic deficit (Markovits 2005). Such deficits in that dialogue may be an inevitable part of real democracies, and disobedience undertaken to correct those deficits may be said to reflect, to varying degrees, dissenters' sensitivity to democratic ideals. Civil disobedience remains today very much a vibrant part of liberal democracies and there are significant issues concerning civil disobedience for philosophers to address, particularly in how this practice may be distinguished from more radical forms of protest and how this practice should be treated by the law.

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  • Smith, William, 2011. ‘Civil Disobedience and the Public Sphere,’ in The Journal of Political Philosophy , 19 (2): 145–166.
  • Storing, Herbert J., 1991. ‘The Case Against Civil Disobedience,’ in Civil Disobedience in Focus , Hugo A. Bedau (ed.), London: Routledge.
  • Sunstein, Cass, 2003. Why Societies Need Dissent , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Tasioulas, John, 2003. ‘Mercy,’ in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society , 103 (2): 101–132.
  • –––, 2006. ‘Punishment and Repentance,’ in Philosophy , 81: 279–322.
  • Thoreau, Henry David, 1991. ‘Civil Disobedience,’ in Civil Disobedience in Focus , Hugo A. Bedau (ed.), London: Routledge.
  • Von Hirsch, Andrew, 1998. ‘Proportionate Sentences: A Desert Perspective,’ in Principled Sentencing , Andrew Ashworth and Andrew Von Hirsch (eds.), Oxford: Hart Publishing.
  • Walzer, Michael, 2004. Arguing about War , New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Washington, J. M. (ed.), 1991. Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. , San Francisco: Harper Collins.
  • Zinn, Howard, 1968. Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order , New York: Random House.
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up this entry topic at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Comprehensive website on Mahatma Gandhi , maintained by the 3 institutes: Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal, Gandhi Book Centre, and Gujarat Vidyapith Ahmedabad
  • The Martin Luther King Jr Research and Education Institute

civil rights | legal obligation and authority | -->legal philosophy --> | punishment | Socrates | terrorism | Thoreau, Henry David


I thank Adrian Blau, Adam Cureton, Alan Hamlin, Jonathan Quong, Ben Saunders, Hillel Steiner, Zofia Stemplowska, and John Tasioulas for their useful suggestions. I thank Joseph Raz and John Tasioulas for valuable discussions on this topic.

Copyright © 2013 by Kimberley Brownlee < k . brownlee @ warwick . ac . uk >

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Fidelity to Truth: Gandhi and the Genealogy of Civil Disobedience

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2017, Political Theory

Mohandas Gandhi is civil disobedience’s most original theorist and most influential mythmaker. As a newspaper editor in South Africa, he chronicled his experiments with satyagraha by drawing parallels to ennobling historical precedents. Most enduring of these were Socrates and Henry David Thoreau. The genealogy Gandhi invented in these years has become a cornerstone of contemporary liberal narratives of civil disobedience as a continuous tradition of conscientious appeal ranging from Socrates to King to Rawls. One consequence of this contemporary canonization of Gandhi’s narrative, however, has been to obscure the radical critique of violence that originally motivated it. This essay draws on Edward Said’s account of travelling theory to unsettle the myth of doctrine that has formed around civil disobedience. By placing Gandhi’s genealogy in the context of his critique of modern civilization, as well as his formative but often-overlooked encounter with the British women’s suffrage mo...

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Political and social movements in South Africa, the United States of America, Germany, Myanmar, India, and elsewhere, have drawn inspiration from the non-violent political techniques advocated by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi during his leadership of the anti-colonial struggle for Indian freedom from British colonial rule. This course charts a global history of Gandhi's thought about non-violence and its expression in civil disobedience and resistance movements both in India and the world. Organized in three modules, the first situates Gandhi through consideration of the diverse sources of his own historical and ideological formation; the second examines the historical contexts and practices through which non-violence acquired meaning for him and considers important critiques; the third explores the various afterlives of Gandhian politics in movements throughout the world. We will examine autobiography and biography, Gandhi's collected works, various types of primary source, political, social, and intellectual history, and audiovisual materials. In addition to widely disseminated narratives of Gandhi as a symbol of non-violence, the course will closely attend to the deep contradictions concerning race, caste, gender, and class that characterized his thought and action. By unsettling conventional accounts of his significance, we will grapple with the problem of how to make sense of his troubled legacy.

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Civil disobedience is a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies. Civil disobedience is generally regarded as more morally defensible than both ordinary offences and other forms of protest such as militant action or coercive violence. The Civil disobedience movement of India was a unique attempt where ordinary people accepting the leadership of Gandhi, in a non-violent way stood against the might of the British Empire. This event shook the foundation of the British Empire and also made a wide spectrum of people to accept a single goal: swarajya or self-rule. But therein lay the uncertainty; while Gandhi believed swarajya was inner transformation of Indians, other congress leaders thought it was either collapse of British administration or gaining of dominion status. To common man it was either complete independence or at least dominion status and a euphoria that they were into something very important. But when the collective effort of the people that cut across their regional, linguistic, caste and religious differences was not rewarded with either Independence or dominion status it led to fissures within congress and marred the image of the leader who took them through the movement. It also resulted in Gandhi moving away from the party he led for a period of nine years. The paper attempts to study the movement from one of its major centers and tries to understand what is important in a mass movement, the means or the end or both? Keywords: Civil disobedience, Satyagraha, Non-violence, Leadership, Dominion status, Gandhi.

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‘Mahatma Gandhi has made a lasting contribution to political philosophy and this requires that succeeding generations of scholars interpret that contribution in ways that meet the needs of the changing times and intellectual trends. Gandhi and the Contemporary World meets this requirement very admirably: it presents Gandhi in a critical, lively and timely fashion. Enjoy this excellent addition to Gandhi literature’. Anthony J. Parel, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Calgary, Canada ‘This riveting collection of essays included in the volume throws valuable light on Mahatma Gandhi’s activist political philosophy and on some of its legacies today.Comprehensively discussed and examined are his ideas of truth and non-violence in their bearing on his conception of satyagraha and on his approach to the postcolonial Indian nation’. Thomas Pantham, former Professor at M S University of Baroda, Baroda, India

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Civil Disobedience

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Henry David Thoreau

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Full Work Summary

Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience espouses the need to prioritize one's conscience over the dictates of laws. It criticizes American social institutions and policies, most prominently slavery and the Mexican-American War.

Thoreau begins his essay by arguing that government rarely proves itself useful and that it derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group, not because they hold the most legitimate viewpoint. He contends that people's first obligation is to do what they believe is right and not to follow the law dictated by the majority. When a government is unjust, people should refuse to follow the law and distance themselves from the government in general. A person is not obligated to devote his life to eliminating evils from the world, but he is obligated not to participate in such evils. This includes not being a member of an unjust institution (like the government). Thoreau further argues that the United States fits his criteria for an unjust government, given its support of slavery and its practice of aggressive war.

Thoreau doubts the effectiveness of reform within the government, and he argues that voting and petitioning for change achieves little. He presents his own experiences as a model for how to relate to an unjust government: In protest of slavery, Thoreau refused to pay taxes and spent a night in jail. But, more generally, he ideologically dissociated himself from the government, "washing his hands" of it and refusing to participate in his institutions. According to Thoreau, this form of protest was preferable to advocating for reform from within government; he asserts that one cannot see government for what it is when one is working within it.

Civil Disobedience covers several topics, and Thoreau intersperses poetry and social commentary throughout. For purposes of clarity and readability, the essay has been divided into three sections here, though Thoreau himself made no such divisions.

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  • Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism
  • Literature Notes
  • Summary and Analysis
  • What Is Transcendentalism?
  • Introduction
  • Major Tenets
  • Reasons for the Rise of the Movement
  • Forms of Expressing Transcendental Philosophy
  • Lasting Impact of the Movement
  • Introduction to the Times
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Life and Background of Emerson
  • Introduction to Emerson's Writing
  • Selective Chronology of Emerson's Writings
  • Emerson's Reputation and Influence
  • Emerson's "Nature"
  • Major Themes
  • Emerson's "The Divinity School Address"
  • Emerson's "Experience"
  • Emerson's "Hamatreya"
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Life and Background of Thoreau
  • Introduction to Thoreau's Writing
  • Selected Chronology of Thoreau's Writings
  • Thoreau's Reputation and Influence
  • Thoreau's "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers"
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Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" Summary and Analysis

Having spent one night in jail in July of 1846 for refusal to pay his poll tax in protest against slavery and the Mexican War, Thoreau lectured before the Concord Lyceum in January of 1848 on the subject "On the Relation of the Individual to the State." The lecture was published under the title "Resistance to Civil Government" in Elizabeth Peabody's Aesthetic Papers , in May 1849. It was included (as "Civil Disobedience") in Thoreau's A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers , published in Boston in 1866 by Ticknor and Fields, and reprinted many times. The essay formed part of Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers as edited by British Thoreau biographer Henry S. Salt and issued in London in 1890. "Civil Disobedience" was included in the Riverside Edition of 1894 (in Miscellanies , the tenth volume), in the Walden and Manuscript Editions of 1906 (in Cape Cod and Miscellanies , the fourth volume), and in the Princeton Edition (in Reform Papers , the third volume) in 1973. One of Thoreau's most influential writings, it has been published separately many times (Walter Harding's The Variorum Civil Disobedience , for example, appeared in 1967), included in volumes of selections from Thoreau (among them the 1937 Modern Library Edition of Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau , edited by Brooks Atkinson), and translated into European and Asian languages.

Thoreau opens Civil Disobedience with the maxim "That government is best which governs least," and he speaks in favor of government that does not intrude upon men's lives. Government is only an expedient — a means of attaining an end. It exists because the people have chosen it to execute their will, but it is susceptible to misuse. The Mexican War is an example of a few people using the government as their tool. Thoreau asserts that government as an institution hinders the accomplishment of the work for which it was created. It exists for the sole purpose of ensuring individual freedom. Denying an interest in abolishing government, he states that he simply wants a better government. Majority rule is based on physical strength, not right and justice. Individual conscience should rule instead, and civil government should confine itself to those matters suited to decision by majority rule. He deplores the lack of judgment, moral sense, and conscience in the way men serve the state. A man cannot bow unquestioningly to the state's authority without disregarding himself.

Thoreau introduces the right of revolution, which all men recognize, and reflects on the American Revolution, the origins of which he finds less morally compelling than the issues at hand. Having developed the image of the government as a machine that may or may not do enough good to counterbalance what evil it commits, he urges rebellion. The opponents of reform, he recognizes, are not faraway politicians but ordinary people who cooperate with the system. The expression of opposition to slavery is meaningless. Only action — what you do about your objection — matters. Wrong will be redressed only by the individual, not through the mechanism of government. Although Thoreau asserts that a man has other, higher duties than eradicating institutional wrong, he must at least not be guilty through compliance. The individual must not support the structure of government, must act with principle, must break the law if necessary.

Abolition can be achieved by withdrawing support from the government, which may be accomplished practically through the nonpayment of taxes. If imprisonment is the result, there is no shame in it — prison is the best place for a just man in an unjust society. In the current state of affairs, payment of taxes is violent and bloody. Nonpayment constitutes a "peaceable revolution." Thoreau comments on the corrupting influence of money and property, and urges a simple, self-reliant lifestyle as a means of maintaining individual freedom. He describes his experience in the Concord Jail in some detail, commenting upon the folly of the state's treatment of a man as if he were a physical entity only, rather than an intellectual and moral one. A man can be compelled only by one who possesses greater morality. In Civil Disobedience as throughout his other writings, Thoreau focuses on the individual's ultimate responsibility to live deliberately and to extract meaning from his own life; overseeing the machinery of society is secondary.

Thoreau asserts that he does not want to quarrel or to feel superior to others. He wants to conform to the laws of the land, but current laws are not honorable from a higher point of view. Politics and politicians act as though the universe were ruled by expediency. In the progression from absolute monarchy to limited monarchy to democracy, Thoreau observes an evolution in government toward greater expression of the consent of the governed. He notes that democracy may not be the final stage in the process. His emphasis at the end of the essay is firmly on respect for the individual. There will never be a "really free and enlightened State" until the state recognizes the preeminence of the individual.

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Civil Disobedience

Henry david thoreau, everything you need for every book you read..

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On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

By henry david thoreau, 1849, original title: resistance to civil government.

I heartily accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

This American government,—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves; and, if ever they should use it in earnest as a real one against each other, it will surely split. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we must all allow; yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way. For government is an expedient, by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it. Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India rubber, would never manage to bounce over obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions, and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads.

But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts, a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment, though it may be

“Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,     As his corpse to the ramparts we hurried; Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot     O’er the grave where our hero we buried.”

The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus , &c. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw, or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men , serve the State with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated by it as enemies. A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay,” and “stop a hole to keep the wind away,” but leave that office to his dust at least:

“I am too high-born to be propertied, To be a secondary at control, Or useful serving-man and instrument To any sovereign state throughout the world.”

He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.

How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ’75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them: all machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact, that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions, in his chapter on the “Duty of Submission to Civil Government,” resolves all civil obligation into expediency; and he proceeds to say, “that so long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God that the established government be obeyed, and no longer.”—“This principle being admitted, the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of the probability and expense of redressing it on the other.” Of this, he says, every man shall judge for himself. But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.

In their practice, nations agree with Paley; but does anyone think that Massachusetts does exactly what is right at the present crisis?

“A drab of state, a cloth-o’-silver slut, To have her train borne up, and her soul trail in the dirt.”

Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may . I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless. We are accustomed to say, that the mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow, because the few are not materially wiser or better than the many. It is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump. There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man; but it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it.

All voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.

I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come to, shall we not have the advantage of his wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reasons to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought. Oh for a man who is a man , and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through! Our statistics are at fault: the population has been returned too large. How many men are there to a square thousand miles in the country? Hardly one. Does not America offer any inducement for men to settle here? The American has dwindled into an Odd Fellow,—one who may be known by the development of his organ of gregariousness, and a manifest lack of intellect and cheerful self-reliance; whose first and chief concern, on coming into the world, is to see that the alms-houses are in good repair; and, before yet he has lawfully donned the virile garb, to collect a fund for the support of the widows and orphans that may be; who, in short, ventures to live only by the aid of the Mutual Insurance company, which has promised to bury him decently.

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, “I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico,—see if I would go;” and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards and sets at naught; as if the State were penitent to that degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness. After the first blush of sin, comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, un moral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.

The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue to sustain it. The slight reproach to which the virtue of patriotism is commonly liable, the noble are most likely to incur. Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform. Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves,—the union between themselves and the State,—and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury? Do not they stand in same relation to the State, that the State does to the Union? And have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting the Union, which have prevented them from resisting the State?

How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is aggrieved? If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied with knowing you are cheated, or with saying that you are cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your due; but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount, and see that you are never cheated again. Action from principle,—the perception and the performance of right,—changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divided states and churches, it divides families; aye, it divides the individual , separating the diabolical in him from the divine.

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its authority was the only offence never contemplated by government; else, why has it not assigned its definite, its suitable and proportionate penalty? If a man who has no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for the State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law that I know, and determined only by the discretion of those who placed him there; but if he should steal ninety times nine shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at large again.

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. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; 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.

As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not every thing to do, but something; and because he cannot do every thing , it is not necessary that he should do something wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and, if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then? But in this case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconcilliatory; but it is to treat with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appreciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better, like birth and death which convulse the body.

I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.

I meet this American government, or its representative, the State government, directly, and face to face, once a year, no more, in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then. My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with,—for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel,—and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government. How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace, and see if he can get over this obstruction to his neighborliness without a ruder and more impetuous thought or speech corresponding with his action? I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name,—if ten honest men only,—aye, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves , were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission. Reform keeps many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man. If my esteemed neighbor, the State’s ambassador, who will devote his days to the settlement of the question of human rights in the Council Chamber, instead of being threatened with the prisons of Carolina, were to sit down the prisoner of Massachusetts, that State which is so anxious to foist the sin of slavery upon her sister,—though at present she can discover only an act of inhospitality to be the ground of a quarrel with her,—the Legislature would not wholly waive the subject of the following winter.

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her but against her,—the only house in a slave-state in which a free man can abide with honor. If any think that their influence would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do any thing, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.

I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender, rather than the seizure of his goods,—though both will serve the same purpose,—because they who assert the purest right, and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property. To such the State renders comparatively small service, and a slight tax is wont to appear exorbitant, particularly if they are obliged to earn it by special labor with their hands. If there were one who lived wholly without the use of money, the State itself would hesitate to demand it of him. But the rich man—not to make any invidious comparison—is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend it. Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet. The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the “means” are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor. Christ answered the Herodians according to their condition. “Show me the tribute-money,” said he;—and one took a penny out of his pocket;—if you use money which has the image of Cæsar on it, and which he has made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State , and gladly enjoy the advantages of Cæsar’s government, then pay him back some of his own when he demands it; “Render therefore to Cæsar that which is Cæsar’s and to God those things which are God’s,”—leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.

When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that, whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question, and their regard for the public tranquillity, the long and the short of the matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences of disobedience to it to their property and families. For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State. But, if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly and at the same time comfortably in outward respects. It will not be worth the while to accumulate property; that would be sure to go again. You must hire or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs. A man may grow rich in Turkey even, if he will be in all respects a good subject of the Turkish government. Confucius said,—“If a State is governed by the principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a State is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are the subjects of shame.” No: until I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to me in some distant southern port, where my liberty is endangered, or until I am bent solely on building up an estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my property and life. It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State, than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.

Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the church, and commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman whose preaching my father attended, but never I myself. “Pay it,” it said, “or be locked up in the jail.” I declined to pay. But, unfortunately, another man saw fit to pay it. I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster; for I was not the State’s schoolmaster, but I supported myself by voluntary subscription. I did not see why the lyceum should not present its tax-bill, and have the State to back its demand, as well as the church. However, at the request of the selectmen, I condescended to make some such statement as this in writing:—“Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.” This I gave to the town-clerk; and he has it. The State, having thus learned that I did not wish to be regarded as a member of that church, has never made a like demand on me since; though it said that it must adhere to its original presumption that time. If I had known how to name them, I should then have signed off in detail from all the societies which I never signed on to; but I did not know where to find such a complete list.

I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did nor for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.

Thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way or that by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live? When I meet a government which says to me, “Your money or your life,” why should I be in haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society. I am not the son of the engineer. I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.

The night in prison was novel and interesting enough. The prisoners in their shirt-sleeves were enjoying a chat and the evening air in the door-way, when I entered. But the jailer said, “Come, boys, it is time to lock up;” and so they dispersed, and I heard the sound of their steps returning into the hollow apartments. My room-mate was introduced to me by the jailer as “a first-rate fellow and a clever man.” When the door was locked, he showed me where to hang my hat, and how he managed matters there. The rooms were whitewashed once a month; and this one, at least, was the whitest, most simply furnished, and probably the neatest apartment in town. He naturally wanted to know where I came from, and what brought me there; and, when I had told him, I asked him in my turn how he came there, presuming him to be an honest man, of course; and, as the world goes, I believe he was. “Why,” said he, “they accuse me of burning a barn; but I never did it.” As near as I could discover, he had probably gone to bed in a barn when drunk, and smoked his pipe there; and so a barn was burnt. He had the reputation of being a clever man, had been there some three months waiting for his trial to come on, and would have to wait as much longer; but he was quite domesticated and contented, since he got his board for nothing, and thought that he was well treated.

He occupied one window, and I the other; and I saw, that, if one stayed there long, his principal business would be to look out the window. I had soon read all the tracts that were left there, and examined where former prisoners had broken out, and where a grate had been sawed off, and heard the history of the various occupants of that room; for I found that even here there was a history and a gossip which never circulated beyond the walls of the jail. Probably this is the only house in the town where verses are composed, which are afterward printed in a circular form, but not published. I was shown quite a long list of verses which were composed by some young men who had been detected in an attempt to escape, who avenged themselves by singing them.

I pumped my fellow-prisoner as dry as I could, for fear I should never see him again; but at length he showed me which was my bed, and left me to blow out the lamp.

It was like travelling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I never had heard the town-clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of the village; for we slept with the windows open, which were inside the grating. It was to see my native village in the light of the Middle Ages, and our Concord was turned into a Rhine stream, and visions of knights and castles passed before me. They were the voices of old burghers that I heard in the streets. I was an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village-inn—a wholly new and rare experience to me. It was a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it. I never had seen its institutions before. This is one of its peculiar institutions; for it is a shire town. I began to comprehend what its inhabitants were about.

In the morning, our breakfasts were put through the hole in the door, in small oblong-square tin pans, made to fit, and holding a pint of chocolate, with brown bread, and an iron spoon. When they called for the vessels again, I was green enough to return what bread I had left; but my comrade seized it, and said that I should lay that up for lunch or dinner. Soon after, he was let out to work at haying in a neighboring field, whither he went every day, and would not be back till noon; so he bade me good-day, saying that he doubted if he should see me again.

When I came out of prison,—for some one interfered, and paid the tax,—I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a youth, and emerged a gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene,—the town, and State, and country,—greater than any that mere time could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly purpose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are; that, in their sacrifices to humanity they ran no risks, not even to their property; that, after all, they were not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a particular straight though useless path from time to time, to save their souls. This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that most of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village.

It was formerly the custom in our village, when a poor debtor came out of jail, for his acquaintances to salute him, looking through their fingers, which were crossed to represent the grating of a jail window, “How do ye do?” My neighbors did not thus salute me, but first looked at me, and then at one another, as if I had returned from a long journey. I was put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker’s to get a shoe which was mended. When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour,—for the horse was soon tackled,—was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off; and then the State was nowhere to be seen.

This is the whole history of “My Prisons.”

I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and, as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countrymen now. It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with,—the dollar is innocent,—but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make use and get what advantages of her I can, as is usual in such cases.

If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from a sympathy with the State, they do but what they have already done in their own case, or rather they abet injustice to a greater extent than the State requires. If they pay the tax from a mistaken interest in the individual taxed, to save his property or prevent his going to jail, it is because they have not considered wisely how far they let their private feelings interfere with the public good.

This, then, is my position at present. But one cannot be too much on his guard in such a case, lest his actions be biassed by obstinacy, or an undue regard for the opinions of men. Let him see that he does only what belongs to himself and to the hour.

I think sometimes, Why, this people mean well; they are only ignorant; they would do better if they knew how: why give your neighbors this pain to treat you as they are not inclined to? But I think, again, this is no reason why I should do as they do, or permit others to suffer much greater pain of a different kind. Again, I sometimes say to myself, When many millions of men, without heat, without ill-will, without personal feeling of any kind, demand of you a few shillings only, without the possibility, such is their constitution, of retracting or altering their present demand, and without the possibility, on your side, of appeal to any other millions, why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do not put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible, first and instantaneously, from them to the Maker of them, and, secondly, from them to themselves. But, if I put my head deliberately into the fire, there is no appeal to fire or to the Maker of fire, and I have only myself to blame. If I could convince myself that I have any right to be satisfied with men as they are, and to treat them accordingly, and not according, in some respects, to my requisitions and expectations of what they and I ought to be, then, like a good Mussulman and fatalist, I should endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are, and say it is the will of God. And, above all, there is this difference between resisting this and a purely brute or natural force, that I can resist this with some effect; but I cannot expect, like Orpheus, to change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts.

I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the general and state governments, and the spirit of the people to discover a pretext for conformity.

“We must affect our country as our parents, And if at any time we alienate Out love of industry from doing it honor, We must respect effects and teach the soul Matter of conscience and religion, And not desire of rule or benefit.”

I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my work of this sort out of my hands, and then I shall be no better patriot than my fellow-countrymen. Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable, and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?

However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.

I know that most men think differently from myself; but those whose lives are by profession devoted to the study of these or kindred subjects content me as little as any. Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it. They speak of moving society, but have no resting-place without it. They may be men of a certain experience and discrimination, and have no doubt invented ingenious and even useful systems, for which we sincerely thank them; but all their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits. They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and expediency. Webster never goes behind government, and so cannot speak with authority about it. His words are wisdom to those legislators who contemplate no essential reform in the existing government; but for thinkers, and those who legislate for all time, he never once glances at the subject. I know of those whose serene and wise speculations on this theme would soon reveal the limits of his mind’s range and hospitality. Yet, compared with the cheap professions of most reformers, and the still cheaper wisdom and eloquence of politicians in general, his are almost the only sensible and valuable words, and we thank Heaven for him. Comparatively, he is always strong, original, and, above all, practical. Still his quality is not wisdom, but prudence. The lawyer’s truth is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency. Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist with wrong-doing. He well deserves to be called, as he has been called, the Defender of the Constitution. There are really no blows to be given by him but defensive ones. He is not a leader, but a follower. His leaders are the men of ’87. “I have never made an effort,” he says, “and never propose to make an effort; I have never countenanced an effort, and never mean to countenance an effort, to disturb the arrangement as originally made, by which the various States came into the Union.” Still thinking of the sanction which the Constitution gives to slavery, he says, “Because it was part of the original compact,—let it stand.” Notwithstanding his special acuteness and ability, he is unable to take a fact out of its merely political relations, and behold it as it lies absolutely to be disposed of by the intellect,—what, for instance, it behoves a man to do here in America today with regard to slavery, but ventures, or is driven, to make some such desperate answer as the following, while professing to speak absolutely, and as a private man,—from which what new and singular code of social duties might be inferred?—“The manner,” says he, “in which the governments of those States where slavery exists are to regulate it, is for their own consideration, under the responsibility to their constituents, to the general laws of propriety, humanity, and justice, and to God. Associations formed elsewhere, springing from a feeling of humanity, or any other cause, have nothing whatever to do with it. They have never received any encouragement from me and they never will.” [These extracts have been inserted since the Lecture was read —HDT]

They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humanity; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head.

No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations. For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation.

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to,—for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well,—is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere in the United States and most other parts of the world at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at . If you are not located in the United States, you will have to check the laws of the country where you are located before using this eBook.


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  1. 8. Civil Disobedience Movement| 8th History & Civics Maharashtra Board


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  1. PDF On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

    Essay: "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" Author: Henry David Thoreau, 1817-62 First published: 1849. The original essay is in the public domain in the United States and in most, if not all, other countries as well. Readers outside the United States should check their own countries' copyright laws to be certain they can legally ...


    ESSAY ON CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE. Henry David Thoreau. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a citizen of Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived during the middle of the 19th century. He was a good friend of various literary figures of the day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most eminent of American authors and a popular orator.

  3. PDF Civil Disobedience

    When Thoreau first delivered the essay as a lecture before the Concord Lyceum on January 26, 1848, he entitled it "On the Relation of the Individual to the State." When it was first printed, in Elizabeth Peabody's Aesthetic Papers in ... The 1840's, when "Civil Disobedience" was written, was a period of intense interest in social ...

  4. PDF Civil Disobedience

    Civil Disobedience Thoreau's essay is out of copyright and in the public domain; this version is lightly edited for modernization. Supplemental essays are copyrighted by their respective authors and included with permission. The foreword is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. LIBERTAS PRESS


    978-1-108-47804-5 — The Cambridge Companion to Civil Disobedience Edited by William E. Scheuerman Frontmatter More Information ... 2020), as well as a number of essays on civil disobedience published in journals including Ethics, Criminal Law and Philosophy, and Res Publica. Alexander Livingston is Associate Professor in the Department of


    1 Given as a lecture at the Concord Lyceum in 1848 and published the following year under the title: Resistance to Civil Government. lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely ... Walden, and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Project Gutenberg. Web. 13 Nov. 2011 . Author: Larry Created ...

  7. Civil Disobedience

    On the most widely accepted account of civil disobedience, famously defended by John Rawls (1971), civil disobedience is a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies. On this account, people who engage in civil disobedience are willing to accept the legal ...

  8. PDF On Civil Disobedience

    form of a dispute over the legitimacy of a certain policy or of the. authority of a certain government agency. So long as the author- ity at hand may, as it must, be permitted to define at least pro- visionally what is legal or within the scope of its authority, defying it can qualify as civil disobedience.

  9. Civil Disobedience : HENRY DAVID THOREAU : Free Download, Borrow, and

    Resistance to Civil Government, called Civil Disobedience for short, is an essay by American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau that was first published in 1849. Addeddate 2020-06-18 05:39:43 ... PDF download. download 1 file . SINGLE PAGE PROCESSED JP2 ZIP download. download 1 file ...

  10. (PDF) Fidelity to Truth: Gandhi and the Genealogy of Civil Disobedience

    The most influential of these is John Rawls's account of civil disobedience as "a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government."7 Civil disobedience is a stabilizing device of a constitutional system that corrects legal ...

  11. Civil Disobedience (Thoreau)

    Libertarianism portal. United States portal. v. t. e. Resistance to Civil Government, also called On the Duty of Civil Disobedience or Civil Disobedience for short, is an essay by American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau that was first published in 1849. In it, Thoreau argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or ...

  12. [PDF] On the duty of civil disobedience

    On the duty of civil disobedience. H. Thoreau. Published 21 October 2014. Political Science, Philosophy. I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe--"That government is best ...

  13. Civil Disobedience: Full Work Summary

    Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience espouses the need to prioritize one's conscience over the dictates of laws. It criticizes American social institutions and policies, most prominently slavery and the Mexican-American War. Thoreau begins his essay by arguing that government rarely proves itself useful and that it derives its power from the majority because they are the strongest group ...

  14. Civil disobedience, and other essays

    This representative sampling of his thought includes five of his most frequently cited and read essays: 'Civil Disobedience, ' his most powerful and influential political essay, exalts the law of conscience over civil law Civil disobedience (1849) -- Slavery in Massachusetts (1854) -- A plea for Captain John Brown (1860) -- Walking (1862 ...

  15. Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" Summary and Analysis

    It was included (as "Civil Disobedience") in Thoreau's A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, published in Boston in 1866 by Ticknor and Fields, and reprinted many times. The essay formed part of Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers as edited by British Thoreau biographer Henry S. Salt and issued in London in 1890.

  16. (PDF) Civil disobedience: a dispute of concepts

    Civil disobedience: a dispute of concepts. (des)troços: revista de pensamento radical, belo horizonte, v. 3, n. 2, jul./dez. 2022. 38. Introduction. The primary objective of this paper is to ...

  17. Civil Disobedience Summary & Analysis

    Civil Disobedience Summary & Analysis. Thoreau begins his essay by admitting that he believes that the best governments are the ones that "govern least.". He follows up by arguing that, unfortunately, most governments are "inexpedient," and that in many cases a standing government is just as objectionable as a standing army because it ...

  18. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

    The Project Gutenberg eBook of On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau. This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere in the United States and most other parts of the world at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included ...

  19. PDF Civil and Uncivil Disobedience (Expository Writing 20, Section 235

    grew out Vicky Osterweil's controversial post-Ferguson essay "In Defense of Looting." Students will develop final research topics of their choosing, which might examine a philosophical argument, a particular protest movement or action (historical or recent), or a film or other work of art about civil disobedience.

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  21. PDF Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

    By Henry David Thoreau. 1849. heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and. should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe- "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind ...

  22. PDF Civil Disobedience

    Civil Disobedience excerpts By Henry David Thoreau 1849 Note: The 20-page essay, Civil Disobedience, is often published in the same book following the 250-page Walden, an interesting juxtaposition of an appreciation of nature with an appreciation of social justice. Many have heard of this essay, but most

  23. PDF Excerpt from Essay on the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David

    Below are quotes from Thoreau's Essay on the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Put each quote in your own words and explain why you support or do not support it. 1. "I think that we should be men first, and subject afterward." Put Thoreau's quote in your own words. Explain why you support or do not support it.