The concept of civil disobedience augmented and opened debate when David Henry Thoreau developed the idea in his work “resistance to civil government” as a form of protest against the Mexican-American war, slavery, and paying of lofty taxes by the masses for rulers to live a lavish life. In examination to this issue, the essay identifies civil disobedience as a philosophical matter that has entangled various philosophical scholars in an attempt to find out whether it is justifiable, whether morally or logically. In the essay, special emphasis has been focused to Plato’s dialogues, Martin Luther King speeches, and Mahatma Gandhi writings. The essay discusses civil disobedience in correlation to the philosopher’s positions, evaluating each position, while presenting an individual critical view on the same. The rationale of the essay is that civil disobedience is justifiable based on its rightful intent, nonviolent form, and common-good principle that can revitalize a realization of injustices committed by rulers with individual barbaric interests rather than that of other people.
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When Plato contemplated about the ideal state, and postulated the tripartite class structure of workers, warriors, and philosopher kings, the totality of this thinking was not really to classify people, but rather show that people realize potentialities differently. Plato thought that for people to attain good governance, rulers must be those who are rational, intelligent, lovers of wisdom, and with immense self-control, such that they can make decisions that suit the society. Equally, the creation of legal structures in the world that can guarantee peace, harmony, justice, and equality has been an issue of debate with philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls proffering such responsibility to the elite in society. However, the ability of such elite to establish correct laws for the people and the readiness of rulers to follow such laws accordingly is an issue that has revitalized civil unrest and disobedience to governments in the endeavor to fight for justice, accountability, good leadership, and common-good. For instance, Martin Luther King fought for a just cause of moral responsibility and against racial segregation in the US, correcting massive injustice that was embedded in the law for the benefit of minority politicians (King, 1963). Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi took the course of a nonviolent power in civil disobedience. Despite the existence of legal channels where people can protest for a just cause; flaws existent in such legal channels have been a huge impediment. This essay examines whether civil disobedience is ever justified focusing fervently on Plato, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi’s positions on the issue.
According to Plato, and particularly in the dialogue of Crito, Plato seems to contend with Socrates in what seems as an argument against civil disobedience where Socrates refuses to heed Crito’s plea to escape wrongful condemnation, arguing that by disobeying the jury’s condemnation, it is not simply disobeying an unjust decision but rather disobeying the entire Athenian legal system. However, Socrates claim that he will refuse to obey an order commanding him to stop public moral inquiry is also an argument for civil disobedience. Conversely, although Plato stipulated the need to uphold the rule of law, many scholars fail to realize that the ‘rulers’ of Plato were philosopher kings, rather than most of those elected into government structures in the contemporary world (Plato, 1871). On the other hand, Martin Luther King argued in his letters that people had a fundamental human right and moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws, and as a result waged a battle against racial segregation on the streets since the courts that were deemed to offer legal justice were flawed (King, 1963). According to King, civil disobedience is not only a right, a nonviolent cause, and a righteous intention but also a tribute to a democratic force and a pursuit for freedom and civil liberties necessary to uproot the various forms injustice embedded in government regimes. Mahatma Gandhi also in his doctrine of Satyagraha influenced a nonviolence protest, the just fight for civil rights and freedoms that led India to independence (Gandhi, 1943). In my opinion, the term ‘civil disobedience’ came to existence following a realization of the injustices governments were committing against own people, the unlawful human legal constructs that were put in place to dehumanize others and as such, the act is justifiable in so far as its intent is rightful, form is nonviolent, and rationale is common good.
In examination of Plato’s position on civil disobedience, it is essential to expose the various dimensions in Plato’s writings that on one hand argue against civil disobedience while on another level for civil disobedience. According to Plato’s Socrates in the Crito, escaping the trial is like trying to destroy the state and its laws (Plato, 1871). By disobeying the jury’s condemnation of him, Socrates thinks that it is more than just disobeying an unjust decision. Off course, Socrates’ sentence was total injustice, but Socrates seems to comply with whatever wrongful sentence that he will receive from the jury (Plato, 1871). In illumination of this act, the act of civil disobedience seems to be unthought-of by Socrates, and rather uses his philosophical conviction of not fearing death or injustices to comprehend the state’s flawed legal structures. Socrates thinks that disobeying the Athenian legal system that allowed him to defend himself fairly before his peers, and gave him some time and freedom to philosophize is right. However, following this rationale, Socrates seems not to articulate to the essence of pursuing truth in a world, which Charles Darwin described is only for the fittest. Such a world where leaders are marled with individual interests and seizure of power at the expense of the masses must be counteracted by civil disobedience. The only just cause can unify the voice of the people against the denial of fundamental freedoms. Civil disobedience is not disobedience as such but rather a form of civil awareness. Otherwise, it is disobedience to the order of injustice, inequalities, and precarious regimes that advance barbarity against own people. Similarly,
On the contrary, Socrates asserts that he would refuse to obey an order commanding him to stop public moral inquiry (Plato, 1871). Evidently, this is an argument for civil disobedience. In Socrates’ defiance to the authorities of Athens regarding his philosophical inquiry, such an act is justifiable. Note that, Socrates was enlightening the youths of Athens and in his enlightenment, he did not wage an attack to the government, rather, it is the atrocities committed by people in the government that made them feel threatened to such enlightenment against their individual motives. Indeed Socrates proclaimed to the people and government of Athens that they should not instruct him to stop his philosophizing because he will not adhere to their command (Plato, 1871). This insistence is an act of civil disobedience that is justifiable because, a morally upright person will concur that Socrates did a significant work in his philosophical endeavor that helped people to be liberated from ignorance. In this scenario, Socrates is defying the rules based on the unlawful ramifications that constitute the Julies (Plato, 1871). When the laws elected for the people have not been followed in the correct way, it is perverse to think that they can take their own cause, since they lack a voice to champion for their rightful implementation. Therefore, people have a basic requisite to ensure that laws have been implemented fully and in the rightful manner in order to avoid injustices. Socrates’ civil disobedience can be supported by the fact that he accepts the prerogative to submit to the state’s penalty even if it is that of death rather than accepting their wrongful law.
In examination of Martin Luther King Junior, through his peaceful protests and civil rights movements, he was able to fight for racial rights in the US. Luther understands civil disobedience as the power that can effectively use nonviolent means for purposeful violation of certain unjust laws, which one is morally certain that they are wrong (King, 1963). In fact, it is David Henry Thoreau who developed the idea of civil disobedience in his work “resistance to civil government” as a form of protest against the Mexican-American war, slavery, and paying of lofty taxes by the poor people for rules to live in lavishness. Therefore, when Luther grew with racial segregation, the impetus to champion for a just course could not be resisted. It is clear that, racial segregation by any government or law is a form of injustice (King, 1963). Moreover, it was evident that using the legal court channels to agitate for this kind of justice to the people was only a dream. It is therefore logical to use nonviolent means to protest for such injustices in order to liberate other suffering people from the grips of injustice. Civil disobedience therefore is justifiable on such grounds and Martin Luther war right following this kind of act in order to safe racially segregated people in the US (King, 1963). It was notable that African-Americans who lived in the South were segregated in a variety of ways. Even though they had the right to live in the United States of America, they had to ride in the back of buses and sit in the rear of theaters, while hotels and restaurants refused to serve them. Luther led a peaceful struggle for these civil rights, enduring beatings, intimidations, and imprisonment even when he used non-violent means to protest these atrocities. However, one can contend that, King’s endeavor was not wasted, because he succeeded in making America a more just society at the expense of his own life. Noteworthy, the extent to which civil disobedience proponents undertake to champion for the common good of the society in a peaceful and rightful manner, despite its association with illegality is morally justifiable.
Whether publicly breaking a law, when civil disobedience characterizes a rightful intention, it is justifiable. For instance, Birmingham officials refused to issue King a permit for his protest, and one can say that his conduct was not legal in that sense, however, King had properly applied for one and by all accounts, he should have been given one in accordance with his first amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Furthermore, King had exhausted his appeals to normal government channels in trying to end racial segregation, and although the Court had ordered desegregation, neither the state of Alabama nor the federal government had acted upon the orders (King, 1963). To cite other examples where civil disobedience was justifiable, protests such as those of Vietnam War, the obstruction of military caravans, and the peaceful occupation of university research centers and other facilities supporting the war effort were a fundamental right of expression and speech of the people. In all these cases, the groups protesting against government policies had petitioned government authorities to change these policies but had not met with any success, despite the fact that most people were opposed to the war. Interestingly, in the case of the anti-war protests the Supreme Court had refused to exercise properly its power of judicial review in declaring the war to violate the constitution, which gives the Congress not the president the sole right to declare war. It is also notable that, those who commit civil disobedience always refrain from all forms of violence and allow themselves to be arrested, otherwise, any indication of violence presupposes crime.
In legitimizing or justifying civil disobedience, my opinion is that, it must be justified using the higher moral law and the natural law. In doing so, one can therefore articulate to the intrinsic value of civil disobedience for a democratic course. Off course, one may argue of the subjectivity of the natural law in justifying civil disobedience, however, it is neither about the private moral conscience, but rather, exercising the power of reason to infer goodness of an act per se in se. If Martin Luther King was wrong, why is it that laws were put in place against racial segregation? Civil disobedience is not thus a group behavior that is aimed in influencing public opinion, but rather one that envisions bringing change of various injustices occurring in the political arenas. Few would dispute that a personal act of conscientious refusal can be morally justified even when it is not preceded by good faith efforts to change the law through normal legal and political channels. Nonetheless, appealing to constitutional law as a basis of civil disobedience seems more promising in this regard, so long as the constitutional provisions appealed to are widely understood to be publicly reasonable. Note that, the justification for civil disobedience in cases where the constitution itself is the object of protest must thus be rooted in rightful illumination conception of democratic legitimacy. In addition to the natural law premises, King appealed to the constitution in condemning the unlawful segregation of the African Americans who were prevented from literacy tests, voting by poll taxes, and outright intimidation (King, 1963). What King did in his act of civil disobedience was an appeal to the new deal constitution and its supreme elevation of democratic and civil rights.
Equally, in Gandhi’s focus on freedom and the power of nonviolence what he calls satyagraha, he connects these two ideas with the concept of responsibility or moral obligation in order to improve society through nonviolent action (Gandhi, 1943). Gandhi argued often how Indians must exercise responsibility to attain their freedom and conceived this obligation in a various ways. For instance, he distinguished between liberty and permit or license as a difference between true freedom and mere independence. Gandhi also argued that the quest for freedom incurs a definite political obligation particularly when the state failed to represent the people’s interests and needs (Gandhi, 1943). According to Gandhi, disobedience of the law of an evil state is a duty and a fundamental obligation of the people in an active participation and struggle for social reforms (Gandhi, 1943). During the times of civil disobedience, Gandhi indicates that citizens have an obligation to keep peace in order to show civic responsibility and merit reinforcement.
Conversely, civil disobedience is an expression of the people’s conviction that is based on principles of the common good, nonviolently executed, and since it is necessary in such a scenario, it is only a law that is broken but not the fidelity to the system of law. Note that, social arrangements however efficient can be unjust, and a person has a right to disobey such injustice incase the principles of fair equality of opportunity and equal liberties have been violated whether it is for the minority or majority people. Redressing political grievances in ethos of democratic institutions without threatening civil peace is not an abuse of authority; rather, civil disobedience has proved to be the only way through which political leaders can comply to restore justice (Smith, 2011). In support of a just cause civil disobedience may be harmless than certain kinds of lawful actions such as national strikes. The claim that civil disobedience is justified only when everything else as failed reflects a failure to conceive its true nature. Morally acceptable reasons for disobedience include conscientious objection to performing required acts, overriding obligations to others, and the belief that it will promote justice or welfare. Note that, the most serious and instances in which people who break the law think they are morally justified is the one in which they object to a bad law, policy or practice (Smith, 2011). Involving resistance to injustice within he limits of fidelity of law, civil disobedience will help inhibit and correct departures from justice and can contribute to stability in a well-ordered society.
Having said that, therefore, civil disobedience remains a vital expression of democracy, one that functions as a stabilizing device in a constitutional regime, to endeavor make the regime more just. Its aim is to use public reason in building wide public support for a vision of the common good that will pressure an unruly government into becoming more democratic. Furthermore, since civil disobedience involves a form of law-breaking, which is not expressly sanctioned by the constitutional law, it may appear illegitimate, however, civil disobedience is not defiance of law but rather a call for champion for justice. As long as it does not seriously threaten the legal order, civil disobedience to correct private injustice cannot be ruled out on principle that it lacks particular political justification. Instead, civil disobedience demonstrates a self-sacrificing disobedience that serves to promote a reexamination of crucial factual data as well as claims of justice.
Gandhi, M. (1943). Selected writings of Mahatma Gandhi. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
Retrieved from http://www.mkgandhi.org/ebks/SWMGandhi.pdf
King, M.L. (1963). I have a dream. Washington. Retrieved from
Plato (1871). The Dialogues of Plato. (B. Jowett, Trans.). YoGeBooks. Retrieved from
Smith, W. (2011). Civil disobedience and the public sphere. Journal of Political Philosophy, 19