Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is a form of protest in which protestors deliberately violate a law. Classically, they violate the law they are protesting, such as segregation or draft laws, but sometimes they violate other laws which they find unobjectionable, such as trespass or traffic laws. Most activists who perform civil disobedience are scrupulously nonviolent, and willingly accept legal penalties. The purpose of civil disobedience can be to publicize an unjust law or a just cause; to appeal to the conscience of the public; to force negotiation with recalcitrant officials; to "clog the machine" (in Thoreau's phrase) with political prisoners; to get into court where one can challenge the constitutionality of a law; to exculpate oneself, or to put an end to one's personal complicity in the injustice which flows from obedience to unjust law —or some combination of these. While civil disobedience in a broad sense is as old as the Hebrew midwives' defiance of Pharaoh, most of the moral and legal theory surrounding it, as well as most of the instances in the street, have been inspired by Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. In this article we will focus on the moral arguments for and against its use in a democracy.
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