Civil disobedience and civic virtues

This thesis examines the concept of civil disobedience, and the role the latter can play in a democratic society. It aims to offer a moral justification for civil disobedience that departs from consequentialist or deontological considerations, and focuses instead on virtue ethics. By drawing attention to the notion of civic virtues, the thesis suggests that, under some circumstances, an act of civil disobedience is the very act displaying a virtuous disposition in the citizen who disobeys. Such disposition is interpreted in light of a duty each individual has to respect her fellow citizens as autonomous agents. This grounds, in turn, a moral obligation to respect the law. The central claim of the thesis is that the obligation towards the law is fulfilled not only through acts of obedience but also, under different circumstances, through acts of disobedience. The status of non-violence as a necessary component of civil disobedience is questioned, and it is argued that a degree of force or violence may be permissible in civil disobedience, when it is compatible with the duty to respect others’ autonomy. Subsequently, the thesis offers an analysis of ‘reasonableness’ as a civic virtue, and by comparing three different approaches to the issue of reasonable disagreement among democratic citizens, it defends the deliberative approach as the most suited for treating fellow citizens as autonomous agents. The last two chapters focus on the importance, for an act of civil disobedience, of the agent’s willingness to accept the legal consequences of her law-breaking behaviour. It is argued that a civil disobedient has an obligation to face the prospect of being punished for the breach of the law. However, in considering the behaviour of a virtuous civil disobedient who appears at her criminal trial, it is also claimed that she should plead not guilty and aim to persuade her fellow citizens that she does not deserve to be punished, because what she did does not constitute a criminal wrong. In doing so, this thesis depicts civil disobedience not as a merely permissible form of behaviour, but as a morally praiseworthy conduct within a democratic community
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