- Term Papers and Free Essays

Civil Disobedience

Essay by   •  November 10, 2010  •  1,573 Words (7 Pages)  •  3,030 Views

Essay Preview: Civil Disobedience

Report this essay
Page 1 of 7

Civil Disobedience has been an issue that has surrounded us for centuries. From Plato to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil disobedience has played a large role in history and our world today. Civil disobedience is composed of four main points that can be both positive and negative. The four main points of civil disobedience are: non-violence, reaction to the law (breach), communication, and conscientiousness (one's moral compass). These four main points have been the foundation of many disagreements between scholars. Throughout time people such as Henry David Thoreau, Michael Walzer, David Lyons, and Martin Luther King Jr. (along with many others) have expressed their views and used civil disobedience and its four main points.

Non-violence is one of the four points of civil disobedience. Non violence can be portrayed in different ways. It can be used as a scapegoat for breaching the law and keep authorities from using violence against you. On the other hand a non-violent act could result in a violent act toward the person/others who are using non-violence. It is also said in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy "Violence, depending upon its form, does not necessarily obscure the communicative quality of a disobedient action as Rawls and Peter Singer suggests it does". This means using a low form of violence could help to make the point more serious, but then would that be civil disobedience? Henry Thoreau never committed to non-violence. His "defense of the attack on the Boston courthouse, in which a man had been killed, was clear evidence that he did not feel violation of the law needed to be non-violent to be justified"(Herr,1974). On the other hand for Martin Luther King Jr. non-violence was the tactic he lived by. He used this tactic with his civil disobedience movements. King was a preacher and one of the main leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement. He believed how the blacks were being treated during his time was unlawful, so took non-violent approaches through the Montgomery Bus Boycott, March on Washington and more. He said "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" (Why We Can't Wait, 65). King believed in non-violent direct action to bring about the changes that were wanted. King believed non-violence "seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue" (Why We Can't Wait, 68).

On the other hand David Lyons mentions in his article that "King's commitment to nonviolence did not reflect favorable on the system" (Moral Judgment, Historical Reality, and Civil Disobedience, 13). Lyons did not think King's actions were helping just because it was non-violent.

"King emphasized that violent protest was not only immoral but impractical. Although violence was justifiably used in self-defense, it had no place in organized resistance, where it would divert attention from the issues and defeat the long-term goal of improving relations with whites. And it would be futile, as blacks were outnumbered and outgunned" (Moral Judgment, Historical Reality, and Civil Disobedience, 13).

Lyon's argues that even though King practices non-violence it does not mean that people on the other side will. Non-violence would not be a success when you have less people than the opponent. As we see, King was later assassinated so even though he practiced non-violence, violence was used against him.

The second point of civil disobedience is reaction to the law, meaning also a breach of the law that one believes to be unjust. The question is: what makes a breach of law an act of civil disobedience? There is a difference between the civil disobedient and the ordinary offender. The ordinary offender breaches the law and does not want to get caught. A Civil disobedient knows what they are doing, has a purpose for it and are willing to except the consequences. Martin Luther King Jr. is example of someone who breaches the law. King believes "one has a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws" (Why We Can't Wait, 64). This means if a law is unfair or unreasonable a person has the obligation to refuse to comply. King doesn't believe you should just disobey any law you want but there should be a unjust reason. In King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" he expresses this moral obligation to disobey unjust laws. As Lyons says King seems to represent the one case where the assumption that one has to obey the law but King goes against it (counterproductive). Is it simply okay to do this just because it is conflicting with our moral convictions so therefore you can disobey? If you have an obligation to the law do you have to justify your action? If you don't have an obligation to the law do you have to justify your action?

In "Disobeying the Law" by Richard Wasserstrom, he expresses the belief by of disobeying the law only if revolution were to be necessary. These three arguments brought to our attention in this essay are (1)"there is something odd about asking, in an ordinary case, why one ought to obey the law", (2)"but what if everyone did that" and (3) "an act of disobedience is not justified unless the entire legal system can be shown to be undesirable". Wasserstrom says there are certain laws that people are not able to "execute a valid will" because "there are laws that do not require or prohibit the performance of any acts at all" in which these certain laws cannot be disobeyed so do they need to be justified? One can breach a law without acting in disobedience of the law. "Ones obligation to obey the law may not, therefore, be coextensive with ones legal obligations" (Wasserstrom, 1961). This is under certain circumstances in which the law does not need to be obeyed.

The third point of civil disobedience is the communication process. This connects to breaching the law in that the communication process uses reasons and measures to get the information across. People want to communicate the dissatisfaction they have of the law with the people around them and the authorities. People have both "forward-looking and backward-looking aims" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,



Download as:   txt (9.5 Kb)   pdf (118.7 Kb)   docx (12.2 Kb)  
Continue for 6 more pages »
Only available on
Citation Generator

(2010, 11). Civil Disobedience. Retrieved 11, 2010, from

"Civil Disobedience" 11 2010. 2010. 11 2010 <>.

"Civil Disobedience.", 11 2010. Web. 11 2010. <>.

"Civil Disobedience." 11, 2010. Accessed 11, 2010.