The influences of Socrates and Thoreau

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. ” War and Peace (Bondarchuk, 1968) The influences of Socrates and Thoreau have push and pulled the debate on whether civil disobedience is justified in a democratic state. To start answering the question we must first define civil disobedience and the notion of being democratic. Civil disobedience is a group’s refusal to obey a law because they believe the law is immoral (Princeton, no date). Democracy can further be described as a form of government in which state-power is held by the majority of citizens within a country (Wikipedia, no date).

Therefore, being democratic means respecting the idea of majority rule. Montesquieu (1748) went even further and promoted the idea that in a democracy; the executive, legislative and judicial powers of the state had to be separated or risk being an authoritarian regime. This essay will argue in favour of Thoreau (1847, as cited in Bedau 1991: 28-48), putting forward that civil disobedience is part of democracy and therefore cannot be undemocratic. As advanced by Rawls (1971), civil disobedience must follow certain key characteristics to distinguish itself from pure criminality.

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“In breaking the law, the civilly disobedient are addressing, or appealing to, the sense of justice of the majority. ” (as cited in Hoffman and Graham, 2009: 439) Unlike conscientious refusal, which does not appeal to the sense of the majority, civil disobedience does not undermine the political order. It rather upholds the system and seeks to improve it through the participation of its citizens (Singer, 1973 quoted in Hoffman and Graham, 2009: 434). Another essential condition to civil disobedience is that the civilly disobedient are willing to be punished for their actions.

As stated by Thoreau (1847, as cited in Bedau, 1991: 37) “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. ” However, one fact remains clear- only citizens who respect the law may partake in civil disobedience. This brings us to the right to act civilly disobedient. As outlined more precisely by Brownlee (2004: 343), “The communicative aims of civil disobedience stem from a person’s conscientious commitment to certain values and beliefs.

“One problem we encounter here is the notion of free-riders in society. These actors profit from the system and its benefits but refuse to be bound by democratically elected laws. It is argued that these individuals cannot participate in civil disobedience as they are motivated by self interest and fail to appeal to the sense of justice of the majority. However, morally motivated free riders do exist in the sense that obedience to the state requires giving up a degree of self interest and moral judgement (Hoffman and Graham, 2009: 432).

Therein lays the essential concept that civil disobedience must appeal to the morality of most citizens. An individual can partake in civil disobedience against a law she feels is unjust and opposes her moral values. So what ties citizens to the state and her laws? Although generally agreed that there are a few people in society who explicitly accept the state and her laws through actions such as joining the police force or running for elections, a majority of people will not give their explicit consent in any form. Participation, Singer (1973: 50) argues is the key difference.

The importance is not in accepting the government in power but in accepting the process through which laws are democratically elected. Participation can be found in many ways not necessarily deliberate. Fair play theorists point to the idea of benefitting from the state through the right to be protected, for example, from harm and foreign invasion (McDermott, 2004). This therefore creates a moral obligation to follow her. However, as Rawls states (1972: 293-335), we have a duty to obey unjust laws, but we are also morally entitled, and possibly have a duty, to disobey unjust laws.

Civil disobedience is not undemocratic. This will be examined through three main points: democracy in itself can create several problems in society, civil disobedience aims to improve democracy and her flaws and finally, the problem with absolutism. Democracy in itself is flawed which makes civil disobedience a legitimate action. Aristotle was extremely sceptic of democracy, claiming it misrepresented the citizens and risked being undermined by having the wrong people brought to power (Gill, no date). Hitler’s rise to power two centuries later exemplified this.

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