by Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel
When, if ever, is it appropriate to break laws that violate moral values, whether these values are theologically grounded or not?
This is the traditional problem of civil disobedience, the origin of which goes all the way back to ancient Greece. When Socrates was awaiting execution for his alleged impiety, one of his disciples, Crito, arranged for his escape by bribing one of the jailers. Socrates and his family would be secretly taken to another town where he could live out the rest of his days. However, when told of this plot, Socrates demurred, insisting that it would be wrong to disobey the laws of the state in this way. A city would be “turned upside down,” he declared, “if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons.” However unjust his conviction might have been, according to Socrates it would never be right to break the law in response.
An apparent critic of the Socratic position on this issue is the modern champion of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau. A strong opponent of slavery and the Mexican-American War, Thoreau refused to pay his taxes, an offense for which he eventually served jail time. In support of his position Thoreau subsequently penned his classic essay “Civil Disobedience,” in which he declares that if the “machine of government . . . is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” It is noteworthy that both Socrates and Thoreau believed that there are moral values that transcend civil legal codes. The difference between them concerns when, if ever, this higher standard justifies breaking civil law.
What Is Civil Disobedience?
Civil disobedience is generally defined as conscientious, public, and nonviolent resistance to unjust public laws or policies. To clarify our thinking about civil disobedience it is critical to make some distinctions, both in terms of the nature of unjust laws and the mode of disobedience to them.
First, some legal systems are unjust because they require evil. A law requiring citizens to worship the king, such as in ancient Babylon or Rome, would be an example. And some would argue that legal systems which apply the death penalty or laws requiring the exclusive teaching of Darwinism in public schools would fall into this category.
Second, legal systems may be unjust because they promote evil. Thus, many would argue that public funding of obscene or sacrilegious artworks falls into this category, and some pacifists would argue that military recruitment is an example of this as well.
Third, a legal system may be unjust because it permits evil. The U.S. government’s allowance of slavery, to which Thoreau and his fellow abolitionists objected, would be an example. And today many would argue that allowances of abortion, pornography, and extreme poverty, would also fall into this category.
Finally, a legal system may be unjust because it prohibits good acts. Oppressive regimes that outlaw Bibles and prohibitions of prayer in public schools would be examples, as would a recent California court ruling prohibiting home schooling without a teaching license.
When (If Ever) Is Civil Disobedience Justified?
So in which cases, if any, is civil disobedience justified? Here people disagree. As for Christians, only one category is noncontroversial: disobeying laws of the first variety where evil actions are mandated. But notice that in this case civil disobedience is passive. This suggests another distinction, namely that between passive and active civil disobedience. Passive civil disobedience involves a refusal to do what the law requires, while active civil disobedience involves doing what the law prohibits.
This distinction applies to the cases of Socrates and Thoreau, as the latter’s refusal to pay taxes was an instance of passive civil disobedience, while Socrates was tempted to engage in active disobedience by escaping. In all probability, Socrates would actually endorse passive civil disobedience in some cases, as he believed it was always right to be virtuous. Socrates would likely have refused to obey any law that required severe injustice or taking an innocent life, so he would not really be thorough-going in his rejection of civil disobedience (as few people would be).
Degrees of Evil
A final category of distinctions needs to be made between the degrees of evil that an unjust law endorses or allows. A legal system that requires, promotes, or permits the shedding of innocent blood is much more justifiably resisted than one that requires, promotes, or permits unjust inequalities or the teaching of blatant falsehoods. Similarly, laws that prohibit good acts will differ in degree of evil depending upon how fundamental those good acts are to human flourishing. For instance, a law that prohibits private possession of Bibles is much more unjust and worthy of resisting than a law that prohibits prayer in public.
Depending upon the degree of evil endorsed or allowed by a government, it is easy to imagine cases of justifiable passive civil disobedience regarding laws that compel citizens to sin. Clearly, refusal to obey such laws is not only permissible but morally obligatory. As for active civil disobedience, peaceful forms may be justifiable in some instances, such as refusal to abide by discriminatory ordinances during the Jim Crow era. Other examples may include nonviolent but illegal public demonstrations against immoral laws or the choice to teach the creationist view of origins in a public school as an alternative to Darwinism.
Bonhoeffer and Nazi Germany
But what of violent opposition to unjust laws or regimes? In July 1944 an anti-Nazi group, including Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, plotted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. They arranged to have a bomb carried into a conference attended by the Führer. The plan was to kill Hitler and seize key government buildings and communication centers, thus ending the Nazi regime. A suitcase containing the bomb was carried into the conference by Claus von Stauffenberg, shortly after which he left, pretending to take a phone call. The bomb exploded as planned, and several people were killed, but Hitler only sustained an injury to his right arm. Thus, the plot failed and Stauffenberg, Bonhoeffer, and several others were executed for their involvement in the plan.
Were Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators justified in attempting the assassination? Defenders of their actions typically offer a utilitarian argument, maintaining that killing Hitler would have saved many innocent lives. But as we saw in the previous chapter, such “future looking” reasoning is always suspect, and too often it overlooks contingencies that don’t become apparent until the action in question is taken. In the case of the plot to kill Hitler, it is likely that the near miss (and injury to Hitler) only aggravated the Nazi leaders, perhaps inspiring even more intense and extensive cruelty and murder. Thus, even in what seems to be a paradigm case, if ever there was one, for violent opposition to an evil government, the argument in favor of such action is tenuous.
Such utilitarian reasoning has been used in the United States by advocates of violent opposition to the abortion industry. Some have bombed abortion clinics, and in at least one instance a pro-lifer shot to death a physician who performed abortions. Proponents of this approach argue that they are saving lives by their actions. But are they? It appears more likely that such actions have cost lives in the long run, as laws have consequently been passed in many states that make it much more difficult for protestors to interfere nonviolently with abortion clinics. Moreover, popular media have exploited the violent actions of a few pro-lifers to marginalize the movement and make it less effective overall.
In any case, the use of violence to oppose unjust political regimes or immoral laws is not civil disobedience. Such tactics, at least when used by private citizens, usually go by a different name: terrorism.
Steven B. Cowan is assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.
James Spiegel is professor of philosophy at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana.
This has been excerpted from The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy by Steven B. Cowan and James Spiegel.
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