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A Different Philosophy of Civil Disobedience


Conventional civil disobedience usually engages localized agencies and domestic government. Redress of grievances, constitutionally protected under law is a myth in practice. The courts operate as protectors of state authority, while crushing the safeguards of individual natural rights. Petition to elected officials for recourse resembles begging for sustenance. Allegiance to country is confused with deference to decadent dictates. Conscience and moral imperatives draw sincere and aware citizens to resort to necessary measures of dissent. The question is what kind of civil disobedience is appropriate and effective?

The conventional interruption of the principle of civil disobedience usually cites Thoreau, Gandhi and King. Most students of history are familiar with their significance and writings. However, less well known are John Rawls and Howard Zinn. A review of their viewpoints is helpful to understand the nature of civil disobedience. However, in an age of globalism, the sovereign state has less importance because the transnational community of nations is implementing a tyrannical New World Order.


Stephen Grant argues that John Rawls identifies eight criteria for identifying an act as one of civil disobedience.

1) There must be clear injustice.

2) The law must be broken. A key factor which distinguishes civil disobedience from protest is the brute fact that the actions undertaken are illegal.

3) The law which is to be overturned need not be the one which is broken.

4) It must be a public act. One essential feature of civil disobedience is that it tries to communicate to the wider community the injustice of a particular law.

5) It must be non-violent and non-threatening. The civil disobedient is attempting to appeal to the "sense of justice" of the majority.

6) The perpetrator accepts the penalties for her illegal actions. Although civil disobedience involves breaking the law, it is done for moral rather than selfish reasons, and the willingness to accept arrest is proof of the integrity of the act.

7) The actions must not threaten the stability of the state. Rawls emphasises that the context in which civil disobedience is morally permissible is one where there is a limited number of unjust laws which are the focus of opposition, but where there is a fundamentally just set of principles against which those laws can be deemed to be unjust.

8) The actions are carried out within "fidelity to the law". The civil disobedient does not object to the rule of law as such, and may well accept as just the great majority of laws to which she is subject.

Dr. Jan Garrett claims that Rawls’ principles of justice are central to his viewpoint on the legitimacy to conducting civil disobedience. Rawls argues that self-interested rational persons behind the veil of ignorance would choose two general principles of justice to structure society in the real world:

i) Principle of Equal Liberty: Each person has an equal right to the most extensive liberties compatible with similar liberties for all. (Egalitarian.)

ii) Difference Principle: Social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged persons, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of equality of opportunity.

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