Civil Disobedience: A Necessary Freedom

Civil Disobedience: A Necessary Freedom

Brett Parker

Described by political philosopher John Rawls as “a public, non-violent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in law or policies of government,” civil disobedience is a tradition that reaches back to Socrates (Smith 145).  Maligned by scholars like Thomas Hobbes, but celebrated by activists such as Martin Luther King, it is one of the most controversial forms of protest.  Some have opined that civil disobedience has no place in an ordered society, decrying it as the root of anarchy.  Others, by contrast, have asserted that civil disobedience is a powerful tool for bringing about positive social change.  It is this second view which I adhere to.  Civil disobedience is no nuisance to the public.  Rather, it is an important, even necessary strategy for overcoming roadblocks to progress.  It is an essential freedom, and a crucial resource for citizens of an organized society.

A variety of arguments have been set forth by scholars in support of civil disobedience.  One of the strongest cases, though, was articulated in Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”  Here, King stakes out the moral high ground for civil disobedience, suggesting that it is an essential freedom for those who seek a just society. He notes that there is no guarantee that a government will produce just laws, and asserts that there is moral duty to oppose unfair legislation.  Thus, for people to lead ethically upright lives, they must be able to engage in civil disobedience to denounce unjust laws.  In his words,

“…there are two types of laws: just and unjust.  I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.  One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all’” (King).

By establishing a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws, King makes it impossible to deny civil disobedience is important freedom.  For if we recognize a freedom to pursue morality, and the pursuit of morality implies civil disobedience, then we must acknowledge civil disobedience as a necessary freedom.  Of course, the matter is not nearly that simple.  While this passage from King’s letter offers a viable reason to embrace civil disobedience, it does so under the premise that it is moral to disobey unjust laws.  There are, however, numerous authors and thinkers who would disagree with that contention, and if King’s claim is to be accepted, their arguments must be addressed.

One prominent critique of civil disobedience comes not from a political philosopher or politician, but rather from a Greek play.  This criticism, while not a central part of the playwright’s work, remains an interesting discourse for those who would reject civil disobedience as virtuous.  It comes in Antigone, one of the famous Theban plays written by Sophocles.  This tragedy is focused on a particular act of civil disobedience, namely, the heroine Antigone’s defiance of an edict from the monarch, King Creon.  Creon had forbidden all those in Thebes from burying Antigone’s brother, Polynices, but Antigone, believing this to be immoral, attempts to do so anyway.  In response, Creon condemns her to death, and in doing so, notes the problems that tolerating civil disobedience can produce.  In a speech, he states,

“But whoever steps out of line, violates the laws

or presumes to hand out orders to his superiors,

he’ll win no praise from me.  But that man

the city places in authority, his orders

must be obeyed, large and small,

right and wrong.

Anarchy —

show me a greater crime in all the earth!

She, she destroys cities, rips up houses,

breaks the ranks of spearmen into headlong rout.

But the ones who last it out, the great mass of them

owe their lives to discipline.  Therefore

we must defend the men who live by law…” (Sophocles, l. 746-757).

Anarchy, he says, is a result of disobeying the orders of a sovereign.  He suggests that this anarchy is the worst of all possible situations, asking rhetorically “show me a greater crime in all the earth” (l. 752-753). To support his point, he gives a graphic description of a state in anarchy; “She [Anarchy], she destroys cities, rips up houses, breaks the ranks of spearman into headlong rout” (l.754-755).  These details call to mind the images of pillaging and looting, of buildings decimated or otherwise caught up in flames.  Nobody could be expected to enjoy such a place, and thus, most would concede that this scenario is to be avoided.  We must, then, comply with all of the monarch’s laws.  This sentiment is reinforced in another part of the passage, when Creon declares that “…the ones who last it out…owe their lives to discipline” (l. 755-756).  In saying this, he implies that only those who adhere to the laws escape the devastation of anarchy.  Additionally, Creon insists that there are no exceptions to the laws, and that even unwise edicts should be followed.  He claims absolute authority for the monarch, holding “that man the city places in authority, his orders must be obeyed, large and small, right and wrong” (l. 748-751).  Creon thus leaves us with a notion of civil disobedience that is completely distinct from Martin Luther King’s.  Rather than having a duty to disobey unjust laws, he asserts the law must be followed in all situations if anarchy is to be prevented.  Therefore, in his view, civil disobedience is not a positive freedom, but rather a practice that ought to be prohibited.

This attitude toward civil disobedience is not confined to Sophocles’ characters.  It has been espoused by numerous others, including the influential philosopher Thomas Hobbes.   An English thinker from the 1600’s, Hobbes is known for his conclusion that the best form of government is an absolute monarch.   According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hobbes came to this idea by “invit[ing] us to consider what life would be like in a state of nature, a condition without government” (Lloyd).  Under such conditions, there would be no laws whatsoever; any person would be free to rob, beat, or kill a fellow creature without interference from some overseeing authority. Hobbes says in Leviathan that in this situation, there would be “…no Knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Lloyd).  As few could plausibly claim to relish such an environment, Hobbes suggests that some form of government is needed.  Unlike most modern scholars of government, though, he concludes that an authoritarian regime is the only viable government structure.  Such a ruler would not allow for any sort of civil disobedience, nor recognize it as an essential freedom.  In fact, no breach of the laws would be tolerated under any condition (save an immediate threat of death), and citizens would not have the right to remove, change, challenge, or question the government.  How does Hobbes justify these draconian restrictions?  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us that Hobbes believed only a regime in possession of complete sovereign power could govern effectively (Lloyd).  Under his line of thinking, if power was at all divided among different political bodies, stagnation and gridlock would result (Lloyd).  Hobbes contended that this sort of government could not capably protect the people, and that often, such divisions would lead to discord and, eventually, civil war (Lloyd).  Such a collapse of government would return us to a state of nature, in which case we would experience all the dangers that come with that condition.  Thus, an authoritarian ruler is needed.  This logic is strikingly similar to that which pervaded Creon’s statements against anarchy in Antigone.  In both works, the speaker warns of the breakdown in order that would accompany any type of disobedience.  Both Hobbes and Creon value security and peace to the extent that they place these goals above all others.  As such, their achievement becomes society’s most important aim, and it becomes unjustifiable to disobey a law simply due to its immorality.  Under these conditions, Martin Luther King’s reasoning would be inaccurate, and the ability to civilly disobey would not be a necessary freedom.

The accounts of Creon and Hobbes are both strong cases against civil disobedience.  Since most people would find anarchy undesirable, it seems prudent to abstain from civil disobedience, if it is the cause of such a state.  However, some contend that Hobbes and Creon are wrong in this last assumption.  They assert that the nature of civil disobedience is such that it would not lead to a lawless society.  William Smith, a professor and civil disobedience scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is one proponent of this theory.  He notes in his article “Civil Disobedience and the Public Sphere” that civil disobedience has intrinsic disincentives which prevent people from disobeying in all but the most important cases (Smith).  As he says

“…citizens who choose to express their condemnation of law through civil disobedience assume the considerable risk of prosecution and punishment. The fact that civilly disobedient citizens might be punished not only contributes to the symbolic meaning and impact of their protest, but also acts as a built-in disincentive to its commission. The potentially high cost of engaging in civil disobedience could be exploited to deter its use except in support of the most important or urgent discourses” (Smith 163).

Smith’s main point is that people do not frivolously engage in acts of civil disobedience.  Since those who break the law face substantial punishment, no rational person would publicly and purposefully defy it, unless they had an excellent reason to do so.  Thus, it is unlikely that acts of civil disobedience would lead to a wide-scale disregard for the law and immoral behavior.  If this is true, it would indicate that society is not threaten by civil disobedience, and that people should be free to disobey unjust laws.

In addition to addressing the concerns of the opponents of civil disobedience, William Smith offers a positive argument for why civil disobedience should be accepted.  His reasoning is based on the concept of a public sphere, about which he says “The function of the public sphere is to provide a space for informed processes of opinion-formation throughout the polity” (Smith 153).  Like Immanuel Kant, Smith believes that the public sphere is a place where the exchange and debate of ideas occurs.  A forum for scholarly writing and speech giving, the public sphere is the venue in which society’s opinions are formed.  Unfortunately, this sphere often suffers from what Smith calls “deliberative inertia.”  This form of inertia limits the discussion in the public sphere to certain “hegemonic” or dominant discourses, which can cause problems for a civilization (Smith).  According to Smith, this might impair the function of the public sphere in two ways.  First, he is wary that hegemonic discourses might occupy the whole of the public sphere, preventing worthy alternatives from receiving due consideration (Smith).  In this case, the hegemonic discourse exhibits “inertia” because it cannot be dislodged to the extent necessary to create room for new perspectives.  Smith also worries about deliberative inertia in a second form.  He fears that a new concept may reach the center of the public sphere, but, due to obstacles placed in its path by other discourses, will be unable to garner acceptance among public officials (Smith).  This secondary kind of deliberative inertia is slightly more difficult to picture, but it can be illustrated if one imagines a tradition driven society.  In such a civilization, a new idea might be considered, or even gain significant public support, but the weight of tradition would prevent it from truly affecting official policy.

Both these instances of deliberative inertia are frightening, as they suggest that even an open and accessible public sphere might be unable to sustain the consideration of new concepts.  Smith suggests, though, that there is a way to overcome these issues: civil disobedience.  For Smith, civil disobedience is a measure which can be taken to restore the efficacy of the public sphere. Civil disobedience “publicises an important discourse in order that it can receive attention at the core of the public sphere” (Smith 157).  Due the attention that comes from openly and willingly violating the law, civil disobedience can bring a minority perspective into the center of the public sphere.  Furthermore, civil disobedience can do more than increase awareness of an issue; it can also help to encourage particular policy actions by “…escalating a campaign for political change, reminding the wider community of the urgency of the problem and prodding the majority into taking necessary action” (Smith 157).  The shock value inherent in civil disobedience is a powerful means of jolting a lethargic government into action, and accomplishing actual change.  In light of its role in overcoming the effects of deliberative inertia, Smith finds civil disobedience to be crucial to the proper functioning of the public sphere.  As such, he believes it is a necessary freedom in a democratic society.

Smith’s characterization of civil disobedience and the public sphere is not completely accepted, though, and faces substantial opposition in the writings of the renowned philosopher Immanuel Kant.  In his essay “What is Enlightenment,” Kant  makes the case that the public sphere is not aided by disobeying laws, but rather only by expressing disagreement in public writings and communications.  He opines,

“…a certain mechanism is necessary in many affairs which are run in the interest of the commonwealth by means of which some members of the commonwealth must conduct themselves passively in order that the government may direct them, through an artificial unanimity, to a public ends…here one is certainly not allowed to argue; rather one must obey…but as a scholar he has the complete freedom, indeed it is his calling, to communicate to the public all his carefully tested and well intentioned thoughts…” (Kant 60)

The public sphere is not enhanced by civil disobedience, Kant is saying, because the achievement of certain public objectives requires unwavering support from the citizenry.  By way of example, Kant asks us to consider a soldier who questions an order of a superior.  This soldier, he says, should not have the freedom to defy his officer, for even if the command is unwise, the precedent would interfere with the army’s ability to achieve important objectives (Kant 60).  Kant believes that the public sphere can fulfill its purpose solely through freedom of speech and scholarly discourse, and that the merits of a particular idea can be persuasively conveyed through writing.  This general attitude that Kant takes towards civil disobedience and the public sphere can be succinctly summarized by a phrase near the end of “What is Enlightenment,” when he enjoins the reader to “argue, as much as you want and about whatever you want, only obey!” (Italics in original) (Kant  63).  In his view, civil disobedience is not required; speech and writing is enough.

Kant’s assessment of civil disobedience has two crucial preconditions, however; it requires a society with freedom of speech, and a government that is responsive to the views of its citizens.  Without these two critical elements, Kant likely would not invest all his faith in the public sphere, and would instead endorse civil disobedience for some occasions.  Unfortunately, free speech and receptive governance have often been absent from the world as we’ve known it.  There have been countless instances of when speech has been stifled by the ruling party, or else simply ignored by the established elite.  In these situations, the public sphere cannot possibly operate in the smooth manner that Kant envisioned.  It needs a legitimate shock to return its normal function of pushing worthy ideas into the national consciousness.  Historically, civil disobedience has provided that shock.  Perhaps the most profound illustrations of this were the events surrounding the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the United States.

The 1965 act was a landmark law, and it has long been considered one of the greatest victories of the American civil rights movement.  In the years leading up to 1965, such legislation had the support of numerous politicians and thinkers, including Martin Luther King.  However, it was not until the launch of a massive civil disobedience campaign in 1965 that the Voting Rights Act gained real traction (The Voting Rights Act).  On March 7 of that year, six hundred civil rights advocates attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the denial of voting rights to African Americans.  However, the state of Alabama had issued a cease and desist order the prior day, forbidding the march (The Voting Rights Act).  It did so in violation of the group’s constitutional right to peaceful assembly, for the obvious purpose of limiting the political influence the protesters might have.  Fatefully, the marchers ignored the government’s command and started on their journey anyway.  As a result, they were savagely beaten by the state police on a bridge just outside of Selma.  A number of the march’s organizers were aware that such an outcome was possible, maybe even probable (The Voting Rights Act).  Nonetheless, they also understood that civil disobedience was the only recourse available to them when the state denied their speech.  They had to disobey the laws, for they had no other way to express their values to the nation at large.  In the end, these efforts were validated, as the police brutality in Alabama that day drew the country’s attention to the cause of voting rights. Millions of Americans were outraged by images such as the one below, and demanded action (The Voting Rights Act).





(Figure 1) Image from Bloody Sunday 1965. Digital image. Education Made Easy. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

(Figure 2) Congress, Library of. Civil Rights Marchers Attacked in Selma. Digital image. New York Times. The New York Times Co., 7 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

(Figure 3) Alabama State Troopers Attack Protestors. Digital image. Out of the Archive. Word Press, 2013. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

(Figure 4) Hudson, Bill. A young demonstrator is attacked by a police dog. Digital image. National Public Radio, 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.


President Johnson, under immense political pressure created by the marchers’ civil disobedience, began advocating for the immediate passage of a voting rights law.  Within three months, the Voting Rights Act had been passed by both houses of Congress (The Voting Rights Act).  In this situation, civil disobedience had carried out the work that speech was prohibited to do; it inspired the adoption of essential public policy initiatives.  The public sphere could not have functioned properly in this case without the assistance of civil disobedience.

Some would be content to leave the argument there, and conclude that civil disobedience is justified when free speech is either outlawed or unable to affect government conduct.  This, though, would be to reject Smith’s commentary.  His argument is that civil disobedience is not merely a last resort when access to the public sphere is cut off.  It also serves a vital purpose in maintaining a public sphere that is already open and generally unrestricted.  This is a fundamental point of disagreement with Kant.  Smith believes that civil disobedience can be useful even if the the public sphere is functioning normally, while the German philosopher asserts that if the public sphere is accessible and the government is responsive, no disobedient acts will be needed.  It is not an easy chore to determine who is correct between these two thinkers, but in this case, modern examples of civil disobedience seem to support Smith’s view on the matter.  Consider, for instance, the environmental activists who, in 2011, staged a two week sit-in at the gates of the White House in order to register their opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline (Guarino).  The pipeline was supposed to carry tar sands oil from Canada to the United States, but numerous environmentalists opposed it, on the grounds that it would cause large amounts of pollution and would damage the surrounding environment (Guarino).  Their protest occurred in the 21st century United States, a nation that is typically considered to have strong protections for free speech.  Yet all of those who participated felt that they could not garner sufficient attention for the issue simply by writing and speaking about it.  Only through direct action did they believe that they could make the public notice their cause, and pressure politicians to reject the pipeline.  Hundreds of the protesters were eventually arrested, but they at least partially achieved their objective, in that President Obama refused to allow the pipeline to be built along the originally proposed route (Guarino) (Penty, Van Loon).  In this case, the civilly disobedient had the public sphere available to them, and numerous activists indeed made use of it, writing articles about their views and speaking widely to various groups.  It was their civil disobedience though, that brought them the most success in reaching their goal.  Some might be tempted to dismiss this a positive development, for they may believe that the activists were incorrect as a matter of policy.  However, what they cannot deny is that civil disobedience allowed the environmentalists to reach a wider audience, and to powerfully advocate for their prefered position.  In some sense, then, it seems Kant was wrong; civil disobedience can be effective in ways the open public sphere cannot.

There is another argument put forth by opponents of civil disobedience.  This claim, however, is not that civil disobedience is too radical, but rather than it does not go far enough.  It is advanced by supporters of open rebellion as a means of social change.  Malcolm X, another prominent figure in the U.S civil rights movement, once advocated this point of view during a speech entitled “The Black Revolution.”  Believing that integration with white Americans would bring little benefit to black Americans, Malcolm X instead suggested revolt against their white oppressors.  He asked

“Since the black masses here in America are now in open revolt against the American system of segregation, will these same black masses turn toward integration or will they turn toward complete separation? Will these awakened black masses demand integration into the white society that enslaved them or will they demand complete separation from that cruel white society that has enslaved them? Will the exploited and oppressed black masses seek integration with their white exploiters and white oppressors or will these awakened black masses truly revolt and separate themselves completely from this wicked race that has enslaved us?” (Malcolm X).

The speaker’s feelings about civil disobedience and open revolt are evident in the second sentence of the passage.  Here, Malcolm X describes the results of civil disobedience for black Americans as “integration into the white society that enslaved them” (Malcolm X).  The qualifier “that enslaved them” signifies that the speaker finds this option to be inadequate redress for the wrongs that black Americans had suffered.  He contrasts this possibility with “complete separation from that cruel white society that has enslaved them,” which he makes to sound far more palatable (Malcolm X).  He leaves little question of how this seemingly more desirable result could be achieved, ending the paragraph with “or will these awakened black masses truly revolt and separate themselves completely from this wicked race that has enslaved us” (Malcolm X).  According to Malcolm X, civil disobedience would lead merely to “an integrated cup of coffee,” that “isn’t sufficient to pay for four hundred years of slave labor” (Malcolm X).  On the other hand, he claims that rebellion could lead to an entirely new nation, composed entirely of black Americans.  As he presents it, civil disobedience cannot be an adequate remedy to society’s ills.  Only revolt can accomplish true change.

Most doves would disagree with Malcolm X’s call for rebellion, but even one of America’s most famous revolutionaries seems to differ on the matter.  In The Declaration of Independence, the very document asserting the English colonies’ separation from Britain, Thomas Jefferson cautions against hasty and unnecessary revolt.  He writes

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.  But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security” (Jefferson)

Thus, Jefferson holds that while a people sometimes are justified in revolt, they can only do so after “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism” (Jefferson).  Now, Malcolm X may have argued that this condition applied to black Americans in the 1960’s, but others would assert that the situation had not yet reached that dire stage.  Still, though, some action was needed to overcome the cruel system of segregation.  What remedy, then, could one pursue to right smaller wrongs which fall short of the weighty standard for rebellion?  They can engage in purposeful, non-violent, unlawful conduct.  In short, they can civilly disobey.

John Rawls was a brilliant political philosopher, but his definition of civil disobedience is woefully incomplete.  Civil disobedience is more than just “a public, non-violent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in law or policies of government.”  It is a powerful means of combating unjust laws, and freeing society from oppressive restrictions.  It is a crucial device for maintaining the efficacy of the public sphere, and ensuring that worthy perspectives are considered.  But above all else, it is an important and necessary political freedom in our society.

Works Cited

A., Lloyd, Sharon. “Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 12 Feb. 2002. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Alabama State Troopers Attack Protestors. Digital image. Out of the Archive. Word Press, 2013. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Congress, Library of. Civil Rights Marchers Attacked in Selma. Digital image. New York Times. The New York Times Co., 7 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Guarino, Mark. “Hundreds Arrested Protesting Keystone XL Oil Pipeline.” The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor, 03 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Hudson, Bill. A young demonstrator is attacked by a police dog. Digital image. National Public Radio, 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment.” What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-century Answers and Twentieth-century Questions. Trans. James Schmidt. Berkeley: University of California, 1996. 58-63. Print.

King, Martin L., Jr. “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Liberation June 1963: n. pag. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

Image from Bloody Sunday 1965. Digital image. Education Made Easy. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2013. <>.

Penty, Rebecca, and Jeremy Van Loon. “TransCanada Wins as Obama Keystone Permit Seen.” Business Week. N.p., 8 Nov. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Smith, William. “Civil Disobedience And The Public Sphere.” Journal Of Political Philosophy 19.2 (2011): 145-166. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1984. Print.

” The Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Civil Rights Division Home Page. United State Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. <;.

United States of America. Declaration of Independence. By Thomas Jefferson. N.p.: n.p., 1776. Print.

X, Malcolm. “The Black Revolution.” Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York City. June 1963. Speech.

1 thought on “Civil Disobedience: A Necessary Freedom”

  1. “Civil disobedience, a necessary freedom”.
    Indeed, as long as we remember that freedom is something that should be enjoyed in a conscious (reasonable) manner.
    Freedom is a space where you can do things but the consequences of your doings will, sooner or later, fall into your own lap.

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