Is Civil Disobedience A Moral Responsibility Of A Citizen

Is civil disobedience ever morally acceptable? If so, when? If not, why not?

Expert Answers
brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an expert on civil disobedience, and used it regularly in his campaign to overturn segregationist laws in the 1960s South.  In 1963, while in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, he wrote his famous "Letter From a Birmingham Jail", in which he discusses the very question you are asking.

Not only does he argue that civil disobedience is morally acceptable when a law is unjust, he argues it is a moral imperative.  Segregation, he said, was destructive to peoples' humanity, and therefore was inherently unjust.  It required him as a reverend, as an African-American and as a person to take determined, non-violent action to counter the law, which in his case meant civil disobedience.  He was in that Birmingham jail cell because he was arrested for marching without a permit.  He was a man who practiced what he preached.

So, to him, and I agree, the key litmus test about civil disobedience was whether you are facing an unjust law or situation, then it is not only justified but absolutely necessary.

"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'."

"One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty."

timbrady eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I believe it is a moral principle that you always have to act according to a well-formed conscience.  This doesn't mean that you can do whatever you feel like at any given moment (although there is a theory that more or less supports this), but that we must examine as many aspects of a moral issue as we possibly can with as open and curious a mind as possible.  Until we finish this process and develop this well-formed conscience, we are not allowed to act because that is tantamount to saying that we don't care of an act is right or wrong --- we're just going to do it.

So it seems to me that if you have this conscience and society is doing something that is in direct opposition to your conscience, you may have no choice but to practice Civil Disobedience either in a dramatic way, or a simple way such as not investing in companies that are involved in behaviors that are contrary to your conscience.

It reminds me of the probably apocryphal dialogue between Thoreau and Emerson when Thoreau was in jail:

Emerson:  "Henry, what are you doing in there."
Thoreau:  "Ralph, what are you doing out there."

drmonica eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Clearly, history demonstrates that civil disobedience is not only morally acceptable, but sometimes is the only way that social change can be implemented. brettd's example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the classic American paradigm of peaceful civil disobedience.

The Selma marches and other acts of civil disobedience occurred during the time that television had become pervasive in the United States, creating a "perfect storm" of conditions that would lead to the civil rights revolution.

lrwilliams eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think Civil Disobedience is morally acceptable when it is being done for the "good" of all people or a group of people. My experience with some people is that they feel that they have the right to practice civil disobedience just because they disagree with a rule or even a lae that has affected them personally. As an example, a high school student who has been assigned detention for breaking a dress code rule feels that he has the right to practice civil disobedience in protest of his detention.

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Civil disobedience is acceptable because it promotes change through the use of non-violence. Where would our nation be without acts of civil disobedience? The civil rights movement is a perfect example because it countered violence and ugliness with well planned and thought out responses. Talk about practicing what he preached--Dr. King was a perfect model of civil disobedience.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If it's truly civil disobedience, not a publicity stunt or political gamesmanship, it is a morally acceptable practice.  I think that means the cause must be just and the method must be peaceful.  The pattern, as set by Martin Luther King, is one of peacefulness and resolve for a just cause.  It's hard to argue with that. 

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
I can't think of an example of when civil disobedience is not acceptable. By its definition it is nonviolent and undertaken to prevent a societal wrong. We commit acts of civil disobedience when we think an injustice is being perpetrated and no one is doing anything about it.
epollock | Student

There is always a time for civil disobedience and people of all kinds can participate in it when something is deemed unjust. This can be a student rule or a societal law. By demonstrating, maybe they will change people's minds to rethink their rules and change them for better. Anything as long as there is no violence.

deedshorner | Student

Who determines what is the "good" of all people?

In the case of MLK, Jr. his determination was guided by the belief in the rights of all citizens in the US stated in the Constitution. So, his actions were justified by law. As for Thoreau, he disagreed with tax law and therefore chose to break the law to make his point. His actions were not justified by law. Law that is made, can be unmade. Law that is unjust, should be overturned. In the US the procedure to overturn law is written in the law and therefore should be followed until there is no further recourse other than civil disobedience.

The student who breaks the dress code chose to do so and in doing so chose the consequences of his actions, as did Thoreau. If he disagrees with the dress code, defiance is not the correct first approach for creating change, it is just the shortest route to whatever the consequences for defiance bring. In MLK, Jr.'s case, he followed the law, he sought justice and when the law and justice were not forthcoming he used disobedience as a tool to dislodge the injustices. Clever, clever man.

krishna-agrawala | Student

Civil disobedience is a peaceful method of expressing opposition to laws and actions of government and other authorities. Perhaps it is one of the most ethical and morally accepted method of fighting oppression and injustice.

However, everything can be misused. People may try to use the method of civil disobedience to oppose correct and well intentioned actions of authorities to gain personal power and advantage. But this makes the objective immoral, and not the method used for achieving the objectives.