Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

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How does Thoreau justify civil disobedience?

In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau justifies civil disobedience by saying that one should follow one's conscience. Where conscience conflicts with law, it is not only a right but a duty to disobey the law.

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Thoreau justifies civil disobedience by saying that laws are often unjust, and that people should be guided by their consciences rather than the law. He points out that everyone recognizes the right to rebel against a tyrannical government. The United States was, after all, founded on such a revolution. However, people will say that the current government is not tyrannical.

Thoreau disagrees, remarking that he does not care about the taxation of foreign commodities, the issue which sparked the American Revolution. If certain goods are highly taxed, he will do without them. However, when one sixth of the population is enslaved in a land which claims to be the refuge of liberty, this is a vastly more serious matter. He also argues that if you are yourself part of the oppressor class, civil disobedience becomes not only a right but a duty.

Throughout the essay, Thoreau insists that if you follow your conscience, you will serve not only your principles but the state as well. Government has become a machine to allow people collectively to commit atrocities which none of them would think of committing individually. He illustrates this idea with the image of an army marching off to fight a battle which every individual in the army knows to be wrong. If people would disobey the machine of government which forces them to act immorally, the state would be better for all of its citizens.

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