Civil Disobedience Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

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What is the relation of justice to the moral view that Thoreau maintains in "Civil Disobedience"?

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To be able to answer this question, it's important to understand what justice means. If you look the word up online, though, you'll find that the word has several primary and secondary meanings, and the definitions in various dictionaries differ from one another. For instance, the Cambridge Dictionary gives the first meaning as "fairness in the way people are dealt with," and the second listed meaning is "the system of laws in a country that judges and punishes people." The Legal Dictionary defines "justice" as:

1) fairness; 2) moral rightness; 3) a scheme or system of law in which every person receives his/her due from the system, including all rights, both natural and legal.

In the United States, there are federal, state, and local systems of law, and people refer to the courts of these systems for legal justice. However, in "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau's arguments have to do with a larger system of justice: that which involves fairness in the way that all members of humankind are dealt with. Justice for all humankind goes beyond national borders. That's why Thoreau explains in the essay that he is willing to disobey the law and not pay his taxes: he argues that when a law is unjust, the law should not be obeyed.

Thoreau makes it clear that he is perfectly willing to pay the highway tax, which helps to maintain the roads. However, he refuses to pay a tax to a government that condones slavery and warfare, which he considers great injustices. That's why he is willing to go to prison rather than pay the tax: the injustice of slavery is far greater than the injustice of not paying taxes. He states:

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

In fact, Thoreau's viewpoints on justice for all of humanity served as inspirations for many other people who waged nonviolent warfare against injustice by disobeying unjust laws. Famous men who were inspired by "Civil Disobedience" in their own struggles for justice for their people included Mohandas Gandhi, a leader in the struggle for Indian independence, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader of the American civil rights movement.

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