What are some arguments that disagree with Thoreau's thoughts in Civil Disobedience?Thoreau says that if our conscience doesn't agree with the law, we should go against it by breaking the law. What...

What are some arguments that disagree with Thoreau's thoughts in Civil Disobedience?

Thoreau says that if our conscience doesn't agree with the law, we should go against it by breaking the law. What are some arguments that disagree with that?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Thoreau, himself, will not provide much in way of counter- arguments to his points in Civil Disobedience.  Instead, I think that you might have to consider the consequences of Thoreau's claims and extrapolate what might happen outside of Thoreau's work.  For example, on the most basic of levels, if we embrace the idea that if one disagrees with the laws then breaking them becomes a moral responsibility, one could literally shudder at such an idea.  It is not a major problem in the context of the work because Thoreau's moral compass is not threatening.  The reader understands that Thoreau's sensibilities embrace inclusive, participatory democracy and do not pose an immediate threat to anyone except those in the position of power, individuals that he has cast as someone who has lost their moral compass.  Yet, consider for a moment if someone who lacks Thoreau's moral compass follows his advice.  Consider those who kill doctors who perform abortions or those who bomb health clinics that are linked to abortions.  These individuals "follow their conscience."  Yet, I don't think that what these individuals do are in concert with "forming a more perfect union" or "securing the blessing of liberty" in the sense of the Constitution.  Everyone is threatened in a setting where individuals fore go the law by breaking it.  Thoreau operates under the perspective where individuals who have a conscience would share his own view of what that conscience might be like.  I think that this is a rather compelling argument in why his beliefs could be disastrous, if placed in the wrong hands.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

By way of counterargument, one might consider what happens if a person who follows their conscience to break an unjust law has people who depend on them for their survival.  For example, if a mother of two children decides to break an unjust law, according to Thoreau's argument, she must be prepared to accept the consequences of that law-breaking and go to jail.  First, she will incur legal fees.  Second, any income that she provides to support her family will be lost.  Now, if she is the sole breadwinner in her family, or even a single parent, what will become of her family as a result of her breaking the law?  Does she have more of an obligation to break the law or to continue to support her family and provide security for them? 

Thoreau spoke from a relatively privileged position: he didn't have a family who was depending on him for their livelihood, and he did have friends on whose land he could live or with whom he could live for a time (Emerson, both).  He could refuse to pay his poll tax and go to jail, and no one is harmed by his behavior.  However, if he were responsible for others, he might feel differently.  It is possible for people to be torn between two impulses in this way, and Thoreau's argument fails to consider that some people have other responsibilities that are just as important to them.

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Civil Disobedience

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