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Conscientious Objection and Civil Disobedience


Waldron Jeremy


Dissent and disobedience are ancient practices that can excite reverence and resentment in seemingly equal measure. They are undoubtedly valued practices, but often they seem to be valued more in the abstract or in retrospect than in the moment. On the one hand, praise is generally lavished on that unnamed hero—the dissenter—who shows her humanity in her independent-minded, faithful counsel and conduct. Poet Archibald MacLeish (1956), for one, writes, “the dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.” More fulsomely, John Stuart Mill (1859) observes that, “In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service.” And George Bernard Shaw’s Jack Tanner writes in “Maxims for Revolutionists” (1903) that “disobedience [is] the rarest and most courageous of the virtues.” Praise is also sometimes lavished on named dissenters. For instance, Albert Einstein says of Mahatma Gandhi that “generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth” (1950: 240). And similar tributes have been paid to such historical and literary dissenters as Socrates; Sophocles’s Antigone; Aristophanes’s Lysistrata; Jesus; Galileo Galilei; Thomas More; the colonial participants in the Boston Tea Party; and the suffragettes.

On the other hand, however, there is also no shortage of resistance against, and demonization of, people who dissent or disobey. The personal histories of some of the figures just listed and of other icons, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo, highlight the majority’s tendency to shoot the dissenter in the act and to celebrate her only much later, if at all. Historian J. B. Bury (1913) observes simplistically, though perhaps not inaccurately, that, wherever prevails the belief that the welfare of a state depends upon rigid stability, “novel opinions are felt to be dangerous as well as annoying, and any one who asks inconvenient questions about the why and the wherefore of accepted principles is considered a pestilent person.” In addition to the patterns of negative reaction to dissent and disobedience, there is a host of familiar aphorisms and catchphrases that warn us against nonconformity. Some are injunctions: “Don’t rock the boat,” “Mind your Ps and Qs,” “Respect your elders,” “Don’t upset the apple cart.” Some are declarations of fact: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” And, some are thinly veiled condemnations of behavior: “He wants taking down a peg,” “She’s going against the grain.”

Perhaps such content-insensitive distrust of dissent is more a reaction to the threat of disobedience of formal norms than an intolerance of contrary positions as such. Perhaps it is when dissent manifests itself in a breach of law or a direct refusal to adhere to lawful requests that the specter of righteous indignation tends to arise and expose the strength of the conformist pressures that we can and do exert upon each other. Yet, as Mill notes, sometimes social pressures, not legal pressures, can be the most stringent:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.

(1859, ch. 1)

The force of such conformist pressures, whatever their source, may explain in part how a general reverence for celebrated dissenters can arise concomitantly with a revilement of the actual dissenter on our street or in our office, who tests our patience and threatens social harmony.

The purpose of this chapter is to consider two types of dissent that are generally described as conscientious, namely, civil disobedience and conscientious objection, both of which raise pressing normative questions not only about the proper parameters of dissenters’ rights and duties within a reasonably good society, but also about both the scope of legitimate toleration of assertions of conscientiousness and the appropriate legal and political responses to conscientious disobedience. In what follows, I begin by outlining the conceptual territory of civil disobedience and conscientious objection. I then offer a qualified endorsement of the moral justifiability of these two practices before examining both the scope and legitimacy of their status as moral rights and their grounds for legal defensibility. Among other things, I challenge the dominant liberal position that, in relation to both moral rights and legal defenses, a more compelling case can be made on behalf of private conscientious objection than on behalf of civil disobedience.

Conceptions of Civil Disobedience and Conscientious Objection

Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau coined the term “civil disobedience” in an 1849 essay to describe his refusal to pay the state poll tax, which he did to protest against the Mexican War (1846–1848) and the Fugitive Slave Law. In defense of his law breaking, Thoreau maintained that it was imperative that he not lend himself to the wrong he condemns. In his view, only a very few people—heroes, martyrs, patriots, reformers in the best sense—serve their society with their consciences in this way, and necessarily resist society for the most part, and often are treated by it as enemies. Numerous subsequent dissenters have proudly identified their own deliberate, communicative, cause-driven breaches of law as acts of civil disobedience, paying the legal and social price for nonconformity while often acting as catalysts for social change through their condemnation of existing laws or policies. Whether these dissenters may credibly apply the generally laudatory label of “civil disobedience” to their breaches of law is a further question that depends in part upon how narrowly we specify the concept of civil disobedience.

John Rawls defines “civil disobedience” very narrowly as a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political breach of law typically done with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies (1971: 364ff). For Rawls, the public nature of civil disobedience takes a distinctive ex ante form. Civil disobedience is never done covertly or secretively, but only openly in public, and only ever with advance notice to legal authorities. In Rawls’s view, such publicity is one mark of disobedients’ civility and willingness to deal fairly with authorities. Another mark of their civility is their nonviolence. Rawls states that violent acts likely to injure are incompatible with civil disobedience as a mode of address: “any interference with the civil liberties of others tends to obscure the civilly disobedient quality of one’s act.” A third mark of civility is disobedients’ willingness to accept the legal consequences of their actions, including punishment. In Rawls’s view, these features together show that, unlike revolutionary actors or militant protesters, civil disobedients have a fidelity to law at the outer edge thereof. Their disobedience is a political act, but it is a conscientious and sincere one that invokes the commonly shared conception of justice that underlies the political order, which in the case of Rawls’s just or nearly just society is a conception that centers on his two principles of justice.

One detraction of Rawls’s conception of civil disobedience is that it implicitly excludes many acts that commonsensically are seen as civil disobedience such as the nonviolent protests of Gandhi, who had no fidelity to British rule in India. Yet, the worry that Rawls’s conception cannot accommodate a case such as Gandhi may be allayed somewhat by the fact that Rawls did not develop his account for an imperialistic political order such as British India, but for his ideal, just or nearly just society, in which fidelity to law might be more credible. The cost, though, of confining the analysis to this ideal context is that it leaves unsettled whether Rawls’s account of civil disobedience could be applied without radical alteration to less just, and more realistic, societies.

Another difficulty concerns Rawls’s overly restrictive conditions of publicity and nonviolence as signifiers of civility. Publicity can detract from or undermine persons’ attempts to communicate through civil disobedience since announcing an intention to break the law provides both political opponents and legal authorities with an opportunity to abort those communicative efforts, which does no favors to the dissenter’s cause even though that cause may be a just one (Smart 1991: 206). For this reason, unannounced or (initially) covert disobedience can be preferable. Disobedience carried out covertly in the first instance to ensure that the act is successful may nonetheless be taken to be open and communicative when followed by an acknowledgment of the act and the reasons for taking it (Raz 1979).

Turning to violence, the presumed incivility of violence is problematic for several reasons. First, a commonsense conception of violence—as the likelihood or actuality of a person or group causing injury to someone or damage to something—will include not only a range of acts and events, major and minor, intended and unintended, that cause damage or injury, but also a range of acts and events that risk but do not necessarily cause damage or injury, such as catapulting stuffed animals at the police or shooting into the sky. Given that a range of elements can be counted as violence, it is implausible to hold that any instance of violence in the course of disobedience, however modest or noninjurious it may be, is, by definition, uncivil. Second, focusing attention upon violence draws attention away from the presumptively more salient issue of harm. As Joseph Raz notes, many nonviolent acts and many legal acts can cause more harm to other persons than do violent breaches of law (1979: 267). His example is that of a legal strike by ambulance workers, which will in all likelihood do far greater harm than, say, a minor act of vandalism. Moreover, sometimes the wrong or harm done by a law or policy is so iniquitous that it may be legitimate to use violence to root it out. Raz observes that such violence may be necessary to preserve or to reestablish the rights and civil liberties that coercive practices seek to suspend. Such observations about harm and violence are consistent with the view that nonviolent dissent is generally preferable because it does not encourage violence in other situations where violence would be wrong, something that an otherwise legitimate use of violence may do. Moreover, as a matter of prudence, nonviolence does not carry the same risk of antagonizing potential allies or of cementing opponents’ antipathy, or of distracting the public’s attention, or of providing authorities with an excuse to use harsh countermeasures against disobedients.

The above objections to Rawls’s conception coalesce around a more general concern that it anticipates the normative evaluation of civil disobedience. By restricting civil disobedience to nonviolent, public breaches of law taken by persons who have a fidelity to the legal system and are willing to accept its punishments, Rawls leads us too easily to the conclusion that most, if not all, civil disobedience is morally justifiable (Brownlee 2004). The evaluation of civil disobedience as a deliberate, communicative breach of law carried out in both liberal and illiberal regimes requires careful, impartial reflection that does not predetermine its moral status through overly idealistic stipulations that are at odds with practical realities.

A broader conception of civil disobedience, offered by Raz, characterizes it as any “politically motivated breach of law designed either to contribute directly to a change of a law or of a public policy or to express one’s protest against, and dissociation from, a law or a public policy” (Raz 1979: 263). This conception does not rule out the possibility of either violent or covert civil disobedience, and it does not anticipate the normative evaluation of this practice. It also acknowledges more explicitly and consistently than Rawls’s conception does that civil disobedience can be either direct or indirect. Direct disobedience is the breach of the law that is actually opposed. Indirect disobedience is the breach of a law that is not opposed in order to communicate one’s objection against the law, rule, norm or policy that is opposed. Trespassing onto a U.S. military base with a spray-paint can and carrying out acts of vandalism in order to protest against an ongoing war is an example of indirect civil disobedience.

However, Raz’s conception may be faulted since, first, it excludes from the class of civilly disobedient acts those breaches of law that protest against the decisions of nongovernmental agencies such as trade unions, banks and private universities (1979: 264). This exclusion is arbitrary because the policies and practices of nongovernmental institutions—such as the University of Mississippi’s initial refusal to admit African American student James Meredith—are matters of law as the lawfully accepted practices of legally recognized institutions. In condemning such policies and practices, civil disobedients challenge, among other things, the legal framework that accepts these policies and practices as lawful.

A second objection to Raz’s definition is that it misrepresents civil disobedience by describing it in terms of expression of protest and not communication of protest. Whereas expression need not be directed toward other people, communication is necessarily an other-directed activity that involves the engagement of a “speaker” with a “hearer” to bring about the hearer’s understanding of what the speaker conveys. Civil disobedience is an intentional breach of law that aims to communicate to a relevantly placed audience, usually society or the government, in ways that typically have both forward-looking and backward-looking aims. The backward-looking aims are to communicate both a disavowal of, and dissociation from, a given law or policy and the reasons for that disavowal. The forward-looking aims are to draw attention to the issue and to the reasons for the protest so as to persuade the relevant audience to accept the disobedient’s position and, thereby, to instigate a lasting change in law or policy. A parallel may be drawn between the communicative aspects of civil disobedience and the communicative aspects of lawful punishment by the state since, like civil disobedience, the state’s use of lawful punishment is associated with a backward-looking aim to communicate condemnation of certain conduct as well as a forward-looking aim to bring about a lasting change in that conduct (Brownlee 2004).