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Philosophy in the Pub | Civil Disobedience


Come along and explore the philosophy of the concept of Civil Disobedience

Start Date

3 Sep 2019 6:00 pm

End Date

3 Oct 2019 7:30 pm


The Gunners Arms, 23 Lawrence St, Launceston

RSVP / Contact

No RSVP required. Enquiries to Graham

Civil Disobedience: Is it morally justifiable? Join the discussion on this fascinating and always relevant topic.


Some people claim there is an environmental crisis (e.g., a climate emergency)…And some people claim this justifies breaking the law.

  • What should we make of this claim?
  • Do we have a moral obligation to obey the law?
  • Do we have a moral obligation to break the law?
  • What is the relation between morality and the law?
  • Can breaking the law be morally justifiable?

Henry David Thoreau

“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavour to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

What is Civil Disobedience?

“By `civil disobedience' John Rawls means `a public, non-violent, and conscientious act contrary to law usually done with the intent to bring about a change in the policies or laws of the government’.” (Rawls quoted in Carter 1998: 30)

Do we have a moral obligation to obey the law?

There are laws. But do we have a moral duty to uphold them? Or should society simply rely on punishment as a deterrent? Some think that there is no obligation to obey the law. But others think there is an obligation …
Why might there be an obligation to uphold the law?

The existence of civil society provides us with certain benefits…
These benefits are possible due to cooperation, this can be understood in general terms as a social contract, and in more specific terms, in the form of people paying tax in exchange for services provided by society.

Some claim that we should accept the costs as well as the benefits of civil society and one of the costs is obeying the law. Without such cooperation (e.g., paying tax and obeying the law) civil society is undermined.

The Social Contract Tradition

The ‘social contract’ tradition claims that free fully rational individuals choose to relinquish some freedom for other benefits. They decide to co-operatively submit to the rule of law in order to secure other benefits. The social contract tradition pre-supposes that people will respect the contract. If people just obeyed laws they wanted to obey, co-operation would break down.

Is environmental disobedience unfair?

‘The obligation to obey the law is … supported by a duty of fair play. The benefits of social living are made possible by a reciprocal sharing of the burdens of society, including obedience to law. The rule of law depends on citizens being willing to obey laws they do not like. In short, a functioning democracy requires reciprocal willingness to lose. If environmental activists expect timber companies to obey laws preventing stream-side cutting (for example), then it is prima facie unfair for activists to refuse to obey laws that they oppose.’

Rawl’s justification for Civil Disobedience

Rawls argues that if a society itself is unjust, then civil disobedience is justified.

Civil versus Environmental Disobedience?

Historical justifications of civil disobedience have focused on issues of justice with respect to existing humans. For example, justice was sought for existing humans based on the interests of existing humans.
But how are we to incorporate the interests of future generations of humans into considerations of justice?

And how are we to incorporate the interests of the non-human world into considerations of justice? 

We have focused on justice, but is justice even the correct idea here?