The philosophy behind civil disobedience dates back to classical and biblical sources. Perhaps its most influential exposition can be found in Henry David Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), in which he claims that the individual, who grants the state its power in the first place, must follow the dictates of conscience in opposing unjust laws.
Thoreau's work had an enormous impact on Mohandas Gandhi and the techniques that he employed first to gain Indian rights in South Africa and later to win independence for India.Attracting a huge number of followers from the Indian public, Gandhi was able to use the technique as an effective political tool and play a key role in bringing about the British decision to end colonial rule of his homeland.
A Comparison of Two Beliefs
Ebey Soman ("Analysis of Methods of Civil Disobedience," www.helium.com) reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr. and Socrates provide two unique perspectives on the concept of civil disobedience. Socrates, being older and a philosopher, argues the concept of working through the system to produce a favorable change while Martin Luther King, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, argues for direct non-violent action to combat injustice. Of course, the circumstances of history and oppression were different for both men; however, the comparison of their concepts proves fruitful for those who wish to engage in such action.
It would seem that a combination of both men's ideals would best serve most needs for being civilly disobedient. To first work through the system, and, hopefully avoid any failure, people can often produce desired results. If failure within the system does occur, the use of non-violent, direct action can also combat injustice and provide effective civil disobedience.
The Crito, a dialogue between Socrates and his old friend Crito, occurs when Crito come to visit Socrates in jail in a last attempt to persuade him to escape his verdict of death by hemlock. Socrates refuses Crito's help and rationalizes that civil disobedience, in particular escaping one's verdict, is unjust.
Socrates bases the belief on three different levels:
1. Firstly, Socrates employs the parent-child analogy. Children are not on equal terms with their parents, nor are citizens with the state.
2. Thus, as it is wrong to be violent against one's parents, it is even more wrong to be violent against one's state.
3. Evading a verdict is harmful to a state because it destroys its credibility and diminishes its authority.
The great philosopher's main argument is based on this concept: all laws made by the majority of the people are just, yet people, themselves, may be unjust. So, to change the minds of people and the majority would constitute changing a law made by unjust people. If people cannot persuade their country (the people) a law has been unjustly made, they must do what established laws order. And, if people break laws, then they must accept their just punishment.
Socrates holds that rules by law should never be violated because they are made for people to obey for the benefit of their own welfare, safety, and order. Socrates believes without order, institution of law and order falls apart. Thus, laws keep society running smoothly. But, people must eventually convict others to their punishment under the law.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King holds that there are times when people need to engage in non-violent protest and disobedient acts in defense of liberty and freedom. King's argument may be condensed as "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere... A justice too long delayed is justice denied." He argues that civil disobedience is justified not only to deal with an unjust law, but that "everyone has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." (Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April 16 1963)
Peter Suber (Christopher B. Gray (ed.), Philosophy of Law: An Encyclopedia, 1999) states that King believes, "If they (legal channels) are open in theory, but closed or unfairly obstructed in practice, then the system is not democratic in the way needed to make civil disobedience unnecessary."
Other activists have added to this view by stating that if judicial review is one of the features of American democracy which is supposed to make civil disobedience unnecessary, then it ironically subverts this goal; for to obtain standing to bring an unjust statute to court for review, often a plaintiff must be arrested for violating it.
Martin Luther King suggests a four step action method to combat injustice:
1. The first is the gathering of facts to see if injustice does really exist. (Identify a clear fault and develop a platform.)
2. Then, this is followed by negotiations. (Work within the system to correct the error.)
3. Once and if that fails, then self-purification allows people to get ready for the mental and physical difficulties that they will face once they start their struggle against injustice.
4. And, finally, direct action involves non-violent protests, sit-in and other disruptive behavior that violates the unjust law.
As King explains about injustices in Birmingham, Alabama, “Past promises have been broken by the politicians and merchants of Birmingham and now is the time to fulfill the natural right of all people to be treated equal.”
King contends that laws must be made to protect the people, not to degrade and punish them. As far as King is concerned, the people must continue to do whatever is necessary, preferably non-violently, to obtain the legal and moral right that is theirs.
King argues that "nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored." King tries to generate a positive "tension" within the society to prove that unwarranted injustice is present in the community and non-violent direct action does just that.
To work through the system (judicial and legislative), using the laws and "persuasion" to correct an injustice in society, people restore proper respect for law and order. Without a workable system and respect for such a system, chaos and inequity rule the land. However, if this work fails, people must take direct non-violent action. Such action then restores good order to the general public and to those in positions of power. In addition, the people's action insures that unjust laws are negated or rewritten correctly.