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According to Thoreau, civil disobedience might be necessary in situations where government machineries compel an individual to be used as a tool for executing injustice to another person. Thoreau asserts that he concurs with the ideology that “government is best which governs least” (Thoreau 163). He mentions that a time will come when men will no longer require governments to govern them. The author assumes the perspective that systems run by governments are rarely fair or efficient as per the expectations of the majority.
In most instances, administrative systems of governance are largely “abused and perverted”. Therefore, the needs and aspirations of the people are hardly addressed by governments of the day. Nonetheless, the author still defends the American regime in the sense that “the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have ” (Thoreau 165) Thoreau argues that the government does not always attain the objectives why it was formed.
For example, it fails to secure the nation or create a liberal society. The author proposes that governments should be passively involved in vital services required by the people. Of particular importance is the issue of personal freedom coupled with free will. He laments on the restrictions imposed on business activities. He clarifies that there is need for a better government in place and not necessarily total elimination of governing authorities.
The above arguments set the stage for Thoreau to present his deeply ingrained ideology on how people should react to elements of injustice from authorities. Thoreau strongly believes that voting does not offer any solution for the much-need justice in society. It is crucial for someone who is mentally stable to follow his or her inner conscience. Thoreau feels that it is not the role of individuals to do away with wrongs even if the said wrongs are extremely gross.
Nevertheless, individuals should never allow themselves to be associated with acts of injustice. The author asserts that “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting on another man’s shoulders” (Thoreau 169). This explains why civil disobedience is necessary in circumstances whereby a person can be used as a tool for harming other people.
He notes that “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law… What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn” (167).
The perspective taken by Thoreau in regards to breaking the law is indeed justified bearing in mind that committing two wrongs do not make a right. The rest of this argumentative essay supports that thesis that civil disobedience should be allowed when the rights and privileges of other people are subject to be infringed or violated.
What can justify disobedience to laws?
If we speak of disobedience to the laws, we must try to clarify the type of laws in question. Examples of disobedience include breaking primary laws governing a nation (theft, performing acts of euthanasia or hosting illegal immigrants). We may also find ourselves disobeying the moral laws (such as lying or deceiving someone) or breaking religious law (such as committing adultery).
Hence, from the outset, it should be noted that the issue of disobedience to laws is quite broader than the mere mention of legal provisions as dictated by the laws of the land. At this point, we may now attempt to define what is meant by term ‘law’. Besides, is there anything common or different between the moral, legal and religious laws? Are there any other types of legislations that may be appropriately violated by the people? Indeed, the laws of nature are what govern the operation of nature that surrounds us.
Scientific laws also describe the laws of nature. As can be seen, it is practically impossible to disobey the laws of nature. As a matter of fact, we may not decide not to die or better still, transform ourselves into flying beings. Hence, the question of disobedience to these laws does not arise. We can surely rule out thinking about such laws in this discussion.
However, it is still prudent to find a common definition to the other three types of laws we have mentioned namely the religious, moral and legal laws. It is clear that in each case, the laws can be disobeyed if authorities attempt to impose duties, obligations or pose prohibitions that go against the basic rights of individuals (Udeh 37).
The first characteristic of these laws is that they are prescriptive – unlike the “descriptive” laws of nature or science. The three categories of laws are prescriptive. Any type of law usually expresses a general relationship between various phenomena.
Whether or not to break these laws is a debatable issue that needs to be investigated further. Disobedience towards the law may take several forms such as the most violent (rebellion, revolution), the most trivial (flights) and the most noble and peaceful form (the so-called civil disobedience that is characterized by non-violence). Justice remains the pillar for justifying disobedience towards laws (Lewis 54).
If we consider the three types of laws mentioned earlier (moral laws, religious laws, and legal laws), we see that they all regulate the relationship among men by fixing the limit of their actions towards others. If the freedom of an individual begins where those of other people stops, then disobedience towards laws might be difficult to justify because it may introduce discord, chaos and eventual disruption of a peaceful society in which everyone benefits. Laws that guarantee social stability are the only ones that must be followed (Behr 129).
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A notable personality like Abraham Lincoln violated the constitution more than once for the benefit of the American people. However, this violation or civil disobedience towards the law did not spoil his reputation because he acted
Lincoln violated the constitution a few times and although he’s universally recognized as a moral leader, was it a good thing? Was it not designed to provide checks and balances on power? The argument I got when discussing this today was “he was in uncharted waters and did what was necessary”. So the more general question is, when and how does one deem it necessary to break the rules. For instance, he commanded the military to block the Southern ports.
Although it was only the Congress that was supposed to issue such an authority, the act of war was rather urgent. Convening sessions in the Congress and debating about the issue would take a rather long time at the detriment of the citizens and national economy. Hence, there are instances when laws can be broken in order to defend a common good (Skinner 141).
Another solid reason why civil disobedience can be desirable is when it comes to defending the broad interests of the public (Forji 163). A case in point is the 2011 Arab spring which is still continuing. We have witnessed major public uproar and upheavals in Arab countries such as Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia. Syria is currently under strife owing to unpopular leadership in place.
As much as the uprisings in the Arab world have led to massive loss of lives and destruction of property (of course against the laws of the affected countries), the entire situation seems to be justified. Perhaps, it might be interesting to highlight the causes of these uprisings.
At a glance, inflation, unemployment (and underemployment), political/religious oppression, lack of political participation, absence of political dissent, and foreign interference are some of the core reasons why civil disobedience is rife in these nations. Surprisingly, some the Arab nations that have gone through violent rebellions are now back to normalcy since the citizens are satisfied with the performance of the new governments.
Sometimes, peace, social and economic stability can hardly prevail in the absence of civil disobedience. However, most of the existing laws and regulations are fundamental and should be obeyed by all citizens (Smith 76).
Behr, Dorothée. “Item Comparability in Cross-National Surveys: Results from Asking Probing Questions in Cross-National Web Surveys about Attitudes Towards Civil Disobedience.” Quality and Quantity 48.1 (2014): 127-148. Print.
Forji, Amin George. “Just Laws Versus Unjust Laws: Asserting the Morality of Civil Disobedience.” Journal of Politics and Law 3.2 (2010): 156-169. Print.
Lewis, Perry. Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. Print.
Skinner, David. “Media Organization and Production/Representing Resistance: Media, Civil Disobedience and the Global Justice Movement.” Canadian Journal of Communication 32.1 (2007): 139-142. Print.
Smith, William. “Civil Disobedience and Social Power: Reflections on Habermas.” Contemporary Political Theory 7.1 (2008): 72-89. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. 1849. Web.
Udeh, Collins. “Rights, Responsibility, Law and Order in 21st Century’s Civil Disobedience.” Journal of Politics and Law 7.2 (2014): 32-40. Print.