Civil disobedience

What is civil disobedience?Explain how each of the following philosophers would respond to the question of civil disobedience: Plato (Socrates), Hobbes, Mill, Kant and King. Specifically, would each approve or disapprove of civil disobedience? On what grounds would each approve or disapprove? Do you think civil disobedience is justified in certain cases? Do you agree with King’s decision to parade without a permit?

Civil disobedience is the refusal to comply with government laws. It is often a result of conflict of interest between the citizen’s conscience and the rule of law (Hill, 2013). For this reason, it is often regarded as relatively permissible or even justifiable breach of law (Thoreau, 2014). Nevertheless, some schools of thought have condemned civil disobedience, terming it a crime. Thus, the practice has been a source of moral and legal controversy. Philosophy offers varying interpretations of civil disobedience’s justifiability.

In Crito, Socrates discusses his obligation to the law. He refuses a chance to escape prison citing two reasons. Frist, he notes that such an act would go against his moral principles. Moral consistency is evidently very important to Socrates who would rather give up his life than violate the law. An act of civil disobedience, he notes, has the potential to destroy the country (Hill, 2013). Moreover, though his incarceration was unjust, it did not justify a crime in return. Socrates also notes that, as a citizen, he is obliged to follow the law of the country. Socrates views his relationship to the state as a contractual agreement. Because he enjoys the rule of law, he must be prepared to adhere to it. If he intended to protest immoral las, then he should have done so before accepting the protection and benefits provided by the state.

Hobbes also argues against civil disobedience. He notes that human needs, while universal, exist in a reality of limited resource. Society therefore requires a state of order to avoid anarchistic struggle for resources such as food and shelter. According to Hobbes, the civil disobedience n would lead to social anarchy. Thus, it is not justifiable. Citizens should conform to the rule of law or be eliminated for the purpose of safeguarding social welfare.

Mill justification of civil disobedience is premised on his belief in individual freedoms. Individuals’ mental freedom should be regarded as a means for social improvement. People who protest government laws enable larger society to recognize faults in its laws. Thus, silencing dissent is therefore a disservice to humanity. A society that is forced to abide by laws without objective analyses of protestor’s opinions will be stuck in a pseudo reality of myths and half-truths.

King shares Mill’s opinions on civil disobedience. He regards his protests as an asset to the world. However, King regards civil disobedience as a last resort. This is clear from his depiction of the stages he took before deciding to parade without a permit. They are collection of the facts, negotiation, self-purification and direct action. The four steps enabled him to gain a clear understanding of the problems in society and attempt conciliatory solutions. With the failure of these attempts, civil disobedience remains as the only viable means of gaining meaningful change. King’s analyses of the law highlights the injustices therein. He notes that direct action and civil disobedience should not be undertaken as acts of revenge. Rather, they are means of bringing people back to dialogue. The authorities at the time had shown a consistent contempt for dialogue with the civil rights movement. Thus, non-violent, civil disobedience was the only reasonable course of action.

Kant’s position on civil disobedience can be derived from his stance on morality.  Kant observes that individuals should act only by those maxims whose universal application they willingly accept. As a universal maxim, civil disobedience would lead to anarchy.  Thus, civil disobedience has no Kantian moral justification.


Hill, J. (2013). Civil Disobedience and the Politics of Identity: When We Should Not Get Along. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Thoreau, H. (2014). Civil Disobedience. New York, NY: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

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