In the world, everything progresses due to the existence of a system that ensures that everything is in place and works as expected. For the system to progress, it must test the realities that surround it rather than basing itself on mere delusions that do not work. Individuals have always been known to violate laws that they feel are unjust and have resulted to move the society forward by using their own motives. Governments, as bodies that govern have always faced resistances from individuals who feel that a certain law is unjust and needs to be changes. The individuals are not out to fulfill their own interests but rather the societal interests and make the society a better place to live in. This can simply be termed as civil disobedience which can be defined as, the refusal to obey government commands or demands and nonresistant to consequential arrest and penalty (Locke, 1978). Civil disobedience is a condition that has of late been prevalent in many countries. John Locke came up with the idea in the 17th century but apparently it is still very relevant and in use even today. Civil disobedience has its roots in western thought.
John Locke lived in Britain in the 17th century between the years 1632 and 1704. Locke took interest in law since his father was a lawyer and clerk to the justices of peace. His father had initially served as a captain of cavalry for the parliamentarian forces in the English civil war. Such a background and environment made Locke to take interest in natural law (Locke, 1978). He particularly observed the kind of protests that were common during his time and the kind of torture that people were incessantly undergoing due to the wanting government places that were in place. His familiarity with the law, his morality and religious beliefs drove him towards justifying the actions of the then people.
Civil disobedience is commonly used as a non-violent way and a collective mean of forcing the government to change its rules, regulations and policies for the better. Civil disobedience is characterized by peaceful tactics such as nonpayment of taxes, boycotts and picketing. It has been used by nationalists as major tactic in Africa and India, labor and antiwar movements and in United States civil rights movement. Many philosophers such as Locke and Henry Thoreau demonstrate civil disobedience as a symbolic violation of some parts of the law and not necessarily the entire system. Locke argues that, though individuals may find the legislative system being faulty, it is mostly only some parts that are not appealing to them and they might be quite contented with a great portion of the system. The civil disobedient sees themselves as obligated by a higher extralegal principle to break a certain law or laws and finds an appropriate avenue to bring the change that has been nonexistent. The civil disobedient voluntarily submits to punishment so as to set a moral example that will provoke the government or the majority to effect meaningful economic, social or political changes as may be required from time to time (Sunstein, 2003).
Henry David Thoreau attacks authorities by arguing that individuals are “higher and independent powers” (Thoreau, 1991). He further elucidates that the government derives its authority from the individuals. As such, people should not sit and watch as injustices take place. People should be alert and strive to recognize any injustices that are ongoing and actually activate the required reforms. He equates the government to machinery that moves too slowly hence ineffective in making changes that may be urgent (Thoreau, 1991). This slowness may cause unnecessary suffering to the subjects while the government may not be aware of the incessant sufferings. Just like Locke, Henry goes ahead and perpetuates civil disobedience by saying that since people have rights on their side, they should and must do the right thing by trying to peacefully and openly change the society they live in. He finds it unjust for the authorities to subject civil disobedient to punishment since it is not good for the authorities to compel moral behaviors.
Henry Thoreau is notably the first persons to knowingly defy the authorities’ commands. In 1848, he refused to pay poll tax that was imposed by the American government so as to raise money that would be used to implement fugitive slave act and finance a war in Mexico. He found the tax imposed to be unrealistic and unnecessary since the actions that were to be supported by the money were morally unjustifiable (Thoreau, 1991). He later explained the reason behind his action and noted that only a few individuals serve their society with their conscience. Those who engage in civil disobedience are treated differently by the society with many societies perceiving civil disobedient as its nastiest enemies. However, those who came after him confidently termed themselves as civil disobedient notwithstanding the kind of treatment that they will receive from the society. They knew that they were performing a just act whose main aim was to transform the society to a better place to live in.
Civil disobedient has not been without criticisms. Critics argue that civil disobedient is a miniature rejection of the mutual reality. This is because different people always come together in a response loop in order for their motives to coalesce and balance out (In Bedau, 2002). However, civil disobedience furthers the case rather than reducing it. In today’s democratic world, where democracy is perceived to be matured, critics of civil disobedient find it to be an offensive culture that must apparently be brought to an end (Lyons, 1998). They argue that there are better lawful ways and procedures of expressing needs rather than using civil violence.
It also eradicates order and allows individuals to willingly and knowingly disrespect some specific laws, commands or policies for the mere reason that they are not comfortable with them. They additionally discourage the culture since it brings avoidable punishment, which in some cases may be very severe, to the individuals who take part in it. Civil disobedient are quite aware that they will face the consequences of their actions and should avoid engaging in civil disobedience by all means (Zashin, 1971).
The issue of civil disobedience has raised several questions. They include, why must civil disobedience be public, nonviolent and punishable? (Singer, 2003). Why must those who engage in it be ready and willing to accept punishment? These questions have not yet been adequately answered and philosophers are trying to dig deeper into them. On the other hand critics also disqualifies Locke’s theory of civil disobedience since he applies it in the context of a nearly just society not considering whether it would follow the same line or be justifiable in the societies that are less just (Brownlee, 2010). They believe that in less just societies, civil disobedience will be used for selfish gains and further degrade the welfare of the society in such a context.
Locke’s view of civil disobedience was greatly influenced by the kind of life that he went through. In his carrier, he had to go to several exiles due to his behavior of violating certain societal aspects or evade the adversities that were brought up by various laws imposed by the then Britain government (Morreall, 1991). It is this experiences that made him feel that the government should change the laws that people are uncomfortable with since it is the people who give it powers. The current governments also derive powers from the people. It should therefore respect the people and make any social, political or economic changes that the people advocate for. It should not use the law to subjugate innocent and helpless citizens.
In conclusion, the aspect of civil disobedience though highly criticized, it is still in practice even today due to the various conflicts that arise between authorities and individuals. Locke justifies that the government obtains its powers from the individuals and should in no way ignore the demands or interests of the people.
Brownlee, K (2010, March 21). Civil Disobedience (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Retrieved November 6, 2013, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/civil-disobedience/
In Bedau, H. A. (2002). Civil disobedience in focus. London: Routledge.
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Lyons, D. (1998), ‘Moral Judgment, Historical Reality, and Civil Disobedience,’ in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 27 (1): 31-49.
Morreall, J. (1991), ‘The Justifiability of Violent Civil Disobedience,’ in Civil Disobedience in Focus, Hugo A. Bedau (ed.), London: Routledge.
Singer, P. (2003), Democracy and Disobedience, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sunstein, C. (2003), Why Societies Need Dissent, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Thoreau, Henry David (1991), ‘Civil Disobedience,’ in Civil Disobedience in Focus, Hugo A. Bedau (ed.), London: Routledge.
Zashin, E. M. (1971). Civil disobedience and democracy. New York: Free Press.