Definitions are hugely important in philosophy and many discussions never get beyond the stage of conceptual analysis. This is partly because if we are not clear on what it is that we are talking about we can’t have a meaningful discussion, and partly because definitions may contain in themselves arguments about the permissibility (or not) of certain practices.

What is it in a nut-shell?

Offer a definition for a complex concept and a number of practical examples that might either bring this definition to question or start an interesting discussion on whether a particular example is indeed an example of this concept.


Civil Disobedience

There are many different accounts of our obligation to obey the law, including prudential reasons, i.e. it is good for me to obey the law as disobedience is punished, and duty based reasons, i.e. accepting the protection of the law generates an obligation to obey, or everyone benefits from law-abidance so I have a duty to obey, or the very meaning of the term ‘law’ involves an obligation to abide by it.

However, cases of civil disobedience are cases of, potentially, justifiable disobedience of the law. A number of conditions have to be met for an act to qualify as an act of civil disobedience:

  • A political act: the act must be motivated by a sense of political justice and an obligation as a citizen to respond to the demands of the law
  • A public act: the act must be carried out in public, as its aim is to raise awareness, educate and persuade others of the worthiness of the cause
  • Contrary to the law: acts of civil disobedience break the law, either the law which is claimed is unjust in order to protest its injustice or on grounds of conscience, or other laws in an effort to publicise the unjust law. For many commentators accepting the legal implications of breaking the law is part of an act of civil disobedience.
  • Nonviolent: the aim of civil disobedience is to attract attention to a problem and persuade others of one’s point of view, so it is a non-violent act which seeks to reason with others, rather than hurt or scare them into agreement
  • A last resort: civil disobedience is only carried out when all other political means of change have been exhausted.

In light of the elements of the definition above, consider the following cases and ask: Is this an act of civil disobedience? Is it a justified case of breaking the law? If not, why not? If yes, why so?

A group ofanimal rights campaigners, frustrated with the lack of response by the government to the plight of thousands of laboratory animals, break into a laboratory, release the animals into the countryside and set fire to the facilities.

On December 1st 1955 US citizenRosa Parks sat in the area reserved for white people on her bus and refused to get up. She was arrested, tried and convicted for disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. Following her arrest 90% of African-Americans in Montgomery took part in a boycott which cost the bus companies 80% of their revenue.

The Earth Liberation Front destroyed five buildings and four chair lifts at the Vail ski resort in Colorado, US, causing in total $12 million in damages. The Vail ski resort proposed expansion was threatening to destroy the best remaining habitat of the lynx in the state.

In December 16th 1773, American colonists disguised as Native Indians, boarded a ship belonging to the British East India Company and destroyed many crates of tea bricks. The cost of the lost tea in today’s terms is $1.87 million. The men were protesting against preferential tax exemptions for the British company which made it impossible for American tea merchants and smugglers to compete with the lower priced tea. The Boston Tea Party proved to be one of the catalysts that led to the American War of Independence.

The students should take the examples in turn and consider whether they meet the requirements for an act of civil disobedience identified above. If they have any concerns they should try to identify them and even suggest how the particular example could be modified to be more in keeping with the definition of civil disobedience. For instance:

The animal rights campaigners resort to rather severe measures to publicize their cause. Their actions put pressure on the requirement for nonviolence and the definition of nonviolence. Although they do not cause physical harm to other human beings, they do cause economic harm and the fire could have been dangerous to others. Possibly they may even cause harm to the environment by releasing the animals. Is this sufficient reason to cast doubt on whether this is a genuine act of civil disobedience?

Rosa Parks' example is of someone acting against the law and accepting the consequences. Was everyone else entitled to copy her actions? It would seem that this is a clear case of civil disobedience as it meets all the requirements.

The Earth Liberation Front case again posses problems with the notion of ‘nonviolence’ especially since the level of economic destruction is so great. Arguably the acts of destruction would also have cause quite a bit of fear which could be seen as a form of violence. On the other hand, one could argue that minority groups with valid concerns have little means of advertising their concerns against large, economic pressure groups, so this may have been the only option left to this minority group.

The case of theAmerican colonists is an interesting one, especially for those students who have thought so far that large scale economic loss is a form of violence and threat, and therefore incompatible with civil disobedience, as this is a case of a huge economic loss which is, however, celebrated as a great patriotic moment (by US citizens).

Example adapted from materials produced for the Level 3 Perspectives on Science course.