Civil disobedience is hardly a new phenomenon since it has been behind many of the most important socio-political changes in history. Civil disobedience could be simply defined as the “public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies”. It is a non-violent deliberate way of violating the law to protest against some form of injustice. To be qualified as civil disobedience, the act of disobedience must be performed for a moral purpose through nonviolent means and those participating must anticipate punishment. Laws are rules enacted for the purpose of maintaining order and preserve human rights. However, these laws are not always justifiable and, thus, cause some people to question their validity and purpose. Therefore, this has led many people choosing to engage in several acts of civil disobedience. This question has led to a great debate among different groups of people. Breaking the law for a cause can be justified to some extent due to the reasons behind the action. This paper explicates the view that breaking the law is not bad as long as it does not harm third parties, done peacefully, and done as a form of protest.
It is extremely difficult to determine what acts of breaking the law will fall within civil disobedience. Additionally, it is difficult for the law to respond to these people engaging in civil disobedience. In determining the justification for civil disobedience, it is imperative to analyze the actions of those who engage in this defiance of the law and their motivation. The two sets of factors overlap and provide a clear reason that justifies why breaking the law for the sake of a cause can be justified.
First, breaking the law for a cause can be justifiable if it does not cause harm or interfere with the rights of third parties. Any interference with the civil liberties of others tends to obscure the actual intentions of the civil disobedient acts. Thus, by no means breaking the law for the sake of a cause should pose any sort of threat to other persons’ rights. As much as civil disobedience compromises some degree of violence to achieve its aim, this violence must not be aimed at harming or even in serious cases killing other people. If this happens, civil disobedience will lose its civil value and will contravene the intentions of this disobedience.
Similarly, breaking the law for a cause can be defended if it is done peacefully. If those engaging in civil disobedience do so in a peaceful way, they will discover that their actions will draw more attention to their cause. Consequently, the law, policy, injustice or practice they hope to reform will most likely be achieved more quickly this way. Additionally, it is important to remember that if people have right on their side, they must use peaceful methods to be able to bring any form of change to society or achieve any form of justice. Nationalist movement leader Mohandas Gandhi used peaceful defiance of the law to bring change to protest against the British rule in India.
Those who participate in civil disobedience can be defended if they are doing so as a form of protest. There is a thin line between breaking the law for a cause and doing so for the purpose of committing a crime. For example, there is a big difference between being outside a business and protesting what it is doing or its form of business and another thing to destroy their property and attack employees or any other person entering or existing the premise of the business. It is, therefore, very vital for protesters or any other people fighting for a cause to recognize when the thin line between committing crime and protesting has been crossed. This will be an essential factor that will justify their actions as being permissible if they act within the moral purpose of protesting injustice.
The process of protesting injustice by breaking the law can also be perceived to be justifiable if the reason is to make the government of the day more accountable for its action and to push it to provide justice to its people. Henry Thoreau in his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”describes an individual as a higher independent power, from which the state obtains its power and authority. For this reason, people are advised not to wait for the government to be aware of the need for justice and reform. They are, therefore, encouraged to show impatience since government methods and machinery is very slow in their reaction of injustice. Thus, they can practice civil disobedience acts as a way of making the government increase its speed of response towards justice.
Civil disobedience can equally be excused if it is the only way a cause can be publicized. Many people protest against injustices through holding protests and marches. However, it is unfortunate to note that this form of publicizing an issue is not so effective. For example, the marches on the war on Iraq have had no bearing whatsoever on the decision of the American government to retain soldiers in this war-torn nation. For this reason, breaking the law can become a handy tool for people to publicize their cause. In case a person is arrested for their cause, it creates more awareness for the cause. The publicity of the arrest makes people understand the cause and in some rare instances the issue might actually be addressed by the relevant authorities involved. Thus, breaking the law for a cause can be justified in such a case. In addition, if the laws in place are against the well-being of the people or the cause seeks to protect the well-being of the public, it can therefore be permissible to break the law to safeguard the public’s well-being.
There are cases, rare as they maybe, when the law is wrong. Laws are constructs of human beings which have been proposed, created and implemented by people for reasons which in some cases may be completely unjustified. It is assumed that in a just and liberal society, people are obligated to follow the law without any questions or raising any disagreement. While there are good reasons to follow the law, there are, however, no strong moral obligations to do so. When laws infringe on the rights of the people it is supposed to protect, resisting such laws should be permissible. One of the most quoted examples of resisting the law due to its infringement on human rights is the case of Martin Luther King Jr. He led the black people in protesting against laws that infringed on their civil rights.
Breaking the law for the sake of a cause can also be permissible if it is practiced within moral parameters. Civil disobedience should be practiced in a way that it does not lose its civil value or its morality. Despite breaking the law for the sake of a cause, the conscientiousness of civil disobedience should not be disregarded. The hinges of civil disobedience are built upon the shared concept of justice accepted by all whom per take in the act of defiance of the law for the realization of their cause. This concept of morality and provision of justice is what justifies the breaking of the law for the sake of a cause. An example of a civil disobedience act that was done within moral parameters will be the case of Rosa Parks, a black woman who refused to give her seat on a bus to a white passenger. She acted within the moral parameter of safeguarding the rights of the black community.
Accordingly, civil disobedience can be supported only if the disobedience is coordinated with other groups with similar causes. This is because all these groups are equally justified in their resorting to break the law, to achieve, to push forward their issues to be addressed. If they undermine each other, there will be no coordination and this will weaken their cause and make them appear like criminal law breakers instead of people fighting for their rights. However, in the case when coordination is not possible, justification can still be possible. This is because, in some instances, coordination may not be possible due to the lack of time and opportunity for this coordination. It is very important to understand that the defensibility of civil disobedience greatly relies on the coordination of all the groups involved.
Those against civil disobedience do not see any justification for breaking the law for the sake of a cause. They claim that no person can be justified for breaking the law. Laws have been put in place for the purpose of protecting people and should therefore be followed strictly. Protesters and activists who break the law do not realize that these laws protect not only the rest of the people but them as well. Additionally, it is said that two wrongs cannot make a right and in these cases, therefore, breaking a law to fix an injustice caused by the same laws does not really bring a solution. Thus, it is hardly justifiable to engage in civil disobedience for whatever reason.
In conclusion, breaking the law for a cause can be justifiable due to the positive effects that come about as a result. For instance, civil disobedience for causes is reflective of the positive effects of civil disobedience. These acts enable citizens to participate in the decision making process of the country and particularly the laws that have been put in place for them. Civil disobedience has occurred within the frameworks of consciousness which determines the degree of justification of these acts. Despite the justifying reasons behind breaking the law for a cause, there are those who are against it. They contend that civil disobedience does not have any justification and those who engage in such acts are committing criminal acts which should be punished as the law demands. They fail to recognize the actual reason for civil disobedience is to protect them from unfair practices and laws and to safeguard their rights.