Pols 250 Fall term reading notes part 3 (John Rawls and Andrew Sable on Civil Disobedience)
John Rawls: Civil Disobedience
Theory designed for a nearly just democratic society
Problem of civil disobedience arises only within a democracy where citizens recognize and
accept the constitution as legitimate.
The difficulty is that there could be a conflict of duties
o At what point does the duty of abiding by the laws become less important than
defending personal freedoms and opposing injustice?
Involves the understanding of nature and limits majority rule.
Theory of civil disobedience as 3 parts
o 1) Defines CD and separate it from other kinds of opposition.
o 2) sets the ground for CD and the conditions under which it Is justified
o 3) Explains the role of CD within the system and accounts for its appropriateness.
Civil disobedience is defined as a public, nonviolent conscientious yet political act contrary to te
law that is done to evoke change in the policy.
o Public-compare it to public speech
o Nonviolent- any interference with civil liberties of others will detract from the civilly
disobedient quality of one’s act
CD is not a threat, there is a willingness to accept consequence
Two types of civil disobedience
o Direct-Directly contest a law by violating it
o Indirect- Law being broken is not the one you’re trying to change. Public demonstration
for something one can’t directly break.
CD is a political act in the sense that it is
o Addressed to the majority that holds political power
o Guided and justified by political principles/principles of justice
In justifying Civil disobedience, one invokes a commonly shared conception of justice that
underlies the political order.
We pay a certain price to convince others that our actions have a sufficient moral basis in the
political convictions of the community.
Civil disobedience as justified
o Kind of wrongs being protested
Ex. Violation of basic rights
o Attempt to work through legal system have been made and failed
o Conditions for more than one minority to engage in CD
Could make cause appear to be anarchic and therefore ineffective Andrew Sabl: Civil disobedience- Looking forward to the future
Defends the forward looking justification of Civil disobedience and uses it to clear up paradoxes
Rawls definition: Public, non-violent political act with the aim of brining change involving the
address of sense of the justice of the majority.
o Moral appeal rather than pure coercion
2 parts that appear in tension\
o Disobedience- deliberate violation of the law
o Civil- citizens that should be abiding by the law
Paradox of non-violence
o Why should the maltreated group assume that those who treat it tyrannically have good
will or fairness?
Rawls doesn’t require it, but without optimism civility in resistance might be
If others are violent and don’t treat us fairly, violent responses seem more
justified and natural.
Paradox of residual obligation
o If a regime deprives basic rights, why does the population have any form of obligation?
o Limited violence ending in revolution might seem more prudent/ just than CD.
o So why does injustice that justifies CD not justify a revolution.
Paradox of residual obligation solved
o Anything that justifies revolution justifies CD
o Problem: anyone willing to deprive fellow citizens of basic rights isn’t likely to act fairly.
o Leaders might need to be brought down, reevaluation might lead to revolution.
o There is evidence that cooperation with former oppressors is possible and desirable.
CD is based on the desire not to foreclose future cooperation rather than current obligation.
Conditions for CD: The piecewise-just society)
o CD is not always viable
o To the extent that totalitarian tyrants can be influenced by violence, non-violent actions
are not CD
There is no moral persuasion intended. Objective: make governance impossible
o At what point does armed resistance become inappropriate and CD appropriate, in
response to systematic injustice.
Rawls-regime must be nearly just
But those such as King, Ghandi or Thoreau think of their regimes as