What is the rule of law? What is civil disobedience? How do the two subjects relate to one another? What is our role, as citizens, in those subjects? Unlike mob rule, where incendiary states of mind yield behaviors in the interest of venting combustible emotions, civil disobedience involves actions formatted by a firm commitment to a stated purpose. The rule of law circumscribes the internal parameters of laws whose purpose is to guideline outcomes in particular sectors of society’s function.
Therefore, in civil disobedience there is specificity to purpose, where a particular goal defines the course of the execution of an action. Intrinsic to civil obedience are to maintain properties of purpose and organization in pursuit of the goal, to overturn laws that are offensive to the parties who are affected.
In defining his philosophy of credible acts of civil disobedience, Mahatma Ghandi offered the following definition,
Unlike other movements, the motive is not to dictate or oppress others. It is a system of protest, driven more by intelligence than force. (Ghandi, 1961)
While an act of civil disobedience may be singular in its purpose, the action may be complex in its structure and implementation and spanning a length of time. Therein, multiple acts of social disobedience, e.g. marches, speeches, demonstrations, boycotts, etc. are pursued in the quest of a singular purpose. A good example of this type of action was the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted for over one year. Actions of this kind are enduring as they are based on levels of commitment that can only be afforded by intelligence, discipline, spirituality and a commitment to the validity of a cause. Thereby people are empowered to endure to overturn a law(s) that is offensive to the quality of life.
In a purely technical view of the rule of law Bo Li, a New York states:
“The core of rule of law is an autonomous legal order. Under the rule of law, the authority of law does not depend so much on law’s instrumental capabilities, but on its degree of autonomy, that is, the degree to which law is distinct and separate from other normative structures such as politics and religion. As an autonomous legal order, rule of law has at least three meanings. First, rule of law is a regulator of government power. Second, rule of law means equality before law. Third, rule of law means procedural and formal justice” ( Li, 2000).
In Mr. Li’s definition, we see three characteristics to the rule of law. These are rooted in principles that are definitive of the character on which a nation bases its identity and the society it governs. Founded on Judeo-Christian principles the underlying theme of the
rules of law in America have a moral and ethical feature to their structure. Thereby the power of government is not limitless or absolute in its authoritative potentials. In this we the people and by the people is a principle Americans expect to be fundamental to our laws.
The implicit purpose of our laws is supposed to be in the interest of the common good. This is the ideal. Whether or not law always meets values vested in the Bill of Rights and Constitution does not discount moral and ethical principles that guarantee inalienable rights for the people. Where a law is intolerable to endure Thoreau discusses the subject of civil disobedience when talking of his own efforts to make a nonviolent protest:
“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable” (Thoreau, 1849).
In many instances government, e.g. federal, state or municipal entities have enacted laws that were purposefully egregious to particular groups in society. Jim Crow laws in the South and Orange County, California mandated Blacks and Mexicans be denied equal treatment under the law. Where a government or ruler fails to treat all citizens equally life in their society is not ideal. People so affected have no option but to seek relief. In doing so, participants in acts of civil disobedience have no cause to shirk from public scrutiny in fear of being found unjustified, morally or ethically for their actions.
“First, civil disobedience is public in the sense that the protestors do not hide their identity, and instead accept full responsibility – including any criminal punishment that may be forthcoming – for their lawbreaking. Second, it is intended as a form of communication with one’s fellow citizens, in contrast to vigilantism that seeks to coercively impose one’s desired objectives” (Chapell, 2006).
The level of displeasure in acts of obedience will mirror the gravity of offending laws.
Civil disobedience strikes a balance between the strength of a natural duty to comply with a just constitution and principles, and the need to deal with injustice that may arise within a just system. (Rawls on Obedience http://www.hku.hk/philodep/courses/law/cdco.htm )
In his a Natural Law Approach, Martin Luther King wrote,
“when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity … There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.” (King, 283-4)
Acts of civil disobedience are our finest means in a free society to protest in a fashion that renders the greatest potential to effect positive change.
1. King Jr, Martin Luther, A Natural Law Approach, 283-4
2. Chapell, Richard. (Oct. 2006). Civil Disobedience. Philosophy, et cetera. (Vol.4, No.8)
3. Li, Bo. (Apr. 2000). What is Rule of Law? Perspectives. (Vol.1, No. 5)
4. Thoreau, Henry D. (1849). On the Duty of Civil Obedience. [Electronic version]. http://sniggle.net/Experiment/index.php?entry=rtcg
5. Rawls on Obedience http://www.hku.hk/philodep/courses/law/cdco.htm
6. Gandhi, Mahatma. (1961). Nonviolent Resistance.