May a Good Citizen Defy Her Country’s Laws?

Topic: Social & Political Theories
Words: 3073 Pages: 11


Civil disobedience is a crucial topic in the field of laws and ethics. Throughout history, ethical philosophers have debated the philosopher’s morality of defying the law where some proposed argumentative theories to justify the phenomenon while others have opposed the vice as immoral and unlawful. Proponents of civil disobedience argue that it is a necessary action to have a just and ethical society that promotes healthy social reforms. Traditionally, philosophers and human rights activists have used civil disobedience in human rights movements and argued against legal cases. The most prominent names associated with civil disobedience include Thoreau, Rawls, and Gandhi, who applied the action to contest unjust situations. Over the years, groups and human rights movements adopted the action of fighting against injustice, which has become a trend. This essay discusses situations that may demand citizens to defy the law using the concept of civil disobedience, the appropriate ways of defying the law, and the essence of defying the law as a good citizen.

The Concept of Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience has numerous definitions due to the different philosophical views and attempts to justify the action as morally acceptable. Henry Thoreau, the first philosopher to refer to law defiance as ‘civil disobedience,’ views the concept as going against unjust and immoral laws that exploit citizens’ rights and freedom (King, 2017). The philosopher was imprisoned for not paying taxes because the taxation laws were unjust. Thus, he defied the law and initiated direct action to end the injustice, which he called civil defiance. According to Raz, civil disobedience is breaching the law by protesting publicly with an objection to creating reforms in public policies or creating awareness of injustice through political motivation (Marmor & Brownlee, 2012). Rawl defines civil disobedience as conscientious defiance of the law, which involves nonviolent public demonstrations to achieve a particular goal (Marmor, & Brownlee, 2012). Most civil disobedience acts aim to change unethical policies and laws and create reforms that benefit the people socially and politically. Thus, exercising civil disobedience requires strict consideration of legal boundaries, respect for authority, and willingness to accept punishment for group or individual acts of disobedience.

The Necessary Conditions for Defying the Law

Standardizing and Upholding Morality

Governments may have unethical policies and laws which have adverse effects on humanity. A country’s justice system includes democratic laws which must adhere to the standards of ideal democracy, and citizens have to obey the stipulated laws. However, an imperfect democratic system leads to conflicting issues regarding the ideal viewpoint of freedom among civilians. Thoreau argues that a citizen can defy the law if it is unjust or when obeying the law supports injustice or unethical acts (King, 2017). According to the clergyman, “if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law” (King, 2017). Therefore, citizens have a moral obligation to regulate and uphold moral values in society, making it necessary for civil disobedience.

Consequently, creating and amending laws requires contributions and support from civilians and government officials. The ideology gives an individual the right to defy rules and policies which are oppressive directly or indirectly. As a good citizen, one must observe justice and morality rather than blindly obeying the state’s laws. Aquinas states that human beings have a duty to ensure the preservation of moral standards regardless of the circumstances (Boylan & Johnson, 2010). According to the philosopher, some laws may be unjust and contradict god’s divine rules of nature, leading to tyrannical regimes and immorality, such as idolizing people in power. Thus, citizens can defy the law if it conflicts with their conscience individually and in a group concession.

Last Resort

Most liberal countries give citizens the freedom to express their views and complaints through legal procedure. Raz states that a complaint citizen must present one’s grievances to the authority using a proper channel involving legal approaches to reach a consensus (Marmor, & Brownlee, 2012). However, the legal procedures can take a long without positive outcomes or any reaction. Rawls claims that individuals who resort to civil disobedience belong to minority groups with insufficient resources to address the issue intensity (Marmor, & Brownlee, 2012). On the other hand, most individuals practicing the injustices are influential and hold the authority to make reforms, change a law or uphold morality. Due to the robust nature of the oppressor and the vulnerability of the oppressed, numerous cases of injustices remain unaddressed for a long time or may never receive the attention needed.

Further, authorities do not provide a time limit for knowing whether the legal procedure is overdue or still in progress leading to tiresome and effortless claims for a long time. The legal approach is time-consuming and may require financial resources, which are a scarce necessity for a disadvantaged citizen. Thus, the citizen has a right to civil disobedience after attempting to dress the issue legally without concrete success. Thoreau’s letter gives an example of justified civil disobedience by the black people. The clergyman wrote that black people had attempted all legal channels to fight racial segregation and racism (King, 2017). However, the injustice continued to rise despite their legal action leading to violent protests and segregation in Birmingham state. Therefore, the black people needed to address the issue through civil disobedience to gain the public interest in immorality. The civil disobedience garnered public empathy leading to the rise of Black Lives Matter and racial equity.

Positive Impact on The Society

Finally, a citizen can defy the law if it results in positivism in society. Civil defiance can involve changing laws or customs that affect the people, particularly minority groups. According to Rawl, the disobedient civil agent must have a stronger motive and conviction to defy the law, surpassing the unjust argument (Marmor, & Brownlee, 2012). In addition, the non-violence principle of civil disobedience, the act must benefit the society in one way or another depending on the reason for the protest (Cooke, 2021). In Aquinas’ ideology of natural law, the community’s happiness is more important than happiness; therefore, people should direct happiness to the wholesomeness of the society (Boylan & Johnson, 2010). Apart from having a positive impact on the community, civil disobedience should not have personal motives or gains.

The goal of defying the law comes from the need to make the world better through sacrifice and public display of society’s immorality. Citizens can defy the law if it affects the majority of the people, such as protesting against racism or illegal taxation (Delmas, 2019). Allowing defiance for personal gain, would lead to chaos, selfishness, and suffering for citizens without the will to defy the law. Thus, a civilian may be defiant to better the world without having a self-interest in the matter.

Approaches of Addressing Civil Disobedience

Publicizing the Action

An individual should publicize the act of civil disobedience, which shows their good intention for the protest. A citizen can make the action public in various ways, such as warning the authorities, avoiding anonymity, taking full responsibility for the act, and appealing to the public for support (Delmas, 2019). Publicizing the action is the right channel as it ensures that authorities are aware of a public act of injustice to avoid police harassment and protection against vandalism of public property. Maintaining civil order is a principle of civil disobedience that must be observed during the demonstration. Secondly, making the protest public is a good way of garnering public sympathy, allowing more participation and appeals against injustice. Although civil disobedience is a protest against the law, Rawl states that it must be an open act to avoid covert operations that may be deemed illegal (Marmor, & Brownlee, 2012). Avoiding anonymity means taking going responsibility for one’s actions. A disobedient citizen reveals their identity and purpose of defiance publicly, which allows for punishment or legal action in case of vandalism and failure to justify the disobedience.

Civil disobedience is a potent strategy for gaining the attention of the public and the authorities. Unlike expected demonstrations, the action is more effective because of the distinct features such as deliberate action of breaking the law. Most people engaging in civil disobedience are from low status and lack the appropriate resources such as funds and media influence to appeal their injustice cases (Cooke, 2021). Therefore, the act is an affordable tactic to gain public sympathy and create awareness which needs appropriate publicity to achieve the objectives. Additionally, publicity is a communicative way that obeys the civility of the disobedient act since warning prioritizes the supremacy of the authority (Delmas, 2019). Public provocation and dramatization are the most effective way of publicizing civil disobedience. Civilians need to dramatize the action intensively to gain more attention from the public, which helps in having a majority decision. Provocation is essential in creating public arguments for and against the injustice leading to justice or reforms according to the purpose of the defiance.

Combining the dramatic and provocative nature of civil disobedience conveys the message and objectives of the defiance, effectively leading to quick action from the authorities. Gandhi’s campaign against the taxation laws on salt is an example of civil disobedience through a public dramatization of the injustice (Marmor, & Brownlee, 2012). After gaining public attention and empathy, the Indian lawyer had a massive gathering supporting his mission which walked with him for days to protest. The dramatic action occurs when the authorities arrive where Gandhi made inedible salt, which his followers imitated, leading to mass production of the salt. As a result, the public became aware of the unjust salt taxes and the authority with an ultimate option of amending the laws.

Dramatization creates tension and disrupts the normal functioning of the society seeking the attention of the intended audience. Thoreau supports the dramatic demonstration of civil disobedience, arguing that it is the most effective way of creating awareness through disobedient acts. The clergyman states that he “have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a constructive, nonviolent tension necessary for growth” (King, 2017). Since governments aim to maintain civil order to ensure safety and non-defiance of the law, the intentional provocation and dramatization of civil disobedience destabilize the government’s smooth functioning leading to swift authoritative action. In his letter to Birmingham, Thoreau states that governments need the public tension to heed citizens’ demands encouraging n the use of civil disobedience to create reforms and address injustices (King, 2017). Therefore, public zing the action through drama and provocation is essential in gaining public sympathy, moving the masses, and gaining the government’s attention to unjust situations.

Non-Violent Actions

A civil approach to defying the law includes addressing the issue without violence. Since civil disobedience is conscientious defiance of the law that involves nonviolent public demonstrations aimed at achieving a particular goal, a citizen must adhere to the no-violence principle, which asserts the defiance’s legibility. Rawl defines violence as using physical force that risks injuring other citizens (Marmor, & Brownlee, 2012). Violent acts oppose the civility of civil disobedience since it jeopardizes the safety of others.

Consequently, violence may damage private and public property, which affects other citizens directly or indirectly. Non-violence is considered a significant aspect of defying the law in a civilized manner despite different arguments on the notion of peaceful demonstrations. However, some nonviolent acts are far worse than violent acts in causing harm to the public (King, 2017). For instance, a doctor’s strike may cause more death or severity of disease regardless of violence. At the same time, some governments show reluctance in conforming to the citizens’ demands with acts of violence. Nevertheless, Raz claims that using violence is a hasty means of addressing injustices that create more chaos in a civil world (Marmor, & Brownlee, 2012). Thus, the best approach to defying the law as a good citizen is to avoid violence that could harm others directly or indirectly.

Persuasive Coercion

Since scholars discredit the use of violence during civil disobedience acts, the citizen has an alternative of using persuasive coercion to address the issue. A disobedient person can use persuasion to gain public attention because civil disobedience aims to gain empathy to get democracy. The most common approach to civil disobedience can coerce the public is voluntary suffering. Voluntary suffering is the willingness to imprisonment, isolation, or public ridicule, which provokes public sympathy leading to gathering more supporters for the course (Cooke, 2021). Philosophers such as Gandhi and Thoreau went through agonizing situations to gain public empathy and awareness of injustice. Thoreau’s letter to Birmingham is an example of public coercion as the clergyman writes his letter while in jail. In the letter, he talks about the negro suffering and how it will benefit the future generation of black people by gaining public empathy for their suffering as black people in a white man’s land (King, 2017). The future generation will revisit the suffering of their ancestors to fight against racial prejudice and segregation.

The Significance of Defying the Law as a Decent Citizen

A good citizen initiates civil disobedience to prompt democracy. Throughout history, citizens have used civil disobedience to promote democracy by preventing tyrannical regimes. At the same time, defying the law has led to stabilizing democracy in many nations, which is an act of good citizenship (Delmas, 2019). Numerous democratic republics exist today due to civil disobedience against political injustice and unlawful policies in the government. Examples of democracies obtained through civil disobedience include the independence of the United States, South Africa’s movement against apartheid, and the breaking of authoritarian regimes in Europe (Cooke, 2019). Thoreau argues that allegiance to the state does not mean accepting immoral laws, and a good citizen must defy the law to uphold the integrity of the social and ethical policies. One should not support evil or wrongdoing by following immoral policies. As a good citizen, show defiance to undo the wrongs and create a just world for the good of all people.

Every citizen should obey the country’s authority and laws. However, citizens can defy the law if it goes against their moral views on ethics. In the previous sections, citizens have a right to civil disobedience if the act involves upholding morality. In the Crito, Socrates argues that defying the law demonstrates bad citizenship since the defiance shows that the country’s laws are not moral (Boylan & Johnson, 2012). Socrates stated that all laws made by the authority are justified even if they contradict civilians or individuals’ views on justice. Disobeying the laws makes a citizen ungrateful to the nation since being a citizen means having a contract with the institution that cannot be broken because of an intuition of injustice. Socrates bases his argument on the assumption that one can move to another region where the laws and policies are acceptable if one does not like a rule. Going by Socrates’ arguments, defying the law is a weakness that defines bad citizenship regardless of whether the defiance benefits society. Nonetheless, moral consistency is an essential principle in Socrates’ life and philosophy that he could give his life for the nation’s morality. Although Socrates opposed civil disobedience, he believed in upholding society’s ethical standards, which support the citizens’ right to defy corrupt and immoral laws.

At the same time, Socrates’ arguments may be justifiable according to the social contract principle, but breaking the law would mean escaping death and exposing the injustice in his sentence. Thus, defying the law would have made Socrates a good citizen since the death penalty was unjust and could be used by other people after his execution. In Thoreau’s view, good citizenship involves standing for justice regardless of the situation or the punishment for the defiance (King, 2017). The philosopher states that good citizens must defy laws that oppress others, such as the unlawful taxation he defied, leading to imprisonment. Thoreau state that “we should be men first, and subjects afterwards,” showing the essence of defying the law for justice (King, 2017). Aquinas agrees with Thoreau’s argument that man must preserve a nation’s moral standard. According to the philosopher, human beings have a duty to reproduce, care for, and teach their offspring about the truth and moral living (Boylan & Johnson, 2012). Thus, a good citizen knows the difference between good and evil and strives to do good even by defying or bending the laws.

Committing civil disobedience can lead to punishment or legal action for the disobedient and their followers. Although defiance might involve nonviolent acts, civilians can face violence from the authorities leading to injury or property damage. In such instances, a good citizen must take liability for the damages and injury instead of allowing others to suffer due to the act. Modern philosophers consider civil disobedience as an independent act made after rational thoughts (Delmas, 2019). Individuals formulate a decision through personal judgment, leading to influencing others with a common course leading to mass disobedience. Nonetheless, the decisions are personal, and the individual has the duty of owning up as an honest and civilized citizen. According to Rawls 1999 353, civil disobedience is a personal decision after concluding the existence of an evil act, and the individual has a moral obligation of accountability (Marmor, & Brownlee, 2012). Hence, disobedience should not blame others or evade punishment to show good citizenship in defiance.


Civil disobedience is a personal decision to defy the law through civilized protests to gain the attention of the public and the authorities. People defy the law for various reasons, such as creating awareness of injustice or fighting against irrational laws. Conditions that warrant an individual to defy the laws include standing against unethical policies to uphold morality when legal methods of claiming justice are futile and if the disobedience results in positive changes for the society. Addressing civil disobedience requires a specific protocol that must follow the principles of civility. The first approach to disobedience is publicizing the idea to provoke civilians’ empathy and gain the authorities’ attention. Secondly, the act should be nonviolent, and lastly, a citizen should use coercion and persuasive means to address the issue. Although civil disobedience is an act of defiance, at times, disobeying the law is significant in promoting good citizenship. Civil disobedience promotes the spirit of democracy, accountability for one’s actions, and standardizing constitutional laws which show good citizenship. Therefore, all civilians have a moral responsibility to ensure democracy and justice for all and promote a healthy nation through civil disobedience.


Boylan, M & Johnson, C. (201). Philosophy: An innovative introduction: Fictive narrative, primary texts, and responsive writing, Taylor & Francis Group. ProQuest eBook Central, Web.

Cooke, M. (2021). Ethical dimensions of civil disobedience. In W. Scheuerman (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Civil Disobedience, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 231–253.

Delmas, C. (2019). Civil disobedience, punishment, and injustice. In K. K. Ferzan and L. Alexander (eds.). The Palgrave handbook of applied ethics and the criminal law. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 167–188.

King, M. L. (2017). Letter from Birmingham jail. Alabama, Birmingham; United States.

Marmor, A., & Brownlee, K. (2012). Conscientious objection and civil disobedience. In The Routledge companion to philosophy of law (pp. 527–539). Routledge.

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