by Brian Tomasik
Due date: 13 February 2004
It is impossible to develop one single rule applicable to all possible situations. This is true in nature when we attempt to classify all living organisms according to one set of criteria, only to find that some species defy neat categorization. This is also true in politics, for while moral and rational imperatives may justify a certain action in one circumstance, they may not justify the same action in other situations. Recognizing this limitation of generalization, I believe that, most of the time, individuals are only justified in breaking the law if it is done purely as a means of protest and not for any self-gain.
Laws are meant to be followed. Much of the time, they represent the most humane and far-sighted aspirations of a society. The most basic crime laws—although they are too often unfairly enforced—serve the essential purpose of guaranteeing individual safety and a degree of social order requisite for any kind of progress beyond anarchy and the accompanying rule of brute strength. More specifically targeted laws may provide more advanced benefits to society, from the creation of accessible facilities for people with disabilities to required limitations on deleterious power-plant emissions. It is precisely such rules and regulations that have allowed humans to advance culturally, intellectually, and scientifically throughout the history of civilization. Much of the time, laws genuinely manifest the human desire to ensure social equity and environmental sustainability against the often-selfish interests of the individual.
However, laws in and of themselves are neither inherently just nor invariably beneficent; they are, all too often, bastions of iniquity or instruments of repression. In such cases, it is the obligation of conscious citizens to strive to alter or reverse those laws. I personally prefer the pursuance of legal means in such an endeavor, which range from the lobbying of legislatures to the initiation of lawsuits. Such actions are effectual and entail no harm to other members of society. Nevertheless, the refusal to follow unjust laws through civil disobedience is another way of effecting change of policy, one which is justifiable under certain circumstances.
First, it must be done non-violently, in the footsteps of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. Violent protest is not only wastefully destructive and occasionally injurious, but, more importantly, it is very often counterproductive. Nothing alienates members of the general population—including myself—from a cause more quickly than the use of violence. The outbreaks at the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protest—however dubious their origins or exaggerated their severity—made some Americans less willing to listen to the views of the protesters. Violence, moreover, provides the established powers with a justification for further repression. The 1881 assassination by a violent populist organization of the Russian tsar Alexander II—who had emancipated the serfs in 1863 and attempted various other reforms—led the successor to the throne, Alexander III, to end reform and extend repression by expanding the powers of the secret police, attacking proponents of constitutional monarchy, and imposing martial law in many areas. The 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian member of the Black Hand led not only to a coercive Austrian ultimatum for Serbia but also to the immediate events precipitating World War I.
Secondly, civil disobedience must be resorted to only as a means of protest and never as a means of individual advantage. Peaceful resistance to an unjust law is a legitimate way of expressing opposition, just as important to a democratic society as marches, letters, or petitions; it represents the willingness of an individual to place the higher good of society over his or her own individual comfort and safety. On the other hand, the violation of laws in order to acquire money, power, or other objects of individual self-interest is not justifiable and is, in fact, entirely antithetical to legitimate civil disobedience. While a person engaged in civil disobedience is willing to go to jail for his or her principles, a person involved in individual acquisition is unwilling to endure any punishment for his or her avarice; while a person engaged in civil disobedience strives to make the system of laws more humane, just, and far-sighted, a person involved in individual acquisition is circumventing—and thereby effectively weakening—the very system of laws that collectively embodies the best aspirations of a society for its own welfare and the welfare of posterity.