Is disobedience tolerable in a democratic regime?

“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong, …but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and not…to give it practically his support”  – Henry David Thoreau

 A just society has fair laws, but some societies are not like that. So what can we do? Should we stay just silent in the case of an administration whose acts and attitudes are vehemently irrational and aggressive?

The American philosopher H.D. Thoreau tries to tackle this issue  in his essay  “On Civil Disobedience” [1] inspired by his fierce and tireless opposition against President Polk whose administration was popular at the time for supporting an aggressive foreign policy against Mexico and Britain and for being favourable to slavery.

At the heart of his work, Thoreau reflects on what an honest citizen should do about a president he or she sincerely dislikes.

The prevailing view at the time was that since Polk was voted and supported by the majority, those who were against him should now fall silent and put their opinions aside. However, this was exactly the point that the philosopher wished to confute and overturn.

In fact, Thoreau argued that the true patriots are not those who blindly follow their administration, but rather those who follow their own consciences and the higher principles of reason.

According to him, it was time for societies to replace the prestige gained by blind obedience with a celebration and an encouragement of independent thought.

On the basis of these theoretical premises, Thoreau performed his own opposition against the government not just through “intellectual” means but through action as well, deciding to stop paying his poll tax which he believed was used to fund the American-Mexican war. Consequently, he was arrested and jailed. Nonetheless, he did not object to the idea of spending some time in prison, as he wrote:

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is the prison” . [2]

Thoreau compares  society to a machine. A good machine should work both effectively and efficiently. The effectiveness of a society  is related to its capability of choosing to pursue the “right thing”, its efficiency refers rather to the ability to quickly have that right thing accomplished. But when the ends of a society are injustice and inequality, individuals should let themselves be a counter-friction to this terrible machine, instead of being a guilty cog within it.

Of course, Thoreau did not believe that the non-payment of taxes was a general rule to be followed, as he paid for them in the end, nor did he claim that it was always legitimate. The non-payment of taxes was just one example of the many non-violent ways through which  people could and have the duty to resist a government whose actions move toward violence and injustice.

In conclusion, according to Thoreau, an election might establish who is appointed to govern, but it does not determine that everything that the government does is right or that people should not do anything until the next election. The citizens should never, ever resign their consciousness to legislation.

Throughout the following century Thoreau’s thinking influenced generations of activists. One of them was Mahatma Ghandi. During his campaign for Indian Independence, he deployed the similar concept of “Satyagraha” [3]. In 1930 he organized a massive march (“The Salt March” [4]), leading a protest against the salt tax that, in his opinion, was one of the many ways through which the British used to prevent the development of the Indian economy and to oppress the Indian people. Finally, due to the massive support that the protest received , the British were forced to reach a compromise with Ghandi.

On a segregated bus in Montgomery Alabama, in 1955, Rosa Parks [5] refused to stand and give up her seat to a white passenger. She was arrested and brought to jail. Her symbolic act of defiance gained an enormous relevance within public opinion, helping it to focus on the struggles of the “Civil Rights Movement”.

Martin Luther King JR [6], another admirer of Thoreau’s essay, led countless protests against unjust laws affecting America’s black community, laws that were eventually successfully repealed as a result.

All the above mentioned cases are well-known historical examples of civil disobedience which can be defined as the act performed by both individuals or groups of people of refusing to comply with certain laws or pay taxes, as a peaceful way of protest, in order to persuade the government to reconsider its acts or, at the very least, to attract the interest and the support of public opinion.

However, the use of the doctrine of civil disobedience as a tool to conduct a political struggle should not be entirely unproblematic. In fact, one might question:

“What makes a breach of the law an act of civil disobedience?

“When is civil disobedience legitimate?”

And these deep dilemmas were faced by America  during the 1960s and 70s in the midst of the struggles for the rights of the black-American community and the protest against the Vietnam War that opened a contentious debate in the cultural and political landscape about the respective limits and counter-limits of the “right to disobey” and the “duty to obey”.

At the time, Hannah Arendt, in her essay “Civil Disobedience” [7], described civil disobedience as a tool to expand or modify a specific legislation that is no more appropriate or tolerable in coping with the alteration of old realities or with the arising of new ones. This is for example the case of the protests to overcome the segregation of the African-American community, a situation that was widely accepted for almost a century, and that now is finally considered unfair and evil.

Another important contribution was provided by John Rawls who, in his work “A theory of Justice” [8], dedicates one entire chapter on this topic.  He believed the practise of civil disobedience can only be valid in the presence of a “well-ordered” society, that is a society whose citizens generally share the same idea of justice and its institutions conform to it, but in which at the same time serious violations of justice take place.

Rawls defines civil disobedience as a politically-motivated act, public, non-violent which implies a conscientious breach of the law with the aim of bringing a change in laws or government policies.

The rejection of violence in civil disobedience is not just a matter of principle, but mainly concerns the practical aim to attract the greatest consent and solidarity within public opinion that is usually suspicious and divergent towards those groups which claim their goals solely through violent acts.

In conclusion, the idea that civil disobedience must be strictly a public act is related both to a practical and moral approach.

In fact, only through a public demonstration is it possible to bring focus on a determined injustice and situation.  At the same time, it is exactly in public protest that the “disobedient” shows all its fairness while breaking the law, deciding to challenge the authorities on equal grounds and taking full responsibility for its actions. The distinction between a tax evader and Thoreau, for instance, is that the former does it secretly and just for their own interest, the latter did it publically and for a public purpose, deciding to face all the consequences for his actions.


Thoreau, H.D, 1849, “On Civil Disobedience”. [1] [2]

The School of Life, 2017, “Thoreau and Civil Disobedience” : [3 ] [4]  [5] [6 ]

Arendt, H, 1970, “Civil Disobedience”. [7]

Rawls, John, 1971, “A theory of                Justice”. [8]


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