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Civil disobedience

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S005-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

Article Summary

According to common definitions, civil disobedience involves a public and nonviolent breach of law that is committed in order to change a law or policy, and in order to better society. More, those classed as civilly disobedient must be willing to accept punishment. Why is the categorization of what counts as civil disobedience of practical importance? The usual assumption is that acts of civil disobedience are easier to justify morally than other illegal acts. Acts of civil disobedience, such as those committed by abolitionists, by followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr and by opponents of the Vietnam War, have been an important form of social protest.

The decision as to what exactly should count as civil disobedience should be guided both by an ordinary understanding of what the term conveys and by what factors are relevant for moral justification. For justification, nonviolence and publicness matter because they reduce the damage of violating the law. Tactics should be proportionate to the evil against which civil disobedience is aimed; someone who assesses the morality of a particular act of civil disobedience should distinguish an evaluation of tactics from an evaluation of objectives.

Citing this article:
Greenawalt, Kent. Civil disobedience, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S005-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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