Civil Disobedience Term Paper

Because civil disobedience includes the violation laws, it is difficult to conclude whether an act is one of civil disobedience, or lawbreaking. During times of social strife- when a society is divided in opinion- there exists much controversy over whether or not certain acts of protest are qualified as civil disobedience. Within their definitions, the differences between civil disobedience and lawbreaking are clear. However, it is difficult to decipher whether a certain act is one of civil disobedience or lawbreaking, especially during a time when a society is divided and its differing opinions are non-negotiable.

The Declaration of Conscience against the War in Vietnam, written by David Dellinger et al in 1965, is a prime example of the difficulty in arguing whether an act is lawbreaking or civil disobedience. The Declaration of Conscience broke the law in its counseling of others to refuse to serve for the Vietnam War. Those who signed the Declaration were aware of their violation of law; it was noted that the signing or distribution of the Declaration of Conscience "might be construed as a violation of the Universal Military Training and Service Act" (Dellinger et al, 841). It is clear that the Declaration violated laws. However, to some, the it was also a demonstration of civil disobedience. Those who supported the war, fearing that its end would have devastating effects worldwide, found the Declaration to be an act of lawbreaking. Those who opposed the war did so for moral reasons, and therefore declared that signing the Declaration was an act of civil disobedience. Divided in opinion, it nearly impossible for these groups to negotiate their differences, for both sides had logical bases in their arguments.

Lawbreaking and civil disobedience have differing purposes, goals, motivations and intended actions. In his essay "Civil Disobedience", Henry David Thoreau writes, "Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?" (Thoreau). The purpose of civil disobedience, in other words, is to call attention to an unjust law, and ultimately change it. The civilly disobedient desire to change a law based upon their moral principles, and, by acting upon these principles, seek to benefit society. Furthermore, because they are prepared to accept the punishment for their lawbreaking, hoping to draw attention to the unjust law, the civilly disobedient prove their intents to be entirely selfless.

Lawbreaking, on the other hand, lacks the moral justification and purpose of civil disobedience. Unlike civil disobedience, lawbreaking does not have a purpose or goal that may benefit society. On the contrary, the objective of lawbreaking is usually personal gain. Because its goals are selfish, benefiting none other than the violator of the law, one can argue that lawbreaking has no moral justification. Because lawbreaking is unjustifiable for moral reasons, lawbreakers avoid the consequences of their actions, whereas the civilly disobedient face their consequences in order to call attention to the unjust law. Lacking its moral intents and selfless goals therefore, lawbreaking and civil disobedience differ greatly from each other.

A defining characteristic of civil disobedience is the intent of non-violent, passive resistance to law. However, since civil disobedience usually takes place during a time of great social strife, acts of peaceful resistance have historically been countered with violence from the side of those whose intent it was to preserve the status quo. The actions of civil disobedience are intended to be peaceful. There exists, however, no nonviolent or violent intent in lawbreaking. Lawbreaking does not always include violence. Because there is not moral reasoning for it however, lawbreaking could result in violence if the situation called for it.

To some, the Declaration of Conscience was an act of civil disobedience. Although it had broken the draft law, the violation was justified because of its purposes and goals, according to those who opposed the war. By calling attention to the unjust draft law, signers and distributors of the Declaration ultimately wanted to put an end to the war in Vietnam- an event that would benefit America, as well as Vietnam. According to their beliefs, those who signed the Declaration selflessly strove to benefit society and not themselves. Because of this, the signing of the Declaration of Conscience could have been considered civil disobedience.

An act of civil disobedience must also be motivated by morality. Thoreau stated in his essay, "If [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law" (Thoreau). Those who opposed the Vietnam War did so because causing injustice to other human beings was not moral. The Declaration stated, "The use of the military resources of the United States in Vietnam and elsewhere suppresses the aspirations of the people for political independence and economic freedom" (Dellinger et al, 840). Furthermore, the Declaration noted, "Inhuman torture and senseless killing are being carried out by forces armed, uniformed, trained, and financed by the United States" (Dellinger et al, 840). Following Thoreau's belief that one should never cause injustice to another, those who signed the Declaration of Conscience acted upon their morals. Because they acted upon principle, those who signed the Declaration argued that they were justified in their lawbreaking, and were exercising civil disobedience.

A characteristic of civil disobedience is its use of non-violent protests against the government. The Declaration itself was, of course, non-violent. The intended actions stated within the Declaration were non-violent as well. The Declaration urged men to disobey their draft, asked them to refuse any services for manufacturing or transporting military equipment, and also encouraged "the development of other nonviolent acts"¦in order to stop the flow of American soldiers and munitions to Vietnam" (841). Since non-violence is a characterization of civil disobedience, those who signed the Declaration of Conscience did not find that they were merely lawbreakers. Through peaceful action against the war, the signers of the Declaration of Conscience demonstrated civil disobedience.

The action of lawbreaking disrespects a country's government and its laws. The Declaration of Conscience, however, showed an admiration of America, for it was modeled after America's Declaration of Independence. The format of the Declaration of Conscience suggests to its readers a strong faith in American government. Although they opposed their government, those who signed the Declaration still had faith and respect for their country, believing strongly that unjust laws could be changed. Furthermore, the similarities remind its readers of the liberties and responsibilities that American citizens have, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. By modeling it after America's Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Conscience conveyed a faith and pride in the American system. Because of this, the Declaration of Conscience seemed an act of civil disobedience rather than lawbreaking, for it did not convey a complete disownment of the American government.

Those who supported the war in Vietnam did not consider the Declaration of Conscience an act of civil disobedience. Perhaps the easiest argument made against the Declaration would be that it, simply put, broke a law. The immediate purpose of the Declaration was to urge draft resistance. The Declaration made this purpose blatantly apparent when it said, "We encourage those who can conscientiously do so to refuse to serve in the armed forces and to ask for discharge if they are already in" (Dellinger et al, 841). This encouragement, however, was a direct violation of the Universal Military Training and Service act. The Declaration had obviously broken a law, and could have therefore been considered an act of lawbreaking.

Those who found that signing the Declaration of Conscience as an act of civil disobedience did not believe that the end of the war would have negative effects on America, or Vietnam. Those who supported the warfare in Vietnam, however, feared that negotiating the war would have caused the worldwide spread of communism, and perhaps the end of America as the dominant world power. Because of this, those who supported the war did not find that the Declaration of Conscience was an act of civil disobedience. Rather, when taken in this light, the Declaration seemed to be a form of ignorant lawbreaking; although the intentions behind opposing the war may have been based upon morals, the signing of the Declaration of Conscience showed ignorance of the war's devastating outcomes should America have left.

The intended actions that were stated in the Declaration could have been considered as violent, or at least harmful, forms of protest. The Declaration urged others to refuse to cooperate with the draft law, which may have affected outcomes in Vietnam negatively due to the lowered number of soldiers. The Declaration also encouraged others to refuse to work in the fields of manufacturing and transporting of military equipment. This action as well could have negatively affected the soldiers in Vietnam. Although their intended actions seemed non-violent, those who signed the Declaration of Conscience urged others to take actions that may have been harmful. Taking this into consideration, it is arguable that the Declaration of Conscience was not civil disobedience, but lawbreaking.

Knowing the outcomes of the Vietnam War makes it easy to argue that the Declaration of Conscience was an act of civil disobedience. Because communism did not spread worldwide, and America did not lose its power, it is difficult to understand why people supported the war. This is because one loses his fear in deciding whether to support or oppose a war after the war is over. The government never abolished the draft law. Nonetheless, it is still crucial to examine the logic and basis for argument of those who believed the Declaration to be civil disobedience, and those who considered it to be lawbreaking. In doing so, we analyze the differences between civil disobedience and lawbreaking, preparing ourselves perhaps for a day when we are called upon in an age of social controversy to make the decision for ourselves.

In American history, civil disobedience has played an enormous role in changing our country for the better. Movements for civil rights, gender equality, and war resistance for example have formed America closer to its ideal world of freedom and equality. It is Imperative, therefore, that we know the meaning of civil disobedience, what it entails, and the changes that it can bring about. If a government requires its citizens to act against their morals, then "let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine" (Thoreau). It is our responsibility to oppose unjust laws. It is our responsibility to act in the name of civil disobedience when morality calls us to do so.

A Theory of Civil Disobedience

Edward L. Glaeser, Cass R. Sunstein

NBER Working Paper No. 21338
Issued in July 2015
NBER Program(s):Law and Economics

From the streets of Hong Kong to Ferguson, Missouri, civil disobedience has again become newsworthy. What explains the prevalence and extremity of acts of civil disobedience?This paper presents a model in which protest planners choose the nature of the disturbance hoping to influence voters (or other decision-makers in less democratic regimes) both through the size of the unrest and by generating a response. The model suggests that protesters will either choose a mild “epsilon” protest, such as a peaceful march, which serves mainly to signal the size of the disgruntled population, or a “sweet spot” protest, which is painful enough to generate a response but not painful enough so that an aggressive response is universally applauded. Since non-epsilon protests serve primarily to signal the leaders’ type, they will occur either when protesters have private information about the leader’s type or when the distribution of voters’ preferences are convex in a way that leads the revelation of uncertainty to increase the probability of regime change. The requirements needed for rational civil disobedience seem not to hold in many world settings, and so we explore ways in which bounded rationality by protesters, voters, and incumbent leaders can also explain civil disobedience.

Acknowledgments and Disclosures

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w21338

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