Disobedience as a Virtue


The whole human history consists of the combination of obedience and disobedience, subordination and insubordination. In his work The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde argued that “disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion”. There is the truth in this seemingly paradoxical aphorism, at least to anyone that really knows the history.

Therefore, the movement of history is carried out by its bad side, that is, insubordination. The idea of civil disobedience was formulated by Henry David Thoreau in his essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, in which he showed that the refusal to pay taxes can be an important tool to counter unfair policy of the state. The effectiveness of civil disobedience was demonstrated in numerous campaigns of protest, especially in the 20th century, by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Indeed, at all times, there were people who tried to peacefully resist the state violence. This paper discusses the nature and examples of civil disobedience and proves that disobedience to social injustice is man’s original virtue. 

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The Justification of Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is a public, non-violent, and conscientious political act, carried out by the citizens to show the opposition to law and unjust government policies. It is public as it is carried out openly by public; it is non-violent as it does not mean physical harm to others; it is conscientious as it implies opposition to the unlawful policy on moral and ethical grounds; and it is political because it aims at changing the law or unjust policies. Philosophical and political justification for civil disobedience within a theory of just liberal society was suggested by John Rawls, who considered it a form of democratic opposition, approved on the basis of the majority principle.

Civil disobedience is possible only under the conditions of the social model, which is called the open society. According to this model, social institutions are seen as products of human creativity, and their conscious alteration is discussed in terms of fitness for human purposes and intentions. The concept of civil disobedience is explicitly or implicitly based on the assumption that society is a system of cooperation between equals, and the damage, done by some members of the community as a result of the existing order, gives them a reason to demand a corresponding change of order and achieve this change by all eligible means. 

Civil disobedience is one of the ways to resolve naturally occurring in a democratically organized society contradictions between the duty of the citizens to obey the laws, adopted by the legislative majority, on the one hand, and the citizens' right to defend their freedom and resist injustice on the other. Though being contrary to law, civil disobedience is not the violation of it; it is an addressed to the sense of justice of the majority of community statement of disagreement with the violation of accepted principles of social cooperation. As a political act, civil disobedience is addressed to the majority that holds power, and is justified by the principles that govern the constitution and other social institutions. As a public protest against the existing order, civil disobedience is not only addressed to public, but is performed by it in an open and honest way. The socio-political characteristics of civil disobedience determine the fundamental reasons to justify its certain actions. First of all, civil disobedience can be effective only in case of serious violations of fundamental freedoms. It is justified provided that its implementation does not involve an infringement of freedoms of other citizens or does not lead to such social unrest that could undermine the existing constitutional order.

The Examples of Disobedience to Social Injustice

Henry David Thoreau was the first in the 19th century, who not only formulated the theoretical principles of civil disobedience, but also applied them in practice. For Thoreau, the refusal to pay income tax was a matter of principle. As he explained, he was ready to pay the tax on school maintenance or construction of roads, but would not pay income tax because he is not sure, for what purposes the money would be spent. He clearly justified his position in the essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. According to him, the minority is powerless while it agrees with the majority, but it is invincible when prevents social injustice by all its aspirations. If a state is faced with a choice, either to imprison all those people, or put an end to war and slavery, it will not hasitate. 

Thoreau has had a huge impact on all subsequent representations of civil disobedience. Mahatma Gandhi was close to Thoreau's ideas. They both were aware of a sense of personal responsibility for what is happening in the society. According to Thoreau's views, which were well understood by Gandhi, if people do not protest against injustice, then they should be blamed for what is happening. After moving to South Africa, where the racist policy was pursued by the state, Gandhi realized that the Indians in South Africa humbly accept the conditions of life, imposed on them, for the opportunity to do their business. In South Africa, Gandhi developed the principles of non-violent struggle; it took him a lot of time to convince the Indian population of South Africa in the need of non-violent resistance. After returning to India, he was fully focused on the struggle for Indian independence. Gandhi said that in a situation, where there is only one choice between cowardice and resistance, he would chose resistance. 

The struggle of Martin Luther King for the rights of black population of the USA was largely followed by the principles of Mahatma Gandhi's civil disobedience. Unlike Thoreau and Gandhi, King did not deny the role of the state; he set more specific goals, but they sought the same non-violent methods, which were developed before. By the middle of the 20th century, the black population was officially exempt from slavery. However, in reality, a lot of amendments to the legislation were introduced in the southern states, which deprived many Afro-Americans of their rights: there were schools for the whites and blacks, seats in restaurants and buses, even the toilets were separated. Moreover, the black population did not have the opportunity to vote. However, thanks to Martin Luther King and his struggle, the situation has changed, and in the next few years, all the racial restrictions in the southern states were eliminated.


To sum up, disobedience is a resistance, a psychological mechanism of negative reaction to injustice, which is intensified in the course of history and through which the history is changing. Civil disobedience is a political or social action, expressed in a refusal to obey unfair rules or authorities for the sake of changes in legislation or government policy.

The history of civil disobedience is not limited to the above names. However, its basic principles were formed by those people, for whom personal responsibility for injustice in the society was the most important principle of existence. They argued that while remaining on the sidelines, one becomes an accomplice of social injustice. Active opposition to the state violence was very important for them, but civil disobedience had to be peaceful and non-violent; and this is the most important lesson those people have left for the future generations. That is why, disobedience to social injustice should be considered a human virtue.

Mar 20, 2020 in Informative
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