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The Ethics of (Un)Civil Resistance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 September 2019


Civil disobedience is a conscientious, unlawful, and broadly nonviolent form of protest, which most political philosophers and many non-philosophers are inclined to treat as potentially defensible in democratic societies. In recent years, philosophers have become more receptive to long-standing complaints from activists that civil disobedience is an unduly restrictive framework for considering the ethics of dissent. Candice Delmas and Jason Brennan have written important books that illustrate and strengthen this trend, both defending forms of “uncivil” resistance that go beyond the narrow confines of civil disobedience. Their books offer contrasting but complementary philosophical defences of incivility as a tactic of resistance, but it is nonetheless a mistake to conclude that the rich tradition associated with civil disobedience no longer has any relevance for resistance in national, transnational, and global contexts.

Review Essay
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2019 

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1 A masterly survey of the philosophical literature on civil disobedience can be found in Scheuerman, William E., Civil Disobedience (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2018)Google Scholar.

2 Adams, N. P., “Uncivil Disobedience: Commitment and Violence,” Res Publica 24, no. 4 (November 2018), pp. 475–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Ten-Herng Lai, “Justifying Uncivil Disobedience,” in David Sobel, Peter Vallentyne, and Steven Wall, eds., Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy, vol. 5 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

3 See, for instance, Caney, Simon, “Responding to Global Injustice: On the Right of Resistance,” Social Philosophy and Policy 32, no. 1 (Fall 2015), pp. 5173CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Stears, Marc, Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

5 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

6 Delmas acknowledges that Rawls limits his argument to “nearly just” societies, but suggests he erroneously viewed his own society as being such a place (pp. 28–29).

7 See, for instance, Chenoweth, Erica and Stephan, Maria J., Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

8 Brennan does not put forward an independent theory of defensive action, which means that he does not take a stand on some of the current areas of controversy or uncertainty in the philosophical literature. His argument is more formal than substantive, resting on the intuition that the moral parity thesis holds true regardless of the precise details of our theory of defensive action (pp. 28–29). This move may be methodologically sound, but it makes it harder to relate his arguments to real-world contexts. To take an obvious example: I am uncertain whether or under what circumstances Brennan regards compulsory taxation as an unjust threat to our personal property, which would warrant unlawful attempts at tax avoidance as a defensive strategy (pp. 55–56). This uncertainty stems, in part, from the absence of any attempt on Brennan's part to clarify the kind of unjust harms or threats that trigger the case for defensive action.

9 Constraints of space preclude a full analysis of the similarities and differences between the authors’ accounts. A notable difference that warrants further scrutiny is that Brennan does not follow Delmas in framing resistance as a duty (pp. 206–37).

10 This distinction is not universally accepted among political theorists, at least not in the precise form suggested by Brennan. I nonetheless accept it here for the sake of argument. For a helpful overview, see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive, Summer 2017 ed., s.v. “Political Legitimacy,” by Fabienne Peter,

11 Smith, William, “Civil Disobedience as Transnational Disruption,” Global Constitutionalism 6, no. 3 (November 2017), pp. 477504CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Ogunye, Temi, “Global Justice and Transnational Civil Disobedience,” Ethics & Global Politics 8, no. 1 (2015), pp. 123CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Scheuerman, William E.Civil Disobedience in the Shadows of Postnationalization and Privatization,” Journal of International Political Theory 12, no. 3 (October 2016), pp. 237–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 See, for instance, Brownlee, Kimberley, Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lefkowitz, David, “On a Moral Right to Civil Disobedience,” Ethics 117, no. 2 (January 2007), pp. 202–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Smith, William, Civil Disobedience and Deliberative Democracy (London: Routledge, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, chs. 4–5.

13 See, for instance, Wood, Lesley J., Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing (London: Pluto, 2014)Google Scholar.

14 Chabot, Sean, Transnational Roots of the Civil Rights Movement: African American Explorations of the Gandhian Repertoire (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2012)Google Scholar.

15 Tai, Benny, “Civil Disobedience and the Rule of Law,” in Ng, Michael H. K. and Wong, John D., eds., Civil Unrest and Governance in Hong Kong: Law and Order from Historical and Cultural Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2017), pp. 141–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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