Disobedience, Civil and Otherwise
While philosophers usually agree that there is room for civil disobedience in democratic societies, they disagree as to the proper justification and role of civil disobedience. The field has so far been divided into two camps—the liberal approach on the one hand, which associates the justification and role of civil disobedience with the good of justice, and the democratic approach on the other, which connects them with the value and good of democracy. William Smith’s Civil Disobedience and Deliberative Democracy offers a ‘deliberative’ theory, which constitutes an attractive synthesis of the two camps as it conceives of civil disobedience as a guardian of both justice and deliberative democracy. In this review essay, I first revisit the ‘problem’ of civil disobedience, examining in particular the two pillars of the case against civil disobedience as Smith depicts it, namely, (a) the prohibition on legal disobedience established by the moral duty to comply, and (b) the notion that civil disobedience strains the bonds of civic friendship. I suggest, contra (a), that the duty to comply as Smith defends it fails to be comprehensive (to cover all laws) because it is tightly bound to deliberative democratic procedures, which are involved in the making of only a portion of authoritative decisions; and, contra (b), that civil disobedience does not strain, but instead invigorates, civic friendship. Second, I entertain the possibility that citizens have a moral duty, not a mere right, to resist injustice. I show that Smith’s theory, in particular his account of the moral duty to comply, provides the resources to defend a general duty to resist injustice which, depending on the circumstances, can demand protesting the law (including through civil disobedience) or frustrating injustice (including through covert disobedience). Third, I contend that Smith’s conception of the different contexts of injustice—he identifies three main ones—should be expanded to include what I call ‘official disrespect’ (i.e., routine and open illegal practices by the authorities) and ‘deliberative ignorance’ (which occurs when the state conceals officials programs or misconduct from the public). I argue that each context offers reasons to disobey the law but not necessarily in the civil manner determined by Smith.