When Breaking the Law Is Justified

Our period of history is often described as “materialistic” and “conformist,” a time when governments have enormous power to crush the bodies and numb the minds of their subjects, and in which the great mass of men and women – presumably as opposed to men and women of other times – prefer to play it safe. instead of raising questions about basic moral principles. It should be noted, however, that massive opposition to the law, justified in the name of higher moral principles such as “liberty”, “equality” and “national independence”, was a striking feature of our time and one of its most effective techniques of social action. Millions of ordinary people who do not claim to be heroes or saints have used it in India, South Africa, in resistance movements against the Nazis and in the struggle for equal rights for blacks in the United States. Well, I believe it is absolutely true that in a democracy there are stronger arguments for obedience to the law, including bad law, than in a dictatorship. Those who must abide by the law have probably been consulted, and they have legal means to voice their protests and work for reform. One way to define democracy is to say that it is a system whose purpose is to provide alternatives to civil disobedience. Nevertheless, when applied to the kind of situation that CORE, for example, faces, I think these generalizations become cruelly abstract. The fundamental fallacy in the thesis that civil disobedience can never be justified in a democracy is that it confuses the ideals or goals of democracy with the inevitably less than perfect achievements of democracy at any given time. In accordance with democratic ideals, the laws of a democracy can confer on individuals rights and powers that theoretically enable them to work legally for the elimination of injustices. An observer may approve the reasons that led to some of these actions and reject others. However, they all raise the same fundamental question: Does the individual have the right – or perhaps the duty – to disobey the law when his mind, conscience or religious beliefs tell him that the law is unjust? However, it is possible to adopt a more moderate and plausible version of this position, and many quite reasonable people do.

These people recognize that disobedience to the law can sometimes be legitimate and necessary under a despotic regime. However, they argue that civil disobedience can never be justified in a democratic society because such a society provides its members with legal tools to resolve their grievances. Their answers assume that we have a duty to obey the law, even if it is unjust. But are we doing that? These are just some of the arguments that McManus critics could make in support of their hypothesis that we have a duty to obey the law. Let us assume that we are not convinced by these arguments or by others who might offer them. What follows? As McManus says, we should only do what the law requires “when the law is just and the law is just.” We might, of course, think that the laws governing industrial action are fair and should therefore not be broken. But that was not the assertion of McManus` critics. But there is another side to the story. It would be a mistake to conclude from what has been said that civil disobedience is justified, provided that it is only disobedience in the name of higher principles. A strong moral conviction is not all it takes to put the violation of the law at the service of society. But is any violation of the law justifiable? Certainly not! If everyone started breaking the laws just because they think they have a good reason, society would be in chaos.

WHEN, then, is it justified for the citizen to act as his own legislator and decide whether or not to obey a particular law? This, in fact, may be the most important function of those who practice civil disobedience. They remind us that the man who obeys the law is just as obliged to examine the morality of his actions and the rationality of his society as the man who breaks the law. The appearance of civil disobedience can never be a happy phenomenon; If it is justified, something is wrong in the society in which it takes place. Sally McManus, the newly elected secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), caused a stir on Wednesday when she said in a television interview that she saw no problem breaking the law if the law was unfair. While violence is not part of the intent of those who practice civil disobedience, the risks of violence are present and are part of what must be considered when considering a civil disobedience program. Martin Luther King once said, “Freedom is never given willingly by the oppressor; It must be demanded of the oppressed,” implying that individuals who are members of privileged groups in society rarely want to voluntarily renounce their privileges. Thus, breaking the law becomes a necessity and can be justified because such an unjust law cannot simply be tolerated. On the other hand, laws are supposed to be perceived by some as imperfect, and to make a change or correct the wrong thing, laws must be broken.

For example, in the late 18th century, African-American citizens were discriminated against and neglected by civil rights and the right to vote. For this reason, Martin Luther King initiated the civil rights movement of the 1950s, ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens. The violation also led to the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Similarly, the American War of Independence and the Indian National Movement are some of the examples where people break the law to fight for their own rights.