Can individual legitimately disobey the law in a democracy? Civil disobedience – the public and non violent-breaking of the law in deference of some important principle or vital interest – has an honorable place in the history of democracy. It is to be distinguished from criminal law – breaking by its openness, by its political purpose and by the fact that those involved do not seek the evade prosecution or punishment for their offence.
Its aim is usually to draw attention to some injustice or outrage perpetrated by public authorities or powerful private bodies. And the compel a rethink of the relevant policy, when other methods of publicity and persuasion have proved ineffective.
Less usually, it seeks to make an offending policy unworkable through the organization of mass resistance. However, because it breaks the principle of reciprocity on which consent to the law in a democracy is based, It should only be contemplated in exceptional circumstances, and only then as a last resort.
Integrity of The Law
Critics of civil disobedience argue that breaking the law can never be justified. The law is the foundation of a civilized society, and disregard for it by one person of group only encourages to other to act likewise. If everyone where to pick and choose which law they were to obey, the framework of law on which we all depend would rapidly disintegrate.
Moreover, in a democratic society people have constitutional channel open to them through which to change the law: voting in elections, lobbying representative, legal campaigning to persuade citizens and the government of the need to change the offending law or policy.
And the very act of taking part in an election indicates consent to the outcome and agreement to abide by the policies the winning side has campaigned upon. Civil disobedience is thus an affront to democracy as well as to the rule of law.
Law And Justice
Defenders of the right to civil disobedience point out that consent to abide by the outcome of an election cannot commit a person to obey every law or cooperate with every policy of the government however unjust it may be. Sometimes the constitutional channels of campaign and protest may simply take too long, while the damage being done is irreversible.
In practice the voice of ordinary people tend to be drowned by the propaganda of governments and powerful vested interests. In these respect civil disobedience can serve as a contribution to democracy, rather than its antitheses by bringing opposition dramatically to public attention.
In any case the final court of decision about right and wrong must be the individual conscience, and no one can evade responsibility for the persistence unjust laws simply by doing nothing. The historical record suggests that more damage is done by passive acquiescence in the fact of oppressive laws than by principled disobedience.
These differences of view cannot be easily resolved by appeal to general considerations. Much depends upon the precise circumstances of each case, upon the balance between the connecting principles involved and upon an assessment of their respective consequence.
Ultimately the issue can only be resolved by each individual for him or himself. One area where the importance of individual conscience is now officially recognized is the right of conscientious objection to military service; and many states, in making room for alternative forms of service, are acknowledging the moral force of such objection.