When unjust laws are enforced in the country, and people are hurt or oppressed, citizens have a right to protest and rebel against the law in question. Civil disobedience is disobedience to the state, the refusal to obey certain laws and commands given by national or international bodies. Religious traditions and legal systems provide a clear definition of what is legal and what is not. However, there exists a wide discrepancy on what people consider as morally right and morally wrong because the difference between the two notions is somewhat blurred. Civil disobedience mostly happens through active public actions that are non-violent; nevertheless, in extreme cases, they can acquire violent nature. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is one of the most famous civil activists of the XIX century, who protested the domination of the British Empire and was on the frontline in the fight for independence of India. He advocated non-violent demonstrations as the main mean of disobedience. Usually civil disobedience is aimed at overthrowing a ruling power that involves opposition to a specific law such as increase of taxes, for example.
When there is a clear injustice in a country, and there is justification to break the law, it is the obligation of the public to speak and act. At times, people opt to ignore a law, with which they do not agree, but their efforts do not make the situation any better. This is especially true in case of people suffering due to the enforcement of that law. When this disapproval turns into a public act and gains the intended attention, more often than not, active action is taken for or against a law. Lives that are changed in a positive way because of breaking the law make the end justify any means of the protestors. In other words, it is breaking a law for the greater good of society. In some cases, numerous unjustified arrests are made by the government forces. When such demonstrations get violent and life threatening to the public and to the law enforcers (the police), they become a case in the courts of law as a criminal offence.
Henry David Thoreau was an American philosopher, an author, and a civil rights activist born on July 12, 1817. Together with other notable figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, he is considered a famous person, who fought against exploitation and political instability. Thoreau compared the government to a machine that was more harmful than helpful and needed to be stopped or fixed by the public (1055). He believed that such a machine was useless and was better done away with. According to Thoreau, people have an obligation to be just and not to support any unjust actions or decisions of the government or other citizens. He believed that turning a blind eye to the wrongs of the government and accepting them was almost the same as being a slave. Thoreau argued that individuals have a duty neither to permit the government to overrule them nor to atrophy their consciences.
Everyone has a choice and an obligation to his country as far as choosing the appropriate government is concerned. People should know the kind of government they want for their country. The American activist believed that a state ruled by the majority was ruled unjustly and selfishly, as the minority was neither a major concern nor a priority for the majority. At one point in protest, Thoreau was arrested for refusing to pay his poll taxes. He argued that by paying taxes, people who supported the unjust actions of the government in the war in Mexico and applauded the soldiers. Even those who refused to fight were actually supporting this injustice because their taxes helped in enforcing slavery. According to Thoreau (1056), a corrupt and unjust government made it a responsibility for honest citizens to revolutionize and rebel.
Thoreau (1055) argued that if matters had been left to the state to correct, much evil would have been done, and lives lost as the process of realizing and addressing the issue would have taken too much time. It was up to the public to force the government to make any changes for the better. Everyone had a say, and if only one rose up and spoke out the injustice, it would make a difference for that would be already a change.
Thoreau’s major reason to justify any disobedience was ‘the principle.’ He argued that, if a man was principal, he would neither tolerate wrong nor do wrong. If the position a person occupied was the major reason for his unjustness, he always had an option of leaving it. Thoreau believed that ignoring unjust actions towards another human being was also a wrongdoing and such behavior could make a person a ‘slave.’ When people make unjust decisions, they accept the fact that they are enslaved. During elections, everyone has a right and obligations to vote for the leader he wants and chose someone he likes. Every citizen has to choose a leader whom he believes to be just and right for the position, one who will not let money go to his head (Thoreau 1056).
The main aim of any civil disobedience is justice, a strong wish to improve the lives of people especially those who are not able to speak for themselves. It is virtuous to do right, to live right, and to think right, do unto others as one would have them do unto him. The human conscience is a strong opponent to evil; if all men search conscience, no wrong or evil will be done to any person. Thoreau also argued that, if a just man was imprisoned for his words and his actions, a prison would be a safer place, as well as a refuge from the unjustness; therefore, it is better to stay in prison rather than compromise personal principles and become a free man.