Adler On

Civil Disobedience

What are the conditions that justify dissent from civil government, and how does justifiable disobedience to civil government differ from rebellion?

One ground for civil disobedience is religious. Quakers who regard killing in war as sinful disobey the draft laws by being conscientious objectors. At the same time, they do not withdraw their consent to civil government, and they voluntarily submit to the treatment that their government inflicts on those who refuse to be drafted.

Another ground for civil disobedience may be that the deserter regards the war being fought as unjust. The conscientious objector in this refuses to participate in. Again, the individual must be willing to take whatever treatment is accorded those who disobey the law.

Disobedience to civil government may also involve withdrawal of consent. When it is peaceful, that act requires emigration, as with those who opposed the war in Vietnam, and went to Canada or Sweden for the duration. They required a declaration of amnesty to return to the United States and resume their status as citizens.

Violent disobedience constitutes rebellion or civil war. This resistance is civil in name only, since the authority of the government is not only denied but resisted by resort to arms.

The war of independence and the civil war were acts of rebellion, involving denial or rejection of civil status by those who opposed the government. Nevertheless, Lincoln's declaration of amnesty to the rebellious population of the southern states restored them to citizenship in the republic, in effect nullifying their rebellion.

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)

Revised 17 December 2000