Civil disobedience is a form of nonviolent protest that stands in the face of a government or significant power. Individuals participating in civil disobedience much like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., refuse to obey certain laws in order to sway the hegemony (i.e. the government) into changing its policies. Nonviolence in this sense cannot be considered immoral, but one can argue that disobeying the laws of the government is unjust; however, if the laws that an individual fights against restrict individual and human rights, then civil disobedience would logically seem like the correct and moral course of action. Martin Luther King stood up against the hatred and bigotry of the South by bringing together people of different races in nonviolent protest, making a statement bigger than the fire hoses of Mississippi could extinguish. King states in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that people “must forever conduct [their] struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. [They] must not allow [their] creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, [they] must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” If a man so revered by the country believes it possible to successfully enact a change through nonviolence, carries it out, and changes the Unites States forever, then who is to say that the world cannot be changed for the better with such tactics?
Looking at civil disobedience from a utilitarian aspect opens and closes several doors. The range of possible actions presented to a pacifist enacting civil disobedience admittedly contains fewer options than those able and willing to commit acts of violence. As John Stuart Mill would theorize, and as Professor Vinnie Ferraro would say, the extent of one’s ability to act against something ends with one’s fist at the tip of the opponent’s nose. Within such a paradigm, one must assume that a peaceful resistance can harm only the individuals involved in standing up against the hegemony. In this sense, the consequences should end with no one dead and a positive change. Since the modern world is far from a utopian society, civil disobedience rarely works out that way. Often times, the government will fire on peaceful protesters and sometimes outcasts in the group will lash out against power. If someone becomes so squeezed that she cannot peacefully resolve anything anymore, then she resorts to violence when feelings trapped. Violence, although personally not credited as an inherent trait of the human condition, does have a tendency to make itself known if an individual suffers enough. Only the strongest can fight the urge to lash out physically.
A true pacifist would not consider harming any other individual. Pacifists also tend to adhere to altruistic tendencies. They often sacrifice themselves in order to make a statement or better the lives of others, promote a positive change. In this sense, a utilitarian could justify pacifism by saying that it contains altruistic elements and a true pacifist would never commit an act of violence on another human being. This closely obeys the ideas in utilitarianism about every life having equal worth and every opinion having equal weight. If the world suddenly worked like a vacuum and opposing forces would not attack the peaceful protesters unless the protesters attacked first (which, of course, a true pacifist would not do), then no lives will be lost and the happiness of the marginalized increases exponentially, the hegemony overthrown, and the need for violent action abolished. That situation, however, would really only occur in a perfect world where the human condition had no flaws, where individuals had the ability to work together to create a lasting peace that suited everyone’s needs and best interests.
A deontologist would say that each individual has a duty to not lie or kill anyone. If Kant’s ethical theory were applied to both sides, the opposing force would not fire upon those who find it morally wrong to carry weapons in the first place. Peace should be universal, and it can be argued that peace would promote healthier living and prevent needless, innocent deaths as a result from lack of discrimination in war. Since Kant would call everyone to act morally by upholding standards of duty and dignity, a pacifist would not dare to fail in her duty to preserve life. She would ultimately strive to her own death to uphold Kant’s standards of duty. One’s sense of duty, for this theory to work, must outweigh the pressure to lash out. Only those with the greatest self-control can succeed in never letting the violent side take hold.
Taking a relativistic standpoint on civil disobedience paints a different picture. The civil rights movement held great cultural value in the United States. Because of this, the right course of action was to stand up for the rights of the oppressed. African Americans had been in the States for centuries. Their culture became part of the soil, the soil that they had once plowed. Denying them rights denied part of the American culture. Although the hegemonic culture to that point had remained predominantly white, the inkblots of the African culture seeped through the cracks in the fields of Dixie and began to unite a nation. Without the peaceful demonstrations, opposition could have more easily deemed the oppressed as violent, hysterical, unworthy of the same rights. The aforementioned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. upheld the standards of dignity and duty (following Kant’s standards) to peacefully maintain the fight. Because African roots ran so deep in the United States culture, it would have been immoral to ignore the issue. It would have been immoral not to fight against the laws that suppressed human rights.
Personally, I believe that civil disobedience upholds a higher moral standard than violent action. The most important part of pacifism, to me, is the idea of nonviolent action. It is the purest option, but sadly, not widely received as a workable system. In my opinion, only true pacifists are of the highest morality. Although, admittedly, becoming a true pacifist is one of the most difficult feats one could ever wish to achieve, it leaves the pacifist with a clean conscience. Honestly, I cannot see anyone who considers herself a caring individual killing or condoning the killing of another. Furthermore, not acting in a situation where another individual suffers holds the individual at the same amount of fault as if she herself had caused the suffering.
In my opinion, no matter how crazy or difficult it sounds, the only completely moral way of conducting oneself is with nonviolent opposition – not just opposition in the sense of mere disagreement, but I would challenge everyone to take it one step further. It is also not enough just to act and live in peace, but to promote it through those acts and words. Desmond Tutu once told me, in the sermon he presented in my hometown, that every man should love every other man. Every man is loved and has the capacity to love. He then placed his hands on the podium, looked at all of us with tears in his eyes, and begged us to look at everyone as our brother or our sister, to never harm them in an act of violence, to never think badly of them for their differences from us, to uphold the standards of peace.