Civil disobedience was largely popularized by figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s Civil Rights Movement. Inherently nonviolent, it aims to fight injustice and ultimately effect societal change. Because it is a widely debated means of action, I will present a framework under which it can be morally justified, drawing on King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Under these conditions, I will accept the abortion protest and reject the speeding case as morally justifiable. There is a fundamental belief at the core of civil disobedience that we have a moral obligation to make the world the best place possible. This humanitarian duty is unconditional: you have incentive to fight injustice whether it affects you personally or not. We live in a world that best functions with altruism and collective utility at the center. Thus, when I witness an injustice in society, I am morally compelled to fight it within my abilities.
Before I continue, it is necessary to distinguish between a just and an unjust law. A law is just if it aligns with the consensual morality, protects inherent rights, and generally lifts up humanity. Conversely, an unjust law oppresses, harms, or discriminates any human. Our moral obligation is to identify unjust laws, and make a statement”-letting people know that this is not okay and we will not tolerate it. Justified civil disobedience relies on justified awareness, purpose, and nonviolence. Primarily, justified awareness comes from adequate research on the issue at hand. This comprehensive understanding ensures that there is in fact an injustice and is crucial for properly fighting it. In addition, a justified campaign must have a genuine purpose one that aims for negotiation and constructive tension. Negotiation is important because it creates a space for discussion, which will bring about change more effectively than a list of demands. Moreover, the inevitable tension stemming from civil disobedience is constructive if it forces awareness and conversation. This pressure to confront your values is the vehicle for change. Lastly, justification of civil disobedience is fully contingent on nonviolence. It may seem insignificant, but even small amounts of violence can change the perception of a demonstration entirely. People tend to get caught up in the drama of violence, and lose sight of the cause; this inhibits efficacy profoundly. Nonviolence maintains clarity and prevents antagonization. In order to analyze the cases of abortion and speeding, I will look to each awareness, purpose, and nonviolence. First, I will explain how a Summer of Mercy protest fits into my moral justification framework.
The woman has clear knowledge of the issue rooted in the Evangelical Christian belief that The Bible condemns abortion. Additionally, her purpose is genuine. The controversy surrounding abortion since Roe v. Wade, coupled with the magnitude of the Pro Life movement, suggest that negotiation has been attempted and is the central objective. The resulting tension is inevitable and likely to be constructive because it shows that Roe v. Wade has not been unanimously ratified and will thus spark conversation. Lastly, I will assume this protest will not turn violent because blockading a clinic is not an inherently violent act, allowing the purpose to remain clear. A counterargument to this justification would denounce her source of information, arguing that The Bible’s bias and her Christian beliefs invalidate her claim that abortion is morally equivalent to murder. However, this attack on her bias is unwarranted because there is mirrored bias in the secular argument that abortion falls under a woman’s reproductive rights. Criticism of bias is assuming there is none on the opposing side. There are several critical differences between the abortion protest and speeding ticket case that prevent moral justification of the latter. Primarily, his conclusion that the traffic stop was racially motivated was a hasty assumption based on incomprehensive facts. A key detail is that he is a black man living in a largely black suburb—this alone makes racism in law enforcement less likely, simply because blacks make up the majority. He seems to think that his race is the only explanation for a strict enforcement of traffic laws, disregarding the public knowledge that his town relies on proceeds from traffic tickets to sustain itself. Because of this, it is not surprising that the laws are so harshly enforced.
Moreover, his purpose behind not paying the speeding ticket is dubious. This passive refusal contrasts with the abortion protest in the involvement of the public—likely the only people to hear of his civil disobedience are law enforcement themselves. Because of this, the possibility of constructive tension is remote. Furthermore, negotiation does not seem probable because it has (assumedly) not been attempted before. Also, the mere refusal to pay a speeding ticket sends no message about racism in law enforcement (like blockading an abortion clinic). Though the passivity of his actions preserve nonviolence, his message is obscure and the information is inadequate, making this act of civil disobedience unjustifiable. A conceivable counterargument would contend that law enforcement is acting unjustly for reasons other than race, and thus the man should refuse to pay the ticket anyways. This is a careless overlook of a integral piece of the moral justification of civil disobedience: purpose. An act without clear and defined purpose will be a halfhearted and ineffective attempt to spark change. It is casual disregard for the law when civil disobedience is meant to be a deliberate revolt against injustice. After presenting a coherent framework under which civil disobedience is morally justifiable, I argued that the abortion protest was justified and the speeding case was not. Based on King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, I asserted that justified civil disobedience is rooted in awareness, purpose, and nonviolence. It is an attempt to spark conversation about an injustice in a way that will ultimately bring about societal change.