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date: 23 March 2017

Civil Disobedience and Conscientious Objection

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Civil disobedience and conscientious objection are forms of lawbreaking motivated by moral or political beliefs. Civil disobedience is often characterized as a conscientious act of protest, carried out to communicate opposition to law or government policy. Conscientious objection is a principled act of nonconformity with a legal order, carried out for reasons of personal morality. Civil disobedience is generally presented as a more political form of lawbreaking than conscientious objection, because it is motivated by the goal of achieving political reform more than, or in addition to, preserving integrity or self-respect. There is, though, considerable disagreement about the precise definition of these forms of lawbreaking, which revolves around such issues as the requirements of conscientious conduct, the acceptance of punishment, and the importance of nonviolence, publicity, and nonrevolutionary objectives.

Civil disobedience and conscientious objection are important practices that raise fundamental questions about the relationship between citizens and political authority. For instance, what is the normative status of these two practices, particularly in liberal democratic societies? Answers to this question typically focus on moral or political justifications for these practices. Many accounts defend conscientious lawbreaking as a legitimate way to resist injustice or correct democratic deficits. These accounts tend to argue that conscientious lawbreaking has socially-beneficial consequences, such as triggering public deliberation about marginalized issues. Other accounts focus on the moral rights of citizens to engage in conscientious forms of lawbreaking.

The normative status of conscientious lawbreaking influences how state institutions should respond to it. Philosophical debates focus on whether it is appropriate to subject conscientious lawbreakers to legal sanctions. These debates have generated a number of arguments in favor of tolerant approaches, such as non-prosecution, light sentencing, and a moral claim against the imposition of punishment and/or penalties. There are, in addition, a number of ways that police forces and lawmakers can accommodate conscientious lawbreakers. These philosophical debates are practically significant, especially given the depressing lack of tolerance that police, courts, and governments typically show to conscientious lawbreakers even in societies that pride themselves on their liberal institutions and traditions.