Resolved: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified.

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Resolved: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified.

This is a topic I like. I actually debated it for one of the tournaments I did PF, fun times. Let’s get into it.

Definitions

Civil Disobedience – Civil disobedience is when someone refuses to obey a law as a means of protest. Think Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. The key to civil disobedience is that it is a nonviolent form of protest.

Democracy – A democracy is a system of government where people vote on laws and/or elect representatives. Some people will probably try to turn this into a definition debate where they limit the scope of “democracy” to only absolute democracy. Don’t let them do that. Democracies include representative forms of government like we find in England, France, and the United States. In the modern world, an absolute democracy does not exist anywhere.

Morally Justified – This is the crux of your case, and it’s up to you to define. You must use your framework to explain what it means for something to be morally justified. How do we determine what is morally justified? And how does that framework of evaluation apply to the resolution?

Important Point – The resolution must presuppose that the law being is unjust. Otherwise, there’s no point in debating. I am sure people will try to weasel their way out of that, but you need to corner them into actually debating. Obviously, we can agree that civil disobedience to protest an already just law is not morally permissible; it would be difficult to argue otherwise without taking an anarchist position. Don’t let people use abusive definitions and frameworks to turn this resolution into a definition debate tipped in their favor.

Case Positions/Frameworks

Affirmative

1. Justice is the Highest Value – A democracy is not automatically just. Like any other government, a democracy is subject to the moral arbitration of the principles of justice. Because justice is the first virtue of any social institution (Aristotle), all such institutions must ultimately answer to the principles of justice. Therefore, civil disobedience is morally justified, even in a democracy. If the government is being unjust, then the people have the right, and arguably the moral obligation, to disobey the government.

2. Right to Civil Disobedience – Dworkin argues that people have a right to civil disobedience when the government is unjust. This is an extension of his framework of rights. The government’s right to govern is contingent upon the consent of the governed, particularly in a democracy. Therefore, people must also have the corresponding right to dissent when injustice occurs. Otherwise, consent can never truly be meaningful, or even exist really.

3. Virtue – A virtue position, based upon Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, concludes that civil disobedience is the most virtuous course of action. You can therefore argue that it is morally justified. In short, civil disobedience is the middle ground between the two extremes of doing nothing and violently rebelling.

Negative

1. John Rawls’ Alternatives – John Rawls argued that, if there are multiple options when trying to reach a just end, the one that gets you there in the best way possible is the only just course of action. The others automatically become unjust because they are worse. You can argue here that violent revolution is a significantly better option. If we look at the tolls that civil disobedience movements have taken, like those in India and the United States, we can see that people have endured decades of punishment and injustice. In fact, death tolls over the course of entire civil rights movements are remarkably less than death tolls in violent revolutions, historically speaking. Violence also ends the injustices more quickly and actually punishes the oppressor, which civil disobedience does not.

  • If you want to take a safer approach, you can also argue that democratic avenues of recourse and other nonviolent protests methods are also better options, because they don’t involve breaking the law.

2. Rule of Law – In order for the social contract to remain legitimate, the rule of law must be respected. Thomas Hobbes argues that people forfeit their rights when they enter into a social contract because the state of nature is so much worse to be in. As a result, they must respect whatever rights they are afforded and the laws of the government. Even an oppressive life under a government is vastly preferable to a life in the state of nature, so people must respect the rule of law under the social contract.

3. Moral Precedent – Civil disobedience sets a dangerous moral precedent which eventually leads to more violent forms of disobedience and a degradation of respect for the law. It would be a dangerous precedent to admit the moral justification of civil disobedience because you cannot do so while at the same time arguing that people should obey the law. The two are, by definition, mutually exclusive.

I hope that helps get you started. Good luck!

Remember to leave a comment if you have questions or want to discuss anything, and remember to visit the debate academy website if you’re interested in private coaching.

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