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Resolved: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified.

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 10/2/2015 Category: Politics
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,973 times Debate No: 80238
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (6)
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Resolution: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified.

Note: This is the Novice topic for the National Speech and Debate Association.

Note: I am not a Novice. So if you're a novice, I would not accept this challenge.

Round 1: Acceptance, Definitions
Round 2: ONLY CONSTRUCTIVE. No Rebuttals
Round 3: Rebuttals.
Round 4: Rebuttals/ Final Arguments

Forefiture= Loss
Not following format= Loss (Rebuttal in constructive)

I wish whoever accepts this debate luck.


Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines Democracy as a “government by the people; especially: rule of the majority”[1]

Professor Berel Lang defines Civil Disobedience as meeting the following criteria:

“(1) the act will involve violation of a law;

(2) the act will be performed intentionally, part of the intention being to effect change in the law violated or in a related law or policy;

(3) the Person will make generally known their responsibility for the act and be willing to accept the punishment fixed by law for it.” [2]


[1] Merriam Webster’s online dictionary

[2] Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence: A Distinction with a Difference Berel Lang Ethics, Vol. 80, No. 2. (Jan., 1970), pp. 156-159.Stable URL:
Ethics is currently published by The University of Chicago Press



I accept this argument and understand that I am debating from the view that civil disobedience in a democracy is not morally justified. I wish the best of luck to you in this debate and may we both learn something from it.


The Legal Dictionary defines civil disobedience as "A symbolic, non-violent violation of the law, done deliberately in protest against some form of perceived injustice. Mere dissent, protest, or disobedience of the law does not qualify. The act must be non violent, open and visible, illegal, performed for the moral purpose of protesting an injustice, and done with the expectation of being punished" [1]

Cambridge Online Dictionaries defines democracy as "the R03;belief in R03;freedom and R03;equality between R03;people, or a R03;system of R03;government R03;based on this R03;belief, in which R03;power is either R03;held by R03;elected R03;representatives or R03;directly by the R03;people themselves" [2] defines morally as "in a moral manner" [3] defines moral as "of, relating to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical" [4]

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines justify as "to provide a good reason for the actions of (someone)" [5]

[1] Legal Dictionary

[2] Cambridge Online Dictionary



[5] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
Debate Round No. 1


The value is MORALITY. The resolution fundamentally asks us to weigh the moral reasons in favor of civil disobedience against the moral reasons counseling against it. Therefore morality is the end-goal of the resolution. It is important to note here that given the definition of morally justified, the resolution is comparative. In other words, simply providing one example or set of examples where civil disobedience would not be justified is not sufficient to negate the resolution. Rather, both sides have a burden to prove their position as a general rule.

The standard is rights protection. People come together to form democracies in order to ensure that their rights are protected. Democracies are only acting morally, then, when rights are protected. All impacts must link back to citizens’ rights.

Contention 1: Civil disobedience is a fundamental right that allows other rights to be protected from unjust laws

Associate Professor Susan Tiefenbrun explains.

“Within the liberal-democratic tradition, civil disobedience can be considered as a fundamental part of the right to rebel against unfair laws and tyrannical government. It is possible to argue that civil disobedience, as a dimension of the right to rebel constitutes a fundamental human right. Even more, I would like to argue thatThe right to rebel is not simply another human right, but the most important human right we have. In fact, without acknowledging the existence of a right to rebel, the very idea of human rights ceases to make any sense. We need to remember that the dominant discourse of human rights emerged out of the mass rebellions of the American and French Revolutions. Within modern society, it was the exercise of the right to rebel that opened the possibility for us to contemplate today the very notion of human rights. The right to rebel underwrites and creates the foundation for every human right to exist, its full exercise therefore becoming the only effective avenue of political defiance when those rights are under attack by conservative forces.”[4]

Tiefenbrun explains that civil disobedience is a prerequisite to all other human rights, because without the ability to protect and defend ones self against unfairness by the government, human rights as a whole cease to exist. Simply put, without civil disobedience, our rights would be useless, and governments could potentially be as tyrannical and unfair as they wish. Because of this, civil disobedience is an appropriate weapon in the fight for justice, since the protection of our rights is paramount in the achievement of justice for all.

Contention two: citizens of a democracy serve as an important check within the government. The citizens have a right and duty to show their government its flaws.
Paul F. Power elaborates;

“Civil disobedience has functional utility for the regime in a second respect, through informing it of its misuse of power according to systemic ideals. The abuses may have resulted from pretensions to sanctity, inefficiency, or elitism. In effect, civil disobedience enlightens the regime, permitting its decision makers to learn about their misconduct from outside sources. Because of constraints,those who engage in civil disobedience contest illicit acts of the regime, not the regime's 1egitimacy.If a positive response ensues, athird, possibleeffect of civil disobedience may be the regime’s correction of abuses through executive, legislative, or judicial action[5]

Not only is civil disobedience a fundamental right but it is also an effective way to show a government the flaws within its systems. These flaws can range from an unwanted war to the oppression of an entire race. Because of the monstrous effects these flaws may have the citizens play an important role in preventing their occurrence.

Contention three: Civil disobedience has brought about successful and useful changes throughout history.

Kayla Starr explains,

Throughout the history of the U.S., civil disobedience has played a significant role in many of the social reforms that we all take for granted today. Some of the most well known of these are:

1) The Boston Tea Party-- citizens of the colony of Massachusetts trespassed on a British ship and threw its cargo (tea from England) overboard, rather than be forced to pay taxes without representation to Britain. This was one of the many acts of civil disobedience leading to the War for Independence, establishing the United States of America as a sovereign state.

2) Anti-war movementshave been a part of U.S. history since Thoreau went to jail for refusing to participate in the U.S. war against Mexico,in 1849. More recent examples were thenationwide protests against the war in Viet Nam, U.S. involvement in Nicaragua and Central America, and the Gulf War.Actions have included refusal to pay for war, refusal to enlist in the military, occupation of draft centers, sit-ins, blockades, peace camps, and refusal to allow military recruiters on high school and college campuses.

3) The Women's Suffrage Movement lasted from 1848 until 1920, when thousands of courageous women marched in the streets, endured hunger strikes, and submitted to arrest and jail in order to gain the right to vote.

4) [The] Abolition of slavery -- including Harriet Tubman's underground railway, giving sanctuary, and other actions which helped to end slavery.

5) The introduction of labor laws and unions.Sit-down strikes organized by the IWW, and CIO free speech confrontations led to the eradication of child labor and improved working conditions, established the 40-hour work week and improved job security and benefits.

6) The Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, included sit-ins and illegal marches which weakened segregation in the south.

7) The Anti-Nuclear Movement, stimulated by people like Karen Silkwood and the Three Mile Island nuclear power accident, organized citizens throughout the country into direct action affinity groups, with consensus decision making and Gandhian nonviolence as its core. Massive acts of civil disobedience took place at nuclear power facilities across the country, followed by worldwide protests against first-strike nuclear weapons, occupying military bases, maintaining peace camps, interfering with manufacture and transport of nuclear bombs and devices, marching, sitting in, blockading and otherwise disrupting business as usual at nuclear sites.

8) [and] Environmental and forest demonstrations, with acts of civil disobedience such as sit ins, blockades, tree sits and forest occupations, have emerged in the last decade, prompted by the continuing mass clear cuts and destruction of the forest ecosystem and widespread environmental consequences.

In all of these struggles, citizens had reached the conclusion that the legal means for addressing their concerns had not worked. They had tried petitioning, lobbying, writing letters, going to court, voting for candidates that represented their interests, legal protest, and still their views were ignored.”[6]

Thus, they resorted to civil disobedience, which brought about real results in the fight for justice. Without civil disobedience, none of these demonstrations and changes could have possibly occurred.


[3] Moral Decision Making -- An Analysis. MacDonald, Chris. St. Mary’s University, Department of Philosophy.

[4] Susan Tiefenbrun, Associate Professor Of Law At Thomas Jefferson School Of Law In San

Diego, California, 2003

“Article: Civil Disobedience And The U.S. Constitution.” Southwestern University Law Review.

32 Sw. U. L. Rev. 677

[5] Civil Disobedience as Functional Opposition Paul F. Power The Journal of Politics, Vol. 34, No. 1. (Feb., 1972), pp. 37-55

[6] Kayla Starr, Civil Disobedience Activist, Summer 1998 “The Role of Civil Disobedience in Democracy.” The Civil Liberties Monitoring Project. Online.



Contention one: civil disobedience undermines the democratic process. As members of a democracy, citizens have say in the creation of the laws, thus they consent to them. For civil disobedience to destroy those laws is unjust, Carl Cohen explains
"Every citizen of a lawful government, then, has a most important duty to obey its laws. That is true whatever the form of government " Where each citizen has a proportionate voice in the making and the framing of laws (either directly or through representatives), his acceptance of this role as partial legislator commits him yet more strongly to abide the laws of that body."
Cohen explains clearly how citizens" voices are what shape a just government. To allow minorities to un-proportionately voice their ideas by side stepping laws destroys the democratic system.

This articulates the key problem with civil disobedience. Every law may look just or unjust to different perspectives however civil disobedience would allow any person to act against any law they didn"t like, regardless of majority consent or legal means. This opens the society as a whole up for anarchy as laws become devoid of meaning and laws are broken meaninglessly.

Contention one: civil disobedience can support legitimate and illegitimate causes. The action "civil disobedience" has no inherent moral quality because it can yield both good and bad results. Similarly "driving" can be both just and unjust, on one hand you can drive someone to the hospital and on the other hand you can hit the person with your car so they have to go to the hospital. Thus, while there may be legitimate outcomes of civil disobedience we must also look at what else it would justify. It would justify any citizen acting out against any law they felt needed change. The inherent repercussions could involve murder, riots, terrorism and more. Because civil disobedience always violates the rights of citizens who have come together to agree upon laws, it always harms rights. However, civil disobedience does not necessarily guarantee rights as it is often just a tool for people to circumvent the democratic process. Indeed, civil disobedience hinders rather than helps the fight for justice. Leon Jaworski in the Morality and the Law, 1988, p. 87 elaborates
One of the most appalling and frightening of the trends in recent years is the self-serving practice of choosing which laws or court orders to obey and which to defy. The preachments that generate this attitude are cancerously dangerous to our system of government under law. To rest upon or hide behind the claim that if one"s conscience speaks to the contrary, justification exists for ignoring laws or decrees are but to say that the rule of law is not to be the governing yardstick of our society"s conduct. It is dangerous to allow people to choose the laws they obey and there is no way to judge whether or not that law is unjust.

Contention three: there are more legitimate avenues than civil disobedience. Susan Tiefenbrun explains
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees us the right to dissent, to protest, to assemble peaceably, to criticize a law or government, and to oppose a law. The more difficult question is how one may permissibly dissent if a person's first legal and moral imperative is to obey the law. Using means of opposition and dissent that are permissible under the U.S. system of law will not subject a dissenter to punishment by the state. The right to dissent may be exercised by the use of written and spoken words, by acts or conduct such as picketing, "peaceable" mass assembly, sit-ins and demonstrations, which are referred to as "symbolic speech." The basic means of permissible protest under the U.S. system is the right to vote, "the right to organize and to elect new officials to enact and administer the law."

And the list goes on, lobbying, writing letters, going through the courts, etc. can all achieve the desired ends of changing a law without the negative harms of civil disobedience. Each is different from civil disobedience in one key way; they don"t require breaking the law to change it.

Thus, because Civil disobedience can support clearly unjust things, because there are alternatives that legally and legitimately achieve the desired ends, and because Civil disobedience twists and destroys the democratic process, I urge a negative ballot.
Negative Evidence:

The importance of law and social order

Emil Brunner, Justice and the Social Order, 1945, p. 175.R32;
In a state of anarchy, no justice is possible, since "the devoutest of men cannot live in peace if his wicked neighbor does not so desire." But under a unified coercive power, however little it may trouble about justice, justice is at any rate possible since the mutual use of force by individuals is eliminated by the State monopolization of power.
Noel B. Reynolds, "Grounding the Rule of Law," Ratio Juris, v. 2, no. 1, March 1989, p. 5.R32;
Law addresses the problem of human nature at two levels. It provides authoritarian rules of conduct for all to observe in the pursuit of their own ends, rules which provide order in that they establish legitimate expectations for such conduct. Furthermore, these procedures and other official structures can be consciously constructed in ways that discourage inventive self-seekers from perverting the designedly neutral process of law to private advantage.
Susan Tiefenbrun, Associate Professor Of Law At Thomas Jefferson School Of Law In San Diego, California, 2003; "Article: Civil Disobedience And The U.S. Constitution." Southwestern University Law Review. 32 Sw. U. L. Rev. 677
There is much opposition to civil disobedience. For the past two thousand years, philosophers have asked themselves whether one has an obligation to obey a law that is unjust. Scholars have grounded an obligation to obey unjust laws in six different legal theories. These [*694] include the duty to obey the law out of gratitude to an existing legal system (i.e. Socrates and Plato's Crito); the duty to obey the law because of the individual's contractual agreement or consent to obey (i.e. John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau); the duty to obey because of the negative consequences of disobedience; the duty to obey out of fairness; the duty to obey in order to support just institutions (i.e. H.L.A. Hart and John Rawl's theory), and the duty to obey in order to support your community (i.e. Ronald Dworkin's theory).
Susan Tiefenbrun, Associate Professor Of Law At Thomas Jefferson School Of Law In San Diego, California, 2003; "Article: Civil Disobedience And The U.S. Constitution." SOUTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY LAW REVIEW. 32 SW. U. L. REV. 677
Another argument, based on the Machiavellian principle that laudable ends do not justify purely illegal means, is often used by law and order supporters who refuse to consider the benign motivation of civil disobedient. They argue that to legitimize civil disobedience is contrary to a system governed by respect for the rule of law. n138 Erwin Griswold, cited by Dworkin, believes that it is of the essence of law that it is equally applied to all, that it binds all alike, irrespective of personal motive. For this reason, one who contemplates civil disobedience out of moral conviction should not be surprised and must not be bitter if a criminal conviction ensues ... organized society cannot endure on any other basis. n139
M. B. E. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Smith College, 1996R32;"The Duty To Obey The Law." From D. Patterson, ed., COMPANION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF LAW AND LEGAL THEORY, 465-74 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).
Few issues in jurisprudence have received so much attention in recent years as whether citizens have a distinctive moral duty to obey the law. Yet the differences among the disputants might well seem slender to the unprofessional eye. No one holds that the duty is absolute: even its most passionate advocates allow that it is sometimes morally permissible to disobey the law,! as when abolitionists aided runaway slaves before the American Civil War. But neither does anyone advocate open or frequent disobedience. Those who doubt the supposed duty yet hold that we very often have a strong moral reason to do what the law requires independently of its commands, e.g., not to assault, cheat or rob others. The doubters allow that we are obligated to obey whenever the law has established patterns of conduct that are dangerous to depart from, such as driving to the left in Great Britain. They believe that disobedience is permissible only when there is no independent moral reason to obey or when the weight of independent reasons favors disobedience; and they do not suppose that in reasonably just societies these conditions obtain often. Finally, those who are skeptical about the duty of obedience nonetheless prize the great social benefits that quite obviously can only be achieved through government; and they believe that one which is reasonably just deserve! s its citizens' cooperation and support. It therefore seems probable that the putative duty's advocates and disbelievers alike would virtually always agree in their judgments of particular illegal conduct--or at least that any differences between them would not flow from their disagreement about the philosophical issue.
The importance of majority rule
Debate Round No. 2


chrisjachimiak forfeited this round.


Demosthenes_Aristotle forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3


Forfeiture on both sides means tie. Vote how ever you would like to vote. Just note the my opponent didn't follow formatting rule in round 2. Where I said no rebuttal in constructive speech.


Demosthenes_Aristotle forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 4
6 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 6 records.
Posted by asi14 2 years ago
I'll think about this debate if Kritiks are allowed.
Posted by DATXDUDE 2 years ago
I don't think anyone would agree with this, because that would be gay.
Posted by nemorian 2 years ago
The answer to this is based on whether the law be protested through civil disobedience is a just law or not. to break a law one would have to appeal to a higher authority then the one that enacted the law.
Posted by Bosoxfaninla 2 years ago
Very intriguing topic.
Posted by 16kadams 2 years ago
I agree that it is sometimes a good thing. Example: prohibition.
Posted by stargate 2 years ago
Wait so are you saying that people should be allowed to breack the law?
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by Wylted 2 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Rule violation and more forfeits