Civil disobedience and conscientious objection are distinct but related social practices that display people’s opposition to specific laws, policies, directives, or schemes. In general, these two practices arise from people’s deeply held commitments. Civil disobedience is more overtly communicative and political than conscientious objection. Civil disobedience is also, almost by definition, a breach of law, which people engage in to push for changes in either governmental or nongovernmental practices. Conscientious objection, by contrast, does not always break the law: sometimes it is a legally protected form of nonconformity. It is also less overtly political than civil disobedience, stemming as it does from people’s desire not to participate in practices they oppose, rather than from their ambition to change those practices. Both practices can be morally justified under specific conditions that, among other things, include doing only limited harm to other people. Moreover, under even more specific conditions, both practices could be said to be protected by moral rights. Civil disobedience and conscientious objection generate pressing normative and political challenges concerning the nature of the rule of law, respect for the rule of law, conditions for deliberative democracy, equality before the law, policing, adjudication, and punishment.
William Smith and Kimberley Brownlee
Jens Damgaard Thaysen
Modern states pursue most of their (domestic) ends by creating law and acting in accordance with the law they create. Moreover, many believe states ought to pursue most of their ends this way. If a state ought to do something, then chances are it ought to do it by creating, abolishing, changing, upholding, or enforcing some law. Therefore, almost any kind of political philosophy with bearing on what states should do has bearing on what law should be like. Justifying the legal proscription of some conduct involves more than just showing that citizens ought to refrain from that conduct. Legally restricting conduct is an exercise of coercion and must be justified as such. Criminal prohibitions in particular require special justification, as they are not only coercive but also commit the state to deliberately inflict the harm and stigma of punishment on some of its own citizens. Nevertheless, if the state must coerce its citizens, it ought generally to do so through a law that conforms to the rule of law. Law conforms to the rule of law if it is capable of guiding the citizens as they act and plan for the future. This the law can do only if it is open, clear, prospective, and stable, such that citizens can know what it demands now and predict with reasonable certainty what it will demand in the future. Conformity to the rule of law promotes freedom and is required to respect human dignity. Much of the debate about the justification and scope of legal coercion revolves around several principles that advance claims about what considerations are relevant to the justifiability of law. These principles all have the following structure: The fact that a legal restriction of a certain kind is related in a certain way to a certain type of conduct has a certain impact on whether that restriction is justifiable. Common principles include (a) legal moralism, according to which it is always a good reason to criminalize conduct that the conduct is wrongful; (b) the wrongness constraint, according to which criminalizing morally permissible conduct is never justified; (c) liberalism, according to which it is always a good reason to criminalize conduct that the conduct is either harmful or seriously offensive to others, and criminalizing conduct that is neither harmful nor offensive is never justified; (d) the public wrong principle, according to which it is always a good reason to criminalize conduct that the conduct is a public wrong, and criminalizing conduct is never justified unless the conduct is a public wrong; (e) the sovereignty principle, according to which the only legitimate restrictions on conduct are those that secure independence. Which, if any, of these principles one should accept is the subject of an extensive and sophisticated academic debate.