Posted by Roger Mallett Posted on 13 January 2024

The Moral Obligation of Civil Disobedience

My childhood was unique.

I attended St. Agnes School in the Oakland neighborhood of the City of Pittsburgh. Contrary to what one might expect, I was one of only a handful of Catholic students enrolled in the school; the typical student at St. Agnes School was black and non-Catholic, with their parents seeking a place of refuge from the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

As such, the battle against slavery and racial segregation in this country occupied a significant part of our instruction time. We learned about the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, Jr. We learned that progress was made specifically by those who refused to obey unjust laws.

In my young, innocent mind, I was left with a simple thought that I have held onto until today: slavery and segregation only were allowed to exist because supposedly “good” people sinned through indifference, and they only came to an end when enough people arose who refused to conform to the injustice of the status quo.

My thoughts along these lines were given further substance when Henry David Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” was assigned to us in my sophomore year of high school. The moral obligation to disobey unjust laws non-violently and then to accept punishment in the hopes of forcing change was one of the major lessons I took away from my Catholic schooling. The willingness to embrace the consequences of such non-violent direct action was one of the things I admired about the political left, even if I did not count myself one of its members.

Now over twenty years later, I’m forced to ask: what happened to the political left? The immoral thugs of Antifa and other groups commit violence in the name of “direct action.” When police respond they resist or flee instead of peacefully submitting to arrest. Finally, and most damningly, the left denies the right of conscience or protest at all to their perceived enemies, instead surrendering themselves to the logic of totalitarianism.

The year 2020 showed this bizarre betrayal of once-held values in full contrast. Violent riots were called good violations of lockdowns and protests against lockdowns were derided as killing grandma.

At the academic level, a bizarre paper appeared in Criminal Law and Philosophy which alleges to address the topic of “Civil Disobedience in Times of Pandemic: Clarifying Rights and Duties.” It examines two scenarios of civil disobedience: “(1) healthcare professionals refusing to attend work as a protest against unsafe working conditions, and (2) citizens who use public demonstration and deliberately ignore measures of social distancing as a way of protesting against lockdown.”

Rather than give the obvious response that the obligation to treat patients even in the presence of danger is a just law (and refusing to do so is not civil disobedience) and protesting the confinement to one’s home by not staying home is a classic case of civil disobedience, the authors spend many paragraphs arriving at the precisely wrong answer: “only the case of healthcare professionals qualifies as morally justified civil disobedience.”

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