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Social Philosophy Today

Volume 31, 2015

Power, Protest, and the Future of Democracy

Karin R. Howe
Pages 23-32

Is There a Rawlsian Duty to Engage in Civil Disobedience?

Debates concerning Rawls’s definition of civil disobedience have been the focus of much of the discussion on civil disobedience since the publication of A Theory of Justice. However, in this paper I will be focusing on a question about Rawls’s view of civil disobedience that has been largely ignored in the literature. Throughout the section on the justification of civil disobedience, Rawls clearly and explicitly says that people have a right to engage in civil disobedience, provided that all of the conditions for civil disobedience are met. My question is: Can we say something stronger than people have a right to engage in civil disobedience? In other words, is it possible that people have either a duty or an obligation to engage in civil disobedience under certain circumstances? If so, who has these duties or obligations—would everyone in the state have these duties and/or obligations, or just some people? In this paper I propose to carefully examine what Rawls has to say about political obligations and the natural duty of justice, and see what light I can shed on the question of an obligation or duty to engage in civil disobedience from a Rawlsian perspective.

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