My interest in the ethics, practice and history of nonviolent action
arose not out of academic curiosity, but rather out of my experiences
growing up in a troubled black neighborhood in Los Angeles. I found
it extremely distressing when my teachers began to challenge us students
to get involved, and seek ways out of the culture of violence. It seemed
impossible. At the same time, however, I became inspired by the local
Mexican-American leader Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. In
my eyes, Chavez was a Gandhi-like figure bravely carrying out successful
nonviolent collective action against a powerful and violent system of
I gradually became convinced that the problem of violence and related
action is at the very core of ethics. I would like to claim that all
offensive violence and coercion are wrong. Furthermore, every effort
must be made to reduce the need for defensive force of any kind, and
to limit the definition of defense as narrowly as possible (offensive
action in the name of Jihad, or the Christian God's will, for example,
must be excluded from defense). Accordingly, active nonviolence and
harmlessness are essential parts of a correct ethical standard.
I hope that the following focused lesson will help students and teachers
approach the problem of political and social violence, and related matters,
in a manner relevant to TOK.
This lesson is highly suitable following a general introduction to
the problems of knowledge involved in ethics and politics. It is an
engaging and dynamic way to examine these problems in controversial,
A central concern of TOK is to explore how we arrive at standards,
axioms, truths and systems in ethics and politics and how we justify
decisions based upon them. For example, are basic human rights or democracy
based on universally applicable, objective knowledge or are they reached
through practical consensus? This lesson leads to fresh and practical
insight into the fundamental questions of ethics and politics and offers
a bridge to a TOK discussion of justice, law, political violence and
One of the functions of law is to define acts which, for the good of
the community, are not to be committed. More or less severe punishments
are set for violations of the law, and it is held that strict obedience
to the law is essential for peace and order. The aim of this lesson
is to explore the claim--and the problems of knowledge it involves--that
sometimes we have the right, and even the duty, to violate laws.
One way to begin this lesson is by dividing the class into small groups
to consider the following question: Is it ever justified, in a democratic
society, to break the law? After the groups have warmed up to the topic,
present to the whole class the case of the four women who broke into
the British Aerospace plant and did expensive damage to a Hawk fighter
aircraft (see focus source material below, item 1). Listen to class
reactions and then go to the discussion questions.
An alternative approach is to write the preliminary question on the
board and go directly to the case and the discussion questions.
Do not give the students any hints as to the aftermath of the "crime"
until students have had a chance to guess what the verdict was and discuss
the case. [Ed.: This is detailed on the OCC.]
Is it ever justified in a democratic society to break the law?
- What arguments could be put forth for and against the four women?
- What appeals to knowledge and truth might be involved?
- What is your verdict?
- Do you think the women were convicted or cleared?
- Consider a definition of civil disobedience (see focus source material
below, item 2) and then reevaluate your standpoint.
- Why did the women leave a video explaining who they were and what
their motives were at the scene of the crime?
- Why did they ring a news agency?
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There are usually students who have strong opinions for and against
civil disobedience, and this makes for lively discussion. There is a
good deal of disagreement among legal experts on the subject, and those
who commit it can be severely punished. The appropriateness of civil
disobedience in certain strictly defined circumstances is, however,
The existence of conflict among human beings is inevitable, and because
this is so, nonviolent means of resolving and waging conflicts are necessary.
This implies something essential about human knowledge. Unlike ants
and bees, each human being has the capacity to produce knowledge and
act on the basis of new knowledge. This ensures that knowledge is ever
changing, and that truth in practice remains uncertain. Civil disobedience
and nonviolent action offer visions of how one can challenge entrenched
ideologies, fixed truths, injustice, etc. in a radical way without resorting
to morally reprehensible means.
- Can we objectively know the "higher cause" or sense of
justice that advocates of civil disobedience appeal to? Can we know
it in the same way we know things in science?
- Watch the section of the film Gandhi about the Salt March to see
a dramatization of what radical civil disobedience is like. Note the
role of the reporter from the New York Times.
- Has anyone in the class participated in civil disobedience or nonviolent
- Invite an activist from the local community to come in and discuss
the knowledge and practical issues involved in civil disobedience
and nonviolent resistance.
- Do a TOK presentation on a related theme.
- To what degree does nonviolent action offer a practical alternative
to violent resistance? Examine violent resistance movements from around
the world and consider whether they might achieve their goals more
effectively through radical nonviolent action.
- What are the differences between civil disobedience, clandestine
nonviolent resistance, sabotage, violent struggle and terrorism? How
is each justified or rejected?
Links to Other Areas of
The examination of civil disobedience involves, in addition to ethics
and politics, at least the following TOK concerns: sources of knowledge;
justification of knowledge claims, theories of truth, the definition
of terms and demarcation of categories of action. We can also ask to
what extent are arguments for and against civil disobedience, and the
actual practice of nonviolent action, culture bound.
From Other Times and Places
What has come to be called civil disobedience, civil resistance and
nonviolent action has been used extensively all over the world in a
wide variety of social, political and environmental movements both in
democracies and against repressive colonial regimes and single party
states. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries it was often accompanied
by extensive discussions of the type of knowledge and justification
it involves, and by debates concerning both the moral and practical
problems raised by violent struggle. For more on these matters see the
works in the references section.
Focus source material
1. The "crime"
In 1996 four women peace campaigners attacked with hammers a British
Hawk fighter aircraft at Warton, a British Aerospace plant, doing
extremely expensive damage:
the women cut through Warton's seven-mile perimeter
fence, entered a secure hangar and damaged the jet in twenty-five
- "They left a 15-minute video in the cockpit, which was shown
to the jury, explaining their motives, and rang a news agency immediately
afterwards to say what they had done."
- The women argued that, "the jet's export would flout repeated
United Nations condemnations of Indonesian repression of the population
of East Timor."
- They claimed that they "had lawful excuse to disarm Hawk
ZH955 because they were using reasonable force to prevent a crime."
- They cited international and British legislation against genocide.
2. What is civil disobedience?
(See Huxley 1990, pp. 37-47; Rawls, pp. 363-371;
Sharp, pp. 315.)
Civil disobedience is a specific type of refusal to obey unacceptable
or illegitimate demands or legal requirements imposed by governments
and other authorities. Civil disobedience connotes the deliberate
exclusion of violence. Often such refusal is justified through appeal
to shared extra-legal values or a common sense of justice. Civil disobedience
is part of a family of forms of conscientious disobedience and resistance.
According to the philosopher John Rawls, civil disobedience is an
intentional nonviolent violation of law. It is communicative action
done openly in public, with fair notice given, and is addressed to
the sense of justice of the majority of the community. Those who commit
civil disobedience are aware of, and willing to accept, the legal
consequences of their action. M.K. Gandhi distinguished between reformatory,
defensive and revolutionary types of civil disobedience.
3. The verdict
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Attenborough, Richard. 1982. Gandhi. Columbia Pictures. [For
another film version of the Salt March, and other cases of nonviolent
resistance, see http://www.pbs.org/weta/forcemorepowerful/]
Huxley, Steven. 1990. Constitutionalist Insurgency in Finland: Finnish
"Passive Resistance" against Russification as a Case of Nonmilitary
Struggle in the European Resistance Tradition. Helsinki: Finnish
Huxley, Steven. 1993. "Nonviolence Misconceived? A Critique of
Civilian-based Defence." In Balzas, Judit and Wiberg, Håkan
eds. Peace Research for the 1990s. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado.
Martin, Brian. 1991. "Learning about 'Nonviolent' Struggle: Lessons
from Steven Huxley," in Nonviolence Today, No. 22, August-September
1991, pp. 11-14. A revised version appeared as "Steven Huxley and
'nonviolent' struggle", in Brian Martin, Social Defence, Social
Change. London: Freedom Press, 1993, pp. 38-49. Also available online
Randle, Michael. 1994. Civil Resistance. London: Fontana Press. Also
available online at http://www.ctv.gu.se/fred/resurser/bok/civilresistance.html.
Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University
Press [See pages 363-371.]
Sharp, Gene. 1973. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston:
Wainwright, Martin with Fairhill, David and Vidal, John. "Peace
Women Cleared over Jet Attack. Guardian Weekly, July 1996, p.
9. Available abridged online at http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/ip/global/coat/26/europe/eu29.