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No. 48, November 2003

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Can law-breaking be justified? Civil disobedience and knowledge

by Steven Huxley
Helsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu, Helsinki, Finland

A lesson in ethics and politics based on a case-study. Is it ever justified in a democratic society to break the law?


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 injustice.

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, true-to-life circumstances.


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 related issues.

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.

Focus Activity

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.]

Preliminary question

Is it ever justified in a democratic society to break the law?

Discussion Questions

  • 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?

Teacher Notes

Véase OCC, nota Huxley 1 para el contenido deste párrafo.

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, widely recognized.

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 action campaigns?
  • 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 TOK

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 places…."
  • "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

Véase OCC, nota Huxley 2 para el contenido deste párrafo.


Attenborough, Richard. 1982. Gandhi. Columbia Pictures. [For another film version of the Salt March, and other cases of nonviolent resistance, see]

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 Historical Society.

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 at

Randle, Michael. 1994. Civil Resistance. London: Fontana Press. Also available online at

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press [See pages 363-371.]

Sharp, Gene. 1973. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent.

Wainwright, Martin with Fairhill, David and Vidal, John. "Peace Women Cleared over Jet Attack. Guardian Weekly, July 1996, p. 9. Available abridged online at


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