Uncivil Disobedience: Political Commitment and Violence

Res Publica 24 (4):475-491 (2018)
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Standard accounts of civil disobedience include nonviolence as a necessary condition. Here I argue that such accounts are mistaken and that civil disobedience can include violence in many aspects, primarily excepting violence directed at other persons. I base this argument on a novel understanding of civil disobedience: the special character of the practice comes from its combination of condemnation of a political practice with an expressed commitment to the political. The commitment to the political is a commitment to engaging with others as co-members in the on-going political project of living together. I show how such an understanding of civil disobedience is superior to the Rawlsian strain of thought, which focuses on fidelity to law. Rawls was concerned with civil disobedience solely in the context of overriding political obligation. The project of characterizing a contestatory political practice that can be distinguished and used in a wider variety of contexts than Rawls is concerned with, including under illegitimate regimes, beyond the nation-state, or on behalf of anarchism, requires a different understanding of civil disobedience.

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N. P. Adams
University of Virginia


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