Document Type : Research Article


Philosophy Senior Instructor and Advisor, School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, Oregon State University, Corvallis, USA.


An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The following paper will present the theory and possibilities of implication of the phenomenon of civil disobedience understood as one of the most powerful and most effective tools of democratic society when it comes to implementing the necessary and indispensable changes required for the improvement of the political domain and the social public sphere.
  In the first part I will present the narrow but orthodox and widely discussed definition of civil disobedience presented by John Rawls in his Theory of Justice (1971). Given such a definition, as well as the major conditions under which the actions undertaken in the name of civil disobedience can be justified, I will focus my analysis on two major aspects of the discussed notion.
  Firstly, I will discuss civil disobedience, which is in its essense an unlawful act, paradoxically expresses the highest respect for the positive law by the person performing the civilly disobedient act through one’s submission to the judgment of the law which is an object of one’s protest. This way, civil disobedience presents itself as the phenomenon which, not having a legal recognition (not being legalized), holds super-legal force required to impose the changes on the unjust legal system or on the particular unjust regulation.
  Secondly, I will point out that civil disobedience, as a public act performed by the people (the subjects of the particular law), expresses the will of the people and, therefore, it can not be used (by themselves) in the ways contradictory to their best self-interest but always supported by the “the commonly shared sense of justice” (Rawls). From this premise I conclude that the universal human rights, as thier supporters claim, are one of the main ends of the political activism in the recent decade and should be advocated in the civilly disobedient manner.
  In the last part I will contrast the Rawlsean definition with a much broader and more relevant understanding of civil disobedience when it concerns today’s globalizing world. In this world, the nation-states cease to be the only political actors when confronted with the transnational public sphere, and, therefore, the understanding of civil disobedience as a transversal arena of public dissent presented by Roland Bleiker (2000) is more appropriate. In this definition civil disobedience becomes, not only a political instrument of particular subjects of a particular society, but it also becomes a tool for the international mobilization of means and of people in the name of presenting and imposing the respect for the universal human rights despite the national borders and societal paradigms. 


  1. A) Books & Articles
  • Amstutz, M.R. (2008). International Ethics, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Arendt, H. (1971). “Civil Disobedience”, in: Is Law Dead?, ed. E.V. Rostow, New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Bedau, H.A. (1991). Civil Disobedience in Focus, London: Routledge.
  • Benhabib, S. (2004). The Rights of Others, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bleiker, R. (2000). Popular Dissent, Human Agency and Global Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fortas, A. (1968). Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience, New York: World Publishing/New American Library1968.
  • Gandhi, K. (1970). Non-Violent Resistance, New York: Dover Publications.
  • Gauld, C.C. (2004). Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Galtung, An Editorial: Journal of Peace Research, 1964(1).
  • Rawls, (1971). Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Zinn, H. (1971). Disobedience in Democracy, New York: Vintage Books.


  1. B) Websites
  • Baljit Singh Grewal, Johan Galtung: Positive and Negative Peace, at:
  • Bentouhami, H. (2007). Civil Disobedience from Thoreau to Transnational Mobilizations: The Global Challenge, Essays in Philosophy. A Biannual Journal, Vol. 8, No. 2, June 2007, Available at: 
  • Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Lecture, Oslo, December 10, 2003 available at: