Candice Delmas, Duty to Resist: When Disobedience Should be Uncivil (OUP, 2018)

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What are our responsibilities in the face of injustice? How far should we go to fight it? Many would argue that as long as a state is nearly just, citizens have a moral duty to obey the law. Proponents of civil disobedience generally hold that, given this moral duty, a person needs a solid justification to break the law. But activists from Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi to the Movement for Black Lives have long recognized that there are times when, rather than having a duty to obey the law, we have a duty to disobey it.

Taking seriously the history of this activism, A Duty to Resist wrestles with the problem of political obligation in real world societies that harbor injustice. Candice Delmas argues that the duty of justice, the principle of fairness, the Samaritan duty, and political association impose responsibility to resist under conditions of injustice. We must expand political obligation to include a duty to resist unjust laws and social conditions even in legitimate states.

For Delmas, this duty to resist demands principled disobedience, and such disobedience need not always be civil. At times, covert, violent, evasive, or offensive acts of lawbreaking can be justified, even required. Delmas defends the viability and necessity of illegal assistance to undocumented migrants, leaks of classified information, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, sabotage, armed self-defense, guerrilla art, and other modes of resistance. There are limits: principle alone does not justify law breaking. But uncivil disobedience can sometimes be not only permissible but required in the effort to resist injustice.

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Resistors should generally seek the least harmful course of action feasible to achieve their (legitimate) goal, that is, from among those courses of action that have a reasonable chance of success. This constraint does not rise to the level of necessary condition for the justification of principled disobedience, in part because agents may sometimes justifiably settle for second or third best if, say, the least harmful course of action demands too much sacrifice on their part. That the course of action should have a reasonable chance of achieving the goal of resistance should not be misunderstood: it does not require that every act lead directly to reform or directly lessen oppression. Recall the variety of goals that may motivate resistance. A small act of everyday resistance, such as confronting a man’s catcall or misogynist tweet, may only get one harassed; it certainly will not, in itself, change sexist mores. Yet its aim may simply be to force this man to reflect on his treatment of women. And it may be that an aggressive confrontation, likely to further antagonize the man, would not have a reasonable chance of succeeding at making him think, but that it would be successful if the goal is simply for the woman to assert her dignity and express anger at being objectified. In short, the success of resistance should not be measured solely in terms of the (good) social consequences it brings about (through direct action or policy reform): it may instead be measured by whether and how well it gets its message across to its intended audience (including, at the limit, oneself).

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