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Walter Bingham is a veteran journalist and broadcaster from London who now lives in Jerusalem. His weekly radio programme, Walter´s World, can be heard on Israel National

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Civil Disobedience or Blind Compliance? - opinion article

Civil Disobedience or Blind Compliance?
by Walter Bingham
Published: 04/13/07

Is there a right to engage in civil disobedience?

For a long time now, I have argued in my radio programmes that the only way to effect a change of policy of this government is by going out into the streets, and staying out, until our political rulers realise that the people no longer trust, respect or support them. In recent years, we have seen several such actions in other countries, with various systems of government, that were successful. Experience in 'democratic' Israel has shown that any attempts to act in this way have been unreasonably heavily punished by the courts.

So, what kind of consideration, if any, would make it morally right to engage in civil disobedience? When engaging in political philosophy one has to be clear about one's definition of politics. Broadly speaking, I see it as that part of human behaviour aimed at making people follow a path determined by others. For that reason, ever since Aristotle, men have asked, "In whose interest does the ruler rule?" They have analysed the comparative qualities of different systems of rule in terms of their own interest vis-a-vis other sections of the community. Their judgement, being subjective, is determined by their assessment of what constitutes a fair share of scarce value and whether they believe that they are getting it. These include a voice in the organisation of their society, as well as economic considerations, and involve both legal and moral matters. If we have delegated our legal right to the government, then we also have a moral right to expect its actions to conform to our wishesLegal, because it concerns the authority of the government to impose rules, and moral because they should be seen and believed to benefit all the people.

If we want to define the relevant considerations that would confer on us the moral right to engage in civil disobedience, then we first need to examine what kind of obligation we, as members of a state, have to the government and what the government's obligations are to us; also, what our rights are and how the ruling authority has acquired its right, if indeed it has one.
It can be argued, as the English philosopher John Locke did, that in a political society the people transfer certain natural rights to a representative to be 'in authority.' By such action, we have entered into a contractual obligation to abide by such laws as may be made by that authority, provided that they are for our benefit. It means that everyone who resides within the jurisdiction of our government has given at least their tacit consent and this is, therefore, a de jure authority. It follows that if what one considers to be 'the public good' is not being pursued by the government, then this consent can be withdrawn and the authority of that government need no longer be recognised; i.e. the contract is cancelled.

On the other hand, one may disagree with the contract theory, as the Scottish philosopher David Hume did. He held that those who give obedience to their ruler do so because they see it done by others and therefore feel obliged, rather as one is to parents. It then becomes a matter of familiarity with the practice. Hume said that "the mind is carried by habit." That model of authority is de facto, in which the government does not have the right to expect the obedience that it gets; but there seems to be an implied moral obligation to uphold the law, for the sake of the common interest, which is safeguarded by stability in government.

The foregoing are two different views concerning moral obligation of obedience to government. One which is direct and based on consent, the other an indirect obligation founded on the moral duty to further the common interest. According to Locke's account, the government rules of right, but the people also have the right to get the benefits that they expect. His concept of authority would therefore not allow for coercive power, because that would simply be an indication that the system has broken down and the contract would then be void. If a government uses its people's original consent for activities not expected by them - i.e., to hand territory to an enemy or to build fortifications instead of housing - then the moral obligation to obedience is removed. If the government defends such action as being in the national interest, then any moral justification for civil disobedience would hinge on the interpretation of, and the right to determine, the 'national interest.'

If we have delegated our legal right to the government, then we also have a moral right to expect its actions to conform to our wishes. We would therefore be justified to demonstrate this right. If, on the other hand, the government is thought to act as our representative, to do what it considers to be in our interest, then we are morally obliged to let it determine what our interest is. (Politicians always claim that it is their task to lead rather than to follow.) Civil disobedience would then be morally wrong.

This raises the important issue of a conflict between the moral obligation to comply with the law and our own concept of morality. It is arguable that a legal obligation to comply with the law is not, of itself, a moral one. If a law prescribes that a class of person shall be deprived of his home for no other reason that that he is a Jew living in a particular locality of the country, as happened in Gush Katif and the Shomron, then our concept of morality makes such a law devoid of that moral content, which would otherwise make obedience to it obligatory. Equally, in a de facto authority, on Hume's model, there can be no legal Both Locke Hume would have to condemn Sharon's actions. obligation and, by accepting the utilitarian principle of 'common interest' as the reason to obey the government, we also have a moral justification for disobedience if that interest is not served.

When Ariel Sharon expelled the Jews from Gush Katif, he did it, so it was implied, to advance the national interest, peace with our neighbours. If we accept the argument that the intended 'end' was moral, then the means were certainly not. Both Locke's and Hume's approach would have to condemn Sharon's actions. Even leaving aside the morality of the means, they were certainly not justified on the evidence of what is now seen to be the 'end.'

The question that arises is whether those who administered the law were acting morally towards its promised 'end', or whether they should have refused to carry out the means. If they sincerely believed that to remove 10,000 Jews from their homes would bring permanent peace with our neighbours, then, philosophically speaking, it could be argued that their actions served the common interest. But suppose that the IDF and police were convinced of the injustice of this law; they would then have been right to disobey for two reasons. Firstly, because the law was, in their eyes, now deprived of its moral force, and secondly because the obligation to administer justice exists independently of the law. Such a situation would then remove the utilitarian justification for such a law, because the consequences are not utilitarian.

If we live in a society where the right to settle in the area of one's choice is curtailed, then there is no freedom and we therefore cannot be deemed to have given our consent. That relieves us of the moral obligation of obedience to the law.

It is on this principle that I argue for continuing civil disobedience to force a change of government, to one that supports the permanent return to the destroyed areas of Gush Katif and the Shomron.

25 Nisan 5767 / 13 April 07


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