Civil Disobedience and Nuclear Protest

Philosophical writing about civil disobedience tends to reach only the vaguest of conclusions: that it is normally wrong to disobey the law in a democratic society, but that in some circumstances civil disobedience may be justified, provided the issue is sufficiently serious and weighty and alternative methods have been tried without success. That of course leaves all the important practical questions untouched. Having myself found it difficult to see where one goes from there, I am much in sympathy with the stated aim of Dworkin’s paper ‘Civil Disobedience and Nuclear Protest’.1 That aim is to develop “a working theory” which, by distinguishing between different kinds of civil disobedience, might enable us to base decisions about the rightness of civil disobedience on a recognition of the kinds of convictions involved, rather than on our particular views about the substantive issues at stake. welcome the philosophical enterprise, then, but I find myself at odds with Dworkin’s political conclusion: that whatever one thinks about the issue of nuclear deterrence and disarmanent, and in particular about the decision to station new American nuclear missiles in Western Europe, it is very difficult to justify civil disobedience as a way of protesting about an issue of this kind. Dworkin offers his argument as a “challenge” to “those who advocate this form of disobedience” and who “now have the burden of showing how a working theory could accept it” (p. 113).  I should like to take up that challenge.



1. In Ronald Dworkin, A Matter of Principle (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 1985). The paper was originally presented to a conference of the German Social Democratic Party in Bonn in 1983.

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