Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Novice LD Sep/Oct 2013 - Civil Disobedience - Negative

Click here for part one of this series - Civil Disobedience - Definitions.

Negative Position

The fact this resolution specifies democracies, narrows the debate to the advantage of the Negative.  We know by definition, a democratic society is one which is of, for and by the people and not governed by the whims of a monarchy, dictator, tyrant, religious leader, or a non-representative form of leadership.  The laws in a democracy are, properly authored and enacted by duly elected representatives or the common consent of the governed.  Additionally, most democracies provide a means of redress and allow for laws to be amended or repealed.  Under these conditions, the rationale for civil disobedience is inappropriate.  Quite often, laws which may be considered unjust, stand due to a general lack of awareness of the harmful nature of the law.  In a democratic society such as the U.S. individuals have a right to oppose and to protest and sometimes, a well directed campaign aimed to enlightening public perception is all that is required to effect change.

Fortas 1968:
"This right to dissent may be exercised by the use of written and spoken words; by acts, such as picketing, which are sometimes referred to as "symbolic speech" because they are means of communicating ideas and of reaching the mind and the conscience of others; and by "peaceable" mass assembly and demonstrations. Ultimately, the basic means of protest under our system is the ballot box: the right to organize and to join with others to elect new officials to enact and administer the law."

The Negative side of the issue does have the advantage of using the harms/benefits evaluation of this law as an over-riding reason to reject the Affirmative position.  When the very act of disobedience results in harmful impacts the justification for disobedience on the basis of a moral standard becomes difficult because, while the judge is likely to assign value to the Affirmative point of view knowing the historical significance of peaceful disobedience, arguing significant negative impacts appeal to the pragmatic side of most judges.  The slippery-slope argument that tolerating disobedience establishes a precedence which erodes the rule of law and blurs the distinctions between justifiable and unjustified dissent, may benefit the Negative in a very practical way.

For the Negative, the issue of civil disobedience can be framed as a question about which is more important; absolute adherence to the law, or claiming it is permissible to disobey laws which do not have sufficient benefits or moral backing to legitimize them.  The justification for disobedience may then depend upon subjective or narrow standards which are not universally accepted in the democratic society in which the law functions.

The Democratic Social Contract

The principle of social contract theory is the idea that people willingly submit to the authority of the government in return for collective benefits such as protection for enemies and other results which support the common good.  Generally, the political philosophy of social contract theory is based upon the idea the government is granted authority based upon the common consent of the governed.  The consent of the governed is expressed in the rule of law.

A compelling argument, can be made that disobedience to a law, is an attempt to assert one's individual sense of morality upon the majority and promotes the will of the individual over the common will of the social structure. I think this is a very valid argument which requires a very high standard of proof the Affirmative position is one which is universally accepted.  Of course, if one assumes the Affirmative is universally beneficial then what kind of barrier exists which prevents the majority from repealing or changing the offending law using the normal means available to democratic societies?  If there is an inherent barrier to change, the moral course of action is remove the barrier rather than stand against the rule of law.

Another dilemma of sorts, arises for the Affirmative when we try to answer the question, how does one know whether or not the state is upholding the social contract?  If we allow that the state itself may declare its adherence to the social contract civil disobedience is unjustified.  If we decide only individuals can decide whether the state is upholding the social contract, it concedes that individuals may act upon their individual determination of the legitimacy of laws which is an open door to anarchy.

The rule of law as a just, democratic institution is dependent upon peoples' willingness to obey the law; even laws they do not like. The success of a society which directly contributes the benefits of societal living (consider the harms/benefits discussion in part two of this series) is enhanced by the members' willingness to compromise and at times lose for the mutual benefit of all (Hettinger, 2001).

When Standards are Not Standard

Laws are typically based upon some culturally recognized standards of right and wrong which vary from time-frame to time-frame and location to location.  Even in the U.S., for example, while slavery at one time was viewed as morally acceptable during a specific period of time in specific regions of the U.S., today slavery is no longer considered morally acceptable in any region of the U.S.  This demonstrates the principle that standards of morality are culturally relative and are dependent upon the nature of the society in which the standards are erected and further illustrates that as cultural attitudes change, the laws are changed to reflect the common will.

Pojman 1988:
"The conclusion--that there are no absolute or objective moral standards binding on all people--follows from the first two propositions. Cultural Relativism (the diversity thesis) plus the dependency thesis yields ethical relativism in its classic form. If there are different moral principles from culture to culture and if all morality is rooted in culture, then it follows that there are no universal moral principles valid for all cultures and all people at all times. Morality is merely a matter of convention."

Ayn Rand presents a political justification for civil disobedience only in so far as the purpose is to put the issue before a court of law.

Rand 1966:
"Civil disobedience may be justifiable, in some cases, when and if an individual disobeys a law in order to bring an issue to court, as a test case. Such an action involves respect for legality and a protest directed only at a particular law which the individual seeks an opportunity to prove to be unjust. The same is true of a group of individuals when and if the risks involved are their own."

Rand views any disobedience which infringes upon the rights of others as an "abrogation of morality".

Rand 1966:
(page 256)"But there is no justification, in a civilized society, for the kind of mass civil disobedience that involves the violation of the rights of others—regardless of whether the demonstrators’ goal is good or evil. The end does not justify the means. No one’s rights can be secured by the violation of the rights of others. Mass disobedience is an assault on the concept of rights: it is a mob’s defiance of legality as such. The forcible occupation of another man’s property or the obstruction of a public thoroughfare is so blatant a violation of rights that an attempt to justify it becomes an abrogation of morality. An individual has no right to do a “sit-in” in the home or office of a person he disagrees with—and he does not acquire such a right by joining a gang. Rights are not a matter of numbers—and there can be no such thing, in law or in morality, as actions forbidden to an individual, but permitted to a mob."


In the Affirmation section of this discussion (see here), I discussed the use of utilitarian and categorical imperative standards of morality.  Nevertheless, the same standards can be adapted to the Negative side in an effort to show the Affirmative side is on the wrong side of the moral debate.  Negative does need to choose its arguments carefully, however.  Do not attempt to defend a moral framework which proves the Affirmative position is immoral while at the same time claiming there is no standard of morality.  Your case will not endure such an obvious contraction.  Pick a framework and run with it.


Fortas, Abe; "Dissent and Civil Disobedience", Extracts, 1968

Hettinger, Ned; Environmental Disobediance; A Companion to Environmental Philosophy;2001

Pojman, Louis P.; An Argument Against Ethical Relativism; Professor of Philosophy, West Point Military Academy, 1988

Rand, Ayn; "Capitalism the Unknown Ideal"; New American Library, 1966


  1. good cross ex questions?

  2. I'm not sure what you're asking for. In order to come up with cross-x questions, someone needs to know your case, and the case you are going against. CX is very specific to the "in round" circumstances.


Feel free to leave comments relevant to the topics and activity of competitive high school debate. However, this is not a sounding board for your personal ideologies, abusive or racist commentary or excessive inappropriate language. Everyday Debate blog reserves the right to delete any comments it deems inappropriate.