Civil Disobedience: Protest, Justification and the Law

By Engelmann, Donna | Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Civil Disobedience: Protest, Justification and the Law


Engelmann, Donna, Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict


Civil Disobedience: Protest, Justification and the Law by Tony Milligan. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. Paper, 176 pages, $29.95. ISBN: 9781441132093

Tony Milligan, Honorary Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and author of Beyond Animal Rights (Continuum, 2010) and Love (Acumen, 2011), draws upon his previous work in a new book that will be valuable to both theorists and practitioners of civil disobedience. On his Amazon author page, Milligan says: "My feeling is that we need a new account of civil disobedience, one that is not modeled around the protests of decades ago but which will, instead, help us to understand contemporary protests," including environmental and animal rights protests, and the recent Occupy movement. The book is valuable not only because it re-examines the concept of civil disobedience in light of recent events, but also because it examines the main streams of the tradition of theory and practice of civil disobedience, in order to create a forward-looking account of civil disobedience for our time.

Milligan seeks to establish an open-textured definition which provides a basis for categorizing and analyzing protest movements and actions in terms of which are to be included and which excluded from the domain of CD. To that end he examines the communication model of civil disobedience proposed by John Rawls, as well as the versions of conscientious law-breaking advocated by Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., raising critical questions about the ideas of each one. Given that those who engage in CD have historically claimed special standing in the criminal justice system, the categorization of an act of protest as civil disobedience may have real consequences, since activists who claim that their conscientious acts of protest are not motivated by criminal intent expect a reduction in penalties for law-breaking not afforded to others. But does claiming an act or movement as a form of civil disobedience commit activists to uphold a pledge of non-violence, or to acknowledge the authority of the government and the legitimacy of the framework of law (to which the injustice of the law or policy they protest is an exception), orto make their acts public, or to love (in some fashion) their opponents? Milligan raises doubts about each of these traditional elements of the definition of civil disobedience, and points out that on these grounds some kinds of contemporary activism would not count as civil disobedience, and that many contemporary activists would be reluctant to have the forms of direct action they engage in bound by these restrictions. For instance, not all local encampments of the Occupy movement insisted upon the pledge of non-violence, and animal rights activists whose direct action consists in freeing captive lab and factory-farmed animals often do so covertly, rather than seeking publicity for their work. Anarchists refuse to recognize the authority of any government (a position they hold in common with Tolstoy, and to an extent, Thoreau) and even Martin Luther King, Jr. …

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