In the late 1960s, Sidney Hook wrote a lucid essay on democracy and social protest. Hook defined his position as “neither blind obedience nor uncivil disobedience.” Citizens in a liberal democracy, he said, “are free to disagree with a law but that so long as it remains in force they have a prima facie obligation to obey it.” The presumption should be against illegal action. When someone breaks a law they deem unjust, say, to dramatize why it is wrong, they should face the consequences.
The onus must be on the protester to justify themselves to their fellow citizens. Hook’s rationale for this belief was to “escape the twin evils of tyranny and anarchy.”
Tyranny is avoided by virtue of the freedom and power of dissent to win the uncoerced consent of the community. Anarchy is avoided by reliance on due process, the recognition that there is a right way to correct a wrong, and a wrong way to secure a right. To the extent that anything is demonstrable in human affairs, we have held that democracy as a political system is not viable if members systematically refuse to obey laws whose wisdom or morality they dispute.
Hook went on to condemn those “ritualistic liberals” who would substitute “for the absolutism of law, something very close to the absolutism of individual conscience.”
Properly rejecting the view that the law, no matter how unjust, must be obeyed in all circumstances, they have taken the view that the law is to be obeyed only when the individual deems it just or when it does not outrage his [or her] conscience. Fantastic comparisons are made between those who do not act on the dictates of their conscience and those who accepted and obeyed Hitler’s laws. These comparisons completely disregard the systems of law involved, the presence of alternatives of action, the differences in the behavior commanded, in degrees of complicity of guilt, in the moral costs and personal consequences of compliance, and other relevant matters.
It is commendable to recognize the primacy of morality to law, but unless we recognize the centrality of intelligence to morality we stumble with blind self-righteousness into moral disaster. Because, Kant to the contrary notwithstanding, it is not wrong sometimes to lie to save a human life, because it is not wrong sometimes to kill in defense to save many more from being killed, it does not follow that the moral principles: “Do not lie!” “Do not kill!” are invalid. When more than one valid principle bears on a problem of moral experience, the very fact of their conflict means that not all of them can hold unqualifiedly. One of them must be denied. The point is that such negation or violation entails upon us the obligation of justifying it, and moral justification is a matter of reasons not of conscience. The burden of proof rests on the person violating the rules. Normally, we don’t have to justify telling the truth. We do have to justify not telling the truth. Similarly, with respect to the moral obligation of a democrat who breaches his political obligation to obey the laws of a democratic community. The resort to conscience is not enough. There must always be reasonable justification.
Conscience, like so many human facilities, is fallible. It can be less righteous than it seems:
Conscience by itself is not the measure of high or low moral ground. This is the work of reason. Where it functions properly the democratic process permits this resort to reason. If the man [or women] of conscience loses in the court of reason, why should he [or she] assume that the decision or the law is mistaken rather than the deliverances of his [or her] conscience?
The voice of conscience may sound loud and clear. But it may conflict at times not only with the law but with another man’s [or woman’s] conscience. Every conscientious objector to a law knows that at least one man’s [or woman’s] conscience is wrong, viz., the conscience of the man [or woman] who asserts that his [sic, recurs] conscience tells him that he must not tolerate conscientious objectors. From this if he is reasonable he should conclude that when he hears the voice of conscience he is hearing not the voice of God, but the voice of a finite, limited man [or woman] in this time and in this place, and that conscience is neither a special nor an infallible organ of apprehending moral truth, that conscience without conscientiousness, conscience which does not cap the process of critical reflective morality, is likely to be prejudice masquerading as a First Principle or a Mandate from Heaven.
The activist left, in Hook’s day as in ours, often claims that illegal protests are an exercise of democracy. In doing so, they are guilty of rhetorical deception. They redefine democracy not as “the presence or absence of democratic institutions,” but by “whether or not they get their political way.” The underlying conceit is authoritarian:
The rules of the game exist to enable them to win and if they lose that’s sufficient proof the game is rigged and dishonest. The sincerity with which the position is held is no evidence whatsoever of its coherence. The right to petition does not carry with it the right to be heard if that means successfully influencing those to whom it is addressed. What would they do if they received incompatible petitions from two different and hostile groups of petitioning citizens? The right of petition gives one a chance to persuade, and the persuasion must rest on the power of words, on the effective appeal to emotion, sympathy, reason, and logic. Petitions are weapons of criticism, and their failure does not justify appeal to the criticism of weapons. Some groups that have resorted both to civil and uncivil disobedience justify themselves by claiming that the authorities did not listen to their demands on the ground that their demands were not granted. This begs all the questions about the legitimacy and the cogency of the demands.
When the activist left resorts to rioting or worse, a threshold has been breached. Liberals are no longer dealing with overzealous allies who made a poor choice of tactics. We are dealing with enemies of the open society.