John Rawls & Civil Disobedience: Is Violence Ever Permissible?

It is often held that civil disobedience is permissible if it is non-violent. John Rawls defends this view in his book A Theory of Justice. But is this restriction just?

Jan 31, 2023By Joseph T F Roberts, PhD Political Philosophy

john rawls civil disobedience


In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that civil disobedience is only permissible as a means of effecting political change if it is non-violent. In this article we will consider Rawls’ case for strict non-violence, along with some possible counter-points; for example, it can be argued that violence against property (at least) is often justifiable.


Rawls’ Definition of Civil Disobedience

Portrait John Rawls
Portrait of John Rawls in 1971, via Harvard.


John Rawls defines civil disobedience as a ‘public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.’ (Rawls, 1971, p. 364). Civil disobedience is a communicative act, a form of speech through actions. It aims to ‘address the sense of justice of the majority of the community and declares that in one’s considered opinion the principles of social cooperation among free and equal persons  are no longer being respected’ (Rawls, 1971, p. 364).


Civil disobedience, in essence, consists in breaking the law as a way of making a point that the current state of affairs is unjust. There are two types of civil disobedience. First we have direct disobedience, where the law that is being broken is also the law which is considered unjust. For example, one may trespass on land to protest the fact that one is not allowed there. This is what occurred during the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout. In 1932, members of the Young Communist League trespassed on Kinder Scout in the UK’s Peak District to protest the fact that walkers were being denied access to the open countryside.


Rosa Parks Arrest
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted in 1956, via Wikicommons:


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The civil rights movement in the USA also made extensive use of direct civil disobedience. Rosa Parks’ protest, for instance, involved directly challenging the justice of Jim Crow laws that required black passengers to give up their bus seats to white passengers. Similarly, the Greensboro sit-ins, in which young African American students refused to leave a segregated lunch counter to protest segregation, were a form of direct civil disobedience.


Unlike direct civil disobedience, indirect civil disobedience aims to challenge the legitimacy of a particular law by breaking other laws. For instance, one might disobey traffic laws or trespass laws as ways of making one’s case that another law is unjust. Indirect civil disobedience is necessary because, in some instances, breaking the law that is considered unjust might be difficult or undesirable.


To give Rawls’ example, ‘if the government enacts a vague and harsh statute against treason, it would not be appropriate to commit treason as a way to object to it’ (Rawls, 1971, p. 365). A better way of bringing the injustice of the situation to the attention of the majority might be to occupy space in front of public buildings, or block roads, to interfere with the workings of government and make one’s case.


Civil Disobedience and Crime 

Muhammad Ali Portrait
Muhammad Ali in 1967, by Ira Rosenberg. Via the Library of Congress.


What distinguishes civil disobedience from simple law breaking is that, unlike your average criminal, a person who is engaging in civil disobedience operates within a general ‘fidelity to the law’. People who engage in civil disobedience accept that, in general, they have an obligation to obey the laws put forward by just democratic states. They are not opposed to the idea of being bound by the law, they are simply opposed to the content of particular laws.


To demonstrate this general fidelity to the law, civil disobedience involves protesting the law publicly, and not aiming to avoid capture. This differentiates civil disobedience from simple law-breaking. Whereas the law breaker will attempt to break the law secretively and take steps to avoid being caught, the person engaged in civil disobedience does not.


Like Muhammad Ali when he opposed the Vietnam War, those engaged in civil disobedience demonstrate their commitment to following the law in general by being willing to stand trial and take the punishment that accompanies their law breaking.


John Rawls and Civil Disobedience 

Civil Disobedience Sign
“Protesters vow more civil disobedience” sign, by Tony Webster, 2008. Via Wikimedia commons.


Now that we have an understanding of how John Rawls understands civil disobedience, it is time to turn to the question: when does Rawls think civil disobedience is justified? Are there any limits on when we are entitled to break the law publicly to communicate its injustice? Can any law be the legitimate target of civil disobedience?


At this point the reader might be asking themselves: why care what this particular dead white man thought about anything? Why focus on his views on civil disobedience? Why not focus on any one of the other philosophers who have relevant things to say?


The simple answer is that John Rawls’ 1971 book A Theory of Justice, and to a lesser extent his 1993 book Political Liberalism, is one of the most important and influential works in 20th century political philosophy. His influence is so vast that it has been said that one either writes with Rawls, or against him. One can’t simply side-step or ignore his work. Thus, anyone interested in contemporary political philosophy can’t go far wrong by starting with Rawls’ work.


With this prelude out of the way, it is time to focus on the task at hand. What is John Rawls’ view of civil disobedience?


When Is Civil Disobedience Permissible? 

Extinction Rebellion Protestor
Extinction Rebellion Protester in Melbourne, by Takver. Via Wikimedia commons.


Rawls establishes a number of conditions for civil disobedience. The first has already been mentioned. To distinguish it from simple law-breaking, civil disobedience must be public. Or, as Rawls puts it: ‘It is engaged in openly with fair notice; it is not secretive or covert’ (Rawls, 1971, p. 366). The reason for this limitation is that, unless it is public, civil disobedience can’t perform the communicative function it has to perform: telling the majority that a law is unjust.


The second condition is that civil disobedience, being a political action, must be motivated by a sense of justice. Simple self or group interest is not enough. Neither is simply holding a strong moral belief. Civil disobedience aims to address people’s understanding of justice; that is, what we owe each other as a matter of right. Saying ‘It would be better for me if X were not the case’ is not sufficient to prove that X is a substantial injustice which must be corrected.


The third condition Rawls imposes on permissible civil disobedience is that it must be targeted at serious injustices. Rawls takes this to mean that civil disobedience is only justifiable in order to protect basic civil liberties (Rawls, 1971, p. 372) and correct egregious violations of equality of opportunity (Rawls, 1971, p. 375). Anything less than this is, in Rawls’ view, not a legitimate target for disobedience.


Fourth, and relatedly, Rawls argues that civil disobedience ought to be seen as a last resort. Civil disobedience should only be used when ‘the normal appeals to the political majority have already been made in good faith’ (Rawls, 1971, p. 373) and these have failed.


Civil Disobedience and Violence 

Street Riot Minneapolis
Riot in Minneapolis, June 1934. Via the National Archives and Records Administration.


The final condition Rawls imposes is that civil disobedience must be non-violent. Rawls gives two reasons for this condition. The first is tied to the communicative function of civil disobedience:


‘To engage in violent acts likely to injure or hurt is incompatible  civil disobedience as a mode of address. Indeed, any interference with the civil liberties of others tends to obscure the civilly disobedient quality of one’s act’ (Rawls, 1971, p. 366).


The second is that by remaining non-violent, those who engage in civil disobedience can oppose a specific law while still demonstrating fidelity to the law in general. Engaging in non-violent disobedience helps establish that one is sincere in one’s convictions and genuinely committed to convincing others of the injustice of the situation.


Is Violent Disobedience Always Unjustified?

Sign Occupy Toronto
Sign in St James Park during Occupy Toronto, via Wikimedia commons.


One reason to doubt that all violence in the context of civil disobedience is impermissible is that violence might be used defensively. As civil disobedience is aimed at opposing significant injustices, it will be more justifiable (and more of it will be necessary) in more totalitarian states in which there are significant injustices. However, these states also tend to have repressive and violent police forces.


Using violence defensively against repressive state actors might not dilute the message that the protestors aim to convey: that the state is committing serious injustices. Neither need it demonstrate a lack of fidelity to the law in general. It might be seen simply for what it is: a refusal to be beaten and oppressed. Moreover, it might help convey the sincerity of the belief, as it proves to the majority of citizens that not only are they willing to break the law to be heard, they are willing to defend themselves from those who wish to silence them with violence.


A second response to John Rawls’ argument is to distinguish more clearly between violence against people and violence against property. Whereas violence against ordinary citizens might be impermissible, property destruction might not be (Delmas, 2016, p. 684). If property destruction is well targeted, for example the destruction of a militarized police vehicle, or the destruction of a controversial pipeline, the destruction of property doesn’t necessarily interfere with the communicative aspect of civil disobedience. Even if destroying the property of ordinary citizens and small business owners might make it hard to demonstrate that one is committed to justice, destroying the property of the police department or a major corporation needn’t involve a violation of the civil liberties of particular individuals. As a consequence, the  majority of citizens might still be able to hear the message that a severe injustice is occurring.


Non-Violence as a Strategy

kiss peace justice hyre
The Kiss of Peace and Justice by Laurent de La Hyre, 1654, via Wikimedia Commons.


Even if we might accept that violent disobedience isn’t always impermissible as a matter of principle, as a matter of political strategy it might be unwise to engage in violence. Non-violence often works well for individuals as it makes for powerful images that can galvanize support for the victims of injustice.


Simply put, violence is a turn-off to significant proportions of the population. It often breeds fear, and leads people to empathize more with the police who break up the protest than the situation of the victims of injustice. If the goal of civil disobedience is to effect change and improve the situation of victims of injustice, there will often be good reasons to disobey non-violently.




Delmas, Candice. (2016) ‘Civil Disobedience’ Philosophy Compass, Vol. 11, pp. 689-691

John Rawls. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.

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By Joseph T F RobertsPhD Political PhilosophyI am currently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Law and Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Prior to this, I completed my Ph.D. in Political Theory at the University of Manchester, where I wrote a thesis on the moral permissibility of Body Modification Practices and, specifically, whether or not we have the right to pursue them without being interfered with by others. My current research focuses on the limits of consent, embodiment, and the regulation of recreational drugs.