Edward L. Kimball: Civil Disobedience

In 1969 to 1971, my father, Edward L. Kimball, was on the editorial board for a short-lived periodical: The Carpenter: Reflections of Mormon Life. A week ago, on Christmas, I posted an excerpt from my father’s Carpenter article “Creative Stewardship,” coauthored with Keith Warner. Today, New Year’s Day, let me post an excerpt from another article my Dad published in The Carpenter: “Civil Disobedience.” (It appeared in no. 2, Summer 1969, on pages 7-14.) I excerpted with an eye toward choosing things of interest to a general audience. Those whose who personally remember the Vietnam war will find it especially interesting. I’ll have a few comments afterwards. 

… under ordinary circumstances, obedience to law is a virtue. … This is … acceptable when the law is morally neutral–requiring payment of taxes, the obtaining of an occupational license, or compliance with traffic rules which involve no question of safety. This principle, however, raises difficult questions when compliance with law seems to the citizens to foster some evil. …

An important consideration is that the principle of obedience to law is entitled to a strong presumption. This is true of bad laws as well as good laws. … This is consistent with our acceptance, in the United States, of government by representatives and by majority vote. Acceptance involves a willingness to abide by decisions with which one disagrees, in the belief that in the long run the majority will is preferable to the will of any elite. We dare reject the law only when it is so basically destructive that obedience is intolerable. 

Before one undertakes to commit unlawful acts, he ought to be clear about the facts. The difficulty of knowing what the real facts are, and the real consequences of alternate courses of action, can be overwhelming. The question, for example, as to what we should do in Viet Nam depends on the facts. If the withdrawal of American troops would lead to the fall of South Viet Nam, the slaughter of its citizens, the collapse of free nations in Southeast Asia and Communist dictatorship over millions of unwilling subjects, then we might conclude that we should fight on, however difficult and costly it might seem. 

On the other hand, it it can be said that with American withdrawal these alleged consequences would not occur or that in any event they would occur ultimately, we might well conclude that we are merely squandering lives and resources to no good end. Much of the debate over Viet Nam is futile because it proceeds upon factual assumptions on which the debating parties disagree. 

As basic as is the need for accurate factual information, it is important that we not hide behind our own ignorance. It would be too easy to say that we must support American policy because we are ignorant of the merits of the dispute. If information is to be had, we have an obligation to seek it out. On the other hand, when information is unobtainable, the presumption against civil disobedience should surely govern. One is free to use lawful means of influencing policy or protesting, even on the basis of partial information; but when he chooses to transcend the law he ought to be very sure of his ground. 

We have need of humility; we need a healthy skepticism of our own views. We are all in the wrong on occasions, and before we set ourselves above the law it is incumbent upon us to consider how likely it is this is one of those occasions. When a jury is unable to agree on a verdict because of one or two dissenters, the judge will instruct them that while they need not give up their conscientious feelings, they should consider whether, in light of the fact that all the other jurors feel differently, their view may be in error.

The strength of one’s feelings is not a fair test of its accuracy; his feeling of sureness does not make him right. 

Part of that humility should be awareness that we may be influenced, perhaps subconsciously, by self-interest. The fact that self-interest is involved does not invalidate in itself the decision, but it needs to be included in the calculus.  

Still another aspect of the need for caution in engaging in civil disobedience is the tremendous destructive power of the individual. A small number of dedicated men can often bring a major institution to a halt. It is so much easier to tear down than to build that the power to obstruct or destroy must be used with greatest reluctance. 

The man who considers civil disobedience must weigh not only the immediate consequences of his act, but how it may affect the decisions of others. The precedent for violation of the law is easily extended by others to use of force and even to terrorism. Ghandi once terminated a campaign of passive resistance because some of his followers turned to violence. The arguments are so similar that refined distinctions among them may be lost upon others. And it is also essential to predict the reaction of persons in opposition. If the response of others to one’s disobedience to law is harshly repressive, much more may be lost than gained. The law is the ultimate safeguard of the dissenter who is not prepared for revolution. There is a great pool of irrationality in the community, which is largely restrained by a general commitment in the society to the ideal of adherence to law. If disobedience leads either to anarchy on the one hand, or dictatorial control on the other, it will have destroyed the very structure which gives broad protections to minority viewpoints. 

If, as Herbert Marcuse has urged, the American system is hopelessly corrupted through control by vested interest of the minds of the people then perhaps any means to destroy that tyranny is proper. The question is again one of fact. If there is still considerable opportunity for dissenting views to be heard and for policy to be changed, then the subversion of the existing system is wastefully destructive. It is often difficutl for the young to understand that to be heard is not the same as to be obeyed. Their great certainty and impatience lead them readily to civil disobedience. On the other hand, their elders may be so sunk in complacency that they do not seriously consider that the factors mentioned above, for all their caution against disobedience, may nonetheless lead to the conclusion that the presumption is overcome and the violation of civil law is justified. 

… We are faced with the possibility of error on both sides–relying placidly on our ignorance as a basis for doing nothing or acting upon well-intentioned impulse without having considered well enough the fundamental social value and … obligation to live within the law.  

ran the following comments past my Dad, who is now 84. He leaned toward agreeing. But I don’t know whether or not his 38-year old self who wrote the article would have agreed.

First, the problem with saying

On the other hand, when information is unobtainable, the presumption against civil disobedience should surely govern.

is that often information is unobtainable precisely because the government is keeping secrets. It seems to me to be stacking things too much in the favor of a potentially oppressive government to say one should always defer to the government when one is quite uncertain. In particular, it seems the presumption should not be so strong against civil disobedience to cause government secrets to be revealed if one does not already know those secrets. If one does know those secrets, then one is responsible for judging the consequences carefully with some deference. But there is at most a weak presumption against the civil disobedience of breaking in to find out the secrets and then make one’s judgement if, given what little information one has before getting hold of those secrets one has legitimate reason to suspect that those secrets maybe should be revealed. But to repeat, the weakness of the presumption against civil disobedience to get access to secrets is only for those who do not already know those secrets. The civil disobedience of those who do know must be judged in the usual way.

I talked about the government and other people’s secrets previously in “The Government and the Mob.”

Second, my Dad’s use of the example of a requirement to get an occupational license as morally neutral seems to me a quaint relic of the days before the rampant overgrowth of occupational licensing requirements seen today. Indeed, when given a chance to judge, the Supreme Court has on many occasions declared an occupational licensing requirement as an unconstitutional abridgement of the freedom to make a livelihood. Now I think that many occupational licensing requirements are highly immoral. I have written about the morality of occupational licensing requirements before:

On this topic of occupational licensing, you may also be interested in these posts: