Disclaimer: I suck at philosophy.
I learned this crucial fact in my first college class of my first day in college. I was enrolled in what I would now call Philosophy 101. The professor, whom I would now call Baldy, told us at the outset that every freshman who had enrolled in the course expecting an easy breezy A writing incoherent papers dripping existential BS would show themselves most philosophic by dropping the course immediately. I stayed. As a result, 32 years later, I still wake up shuddering from a recurring nightmare in which I am called upon to write one single correct sentence explaining the point of Socrates' dialogue with Gorgias, and then the horror continues on, as I realize I can't do it wide awake either.
I spent five weeks not learning anything about said dialogue and spent the remainder of the course not learning anything about John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" and Henry David Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience.
I really had high hopes for Thoreau's dealy, because the book was just the kind I like, being small in all three dimensions and exceedingly light. But all I could come up with when called upon to explain what I had read was some 500 words to the effect that civil disobedience was a really nifty idea.
I think part of the problem was that Mr. Thoreau's examples were chosen from a time I had not existed. If he had used examples from, like, you know, now, it would have made more sense.
I have since acquired a better feel for the subject of civil disobedience. I have copped a feel, you could say. I would like to share, in a little Socratic exercise.
I will cite three examples from times when I have existed. My apologies to younger people who missed these. 1) Rosa Parks won't get up for white people, 1955. 2) Dr. Michael Lippman spraypaints a Seattle Camel cigarette billboard to say "...a whole new world OF CANCER," 1986. 3) Cheney and friends torture detainees for half this decade or more.
I'll start with the last first. Cheney's justification for waterboarding, etc., is straight out of "Civil Disobedience for Dummies." In essence: "Yes, we signed and ratified treaties outlawing it. Yes, (perhaps) those treaties have therefore the force of law, in accordance with our Constitution. But when American lives are at stake, a Higher Law must prevail." Cheney imagines himself as the Rosa Parks of the Post 9-11 World, innocent by virtue of bravely defying an unreasonable and unjust law for the sake of the people, to save lives. The torture memos were just a hedge allowing the "(perhaps)" to be inserted.
Dr. Lippman was caught and charged with a misdemeanor. He pled innocent on the grounds that cancer kills and cigarettes cause cancer and only by making that warning in large letters on that billboard could lives be saved. The law that said he may not deface that billboard, as it was someone else's property, had to give way to a Higher Good. He was innocent by virtue of defying a petty and unreasonable law unjust in its application, in order to save lives. And now nobody smokes.
Many liberals in Seattle then compared Lippman to Rosa Parks. To those of you too young to recall and who haven't had the history lesson, in 1955 Rosa Parks deliberately violated a law that said that a non-white person seated on a bus had to give up their seat to white people when told to do so by the driver, just as if all white people were disabled. She did it because the law was wrong, and she was jailed and later convicted of disorderly conduct and fined. And now we have a black president.
So here's the deal. Before you can pass Practical Philosophy For Everyday Applications, you have to figure out whether these are all justified uses of civil disobedience, and if one or two are not, why not?