One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
First, civil disobedience is public in the sense that the protestors do not hide their identity, and instead accept full responsibility – including any criminal punishment that may be forthcoming – for their lawbreaking. Second, it is intended as a form of communication with one’s fellow citizens, in contrast to vigilantism that seeks to coercively impose one’s desired objectives. Civil disobedience is thus primarily symbolic rather than instrumental. As Rawls explains, “it may be understood as addressing the sense of justice of the majority in order to urge reconsideration of the measures protested and to warn that, in the sincere opinion of the dissenters, the conditions of social cooperation are not being honored.” This means that civil disobedience should be directed at public actors (including the citizenry in general) – the harassment of private actors is more akin to coercive direct action.
These conditions help to protect against the two risks identified in the previous section. The symbolic and non-coercive nature of civil disobedience is consistent with civic respect for one’s fellow citizens and the rule of law generally. The protestors – unlike vigilantes – are not trying to “take the law into their own hands”. Instead, they martyr themselves against the criminal justice system, without causing undue harm to others, in hopes of appealing to the conscience of their fellow citizens. Democratic sovereignty is retained, as political power remains with the majority. The latter are not coerced, but simply invited – with purely moral force – to consider the concerns of the protestors.
By accepting full punishment under the existing laws, the protestors then reinforce their commitment to the rule of law. As Wofford writes, paraphrasing Gandhi, “we so respect the law that when we think it is so unjust that in conscience we cannot obey, then [we say] we belong in jail until that law is changed.” The threat of punishment also serves as a disincentive against unconscientious violations of the law. Together with the humble and fundamentally co-operative goals of civil disobedience as identified above, this helps to protect such protest against abuse, ensuring that little harm is done even by those with deeply mistaken moral convictions.