Dworkin, Thoreau, and Civil Disobedience Essays

Dworkin, Thoreau, and Civil Disobedience Essays

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In Ronald Dworkin’s “Taking Rights Seriously,” he argues that the government cannot restrict the rights of individuals to do what they feel is morally right, as long as those individuals are willing to pay the legal consequences. In Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” he argues that men must always do what they think is right, especially when they think an aspect of government is not working. These arguments advocate civil disobedience in order to uphold one’s morals, but each has flaws regarding the relationship between the individual and society that must be fixed before the theories can be applied to society as a whole.
Dworkin begins with the assumption that the government does not establish or guarantee moral rights, and that people have more rights than what the government offers. He states that in the case of one trying to uphold a moral right by breaking a law, there are normally two sides that judge the act: conservatives, and liberals. Conservatives will more likely lean toward obedience to the law, and liberals are more sympathetic to the disobedient. Dworkin argues that both ultimately have the same viewpoint: men must follow their conscience, and if doing so breaks the law, then they must accept the consequences and submit to the judgment of the State. In other words, “…men have a duty to obey the law but have the right to follow their conscience when it conflicts with that duty”#.
He distinguishes between using “right” as a noun or as an adjective- one may have the “right” or prerogative, to act a certain way, but they may not be “right,” or justified, in acting that way. The government must understand this when creating legal rights; one may have the moral prerogative in their behavior, but the governmen...

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...l be made due to bickering over small aspects of their beliefs. But if individuals of a minority come together and decide on a general argument, they will be more likely to gain support and be more effective in making change happen.
Both authors make claims about the duty of men to follow their conscience when they are at odds with the government. But each underestimates the power of a group versus the power of an individual. Without a change in society, there can be no lasting change. Individuals can definitely inspire and motivate others to act, but in the end, there must be a large-scale action in order for rights to be won.

Works Cited

Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978) 187.

Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” in Walden and Other Writings (United States of America: Barnes and Noble, 1993) 279.

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