A significant shift appears underway in contemporary thinking about civil disobedience. While liberal Anglophone philosophers in the 1960s and 1970s regularly underscored how politically motivated law-breaking could be interpreted as supportive of the rule of law, present-day scholarly accounts frequently depict conscientious illegality as potentially expressing what Martin Luther King, a key political inspiration behind much of the academic debate, dubbed the “very highest respect for the law.” The initially paradoxical intuition that nonviolent law-breaking is sometimes necessary to preserve the law, that it constitutes what John Rawls aptly described as “disobedience to law within the limits of fidelity to law,” tends to vanish from the purview of recent theorists of civil disobedience. For a surprising range of thinkers, it is now anachronistic. For radical critics, it is time to move beyond the “hairsplitting legalistic” orientation of the standard liberal model, which forecloses possibilities for creative protest and stands in the way of far-reaching change.4 For many others, it is simply a matter of recognizing that civil disobedience is best understood primarily as a conscientious moral challenge to the law. The final result, in an event, obscures civil disobedience’s identifiably legal contours.
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