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Occupy Central
CommentInsight & Opinion

Moral questions surrounding Occupy Central's civil disobedience campaign

Shannon Gong and Olivia Gong ask whether an illegal act of civil disobedience as planned by the Occupy Central campaign can be justified, however noble its aims may seem to organisers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 July, 2013, 4:15am

Lately, people toting vibrant banners bearing catchy slogans that either endorse or condemn the "Occupy Central" movement swarmed the streets of Hong Kong. They reflect a city deeply divided over electoral reform, ever since Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting first proposed the campaign in a newspaper article in January this year. The proposal claims to be an act of civil disobedience with the ultimate goal of achieving "real" universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017 and of the Legislative Council in 2020.

Civil disobedience is the refusal to comply with certain laws as a peaceful form of political protest. The idea is to amass public sympathy to force the government to satisfy the dissenters' demands for "justice" - in this case "real" universal suffrage. Even a child knows breaking the law is wrong. So how, if ever, can breaking the law be justified?

University of Michigan philosophy professor Carl Cohen, author of Civil Disobedience: Conscience, Tactics and the Law, suggests that we examine civil disobedience from two perspectives - legal and moral.

It is a higly complicated and weighty task for Professor Tai and his co-organisers

Take an example from Victor Hugo's classic novel Les Misérables. The character, Jean Valjean, stole a loaf of bread to save his dying nephew and was then held captive in jail for 19 years. In law, he committed the crime of theft. Common sense and logic tell us that, under the law, what he did was wrong. Yet our moral conscience suggests that his attempt to save his nephew was right. Natural human instincts dictate that in some very special circumstances, it might be "OK" to break the law.

It is impossible to make a legal justification for doing something illegal, so the only ground left to justify an illegal act is from a moral perspective. We can conveniently classify moral justifications into two branches - "higher law" and "utilitarian" justifications.

Higher law is the concept that some unwritten universal values exist above the law. These principles are in some way tied to moral conscience and are so significant that they outmatch any conflicting legal obligations.

For instance, Martin Luther King Jnr was well-known for repeatedly using the "higher-law" defence to justify his civil disobedience movement in the 1960s. In disobeying segregation laws that championed discrimination, he argued, "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws". The difference between a just and an unjust law is that an unjust law is out of harmony with the "moral" law. If certain universal moral standards are not met, one should be obliged to disobey that law.

In essence, organisers of Occupy Central bear the heavy burden to fully argue that some truly fundamental universal principles are so significant such that they morally propel the illegal occupying of a certain area in the Central district.

The second possible means to justify civil disobedience through moral argument is the concept of utilitarianism. Here, the standards of right and wrong are to be measured by whether the act in question would achieve "the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people possible".

In other words, the dissenter has to demonstrate that his disobedience of a particular law, taking into account the normal punishment that would ensue, is likely to lead in the long run to a better or more just society than if he didn't disobey the law.

To form his argument, he must weigh all aspects of the consequences of the illegal act. To successfully argue his case in front of the public, the analysis must be thorough in its depth, accuracy and sophistication.

For example, Professor Tai must evaluate practical aspects such as the degree of injustice that anything other than "real" universal suffrage would bring to the community, the extent that previous means to seek termination of this injustice through ordinary channels have proved disastrous, the expense that would be incurred by the community as a consequence of the disobedience, and the likelihood of injury done to persons or property as an indirect result of the disobedient act.

Most importantly, he must contemplate meticulously the likely outcome of the disobedience and especially whether the public can actually exert pressure on the "real" game changers, arguably the Beijing authorities.

The reality is that civil disobedience is rarely justified. It is a highly complicated and weighty task for Professor Tai and his co-organisers to take on.

Of course, ultimately every individual will have to decide for himself or herself if Occupy Central can be justified.

But perhaps too much emphasis has been focused on the final stage of actually occupying the streets of Central. More attention should be placed on the core of the entire campaign - that is, engagement. In this respect, let's not deny that the controversies of the Occupy Central proposal have already generated healthy, though occasionally intense, discussions over the conceptions of justice, democracy, the rule of law and other fundamental values throughout all sectors of the society.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: continual dialogues are healthy signs of a city that consistently strives for improvement for the well-being of its citizens and a more just society.

Shannon Gong is a legal research assistant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong with experience in the Legislative Council. Olivia Gong is a research project manager at McGill University


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So sorry that his differing views of how the SAR should be governed offend you so. Some people want to have a say in their governance and some want do not. At least we know you want Beijing to tell you how to live. Others apparently disagree. That is why it is a debate, but the masters in Beijing do not want that. They want all to be good little slaves, just like in the Mainland, all bowing to their orders. We disagree. We think HK people are capable of ruling themselves. We are a diverse culture of people who are far more worldly than our Big 6 cousins. We are capable. Sorry that we disagree that the masters should order us around as slaves but we do disagree.
Perhaps you should learn to argue based on the contents of an argument, not ad hominem.
Yet, don't get me wrong - I am no fan of Burke either. Quite the contrary indeed, I'd rather see most of his reactionary and conservative thought sink into oblivion. But his earlier, more liberal writings contain nuggets of insights. The -truncated- passage below is a good example in my humble opinion.

Either way, this is not the time or place to discuss the merits or flaws of Edmund Burke. The point I am trying to make is that it is not Occupy Central that needs moral justification. If anything, is it is the Hong Kong kleptocratic, unelected, unaccountable and increasingly incompetent (even something as simple as the city's waste policy is too much to handle apparently) government that needs justifying.

By the way, Burke's position on this is actually very Confucian avant-la-lettre. As I am sure every 'hardworking Chinese' person knows, Confucius and later followers were very clear about the right to revolt against unjust rulers. Combine this with their respect for authority and tradition, Confucius and Burke might actually have hit it off had they been contemporaries. Anyway.

As for the two-thirds of your comment that as usual exists of insulting, racist, anti-Western and anti-capitalist ranting - I shall ignore it. Such frothing really doesn't meet the minimum standards of reasonable and civilised discourse and a self-respecting adult should really know better.
Uh ... Gong Duo, what about the elephant in your room: breach of the BASIC LAW? Occupy Central is directed at breach, by our appointed government, of our constitution. Your article is an interesting debate about tangential matters but here we are talking about minimal civil disobedience in the face of fundamental constitutional lawlessness.
"It is impossible to make a legal justification for doing something illegal, so the only ground left to justify an illegal act is from a moral perspective."
hard times !
agree with what the writer says
ultimately everyone in town
has to decide whether the
'Occupy Central' Movement
is justified or not
as its purpose is to seek
a more just and fair
society which every
qualified voter is allowed
both to vote and to be
voted---run for office
no so-called a 'filter out'
mechanism---to get rid
of any unfavourable candidates
in Beijing's eyes !
a fair election for all to
otherwise,the Movement
will be materialized
next July in 2014
when part of our
Central District
will be occupied
by up to ten thousand
protesters who ask
for a real universal suffrage
and these people
especially the organisers
maybe charged with
illegal gathering and blocking
public places
and be put in jail or
be fined heavily
but not the students
who should be refrain
from it for it will
affect their future
yet they should realize
the meaning of
the Movement
through their teachers
or speeches by
the organisers
who are selfless
and courageous enough
to sacrifice their time
and careers for
a decent aim----a real
universal suffrage
in 2017 for the election
of our chief executive
and 2020 for the election
of our lawmakers.
Salute to these
three organisers who
lead us in this
civil disobedience
something like those
staged by India's
Gandhi in the
last century in India
"In cases of tumult and disorder, our law has invested every man, in some sort, with the authority of a magistrate.  When the affairs of the nation are distracted, private people are, by the spirit of that law, justified in stepping a little out of their ordinary sphere.  They enjoy a privilege of somewhat more dignity and effect than that of idle lamentation over the calamities of their country.   (…)

I have nothing to do here with the abstract value of the voice of the people.  But as long as reputation, the most precious possession of every individual, and as long as opinion, the great support of the State, depend entirely upon that voice, it can never be considered as a thing of little consequence either to individuals or to Government.  (…)

Nations are not primarily ruled by laws; less by violence.  Whatever original energy may be supposed either in force or regulation, the operation of both is, in truth, merely instrumental.  (…)  The temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought therefore to be the first study of a statesman.  And the knowledge of this temper it is by no means impossible for him to attain, if he has not an interest in being ignorant of what it is his duty to learn."

From 'Thoughts on the Present Discontents,' Edmund Burke (1770)
In other words, it is corrupt and failed government authority that requires (moral or other) justification, not the protest against it. I suggest Mesdemoiselles Gong discuss the morality of a self-enriching un-elected government in their next piece.


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