Kim Davis, Edward Snowden: Justifying Civil Disobedience

Kim Davis is the Kentucky clerk now-famous for illegally refusing to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Edward Snowden is the government contractor now-famous for illegally revealing to the public classified activities of US and foreign intelligence services.


Both knowingly broke the law out of the basis of their moral convictions. There are other examples of this throughout history: members of the military refusing orders they believed wrong, authorities turning a blind eye to illegal activities whose prohibition they thought unjust.

Odds are very good that you either approve of what Kim Davis did and disapprove of what Edward Snowden did, or vice-versa. To most people, one is a hero defying unjust authority, while the other is either a traitor (Snowden) or an extremist undermining the Constitution on the basis of personal feelings (Davis).

Something to consider: how do we justify civil disobedience, particularly in the case of those employed by the government to do a particular job? Other than the law itself, by what standard can we measure and judge the actions of folks who break the law for reasons they believe to be morally right?

As a society, should we have a selective standard (some forms of civil disobedience are good and forgivable, others not)? If so, how can we consistently sort which forms are acceptable, and which not?

Or should we have an absolute standard? That is, should we have a certain judgment (or practical reaction, devoid of moral judgment) no matter the reasons for the civil disobedience?

It’s a very open question: leave your thoughts in comments below!


Erik Fogg

US political and cultural dialogue is broken, and we intend to change that. We're starting by giving you Something to Consider.