The right to dissent: Hannah Arendt's defense of civil disobedience

Donna Hogans Engelmann, Marquette University


In her 1970 essay "Civil Disobedience" Arendt defended the right of American citizens to dissent from the laws and policies of the government, and in this dissertation I use Arendt's argument as a way of examining themes central to her work, and as a basis for my own argument in defense of civil disobedience. Arendt's argument presupposes a model of politics founded upon a strict distinction between public and private spheres of human life. In Chapter One I offer both my own criticisms of the public/private distinction and those proposed by feminist political philosophers Carole Pateman, Wendy Brown and Jean Bethke Elshtain. I suggest that the category of natality which Arendt proposes may serve as a basis for a reinterpretation of the relation between public and private. In Chapter Two I reconstruct the theory of political judgment presupposed in Arendt's model of politics from suggestions in her work, trace its source in Kant's Critique of Judgment, and defend her theory against criticisms that it fails to provide an adequate basis for judging political acts. In the third chapter, I present Arendt's theory of power, her view of the role of conscience and consent to authority in politics, and the argument in defense of civil disobedience which follows from these views. I compare it to John Rawls's defense of civil disobedience in A Theory of Justice, and argue that while Rawls's theory shows promise for including response to social issues in civil disobedience, as Arendt's theory does not, that nevertheless that promise is not fulfilled. In Chapter Four I turn to Ronald Dworkin's arguments in Taking Rights Seriously and A Matter of Principle for a more complete account than Arendt's of the rights of civil disobedients against democratic governments. I argue for a rights-based justification for civil disobedience and examine current examples of executive and judicial restraint of civil disobedience in the light of that justification. I argue that these restraints pose a threat to the right (in Dworkin's strong sense) to dissent. Finally, I suggest that the position that I have advocated for wider liberty for civil disobedients, which accepts many important features of Arendt's theory, enjoins civil disobedients to act with humility and with respect for the views of other citizens. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Recommended Citation

Engelmann, Donna Hogans, "The right to dissent: Hannah Arendt's defense of civil disobedience" (1993). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9325674.