A Conception of Individual Reparations
Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” has served as a template of sorts for civil disobedience for generations after. A large concern of Thoreau’s is the concept of “conscience”. Coming from a man whose intellectual pursuits are largely associated with solitude and “free thinking” it is not surprising that his justification of resistance to government, specifically in the form of tax refusal, centers on the importance of what at first glance might look like his own moral purity. However, upon further examination we can see that his supposed self-centeredness is actually a call to individual accountability and improvement. What’s more is that from this attention to one’s own conscience one may actually be compelled to act in favor of those less fortunate. David Lyons’ “Political Responsibility and Resistance to Civil Government” unpacks this idea by analyzing Thoreau’s essay through a lens that suggests his drives may be more communitarian than they appear at first glance.
In his 1849 work Thoreau offers a look into exactly how he justifies his refusal to pay taxes. His argument is largely founded upon two ideas: his marked lack of faith in the federal government and his heavy reliance upon his own morality as a compass. This point is illustrated by his writing, “That government is best which governs least” (5) which he expounds upon by explaining the evolution of a state from a monarchy toward a democracy is a marked show of governmental respect fort the individual. With this affecting his thoughts, his tax refusal in the face of the Mexican-American War and American chattel slavery is most easily seen as a personal stance, one with the aim of clearing his own conscience as opposed to stirring a wide-spread movement for change.
However, Lyons presents to us a reading of Thoreau that suggests that actions such as these are deeply interwoven to both the constraints of and the conditions for civil resistance on an individual level. The principles he uses to show us this can be found in Rawls’ writing:
The fairness principle: when one benefits from other’ burdensome compliance with the requirements of a just and beneficial social practice, fairness requires that one comply with those requirements (Lyons 10)
Duty of Justice: This duty requires us to support and comply with just institutions that exist and apply to us. It also constrains us to further just arrangements not yet established, at least when this can be done without too much cost to ourselves.(Lyons 11)
With these two principles serving as a framework upon which we might begin to examine Thoreau’s resistance, Lyons presents us with the idea of a duty of reparations.
He acknowledges Thoreau’s privileged status in America. These privileges include(but are not limited to) his whiteness and the obvious freedoms he had to be able to move in and out of society on a whim. From this vantage point he has clearly benefitted from the burden of others, namely slave labor (which helps to instantiate a white person’s privileged position) and stolen land (upon which he might admire the trees). In his refusal to pay taxes he very clearly is aiming to cease the support of the larger institutions which support and perpetuate these practices which he takes to be morally wrong (due to them being unfair). Thoreau takes the government to be “at best an expedient ; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes inexpedient”(Thoreau 5) and so takes the matter into his own hands. With this self determination and responsibility in tow, we can read this as a call to individual accountability- for everyman.
For the accusations of the practice of a kind of impotent moral purity on Thoreau’s part Lyons shows us how the former actually practiced what he preached. In his work on the Underground railroad he embodied his moral duty to “…aid those who are wronged and to help alleviate the wrongs”(21). He was following the same logic in his tax refusal which he viewed as simply another way to not support the government’s unjust practices. What is more is he had the distinctions of a civil disobedient to readily accept imprisonment as a response to his non-violent, but lawbreaking actions. So, to the accusation of Thoreau solely being interested in his own moral purity, we can see that that was not the case.
Lyons closes his essay thusly, “On any plausible conception of individual accountability , it is incumbent on us to address those wrongs, as well as the legacy of past wrongs”(21) What Thoreau has shown both through praxis and prose is the moral necessity for reparations. I believe that this word “reparations” so often hotly contested is not only the job of an inexpedient federal government but also the duty of any individuals with a sense of accountability and fairness who have benefitted from the unfair treatment of others. If we are going to construct a mutually beneficial and just social scheme for all, then we have to start taking some responsibility for the actions of ourselves and our predecessors.
“Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience).” Thoreau: Political Writings, 1996, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781139170857.004.
Lyons, David. “Political Responsibility and Resistance to Civil Government1.” Confronting Injustice, 2013, 148–76. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199662555.003.0009.