UH Hilo philosophy professors hold symposium on civil disobedience

“The task of ethics within the context of civil disobedience is to open up the realm of thinking about one’s values and viewpoints,” says Associate Professor of Philosophy Celia Bardwell-Jones.

By Leah Sherwood.

From left, Gandhi with group of women who have their fists in the air, Martin Luther King Jr being arrested by two police officers, crowd of protestors in the streets of Hong Kong with an orange banner with image of umbrella.
From left, Mahatma Gandhi with textile workers at Darwen, Lancashire, England, Sept. 26, 1931; Martin Luther King, Jr. being arrested for “loitering,” 1958, Montgomery, Alabama; and Occupy Protest, Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2014. Photo credits, from left, photographer unknown (wikimedia); AP; Sirlanz.

University of Hawai‘i at Hilo philosophy and business faculty held a public symposium on Friday titled, “Do We Have an Obligation to Obey the Law?: Civil Disobedience in a Global Context.”

Brief talks were presented by philosophy professors Celia Bardwell-Jones, Chris Lauer and Tim Freeman, as well as Benjamin Zenk, instructor of business management and ethics. The catalyst for the discussion was the ongoing protests of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Maunakea. Speakers addressed the history and ethical dimensions of civil disobedience and other nonviolent practices.

Celia Bardwell-Jones
Celia Bardwell-Jones speaks at symposium, Sept. 27, 2019, UH Hilo.

“The ethical question we are going to attempt to answer today is, ‘Do we have a moral obligation to obey the law?’” says Bardwell-Jones. “If we don’t get an answer, we hope that we leave you with more questions that we hope that you can then reflect on later. The task of ethics within the context of civil disobedience is to open up the realm of thinking about one’s values and viewpoints. Civil disobedience encourages us to reflect on standards of justice that we may take for granted. Just because it is the law, is it moral?”

Bardwell-Jones continues, “I would like to first acknowledge and recognize the efforts of civil disobedience that are occurring on the mauna currently. We believe that this is the perfect practice and expression of civil disobedience that is happening right now so close to home. As a department we have little epistemic authority or credibility to speak about the ethics of civil disobedience compared to the rich knowledge that is happening on the mauna. We would like to recognize that knowledge production.”

Tim Freeman
Tim Freeman speaks at symposium, Sept. 27, 2019, UH Hilo.

Freeman, who has visited the mauna several times during the protest, spoke on the history of civil disobedience and on the Hawaiian concept of kapu aloha, a code of contact demanding restraint, empathy, and respect. He contrasted his experiences at the tumultuous 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle with his time at Maunakea. “I am impressed by what is going on up at the mauna,” he says. “Whatever you think of the issue, I think we all have to say their commitment to kapu aloha and nonviolence training sessions are impressive.”

Freeman explains that the point of nonviolent civil disobedience is to draw the public’s attention to an issue. He cites Henry David Thoreau’s 1848 essay on civil disobedience, which argues that an individual has the duty to disobey unjust laws. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, argued that civil disobedience should be nonviolent, and those who engage in it should be willing to pay the penalty of disobeying the law and going to jail. Doing this shows respect for the law without agreeing with the law.

“The whole point of civil disobedience is not to overthrow the state but to raise awareness about the issue to the public so the issue can be addressed,” says Freeman. “What has been going on up at the mauna has made people really think more deeply and reexamine the issue, which I think is broader or bigger than just science versus religion. It is about our whole way of being now that we are facing the crisis of our time with climate change and our relationship to the earth.”

Jimmy Nani‘ole, one of the 38 kūpuna who were arrested for blocking the road at the initial protests, spoke during the question and answer period and thanked the speakers for participating. “I want to thank all of you for sharing the philosophical basis for why the mauna is so important not only to Hawai‘i it is important to every Indigenous and native people of the world,” says Nani‘ole. “I don’t think there is a person in this room who doesn’t have an Indigenous or native connection. Whether you are from Ireland or Africa. We are all one and the same.”

The symposium was co-sponsored by the Mokaulele Program, the chancellor’s offices at UH Hilo and at Hawai‘i Community College, the Hawai‘i Island Philosophy Club, the Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center, and the UH Hilo Office of Equal Opportunity.


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.