Res Publica

, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 295–313 | Cite as

Samaritanism and Civil Disobedience



In this paper, I defend the existence of a moral duty to disobey the law and engage in civil disobedience on the basis of one of the grounds of political obligation—the Samaritan duty. Christopher H. Wellman has recently offered a ‘Samaritan account’ of state legitimacy and political obligation, according to which the state is justified in coercing each citizen in order to rescue all from the perilous circumstances of the state of nature; and each of us is bound to obey the law, as the state demands, because we each have a responsibility to help rescue others when this assistance is not unreasonably costly. Though Wellman recognizes that there can be reasons for disobeying the law and resisting injustice in otherwise legitimate states, he overlooks the possibility that at least some of these reasons could be Samaritan in nature, grounded in the duty to rescue people from peril. As I shall argue, the Samaritan duty supports obligations to disobey the law, when the law prohibits Samaritan rescues, and to engage in civil disobedience, when unjust laws and practices contribute to endangering people. The discussion proceeds as follows. After a brief overview of the Samaritan duty, I articulate my case for Samaritan duties to disobey the law, and duties to engage in civil disobedience when unjust laws, institutions, or practices enable what I call ‘persistent Samaritan perils’. I then examine and respond to several objections to my account: first, that the costs of law-breaking are unreasonable, and thus cannot be morally required; second, that individuals’ particular acts of protest and civil disobedience do not appear to make any difference to the rescue, and thus cannot be required; third, that I stretch the Samaritan duty beyond recognition; and fourth, that the Samaritan duty binds us to help people in need or peril anywhere, not particularly at home. I consider in conclusion the advantages and limits of my account of citizens’ Samaritan duties in the face of injustice.


Samaritan duty Injustice Political obligation Civil disobedience 



I have benefited from discussions with friends and audiences at Boston University, Clemson University, the Society for Applied Philosophy Annual Conference at St Anne’s College, Oxford, the International Social Philosophy Conference at Northeastern University, the Mentoring Project for Pre-Tenure Women Faculty in Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the Rocky Mountains Ethics Congress at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Workshop on the Duty to Resist Oppression at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Special thanks are owed to David Lyons, Ann Cudd, Jill Delston, Meena Krishnamurthy, Kristina Meshelski, Melissa Yates, Samuel Huang, Julia Nefsky, Erich Hatala Matthes, Kimberley Brownlee, Carol Hay, Daniel Star, and Gabriel O’Malley for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of the paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and ReligionClemson UniversityClemsonUSA

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