Center for Ethics


Civility and Disobedience

Thoreau wrote, “Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.” Societies and organizations depend on compliance and obedience in order to function. Markets suffer if rules are not followed, and societies do not thrive in a state of chaos. But governments and organizations can be morally corrupt; the United States once allowed people to be enslaved, and the tobacco industry deliberately withheld the risks of their potentially lethal product. Under these circumstances, obedience becomes complicity and disobedience becomes the ethical course of action. Thus groups of people and individual whistle-blowers are often called to acts of disobedience and subversion by injustice they observe or experience. Martin Luther’s reformation, the American Civil Rights Movement, environmental activism, military draft-resistance, WikiLeaks, Occupy Wall Street, the African National Congress, Gandhi’s Indian independence movement, the Chiapas Rebellion, and the Arab Spring all represent significant rebellions against dominant authorities. The targets of dissent are not limited to governments, but also include economic, educational, religious, and social institutions that expect adherence to ideologies. In some cases, individuals and organizations engaged in disobedience may themselves engage in morally questionable activities. When is it ethical to rebel against authority? When do moral causes become more important than the rule of law or compliance with norms? What is the role of dissent in healthy democracies?  Should protest always be peaceful or is violence sometimes the right thing to do? When is “working within the system” the best thing to do?

Directed by Brian Mello, Associate Professor of Political Science, and Christine Sistare, Professor of Philosophy.


Fall 2014 Schedule:


Tuesday, September 2, 2014                          
7:30PM    Miller Forum, Moyer Hall

  1. Barbara Cruikshank
    U. Mass Amherst

  2. "Silencing Protest: On the Ethics and Politics of Social Theory"

    B CruikshankDoes history make protest or does protest make history? Do protests rise up through the fissures and structural instabilities of systems (e.g., capitalist, liberal, racial, environmental, sex/gender systems)? Or does protest create those fissures and instabilities? Do all the massive protests underway around the world since 2011, starting in Tunisia, share a time frame, an epoch, or are they making a time frame and thus making history? These are central questions of social theory today on the subject of protest. In my inquiry on how the time of protest is conceptualized in social theory, I find that although social theory on the times of protest is typically written by those whose political sympathies align with the protests they study, they have the perverse effect of silencing protest. In the gap between what happens in protest and what is said to have happened in social theory, I find five reasons to reconsider the ethics of social theory.

Cruikshank studies the history of reform, social movements, the politics of sex and sexuality, and relations of power and knowledge. She is the author of the forthcoming book Neopolitics: Activism, Reform, and the Practices of Freedom.
Library Resources for Barbara Cruikshank

Friday, September 12, 2014                            
2:00PM    Trumbower 130

Muhlenberg Alumni Activism Panel
Muhlenberg CollegeAdrian Shanker (’09), Alex Lotorto (’09), and Kelly Howe (’03)
Three Muhlenberg graduates discuss different forms of activism. Presented in conjunction with Homecoming Weekend.
Library Resources for Activism Panel

Wednesday, September 17, 2014              
7:30PM     Miller Forum, Moyer Hall

Scott Lemieux
St. Rose College

"From the Party of Lincoln to the Party of Calhoun: The Supreme Court and Voting Rights in Historical Perspective"

S LemieuxIn 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that an important provision of the Voting Rights Act exceeded the powers of Congress. This talk will explain how the Supreme Court came to believe that a statute that passed with nearly unanimous support of Congress and is explicitly authorized by the 15th Amendment was unconstitutional. I will view Shelby County in the context of other attempts by the Supreme Court to limit the ability of Congress to protect civil rights.

Lemieux writes about blogging as activism and voting rights. His research interests include public law, constitutional law, comparative law and institutions, and American politics. He has written or co-written articles for Polity, Studies in Law, Politics and Society, the Journal of Supreme Court History, the Maryland Law Review, and the American Journal of Comparative Law, and also contributes regularly to the American Prospect and the Guardian Online.
Library Resources for Scott Lemieux

Monday, September 22, 2014                       
7:30PM      Recital Hall, Center for the Arts

Molly MaguiresThe Molly Maguires
Film screening
A 1970 film directed by Martin Ritt and starring Sean Connery, Richard Harris and Samantha Eggar, The Molly Maguires is based on the historical secret society of 19th century Irish-American coal miners who led a worker’s uprising in Pennsylvania coal country. Some of the film scenes were shot in nearby Jim Thorpe.
Original trailer for The Molly Maguires

Tuesday, September 23, 2014              
7:30PM   Miller Forum, Moyer Hall

Erik Loomis
U. Rhode Island
"Resistance in the Pennsylvania Coal Country: Past and Present"

Erik LoomisThis talk will provide a quick history of resistance among the peoples of the Pennsylvania coal fields from the 19th century to the present, focusing on how corporate domination of the area, its people, and its natural resources has shaped residents' responses to the challenges of living in this resource-rich region. From the first coal strikes in the mid 19th century to the protests over fracking and President Obama's so-called "war on coal" today, the need to make a living and the desire to live in a safe and healthy environment has defined responses to the coal companies, making the lack of economic options a century ago and in the present vital to understanding why working people ally themselves with the coal companies who exploit them.

Loomis studies U.S. environmental history and labor activism. He is working on the forthcoming book Empire of Timber: Work and Nature in the Pacific Northwest Forests. This visit will include a field trip to tour Pennsylvania coal mine country on Wednesday Sept 24 before the public talk, and will reference the Molly Maguires film screening the previous evening.

Wednesday, September 25, 2014 
11 AM to 3:30 PM

Mine TourPennsylvania Mine Tour
It's a Center for Ethics field trip! Join Center for Ethics speaker Erik Loomis for a bus trip and tour of the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine in Ashland, PA.

Saturday, October 11, 2014                             
8:00PM   Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion

Ursula Rucker

Ursula Rucker
Ursula Rucker is a poet and hip-hop recording artist whose work deals with confronting social injustice, especially as it relates to race and womanhood. She has released 5 critically acclaimed solo albums, and her musical collaborations include work with the Roots, the Silent Poets, King Britt and Josh Wink. She has toured extensively and is featured in the 2008 film The Black Candle, narrated by Maya Angelou. Co-sponsored by the Department of Theatre & Dance.

Monday, October 20, 2014                              
7:30PM   Miller Forum, Moyer Hall

David Pellow
U. Minnesota
"Radical Politics, State Repression, and the Problem of ‘Eco-Terrorism’"

David PellowTo what extent are radical environmental and animal liberation movements also struggles over social inequality? In other words, to what degree are these movements that are typically seen as primarily focused on defending nonhuman animals and ecosystems also confronting oppression within human communities? What are the implications of the ‘eco-terrorist’ label that states, corporations, and media impose on these groups? I consider these questions in relation to broader historical patterns of social movement struggles against oppression and the phenomenon of state repression directed at dissident groups. I conclude with a discussion of the productive links between radical earth and animal liberation movements and environmental justice movements.

David Pellow's interests include environmental justice studies, racial and ethnic inequality, transnational social movements, and labor studies. He is the author of the forthcoming book Total Liberation: The Power and Promise and Animal Rights and the Radical Earth Movement.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014                              
8:00 PM   Red Door Cafe

An evening of original performance by Muhlenberg students, curated by Ursula Rucker.
Guest artist Ursula Rucker premieres an evening of new spoken-word performances created by the First Year students in Muhlenberg's Emerging Leaders program. Set to live music and themed on notions of civility, disobedience and identity. Co-sponsored by Theatre and Dance.

Carroll BogertMonday, October 27, 2014
7:30 PM   Miller Forum Moyer Hall

Carroll Bogert
Associate Director of Human Rights Watch
Bogert studies human rights in the U.S. and abroad and media coverage of protest and human rights issues. Bogert is the 2014 Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow.

Nancy FraserThursday, Nov 13, 2014                    
7:00 PM
  Miller Forum Moyer Hall

Nancy Fraser
The New School
Fraser is a critical theorist who studies justice and feminism. She is the author of Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. Co-sponsored by Women’s Studies.