Individual Responsibility


The duty of individuals living under an unjust government.

There are many governments today that can be described unjust, and some that even deserve to be called fascist. What is the duty of the individual citizen, living under such a government? What was the duty of a German, living under Hitler? The thoughts of Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King can help us answer this question. The Nuremberg Principles can also help us to answer it.

Henry David Thoreau and Civil Disobedience

We usually think of Thoreau (1817-1862) as a pioneer of ecology and harmony with nature, but he was also a pioneer of non-violent civil disobedience. Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax because of his opposition to the Mexican War and to the institution of slavery. Because of his refusal to pay the tax (which was in fact a very small amount) he spent a night in prison.

To Thoreau\s irritation, his family paid the poll tax for him and he was released. He then wrote down his ideas on the subject in an essay entitled “The Duty of Civil Disobedience”, where he maintains that each person has a duty to follow his own individual conscience even when it conflicts with the orders of his government.

“Under a government that which imprisons any unjustly”, Thoreau wrote, “the true place for a just man is in prison.”

Thoreau’s “The Duty of Civil Disobedience” influenced Martin Luther King, and it anticipated the Nuremberg Principles.


Tolstoy: The Kingdom of God is Within You

As an old man, Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) had achieved all of the goals that humans normally set for themselves. He was extremely wealthy, happily married, with a large family, and he was universally acknowledged to be the greatest living novelist in the world. Nevertheless, he began to search desparately for life’s meaning. His books “The Kingdom of God is Within You” and “What Then Shall We Do?” describe this search, and the answers that he found.

“I searched for enlightenment everywhere in the hard-won accumulated knowledge of mankind”, he wrote. “I searched passionately and long, not in a lazy way, but with my whole soul, day and night. I searched like a drowning man looking for safety, and found nothing. I searched all the sciences, and not only did I find nothing, but I also came to the conclusion that everyone who, like myself, had searched in the sciences for life’s meaning had also found nothing.

“I then diligently studied the teachings of Buddhism and Islam in the holy books of those religions; but most of all I studied Christianity as I met it in the holy Scriptures and in the living Christians around me…

“I began to approach the believers among the poor, simple ignorant people: pilgrims, monks and peasants… The whole life of Christians of our own circle seemed to be a contradiction of their faith. By contrast, the whole life of Christians of the peasant class was an affirmation of the view of life which their religious faith gave to them. I looked more and more deeply into the faith of these people, and the more deep my insight became, the more I became convinced that they had a genuine belief, that their faith was essential to them, and that it was their faith alone which gave their life a meaning and made it possible for them to live… I developed a love for these simple people.”

Moved by the misery of the urban poor whom he encountered in the slums of Moscow, Tolstoy wrote: “Between us, the rich and the poor, there is a wall of false education, a before we can help the poor, we must first tear down that wall. I was forced to the conclusion that our own wealth is the true cause of the misery of the poor.”

Tolstoys book, “What Then Must We Do?”, tells of his experiences in the slums and analyses the causes of poverty. Tolstoy felt that the professed Christian belief of the Czarist state was a thin cosmetic layer covering a structure that was fundamentally built on violence. Violence was used to maintain a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and violence was used in international relations.

Tolstoy felt especially keenly the contradiction between Christianity and war. In a small book entitled “The Kingdom of God is Within Us” he wrote: “All other contradictions are insignificant compared with the contradiction which now faces humankind in international relations. and which cries out for a solution, since it brings the very existence of civilization into danger. This is the contradiction between the Christian conscience and war.

“All of the Christian peoples of the world, who all follow one and the same spiritual life, so that any good and fruitful thought which is put forward in any corner of the world is immediately communicated to all of Christiandom, where it arouses feelings of pride and happiness in us regardless of our nationality; we who simply love the thinkers, humanitarians, and poets of other countries; we who not only admire their achievements, but also feel delight in meeting them and greet them with friendly smiles; we will all be forced by the state to participate in a murderous war against these same people, a war which if it does not break out today will do so tomorrow.

“…The sharpest of all contradictions can be seen between the governments professed faith in the Christian law of the brotherhood of all humankind, and the military laws of the state, which force each young man to prepare himself for enmity and murder, so that each must be simultaneously a Christian and a gladiator.”


In 1894, the young Indian lawyer, Mohandas K. Gandhi, (who was then working for the civil rights of Indians in South Africa), read Tolstoys books on Christianity and was greatly influenced by them. Gandhi wrote a review of “The Kingdom of God is Within Us”, and in 1909 he sent Tolstoy an account

of the activities of the civil rights movement in South Africa. He received a reply in which Tolstoy said:

“…The longer I live, and especially now, when I vividly feel the nearness of death, the more I want to tell others what I feel so particularly clearly and what to my mind is of great importance, namely that which is called passive resistance, but which is in reality nothing else but the teaching of love, uncorrupted by false interpretations. That love, i.e. the striving for the union of human souls and the activity derived from that striving, is the highest and only law of human life, and in the depth of his soul every human being knows this (as we most clearly see in children); he knows this until he is entangled in the false teachings of the world.

“This law was proclaimed by all, by the Indian as by the Chinese, Hebrew, Greek and Roman sages of the world. I think that this law was most clearly expressed by Christ, who plainly said that in this alone is all the law and the prophets…

“…The peoples of the Christian world have solemnly accepted this law, while at the same time they have permitted violence and built their lives on violence; and that is why the whole life of the Christian peoples is a continuous contradiction between what they profess, and the principles on which they order their lives,  a contradiction between love accepted as the law of life, and violence which is recognized and praised, acknowledged even as a necessity in different phases of life, such as the power of rulers, courts, and armies…”

Both in the struggle for civil rights in South Africa, and afterwards in the struggle for the independence of India, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) demonstrated that non-violent civil disobedience can be an extremely effective political force.

Today we read almost every day of killings that are part of escalating cycles of revenge and counter-revenge, for example in the Middle East. Gandhi’s experiences both in South Africa and in India convinced him that such cycles could only be ended by unilateral acts of kindness and understanding from one of the parties in a conflict. He said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

To the insidious argument that “the end justifies the means”, Gandhi answered firmly: “they say that ‘means are after all means’. I would say that ‘means are after all everything’. As the means, so the end. Indeed, the Creator has given us limited power over means, none over end… The means may be likened to a seed, and the end to a tree; and there is the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree. Means and end are convertible terms in my philosophy of life.”

Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence is closely connected to his attitude towards ends and means. He believed that violent methods for achieving a desired social result would inevitably result in an escalation of violence. The end achieved would always be contaminated by the methods used. As mentioned above, he was influenced by Leo Tolstoy with whom he exchanged many letters. Gandhi in turn influenced Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

Gandhi believed that at their core, all religions are based on the concepts of truth, love, compassion, nonviolence and the Golden Rule. When asked whether he was a Hindu, Gandhi answered, “Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” When praying at his ashram, Gandhi made a point of including prayers from many religions.

Martin Luther King

The son of a southern Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr (1929-1968) received his Ph.D. in theology from Boston University in 1955. During his studies, he had admired Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” and he had also been greatly moved by the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama for only a year when he was chosen to lead a boycott protesting segregation in the Montgomery buses. Suddenly thrust into this situation of intense conflict, he remembered both the Christian principle of non-violent protest. In his first speech as President of the Montgomery Improvement Association (a speech which the rapid pace of events had forced him to prepare in only twenty minutes, five of which he spent in prayer), he said:

“Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. We will only say to people, ‘Let your conscience be your guide’. Our actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating ideal. Once again we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.’ If we fail to do this, our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded by the ugly garments of shame.

“In spite of the mistreatment that we have confronted, we must not become bitter and end up by hating our white brothers. As Booker T. Washington said, ‘Let no man pull you down so low as to make you hate him.’

“If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, ‘There lived a great people, a black people, who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.”

In 1967, a year before his assassination, Dr. King forcefully condemned the Viet Nam war in an address at a massive peace rally in New York City. He felt that opposition to war followed naturally from his advocacy of non-violence.

In his book “Strength to Love”, Dr. King wrote, “Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete… I am convinced that the Church cannot be silent while mankind faces the threat of nuclear annihilation. If the Church is true to her mission, she must call for an end to the nuclear arms race.”

The Nuremberg Principles

In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously affirmed “the principles of international law recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the judgement of the Tribunal”. The General Assembly also established an International Law Commission to formalize the Nuremberg Principles. The result was a list which included Principle VI (a), which is particularly important in the context of individual responsibility:

Principle VI: The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:

  1. a) Crimes against peace:

I Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;

II Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for accomplishment of any of the acts under (I),

Robert H. Jackson, who was the chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials said that “To initiate a war of aggression is therefore not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Furthermore, the Nuremberg Principles state that “The fact that a person acted persuant to an order of his Government or a superior does not relieve him of responsibility under international law, provided that a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”

The training of soldiers is designed to make the trainees into automatons, who have surrendered all powers of moral judgement to their superiors. The Nuremberg Principles put the burden of responsibility squarely where it ought to be: on the shoulders of each indiviidual.

Each individual citizen must recognize his or her responsibility for preventing catastrophic climate change.

Modern warfare cannot function without the cooperation of scientists and technicians. They must accept their responsibility and refuse to be part of an institution that threatens the world with a genocidal and all-destroying thermonuclear war.

We must all say, as the American poet Millay did, “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for Death… I am not on his payrole.”

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.  In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004.  He can be reached at [email protected]


Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News