A duty to protest in times of Corona?

A philosophical perspective on the inhibition of civil rights


Every Saturday people protest against the restrictions of civil rights. All over Germany, more and more demonstrations are taking place even though the limitations due to the virus are already being relaxed. Amongst others protest is forming in Stuttgart, Cologne, Frankfurt and Berlin. The participants are often ostentatiously ignoring the required distance between them and most of them do not wear masks. Many demonstrations are illegal.[1] People are shouting „We are the people“ or singing the national anthem.[2] This is a catastrophe from a virological point of view. But is it from a philosophical perspective? It is certainly true that basic civil rights have been taken away from us or at least have been severely limited by the government. Is it maybe even our duty to go demonstrating?

First of all, it needs to be said that there is no discussion about legal demonstrations. If police and administration give their permission because hygienic concepts can be applied and there is a small number of participants, then everyone will grant you the basic right of demonstration. However, more interesting questions arise once it comes to illegal protest. Can something that breaks the law still be morally right?

Certainly so. As Habermas [3] points out, we are living in a constitutional democracy and our „Grundgesetz“ indicates certain principles that are fundamental to our society, such as human dignity and human rights. These principles, ideally, ought to be embodied in our actual democratic institutions (such as the government, the courts, the police and so on). However, this is not always given. It seems very well possible that through human or bureaucratic mistakes laws are created that contradict the principles of our constitution. In other words: Legality does not imply legitimacy. Maybe we do not even need a contradiction in cold print: According to Habermas the degree of realization of these principles in our institutions varies according to our current historical circumstances. If, let‘s say, because of a pandemic, the realization of these values decreases to a point that we, as democratic citizens, cannot bear, it is our right– perhaps even our duty! – to protest. Habermas goes as far as saying that the legitimacy of our democratic institutions is dependent on our constructive distrust. They rely on us questioning constantly if they are still embodying our principles. It is the constitution that we owe our loyalty to and not the practical institutions. [4]

However, the situation that we currently face is different. The virus is not an intrinsic problem but an external one. It is not as if our government came up with the limitations of our rights in order to expand their power and throw over our democratic system. The initial goal was to fight the virus and protect society. Of course, the government is not infallible in doing so. As we all find ourselves in a state of epistemological uncertainty about how effective our measures are regarding the containment of the virus while limiting negative social impacts, it is only natural that politicians made and will be making mistakes. However, are these mistakes severe enough to make us question the intention of our government? Is there a rational reason to worry that they will take away our civil rights for good?

I, for myself, trust our democratic system. We, as citizens, have to stay alert and constantly question the proportionality of the anti-virus measures. It is our right to question the government and speak up if we feel like our civil rights are limited unjustly. It is upon us to protect them. However, I do not feel like we are at this point. Limitations are already relaxed and, more importantly, there is a vivid public debate about how to do this. There is yet another distinction that we have to make. It is sadly true that some of the demonstrations are organized by the extreme right and supporters of conspiracy theories.[5] It is questionable if their primary goal really is to protect our constitutional principles or rather to spread their propaganda, which, in most cases, undermines exactly these values. It is also important to distinguish between the worry about our civil rights and the negation of the dangers of the virus. The latter is, from our current scientific perspective, plainly wrong.

All in all, we cannot simply dismiss all criticism of the measures of the government. It is important that we lead a well-informed, pluralistic debate and that we scrutinize the political decisions regarding their conformity with our constitutional principles. If they, at some point, are unwilling or unable to justify their decisions we can and should go demonstrating. But neither should we mistake the propaganda of right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists for an attempt to protect our liberal values. If we allow them to use our constitution for their purposes, we are giving away the fundamental power of our non-institutionalized, constructive distrust that we need to protect our democratic principles.

Illustration: Hannes Pfeifer

[1] This, of course, does not apply to all demonstrations. In Stuttgart, for example, people mostly stuck to the minimum distance and protest was peaceful. See: „Proteste gegen Maßnahmen. Tausende bei Demos gegen Corona-Regeln“ in: tagesschau.de, https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/corona-demos-103.html , last revision 09.05.2020 (access 14.05.2020)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Habermas, Jürgen: „Über den doppelten Boden des demokratischen Rechtsstaates“, in: idem: Eine Art Schadensabwicklung. Kleine Politische Schriften VI. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1987. p. 19-21

[4] Ibid. p. 22

[5] „Corona-Verschwörungsdemos. Die Stunde der Rechten“ in: taz, https://taz.de/Corona-Verschwoerungsdemos/!5678552/, last revision unkown (accessed 14.05.2020) However, this of course does not apply to all demonstrations.

4 Kommentare zu „A duty to protest in times of Corona?

  1. Einige derer, die derzeit gegen die Beschränkungen demonstrieren (statt gegen das Virus, was ich für angemessen hielte), haben vor nicht allzu langer Zeit öfters von „Lügenpresse“ geredet — ein Begirff, den bereits die Machthaber im „Dritten Reich“ und in der DDR in diffamatorischer Absicht verwendet hatten und die damit zum Ausdruck gebracht haben, dass sie nur das in den Medien veröffentlicht wissen wollten, was sie selber für „die Wahrheit“ hielten


  2. Hi,
    es ist schon interessant wie Grundrechte offenbar jederzeit relativiert werden können wenn es die Situation erfordert. Es gibt kein Bereich in dem das Individuum noch wirklich souverän ist. Das ist doch wenigstens und im (aller)besten Fall eine Diktatur der Vernunft. Was ist eigentlich mit der guten alten Freiheit und der Eigenverantwortung eines jeden?
    „Es ist nicht (ge)recht wenn der Verlust der Freiheit bei einigen durch ein größeres Wohl für andere wettgemacht wird“ – frei nach Jhon Rawls


    1. Lieber Flo, ich habe gerade deinen Kommentar gelesen. Ich weiß, dass Johan Lokau über diese Frage der Legitimität der Freiheitseinschränkungen einen kritischen Text geschrieben hat, den du hier finden kannst:


      Wobei ja die Maßnahmen gegen Corona nun auch gerade MIT Rawls und Habermas gerechtfertigt werden könnten – eine schwierige argumentative Situation, finde ich… https://diefunzel.com/2020/05/13/health-moral-values/


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