In the Dialogue Crito, Socrates employs his Elenchus to examine the notion of justice and one’s obligation to justice. In the setting of the dialogue, Socrates has been condemned to die, and Crito comes with both the hopes and the means for Socrates to escape from prison. When Socrates insists that they should examine whether he should escape or not, the central question turns into whether if it is unjust to disobey laws.
Socrates’ ultimate answer is that it is unjust; he makes his argument by first showing that it’s wrong to revenge injustice, then arguing that he has made an agreement with the city’s law for its benefits, and finally reasoning that he should keep to that agreement and accept its consequences. However, the examination in Crito was incompletely and its logic flawed; in making this decision, Socrates has forsaken his life for his ideal of justice.
The examination was done in the elenchus, which has the structure that Socrates will start with an assumption and find contradictions to eliminate possible answers; the assumption here is that there are good reasons why Socrates should escape from prison. Socrates starts his argument by first eliminating the public opinion as a reason why he should escape.
Socrates observes that concerning a person’s health, only a doctor’s opinion would matter instead of the public opinion; he then draws a parallel of that analogy to justice, that “We should not give so much thought to what the majority of people will say about us, but think instead of what the person who understands just and unjust things will say… ” (Crito 48b) While the public opinion would certainly urge Socrates to preserve his life, Socrates discredits it as a reason for his escape.
Next Socrates assumes that since only a good life is worth living, and that living a good life is the same as living a just life (Crito 48b), Socrates should escape for his life only if it is just for him to do so. Effectively, Socrates has reduced the question to whether if it is just to disobey the law (by escaping prison and execution) to decide if he should escape. To this question, first Socrates says that he should not revenge injustice. Because doing injustice is bad in any circumstances (Crito 49b), to return injustice just because of having injustice done onto himself would bad also (Crito 49c).
Therefore Socrates should not commit injustice just to get even with Athens. Injustice is bad because it harms, and disobedience to the law would harm the city (Crito 50b); so it seems that to disobey the law would be an injustice. But why should Socrates obey the law of the city? Socrates reasons that since the city has done him great benefactions, such as giving birth to his life, taking care of his physical upbringing and his education, and granting him long years of benefits from the legal system (Crito 50e – 51c), Socrates owns the state a strong duty of gratitude just as a child would own to his father.
One of those duties is to obey the state (like how a child obeys his parents), which always has included the possibility of death such as in times of war (Crito 51b). Socrates should obey the city because he has made an agreement to do so. This agreement is the social contract that he has implicitly accepted and lived under for 70 years.
This contract is legitimate because Socrates had a thorough understanding of the legal system (Crito 51e – 52a), he did not leave the city when he was given the fair chance all his life (Crito 51 c-e), and that he even has consciously benefited legally from this implicit agreement with law all his life. Therefore it is evident that Socrates has made such a social contract with Athens, which he has been satisfied with so far. It is just for one to keep the agreement he has made, therefore Socrates should keep the agreement made with Athens; and thus he should obey the state and its laws (Crito 53c).
Furthermore, Socrates has been given the chance to convince Athens not sentence him to death, and he even could’ve proposed to be exiled that would have the same consequences as if he escapes now; if Socrates had the chance to accomplish thise with legal means when he did not, he would not be justified to do so now illegally (Crito 52c). Following this reasoning, Socrates concludes that he should not escape from prison and his eventual execution. Although Socrates’ commitment to his ideals is admirable, his reasoning is critically flawed. Socrates lacks the definition of justice throughout the discussion of justice.
Socrates certainly thinks of justice as something intrinsic and absolute, instead of simply laws imposed by the state; this is evident when he refused to arrest Leon of Salamis by the order of the 30 tyrants (which is an act of disobedience) on the grounds of justice (Apology 32c). Clearly he believes that justice is higher than rulings of sovereignty. But Socrates never made clear what is this virtue that makes justice just; instead, he only vaguely calls some actions just, such as when one keeps an agreement, or behaves well towards one’s parents.
It is because of this lack of definition Socrates ends up contradicting himself. For instance, Socrates makes the proposition that one should seek expert knowledge instead of following majority opinion when it comes to justice; this would imply that the justice is not related to the opinion of the majority, as well as that the majority are no expert in justice. If the social contract in the democratic Athens is assumed to be an agreement made between by the majority of the society, then justice is certainly independent from that social contract.
But later Socrates argues that he has to obey the state’s laws and keep the agreement made to the state, which implies that justice is to keep the social contract (contraposition of “not keeping to the contract is unjust”). Furthermore, Socrates assumes that disobeying laws and agreements is unjust. But what is the state? It is no more than a collective of Athenians. Where do these laws come from? The majority opinion of the Athenians (in the case of the tyrants Socrates wouldn’t obey the laws anyways) and the agreements they’ve made.
If indeed the laws and agreements the majority of Athenians, it seems that they determine what’s just without knowing what’s just (or else their opinion would matter! ), which would be unacceptable for Socrates. Furthermore, Socrates’ gratitude and duty towards the state does not equate obeying the state; in-fact, if killing Socrates is an injustice that would do Athens harm, then Socrates ought to do whatever that is in his power to prevent being executed by escaping to fulfill his duty of benefiting the city. There is another more fundamental flaw in Socrates’ argument.
If he considers justice to be morally independent of laws, then some laws would be just and other unjust. There could be unjust laws, or just laws abused. Socrates never considered these cases of whether he indeed justly deserves the death sentence or not. Therefore to simply obey laws may not necessarily lead to justice. This argument would destroy the whole purpose of obeying laws and not escape from prison. We may speculate, if we have presented these arguments to Socrates, would he be convinced to escape prison?
Perhaps not, as Socrates is already 70 and was expected to die soon anyways (the average life span for male was around 40). Dying in the name of justice, instead of old age in a distant place, is definitely more romantic and held more appeal. Furthermore, to live in exile would have no positive effect on his children, it would tarnish his reputation, and such a life in exile will not be enjoyable (Crito 53d – 54d). Therefore, it would be possible that Socrates will still choose to die as a martyr to justice and philosophy.