Socrates on Justice, Law and the Obligation to obey the State
Socrates on Justice, Law and the Obligation to obey the State
Socrates is one of the greatest philosophers in history, although he did not write any philosophy. He is only known through other people’s writings, particularly Plato, his one-time student. It is therefore not easy to tell which philosophy belongs to Plato and which belongs to Socrates. Socrates lived between 470 BC and 399 BC. His death came as a result of drinking hemlock after he was tried and condemned to death. This was because he did not believe in the gods recognized by the state, and instead introduced new and different divine powers. He was also accused of corrupting the youth.
Crito, Apology and Euthyphro present Socrates’ story; his trial and death. Euthyphro discusses piety as set by an Athenian court house. Apology presents his defense before the court. In Crito, Socrates insists that he is obligated to obey all the laws of the state, as opposed to escaping from prison. This paper endeavors to interpret and critically asses Socrates’ views on the nature and extent of a citizen’s obligation to obey the laws of the state. The interpretation is based on Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro, Apology and Crito.
For purposes of comparison, the paper also takes into account Thoreaus essay titled ‘Civil Disobedience. Socrates views citizens’ obligation to obey the laws of the state Socrates could easily have escaped from the Athenian prison. This was a very common practice in Athens; probably the Athenian court expected him to do so. Crito, a good friend of Socrates, comes to him ready with plan to escape. Socrates surprises him by turning down his offer and refusing to escape. Socrates insists that one is obliged to obey state laws even when their application is unjust. He told Crito of his obligation to obey Athens’ laws although they were applied unjustly.
He further states that he is morally obliged to honor the state’s legal requirement, and therefore has to accept the court’s sentence. Crito argues that Socrates would hurt his friends since everyone would ridicule them for having failed to gather enough courage to help Socrates escape; their reputations would suffer. Crito also argued that by not escaping, it would not be possible for Socrates to take care of his children. Moreover, it would not be possible for Socrates to carry on with teaching philosophy; this would present a big win to his enemies.
In his reply, Socrates refers to Crito’s arguments as mere appeals to feelings. He further terms them as conventional expectations and is therefore not moved by them. He insists that he can only be moved by considerations that are just and right. According to Socrates, any considerations about friends and family well-being are morally relevant; the more reason one must consider what is just and right. This reply by Socrates is a lot more sophisticated than it appears. He is fully aware that his stay and acceptance of the court sentence will negatively affect his friends and family.
But he does not believe that such considerations are decisive. According to Socrates, neither life nor death can harm a good man (Apology 41d). Here, ‘harm’ is not used in the usual sense used in describing human harms. By ‘harming,’ Socrates means making a person less excellent, less virtuous and less good. Therefore, a person is harmed by making him or her less good or less just. This can be compared to harming a car, where it is made to exhibit the same virtues it had, but to much a lesser degree. According to Socrates, one cannot be harmed as long as his or her virtue is retained.
That is why Socrates prefers suffering an injustice than doing one. Socrates is of the view that by suffering, one does not show himself or herself to be without virtue. However, by doing an injustice, he or she proves to be vicious and without any virtue. Socrates is in full agreement that one must not harm his or her friends. But by going by Socrates’ view on harm he has not harmed his friends in any way. According to him, as long as one does not cause his or her friends to do an injustice, he or she does no harm to them. It is therefore right to say that Crito’s principle of not harming one’s friends comes too soon.
This is because it is important to first and foremost answer the question of whether or not escape is just. If it is not, then Socrates would be really harming his friends if he allowed them to help in his escape. With regard to not being able to take care of his children, Socrates presents another interesting view. He argues that one can only benefit his children through making them virtuous and just. According to Socrates, escaping is not just at all. If he goes ahead to do it, he would have rendered himself not fit to teach virtues. Moreover, it would show that he does not know what virtues are.
As a result, he would not have been in a position to make his children virtuous and just. Crito assumes that escaping is not wrong since it is a common occurrence in Athens, apposition that Socrates does not seem to agree with. Socrates argues that if he intends to be a teacher of philosophy, then he must not portray himself as ignorant of virtues. He is of the belief that knowledge is a virtue; knowing the good is doing the good. He argues that by acting wrongly, he would have portrayed himself as lacking knowledge to share with other people (Crito 53-d).
As concerns who between himself and his enemies would win in the end, Socrates is of the view that by escaping from prison, his enemies would have won (Apology 39b). According to Socrates, Cristo’s arguments are very relevant, only that they come before first establishing whether or not escape is just. Obligation to obey the laws of the state In 1999, Socrates was found guilty by an Athenian jury of corrupting the youth’s morals and of impiety. This condemnation disregards the earlier agreed upon definition of piety, which stresses on honor, favor and esteem (Euthyphro, 15a).
According to Euthyphro, piety cannot be separated from what is liked by the gods. A death penalty was as a result imposed on him. His decision not to escape but instead stay and take the punishment was founded on his belief that by so doing, it would be tantamount to breaking his commitments and agreements. Moreover, he argues that such a move would end up mistreating his country, his friends and Athens’ laws (Crito, 54c). Socrates presents very sketchy arguments, and Crito does not do enough to challenge them. These arguments, however, are very suggestive of today’s political obligation theories, about two thousand years after his death.
These arguments can be categorized into four groups. First, Socrates insists that having resided in Athens for such a long time, he has agreed with its laws and actually committed himself to obeying them. This argument is what later culminated into the consent theory and social contract of political obligation. Socrates is of the view that by being a resident of a given state, one is obliged to obeying its laws to the letter. Second, Socrates acknowledges the fact that, just like other citizens, he owes his education, nurture and birth to Athens’ laws.
He goes on to say that disobeying these laws would be very wrong. This is the foundation of political obligation’s gratitude theory. This shows that citizens of a given country owe some gratitude to that country and its laws. It also shows that it is wrong for such citizens to disobey the laws. Third, Socrates appeals for fairness by suggesting that disobeying the laws would be tantamount to mistreating his fellow citizens (Arneson, 1982). He insists that by leaving the city without permission, it would amount to a mistreatment of the people, yet they should be the least mistreated (Crito, 50a).
Finally, Socrates shows some traces of utilitarian reasoning when he imagines the state and the laws confronting him with such a challenge. He argues that a city can easily be destroyed should its courts’ verdicts lack force and be nullified by private individuals (Crito, 50b). None of Socrates’ arguments have developed fully, although their very presence in Crito testifies to power of concepts and intuitions. These include utility, fair play, gratitude, agreement and commitment, all of which have continued featuring discussions of obedience and obligation.
Conclusion This paper has found that citizens are under great obligation to obey the laws of the state. Socrates insists that one is obliged to obey state laws even when their application is unjust. He further states that one is morally obliged to honor the state’s legal requirement, and therefore has to accept the court’s sentence. He goes on to say that disobeying these laws would be very wrong. This is the foundation of political obligation’s gratitude theory. This shows that citizens of a given country owe some form of gratitude to that country and its laws.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 17 October 2016
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