Socrates’ two bad arguments for not escaping

socrates-lysippus-100x121In the Crito, Socrates is in prison awaiting execution for impiety and corrupting the youth. His impiety was judged to be a matter of questioning and possibly disbelieving the traditional gods, and his corrupting the youth was a matter of his teaching them to do the same.

Crito arrives at the prison having arranged an escape opportunity for Socrates, and they proceed to debate whether it would be just for Socrates to escape.

Socrates argues that while the verdict was wrong, it was nonetheless reached through legitimate procedures — the trial was conducted according to the established rules, he had a chance to make his case, and the voting was done by citizens.

Thus we have to choose whether content justice (getting the right result) or procedural justice (following the right procedures) is more important.

Socrates argues the latter (50b-c), while I argue the former: The most important goal in justice is achieving actual justice; secondarily we establish procedures that we think will achieve actual justice; when those procedures fail to do so, we should alter or override the procedures.

Socrates also points out that, additionally, we have to choose whether the social peace the laws enable is more important than the life of an innocent man (50c). Socrates argues the former, while I argue the latter: we form social groups for the advancement of the interests of the individuals involved, and when the social group makes a mistake it is the social that should take the hit, not the innocent individual. On this proto collective-versus-individual issue, Socrates is more collectivist while I’m individualist.

In support of his position, Socrates makes a strongly paternalistic claim at 50d-51d, arguing that since the laws enabled his father to marry his mother, the laws are as much his parents as they are. He also points out that the laws commanded his parents to educate him. Consequently, he is both the “offspring and slave” of the laws (50e) and owes them the same unconditional obedience that children owe their parents and slaves owe their masters (51b).

Also in support, Socrates makes an early social-contract style claim at 51d-52a, arguing that when he reached the age of majority, he chose voluntarily to stay and live in Athens and that he did so knowing how justice was administered there. He therefore made an at-least implicit contract with Athens to do what the laws say.

david-the-death-of-socrates-133x100Both arguments support the same ultimate conclusion: In this case the laws are ordering him to die, so he is obligated to obey the order and die. So it is on to the Phaedo and the death scene.

I admire Socrates for his commitment to reason, his courage, and his integrity in acting on his principles, but I disagree with his principles.

We have four issues at hand:

1. Procedural justice or content justice?
2. Collective security or individual life?
3. Legal paternalism or the law as servant?
4. What are the terms of the implicit social compact?

For this post let me just make two quick points about issue 4, which I think is the most interesting one, and leave the rest for follow-up discussion.

A. I think Socrates’ argument in issue 4 contradicts his position in issue 3. In issue 3 he argues that he’s the slave of the laws and owes them unconditional obedience, implying that he has no choice at all in the matter. In issue 4, he argues that he made a decision to stay when he could have left, implying that he was a free agent with a choice in the matter.

Is there a contradiction? If so, why? I don’t think Socrates and/or Plato were too stupid not to have noticed it. So is it a matter of making whatever arguments will appeal to the likely different audiences — the slave/child argument for the more traditionally inclined and the social compact argument for the more modern? And if the arguments being made are driven by such rhetorical considerations, what does this imply for the claim at Socrates’ trial that he was a sophist, given that sophistic strategy is to make whatever argument will work for the audience(s) at hand.

B. If one accepts the premise of the social compact as Socrates lays it out, there’s still the question of the other side of the compact. Citizens may have obligations to the law, but the law in turn has obligations to the citizens. If the law fails to fulfill its obligations, e.g., by threatening to kill an innocent citizen, does this not mean that the law has broken the agreement? And if the agreement is broken by one party, is the other party not then released from its obligations to uphold its side of the agreement? Thus Socrates, an actually-innocent man, is free to escape an injustice, if he so chooses.

Feel welcome to follow up in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Socrates’ two bad arguments for not escaping

  • September 11, 2009 at 5:42 am

    The laws enabled his parents to get married. Therefore the laws are also his parents? Non Sequitur. People have children all the time without benefit of human laws.

    The laws made his parents educate him? Does that mean without the laws, he would not have been educated? If you are going to leave a room, and someone at that very moment says “I command you to leave the room!”, have you “obeyed” their order? No, because you were going to leave the room anyway.

    Socrates also claimed that since he lived in Athens, he was bound to obey their laws. But if he had fled, he would no longer have been living in Athens.

  • September 11, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Two points: one logical, one literary. Can we distinguish content justice from procedural justice, without using the intrinsic to judge the objective? Justice simply is a form of objective judgment and action, and in that sense it cannot be anything but procedural.Yes, one can say that a particular objective judgment is based on a wider context of knowledge than another. But both judgments are no less procedural, if they are justice.

    This is why an appeals court will often overturn a verdict based on procedural errors made by the judge: His procedure is on the record. But it will overturn a jury verdict only if the jury could not rationally have arrived at the decision it did, or if extremely significant new information has come to light. The jury’s decision-making procedure is not on the record to be reviewed for objectivity (perhaps it should be).

    Now, Athens had no appeals procedure. Under the circumstances, you seem to be saying, an individual could morally serve as his own appeals court. Certainly, an individual might have more information about his case than the jury heard. But he would also have to make an objective judgment about his guilt based on that knowledge. And of course being a “judge in one’s own case” has long been a byword for nonobjectivity.

    But suppose that an individual does serve as his own appeals court, and overturns the jury’s verdict. Should his judgment be recognized by the state? Clearly, it cannot be. The state can only treat his refusal to accept punishment (by escaping from prison, say) as a second crime. Therefore, the prisoner must flee his polity for one that is not sufficiently cordial toward his own that it will extradite him.

    This brings me to the literary point. It is widely thought the Socrates was not actually being prosecuted for irreligion but for pro-Spartan sympathies. (That charge could not be brought because of the Act of Oblivion.) And one of the main pieces of evidence for his pro-Spartan sympathies was that his favorite, Alcibiades, when charged with sacrilege in the smashing of the Hermes, escaped Athenian justice by fleeing to Sparta and leading them against Athens. I think it very likely that Plato was insisting Socrates would never have done such a thing.

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