Socrates in jail — escape or not?

[This week in my Introduction to Philosophy course, we are reading Crito and discussing whether Socrates should escape or accept his death sentence. Here is a revisiting of an earlier post.]

Socrates’ two bad arguments for not escaping

Socrates-three-quartersIn 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-LouvreSocrates 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.

socrates-lysippus-100x121A. 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.


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