What Were Socrates’ Last Words?

Socrates lived 469 BC–399 BC, and was a classical Greek philosopher often credited with being the originator of western philosophy. His teachings are comprised in a collection of dialogues, compiled by Platowhere Socrates is engaged in a dialectic or Socratic Method (e.g., an analytic discussion) with others.

Socrates had many famous dialogues, and Crito is one that dealt with the idea of fealty toward government, and served as a precursor to social contract theory. Although justice is ideally the will of the people, the justness of an action is not always symmetrical with the will of the people.

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory is the theory that the authority of government is derived from voluntary agreement (or consent) among all of its people to form a political community whose responsibility it is to obey the laws passed by a government, which serve to contribute to the public good.

People are obligated to adhere to these laws because first, all are protected, and second, one has an obligation to serve the state since the state represents the will of all it’s citizens. Famous social contract theorists include the philosophers Hobbes and Rousseau.

Crito’s Plea for Socrates to Escape Execution

In Plato’s dialogue, titled Crito, Socrates has been condemned to death. Under the terms of Socrates’ confinement, he finds that he has the ability to easily escape. His friend Crito argues that his death would be such a loss to to the world, and it was important for such a wise man as himself to live. Also, Crito tells him that he should try to live, because they don’t want him to die, and they care for him.

Crito further says that it will reflect poorly on him and Socrates’ other friends if they did not act to save him, and indeed do not save him. Surprisingly enough Socrates argues that he must not try and escape, even though he is able, even to save his life. His argument regarding his obligation to follow the dictates of the state forms the basis for social contract theory, and therefore one’s allegiance to the state.

The Importance of Acting Ethically

Socrates has an obligation to bring up his children and educate them to be ethical. If Socrates does not set a good example for his children, then he will be doing an injustice to them. In fact Socrates would be setting a bad example for all people if he fled.

It matters nothing whether what the state does is right, but rather the state must be obeyed by virtue of being the state even if the state represents the collective injustice of its citizens.

According to Socrates, to not follow the rules of the state one is to commit a great evil. As a result of the evil actions against Socrates, he is not entitled to an evil (e.g., escaping) act against the state. If he stays and is executed, he is a victim not of the injustice of the law, but rather the injustice of Athenian citizens, and history will judge them as unjust if they are so – this is not for Socrates to judge.

For Socrates, a decision to disregard the law and escape threatens to overthrow the law in Athenian society. Socrates talks about how by the excellence of the state he was conceived and educated. His marriage and children demonstrated his satisfaction with the state. Socrates believed that agreeing to be married in the state, his decision to birth and raise his children born in the state, and all other benefits of being a citizen, created an obligation to follow the laws of the state.

Virtue and Obeying the Dictates of the State

According to Socrates, if he was unhappy with the state, then he could have left and lived somewhere else prior to his arrest. And if he does leave now that he is condemned to death, other states will look on him with a suspicious eye, as the supposedly virtuous philosopher who ran away and therefore acting unjustly.

Like Socrates, under social contract theory, all are obligated to obey the dictates of the state. This is because the state represents the will of the people to consent to the rules of the state in order to be protected. In order for the will of the people to be respected the government mandates must be followed even if the rulers act unjustly. To follow the dictates of the state is to act ethically and morally according to Socrates.


Honderich, Ted, Ed. The Oxford Companion To Philosophy Oxford University Press: Oxford 1995.

Jowett, B., M.A. The Dialogues of Plato. Volume One. Random House Inc.: New York 1937.

Utilitarianism and the Categorical Imperative

While both Mill’s consequentialist Principle of Utility and Kant’s deontological Categorical Imperative seem both to have ethical import, the applicability of each depends on the situation to which they are applied. Utilitarianism is that the goodness or rightness of an ethic in question, depends on the desirability of its consequences.

On the other hand is the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, where according to Kant the value of a maxim that holds categorically or universally (e.g., the Categorical Imperative), depends on one acting out of duty (e.g., Deontologically). If an act is moral, then it must hold categorically, as understood through reason (i.e., one must not steal, because to steal would result in nothing belonging to anyone – respect for private property being a maxim or law that holds categorically using reason). While both these principles seem vitally important, how is one to decide which is paramount when their ethical proscriptions overlap?

Mill’s Utilitarianism

Mill’s ethical system is consequentialist, that is the value of the ethical act depends on the consequences. Mill’s system depends on the Principle of Utility. According to the principle of utility, the desire that people share is the desire to be happy. And to be happy depends on how much pleasure one can have in their life. Something is ethical by maximizing happiness (e.g., pleasure), in the greatest good for the greatest number. Mill’s system has been criticized as being hedonistic, (e.g., the base pleasures being the highest good) but in fact other pleasures besides the sensual pleasures are included. Lucidity in thought can result in pleasure. Or loving another can bring pleasure as well.

One unfortunate byproduct of utilitarianism is that when one wants to maximize happiness for the greatest number, this often is to the detriment of the minority. Being that this is so, the rights of certain individuals can suffer.

For example, say one was misbooked on a ship of sadists, and they weren’t a sadist. In order to maximize happiness (e.g., pleasure), one must allow oneself to be abused in order to make the majority happy. So the question that becomes apparent, when looking at Kant’s and Mill’s ethical systems; where do rights of others end and the rights of the individual begin?

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Kant’s categorical imperative takes a contrary view. In conformity with the first formulation of the categorical imperative (i.e., one must always act in such a way that the principle in which one acts holds categorically or universally), is the second formulation of the categorical imperative, where Kant states that none should be treated simply as a means, but also as an end in themselves, where the principle of how one acts holds universally as well. What Kant is saying is that not treating someone as a means refers to not denying the rights of another. In others words not treating someone as a means to an end, but rather respecting their autonomy.

By one being an end in themselves, one can consent to being used in which case ones autonomy is not violated. For example a bank robber might think they are justified in robbing a bank, because the outcome for instance is that the bank robber parent can buy their children food. Yet one is not treating the teller as an end in themselves, because the teller has no option but to obey and doesn’t part with the money willingly.

Why are Rights Important?

Freedom may be abridged by the principle of utility. Yet according to the founders of the constitution this freedom is not abridged as a right of the state, because rights are god given, not something that can be bestowed on autonomous beings. In the case of free speech rights, rights are based on the principle that in order for there to be a just society, all speech must be respected. Yet how is one to balance the safety of the public at large with the right of the individual (i.e., free speech?).

The best way, and one of the safeguards of free speech, is to ensure that the society one lives in is a just society, where everyone’s rights are protected. For example the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s led by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, would not have happened at all if the rights of African-Americans were first protected.

In the US, it is generally felt that non-violent demonstrations are acceptable, or at least tolerable. This has become the norm as a sort of compromise between the destruction and violence that can come from demonstrations and the respect for free speech.


Honderich, Ted Ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press 1995.

May, Larry et al., Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach. Third Edition. Pearson Education, Inc. 2002.

Moore, Booke Noel., Steward, Robert Michael., Moral Philosophy: A Comprehensive Introduction. Mayfield Publishing Company, California State University, Chico 1994.

Are Atheists Moral?

Can atheists be moral? It is often thought that an atheist, one who does not recognize the dominion of God, or God at all for that matter, somehow cannot act ethically. One fundamental question is, if one does not recognize the laws of the Ten Commandments as commands from God, then is there a basis for being a moral individual?

Yet there are other criteria to be moral. Philosophical ethics propounds many ethical theories based on rational principles. Examples of these include Utilitarianism, where that which is ethical is that which brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. Another example is Kantianism, which relies on such dictums as the Categorical Imperative where principles are universalized as maxims that hold true categorically.

Not surprisingly, there are many arguments in ethics about what constitutes moral principles, and what theory should be adopted, but according to Christian theists, one must accept the commands of God as interminable, that this position is not open to debate. Are the moral teachings of the Abrahamic religions beyond doubt? Is it possible to question such a position? Is fealty to God necessary for one to be moral? Does the existence of God ensure morality in the world? Socrates, who was executed for among other things impiety, addresses this issue in the Socratic dialogue the Euthyphro.

One charge against him, Socrates states, was that “I invent new gods and deny the existence of old ones”. Because of this charge, Socrates is especially interested in what constitutes piety. Talking to his friend, the theologian Euthyphro, Euthyphro tells him that he is pursuing his father for murder. A field laborer in a fit of drunken passion slew one of his father’s domestic servants. His father bound him hand and foot and threw him into a ditch. A messenger was sent to a diviner by Euthyphro’s father to inquire what he was to do with the laborer. Before the messenger returned the laborer had died of exposure.

Socrates curious about this, wondered if the ethical principles gleaned from this event might be useful in his defense, wondering if Euthyphro was right to seek out his father for murder. Would the instructions from the diviner, have made a difference as to whether Euthyphro’s actions were pious or not? Euthyphro gives a definition of piety, as “that which is dear to the gods and impiety is that which is not dear to them”.

Socrates asks “the point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods” The preceding argument’s is a formulation is what is called the Divine Command Theory. According to Divine Command Theory, if something is not holy, and not moral in itself, but only if God commands it to be holy. A question can be raised that if something is moral in itself, does an ethical act require God to make it ethical? If it is true that God is needed to make something holy, then it seems God could command anything to be holy, which seems counterintuitive. On the other hand if something is ethical in itself then what is the role of God?

If God is not necessary to determine whether some act is ethical or not (i.e., a thing as moral in itself instead or being moral because God commands it), then what role does God have in this context? With the Divine Command Theory, God’s role in rooting out evil is unclear. Yet some might argue that because God gives one free will, one is free to not obey his commandments, and therefore suffer the consequences of sin, but this provides no insight into the direct role God plays in morality.

The atheist may claim, from a philosophical standpoint, that belief in God is not sufficient to determine ones moral being. The philosophical positions propounded by different philosophers regarding ethics are not settled issues either. Finding what is ethical can be elusive. Assumptions about ones certainty, about ones own ethical being or actions may be at the very least misguided, whether philosophical or religious. Nevertheless, The Divine Command Theory propounded by Socrates, casts doubt on the idea that only those that believe in God can be ethical, and furthermore can anyone make the claim to being ethical at all?

A more important question must be asked then what constitutes ethics? An even more radical question must be asked is, is ethics possible at all? Is there a basis for one to act ethically? All feel they can act ethically but what supposition must be adopted to insure that an act is ethical, and if one cannot be found, then what is the basis for saying one is a moral being? Finally the question must be asked that if there is no supposition to support the claim of some act being ethical, then is ethics simply a social construct? Furthermore if the virtue of ethical acts is simply a social construct, then can different people have different ethical systems and therefore are these ethical systems strictly subjective? Such issues are problems for a unified system of ethics.