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.