Wednesday, September 13, 2023

An absolutist Socrates

We often think of Socrates as the ultimate "critical free thinker". He antagonized many in Athens through his relentless questioning of shared assumptions about ethics, the gods, and the nature of knowledge and belief. And, as a result, he was also thought to have "corrupted the youth", leading many young men of the Athenian elite into a skeptical rejection of the knowledge, wisdom, and authority of their seniors. 

So what are we to make of Socrates' principled rejection of the efforts of Crito and other friends to persuade him to flee Athens and avoid the sentence of death to which his trial led? Crito offers a series of pragmatic reasons why Socrates should flee: the welfare of his children, the avoidance of harm for his friends, who will be thought to have been too afraid or too penurious to help Socrates escape, his own ability to lead a happy and fulfilling life in another city.

Socrates' reply is that he is not willing to consider reasons of self-interest (or the interests of others) until he has satisfied himself on what virtue or justice requires of him. Socrates insists that he wants to make the virtuous choice, not the most advantageous choice. He focuses on what justice requires of a citizen when the laws of the city have led to a command that requires great sacrifice of the citizen. In his own case, the laws of the city have been observed: charges have been lawfully brought forward; he has been given the opportunity to rebut the charges; and a majority of the jury has found him guilty of the charges and a separate majority has voted in favor of the penalty of death. The laws of the city have spoken; so what now is the unconditional obligation of the citizen?

Socrates' reasoned answer is unequivocal. He concludes that the lawfully enacted commands of the city create unconditional obligations of compliance for the citizen.

So: Do we say that we should never willingly act unjustly, or that we should in some instances and not in others? Or is acting unjustly never good or noble, as we often agreed on previous occasions? (Crito 49a)


So: And so one must never act unjustly.
Cr: By no means.
So: And so one should not repay an injustice with an injustice, as the many think, since one should never act unjustly. (49b)

Here Socrates believes he has established the unconditional, unqualified obligation to act justly. So all that remains is to determine whether "acting justly" requires complying with the lawfully executed commands of the state. But first, are there exceptions to this principle -- for example, in cases where the state's commands are themselves unjust? And second, are there qualifications about the "legitimate" state that must be respected in order to create obligations at all?

Or will we say to them "The city treated us unjustly and did not decide the case properly"? Will we say this or something like it?
Cr: By Zeus, that's what we'll say, Socrates. (50c)

Socrates emphatically rejects this idea: there is no exception for "unjust commands" by the state.

So: What if the laws then said, "Socrates, did we agree on this, we and you, to honor the decisions that the city makes?" And if we were surprised to hear them say this, perhaps they would say, "Socrates, don't be surprised at what we're saying but answer, since you are used to participating in questioning and answering. Come then, what reason can you give us and the city for trying to destroy us? Did we not, to begin with, give birth to you? And wasn't it through us that your father married your mother and conceived you? So show those of us, the laws concerning marriages, what fault you find that keeps them from being good?" "I find no fault with them," I would say. (50c)

And the crucial lines:

"Well, then. Since you have been born and brought up and educated, could you say that you were not our offspring and slave from the beginning, both you and your ancestors? And if this is so, do you suppose that justice between you and us is based on equality, and do you think that whatever we might try to do to you, it is just for you to do these things to us in return? (50e)

The authority of the city, then, depends on two things: the citizen's agreement (explicit or implicit) to comply with decisions the city makes; and the idea that the city created the citizen and rightly "owns" the citizen as offspring and slave. The first reason is fundamentally a social-contract argument for the origins of political obligation, while the second is an even older argument based on the idea of "moral parentage" of the citizen by the city and its laws. And, conjoined with arguments described above, the obligations described here are unconditional: the city has the inherent right to command (enact its laws) without limitation, and the citizen has the absolute duty of compliance. The city and its laws have a moral status higher than that of the citizen.

This is an absolutist theory of the state and its authority. It is, among other things, a complete refutation of the legitimacy of principled civil disobedience; disobedience and non-compliance are never "just". It is also a procedural conception of justice: if the laws stipulate that capital cases must be decided in a day, then there is no place for argument or resistance to the effect that this requirement is unjust to the accused. 

It is worth noticing that Socrates (or Plato) stacks the deck a bit here, by considering only the city's command and the consequence for the individual citizen. The citizen must comply, no matter what the cost to his own interests. But surely this is a special case. If the individual wishes to sacrifice his own interests or life in obedience to the commands of the state, perhaps we should simply regard this as an individual choice. However, the arguments seem to have the same force if the city's commands require the citizen to inflict harm on others -- innocent civilians, members of family, other citizens. If the laws had allowed as punishment for the crimes for which Socrates was convicted the execution of the accused and his children, would Socrates be equally obliged by the requirement of justice to comply? More historically, if the city had commanded that Cleon had unlimited authority to choose the means of war against Sparta (delegating its unconditional right to command) and Cleon had ordered the massacre at Melos, would any Athenian soldier have the moral right to refuse the order? It appears that Socrates' arguments to Crito would persist in holding that the authority to command is absolute; therefore soldiers must comply.

This argument for the duty of compliance appears to present a theory of the state that is wholly unlimited in its justification of the unconstrained authority of the state. There are no limits on the actions the state can undertake; there are no rights of citizens that the state must respect; there is no recourse for the citizen against "illegitimate or mistaken" commands by the state. There is no constitution or bill of rights defining the legitimate scope and limits of state power, and nothing that secures an inviolable zone of protection for the rights of the individual citizen.

Socrates was executed by a judicial process conducted under the terms of Athenian democracy. But what about the commands of the city and its laws during the rule of the Tyrants? Were Athenian citizens equally obligated to comply with the commands of the Tyrants during the period in which they ruled? If so, what distinguishes a legitimate state from an illegitimate one? For that matter, how are we to understand Socrates' own refusal to do the bidding of the Tyrants? Why did he not regard their commands as being as absolute and binding as those of the democracy?

Athens' condemnation of Socrates for his speech and teaching is one thing; legitimation of the massacres committed by Cleon in the name of Athens is another. And yet the arguments offered by Socrates in the Crito seem to equally support both. (See these earlier posts for more discussion of crimes of war committed during the Peloponnesian War; link, link.) This suggests that the political theory defended in Crito is fundamentally wrong, and wrong in a very deep way. It provides an absolutist, even totalitarian, basis for thinking about the relationship between state and citizen that is antithetical to the idea of the moral autonomy of the citizen.


Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Times, circumstances, ethical and moral edicts change. We might now regard a command to commit suicide unconscionable. But, in Socrates' time, the City made and enforced the rules, for a greater good. How elegantly utilitarian! Logical, to a fault. If it is commanded that people be principled; hold to a set of values; have honor and integrity, many will adhere. Some will not. We can ponder how history may have been different, if Socrates had gotten out of Dodge. In the larger scheme of things, probably not much. But, there is always the 'what if' factor. And there is little chance of guessing the outcome correctly. Rules change, too.

Ian Douglas Rushlau said...

"This argument for the duty of compliance appears to present a theory of the state that is wholly unlimited in its justification of the unconstrained authority of the state. There are no limits on the actions the state can undertake; there are no rights of citizens that the state must respect; there is no recourse for the citizen against "illegitimate or mistaken" commands by the state."

I think your reading of Crito is entirely correct.

Socrates has talked himself into the notion that compliance with 'the state' is synonymous with duty, which in turn is synonymous with virtue.

For a figure who is extolled as a paragon of not just critical thinking, but often characterized as an iconoclast, willing to defy the intellectual conventions of the community, such a stance-- obey the dictates of the state no matter what-- is essentially paradoxical, certainly inimical to the persona presented to us by Plato. Socrates, it seems, when faced with the dictates of the ruling authority, would have each of us become automatons. This is the hero of freedom of thought?

Here's where I think Plato's 'logic' is led astray, as so many are to this day: he invests ultimate value in idealized abstractions (most notoriously in the chimerical Forms). The [s]tate and the [c]itizen, [v]irtue and [j]ustice are not the objects of his attention, only /S/tate, /C/itizen, /V/irtue and /J/ustice in their absolute, idealized constructs, which become the standard against which the individual, the actual person living in the real world, is to evaluate themselves.

But there is no such thing as a state in the abstract. There are institutions of authority inhabited by human beings, no shortage of whom are corrupt, malign, cruel and/or incompetent. There seem to be no shortage of instances in which the corrupt, malign, cruel and/or incompetent commandeer the institutions of political authority in order to further their corruption, malignancy and cruelty, to enrich and empower themselves despite their incompetence.

Political office has always attracted those who lack moral compunctions, seeking only to benefit themselves and their chosen few allies, whether in a pretense of democratic governance, or outright autocracy. The problem is not that such people haven't been properly taught the merits of /V/irtue by a Socrates, it's that such individuals don't give a fuck either way.

The institutions of governance, thankfully, are not entirely overrun by despots, oligarchs, sociopaths and deranged, delusional morons, but many offices (here in the US, and around the world) certainly are held by despots, oligarchs, sociopaths and deranged, delusional morons.

To stand in opposition to their illiberalism, their violence, their bigotry, their depravity, when these are enrobed in the authority of the state-- that is, when the worst among us wield power (to be blunt, I'm thinking of Donald Trump here, and any who would choose to align with him) and their despicable efforts are granted the imprimatur of the law-- that defiance, protest, refusal to comply, become consistent with justice and virtue.

If this weren't the case, the terms 'justice' and 'virtue' would have no meaning at all.

And that's precisely the intellectual and moral perversion disciples of idealized abstractions, like Socrates, inevitably drift into, while trying to convince us of their enlightenment and sanctity.

Dan Little said...

Thanks, Ian, for these thoughtful comments. I've got the same concerns as you about overly abstract understandings of "state", etc. And the results are pernicious: atrocities are committed in the name of "following orders" and "rightful authority".

Xenophon's bum said...

Socrates' arguments are bullshit, he knows it, and the reader is signalled this.

He tells us in the dialogue the real reasons for "compliance": he's too old, he doesn't want to start somewhere fresh at this age (away from his family), and Athens is the cultural capital of the world (so living elsewhere would just suck.

The rest of the dialogue is just Socrates doing what he loved best: shooting the shit and bullshitting people.

Another Ian said...

This is a minor point, but I believe that Socrates and Plato would not draw a clear a line between one's own self-interest and the demands of justice. Relevant sections of the Crito are 47b-48b. He claims that (i) "life [is not] worth living for us with that part of us corrupted that unjust action harms and just action benefits" (47e) and (ii) "the most important thing is not life, but the good life" (48b) (Grube translation). While these comments could be read impersonally, given the context, it seems to me that self-interest is built into the foundations of the discussion. The context is that one's soul is ruined by unjust actions. This is analogous to ruining one's body with unhealthy actions. Ruining one's body would not only prevent one from doing certain necessary physical tasks, but it would also be bad and painful in itself. Analogously, ruining one's soul would not only prevent one from doing just actions, but it would also be bad and psychologically damaging to oneself. It is so bad and damaging that it makes life not worth living.

All that to say: I don't think it's clear that Socrates "is not willing to consider reasons of self-interest (or the interests of others) until he has satisfied himself on what virtue or justice requires of him". He seems to me to believe that the demands of justice constitute egoistic reasons for action.