Full version Socrates: Moral Obligation To Civil Law

Socrates: Moral Obligation To Civil Law

This print version free essay Socrates: Moral Obligation To Civil Law.

Category: Philosophy

Autor: reviewessays 10 December 2010

Words: 1722 | Pages: 7

The Socratic dialogues deal with the definition of certain types of virtue, and how these specific virtues (for example, courage or piety) fit in to the overall definition of doing good and living by the correct moral standards. The dialogues of the Apology and the Crito deal with the trial and sentencing of Socrates, facilitating a discussion about an individual's morality in abiding by the law. Socrates does show us that civil law should be treated as a moral obligation, by proving that to ignore the rule of law would be to commit moral wrong. He then qualifies this by illustrating that lawfulness is not always equal to virtuousness, and explaining how to remain virtuous without damaging the authority of the law. Further examination of his arguments in regards to civil disobedience reveal inconsistency and the necessity for further development.


In the Crito, Socrates gives an explanation about why he must remain in his jail cell and accept his sentence by using moral reasoning. The most important facet in his argument is the claim (which the interlocutor Crito quickly agrees to) that it is never justified to do evil. No matter what has been suffered before, no matter what good comes of it, doing wrong is unacceptable to Socrates any way you put it. He clearly states the underlying principle for the rest of his argument will be that "neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right" (Crito 49d/e).

After making this statement, the next step is to use it to demonstrate that there is a moral obligation to obey civil law. He creates two sound examples to prove this. First, he equates the state to a father-like figure that guides, nourishes and provides protection for its subjects in order that they should flourish and learn. The state is what allows for our existence in the first place. In this way, the state and the individual are not on equal terms; the state clearly takes precedence. Socrates, speaking on behalf of the state, poses the question: "Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to your father or your master, if you had one, because you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?" The answer, according to the principle of evil is never justified, is clearly no. No matter what your feelings about your master, no matter what harm has come to you, reciprocation by committing your own moral wrong is impious. Just as it is impious to "do violence to" your mother and father, it is most definitely morally wrong to do the same one's country. By not adhering to its clearly stated principles, an individual is disrespecting the state and committing moral wrong.

Secondly, he explains the relationship between the law and the individual is contractual. If someone does not choose to enter into this contract, he is free to leave the state at any time. However, if he remains within the state, he is automatically committed to the contract, meaning he must adhere to civil law. In simpler terms, if you choose to enjoy the benefits the state offers you (protection, education, liberty, order, et al.), you have an obligation to do as the state ordains. There is no discrepancy about whether or not an individual thinks the law to be just or desirable. The only loophole to escaping a contract is if, according to Socrates, in order to fulfill it, you must commit moral wrong. We know from above that it is never justified to do evil.

In summary, it is morally wrong to violate a just agreement. Law-breaking would be violating an agreement with the state (which, at this point in my argument, is presumably a just agreementВ—for a qualification see below), and hence, be an act of impiety.


Although the Crito makes it clear that Socrates demands respect for the law, he does not believe it to be the highest moral authority. In the Apology, Socrates clearly declares: "Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you," (Apology 29d). This presents the dilemma of when and where it is moral to obey the law, and when and where doing God's will trumps the morality of civil obedience. On the one extreme, it would be impossible to run a city or state if everyone answered to divine authority instead of that of man. It is difficult to define "God's will" in the first place, and men disobeying the law every time they believe it to be morally wrong would make the decline to anarchy very likely. On the other hand, blindly accepting the law under any circumstance is the very definition of a totalitarian state. Socrates attempts to find a middle ground by advocating that we obey the law, even when we don't approve of it, except in the case that it asks us to commit moral wrong. However, this does not include feeling wronged or feeling victimized by the law, and certainly does not include revolutionary action or sentiment. Furthermore, those who are asked to commit moral wrong for the sake of the law have the moral right to disobey, but they must still accept the penalty, just as Socrates chooses to do despite feeling that he was wrongfully convicted.

Another idea that defines the extent of one's moral duty to obey civil law is Socrates' notion of persuasion. Despite the authority of the law, Socrates mentions more than once in the Crito that an individual, "must obey the commands of one's city and country or persuade it as to the nature of justice," (Crito 51c). The second option is a democratic ideal that provides a loophole for those who feel wronged by the law. In a functioning democratic society, individuals get the opportunity to persuade the governing authority that the law has equivocated and that the act of breaking a certain law was in fact violating an unjust contract. Socrates' speech in the Apology is an example of a statement that attempts to convince the jury and the city of Athens that what they claim to be an act of impiety was in fact an act of the utmost piety. Unfortunately, Socrates failed to persuade them, and in turn is forced to "endure in silence what [the law] instructs you to endure," (Crito 51b).


If one were to adhere to the arguments above, as presented by Socrates, it would follow that civil disobedience, or simply disobeying the rules of the state because of your own judgments is not only a moral affront, but threatens the entire legal system. If you feel the state has done you wrong or committed an injustice, the right answer is still not to answer one moral wrongdoing with another. One should always comply with the moral obligation to obey the law, except in the circumstances that Socrates provides. The law, an example of what should be a just contract, will provide other outlets for reform and dissent that do not include committing an offense against the state and its principles.

But there are two glaring issues that arise from this. The first is the tedious task of defining a just agreement. Socrates' formula for the decision to break the law rests on the idea that everyone sees the agreement between citizen and state as a just one in the first place. Since individuals living within a state have chosen to remain, they have established a moral obligation to the law and must accept the terms of that agreement. However, if an individual claims that this agreement was flawed in the first place, that the idea of civil law itself is unjust (as compared to, say, divine law), would not the contract become void and the state deteriorate into anarchy? Socrates does not account for the idea that not everyone can be morally just in their convictions and actions, and this would lead to not all governments being morally just in the same way. If there was no just contract to begin with, how would this system function? Assuming that the law always provides an individual with a just agreement, civic obedience is a moral obligation. Without this assumption, this claim becomes unfounded.

Another obtrusive concern that stares may puzzle someone trying to follow the logic of Socrates is the behavior of Socrates himself. He has obvious respect for the rule of law and for the contract that it offers an individual. He has stated that one's moral beliefs and individual definitions of justice should not enter into the decision to obey the law unless it's asking us to commit an evil act. So how would Socrates explain his violation of the law? He could begin by claiming that if the law deems his practice of philosophy impious and therefore illegal, and Socrates believes the practice of philosophy to be a moral obligation, he could argue that abstaining from this practice would be committing a moral wrong. However, this would require more proof on Socrates part. Taking another route, Socrates could assert that because he did not think himself to be acting impiously, he didn't think himself to be breaking the law. This has hints of moral relativism, which is typically un-Socratic, but could be an effective argument if he claims he never would have broken the law otherwise. However, the point is moot, as Socrates clearly states in the apology, "I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times," (Apology 30c). Socrates is admitting that he would knowingly break the law because he felt the law to be immoral and unfounded. Because he claims to be a victim of injustice, but has not been asked to do moral wrong by the state, it can be said that Socrates, by breaking the law, has committed a moral wrong by his own standards.