Plato, “Crito”, and should we obey bad laws?
Now we come to the dialogue “Crito”, which poses the question: What does the individual owe his society? Specifically, if living in a society means obeying the “laws of the land”, do we owe it to our fellow citizens to obey or defy laws that are unjust or wrongheaded? Given Plato’s rather dim view of Athenian democracy, we might imagine the dialogue would argue against obeying the city’s laws, but instead he finds a justification to support the laws, regardless of the will of the people, that is so authoritarian we might wonder if Socrates was served well by this particular student. Also it raises the question of whether or not we have a sort of civic duty to break bad laws.
The dialogue begins with the student Crito visiting Socrates in jail, where he is being held after having been condemned to die by the Athenian jury for impiety, as described in the Apology. Crito tries to convince Socrates to flee, telling him that his death will harm his friends’ reputation, which his trial has shown can bring fatal consequences; escape would be easy and cheap; he has safe places to live in exile; and by submitting to the sentence he is upholding an injustice and committing a greater injustice against his sons and friends. We might feel that breaking out of prison is shameful; but this requires us to believe that Socrates has some obligation to honor an unjust sentence, which he doesn’t.
An interesting point here is that Socrates agrees wholeheartedly with Crito about the bulk of “ordinary people”, grousing that they have no power to make people wise (and thus good). In the next section, he tells Crito not to worry about the popular opinion because one should always prefer expert opinion to majority opinion, especially in matters of the soul. Let’s take this as the typical Platonic argument against democracy- under the popular regime, the soul is not improved and the few good people are killed. Again, Plato is not a believer in democracy. So why in the world does Socrates accept the ruling of these brutish “ordinary people” and insist on staying in prison?
Socrates speaks first of contractual obligations: it would be dishonorable to violate his obligations to Athens by escaping. The name of lawbreaker would adhere to him (even though he just told Crito not to worry about his own name!). Next, he introduces the voice of the Laws: there is an agreement between the citizen and the Laws akin to that between a parent and child- he obeys them and is, in turn, brought up by those Laws to be good. The paternal concern of the Laws for their child is strikingly authoritarian and it’s hard not to think some of this authoritarianism comes from Plato. And now he’s shifted from speaking in contractual terms to speaking of laws as pedagogical.
It’s really hard to understand Socrates’s crime, which is described as harming public piety, but which is different from what we today call “morals” offenses. In reality, it seems that there are actually two classes of crimes in society. The first are those we agree not to commit because doing so directly harms another person and we would not want that harm visited upon us: stealing, murder, rape, assault, fraud, etc would fit into this category. Obeying these laws is something like a mutual contract with all members of the society. I think most of us accept these laws as necessary insurance for our own well-being.
As the regulatory power of a political body grows, we seem to develop a second class of crimes, consisting of acts which do not harm others by their performance, but could harm others through secondary effects. Take prostitution- paying for sex, in itself, isn’t particularly harmful; but it could unwittingly spread disease, harm marriages, or expose children to behavior considered immoral. The use of drugs doesn’t, in itself, harm another person; but a drug user might hurt someone else while “out of their mind” on drugs, or eat up social services for treatment. Adultery could, perhaps, be considered a kind of fraud. Illegal immigration, meanwhile, does no harm in itself, but could also drain social services or promote a general disregard for laws in general. Impiety would seem to be in this class.
What’s fascinating about what I’d (tentatively) call “secondary harm” laws is that the public outcry against their criminals is both harder to justify than that against primary harm criminals, while being much more vehement. For example, when I was a child, the local parents led a crusade against the video game Pac-Man because the “power pellets” he chomped could encourage children to take drugs. And Tiger Woods can testify about the public’s fierce disapproval of adultery, very few of whom were actually harmed by his wayward penis. Meanwhile, the crusade against illegal immigration has portrayed this as the ur-crime- the only one that gives one the existential status of “an illegal”. Commit any other crime and your actions are illegal; commit this one and you–as-such are illegal. The crime, incidentally, is standing on a piece of land without the proper approval of the state.
Actually, I remember, as a kid, having conversations with frustratingly authoritarian anti-gay Virginians when sodomy was still illegal in which they made no effort at all to justify the law. They would say, “Gays are living an illegal lifestyle!” I would ask, “Do you actually think that two people committing a consensual sex act in their own homes should be a crime?” They would respond, “I have no idea whether it’s a good law or not, but they’re breaking it! They’re criminals!”
Because it is harder to justify laws against crimes that quite likely don’t hurt others, we’ve all probably violated a few. Speeding on a busy freeway is much more clearly dangerous than speeding on a lonely stretch of road- so many of us have done the second. Recently, I violated one of the drug laws while relaxing at home with my wife. The “harm” caused by our crime- we giggled a lot and had the best sex of our lives. Should I turn myself in?
Surprisingly, Socrates would actually say, “Yes!” because he thinks it’s dishonorable to violate any law. Even worse, by mentioning the crime here, I am harming the souls of everyone reading this. Not only does he see secondary harm to the soul as a valid concern- it’s more important than any physical harm. His crusade against the poets, for example, is based on the idea that they make us bad people through their art. While he is sometimes seen as a martyr to “free speech” for his death, he was against it. His argument here is that we obey the Laws because violating any law is to violate the Laws as an overarching structure of authority. The key idea in all this is pedagogy- the Laws teach us to be good because we obey them, even if they’re bad laws. Again, it’s pedagogical; not contractual.
Plato’s argument is even more authoritarian: he says we have an obligation, for honor and the good of our soul, to obey unjust laws and even to accept unfair punishment for laws we haven’t broken. His position is frankly untenable. Why is it so honorable to be put to death for a law you haven’t violated? His answer seems to be that the privilege to live in society justifies any injustice that might go along with it, but by choosing the unjust punishment, Socrates is sanctioning injustice against himself.
It’s hard, therefore, not to see the Crito dialogue, and the way that Plato portrays the death of Socrates, as a sort of bomb lobbed at Athenian democracy. Socrates is “honorable” for upholding his end of the contract, but the Athenians have clearly killed an innocent man due to their own ignorance and hysteria. As far as I can tell, Plato sees this as the inevitable outcome of democratic governance. The people will demand bad laws be written and enforced as a means to persecute superior individuals. Mobocracy will rule.
Make no mistake: Plato is not opposed to the Laws- the Republic suggests he’d like a lot more of them. But his authoritarian impulse is tied to his faith that, if the right experts made enough of the right laws, without the interference of the mob, the average person could be made better. This is, incidentally, the faith of many authoritarians. I prefer to think that the real Socrates would have thought it was nonsense.
Previous Platonic Posts:
- The Symposium
- Jason on The Symposium
- Timaeus/ Critias
- Republic (1)
- Republic (2)
- Republic (3)
(Just for reference purposes. Obviously, we’ve still got some good dialogues left.)