06 October 2005

Two Questions on the Crito

These questions arose in discussion with students yesterday. I wasn't quite sure how to answer them. What is your view?

Question 1
Socrates tells Crito that the crucial principle for deciding whether he should escape from prison, is 'Do not harm'. However, Socrates will indeed harm others, whether he escapes from prison or not: if he escapes, he harms the Laws (grant this); but if he remains and is executed, he harms his family and friends. Thus, it must be the case that Socrates' decision to remain relies upon some additional principle. What is that principle?

Question 2
Socrates maintains in the Apology that 'the many' do not have expertise about virtue and will likely corrupt rather than improve young persons. In the Crito he again says that the views of 'the many' count for little. But Athens was a democracy, and the laws of the city were therefore expressions of the views of 'the many'. Why, then, is it so important, in Socrates' eyes, to heed the laws? Why should the (uninformed, inexpert) views of 'the many' take on such great weight, simply because they are promulgated as law?


Anonymous said...

"if he remains and is executed, he harms his family and friends." Is it obvious that, if they are harmed by what he does, he harms them?

Anonymous said...

1. coeherence
2. laws and public opinion are two different things 

Posted by Anonymous

Michael Pakaluk said...

Good, we can say that what Socrates does results in harm to his family and friends, yet he does not harm them--but, still, this distinction presupposes an additional principle, which is ....?

Anonymous said...

The overriding principle here, Socrates tells Crito, is "oudamos ara dei adikein " (49b). But that principle gets a number of very important refinements & qualifications as the discussion proceeds. For example, "Ought we in no way to do wrong hekontas or..." (49a).
The dilemma you construct in Question 1 is instructive, but it relies on Crito’s claim that Socrates will harm his friends & family by staying & being executed. Socrates does not accepts this. Socrates believes that if he does what they agree is right, he cannot possibly be harming anyone intentionally or willingly.

Michael Pakaluk said...

The principle, never to treat another unjustly (49b) soon gets explained as never causing harm to others (kakourgein, 49c), and never treating others badly (kakws poiein, 50a). This seems implicit also in Socrates' rejection of retaliation. So I don't think your way out will work, of stressing what is 'right'.

Anonymous said...

Socrates proscribes "wronging" people (adikein), "doing [them] evilly" (kakws poiein), "working wickedness [upon them]" (kakourgein), perhaps also "injuring [them]" (blabein) (I don't have the text to hand). But I don't think it follows from the fact that you do something that results in someone's being in a bad way, that you've done any of the things Socrates proscribes. So I still don't see the need for an additional principle to take us from the principle(s) Socrates enunciates to the decision he reaches.

Of course we still may ask: how do we distinguish between "causing someone harm" (let's call it that) and doing the things Socrates proscribes. Here's a suggestion to get us started: when you're doing one of the things Socrates proscribes, the resulting harm or injury is one of your undertaking's objectives. (So: the Laws sometimes speak as if, in escaping, Socrates would be positively *trying* to do his part to destroy them. In speaking this way they appear to be saying something not just about the effects of his escaping but of what would be his objectives in escaping. We may think: that construal of the course of action he's proposing is unfair. Maybe, though notice that neither he nor Crito object in this way.)

Michael Pakaluk said...

Current moral philosophy considers whether 'good' is to be defined in terms of 'right', or vice versa, but Socrates' notion seems intermediate between the two.

His 'never do wrong' is not the same rule as 'always do what is right (all things considered)' because what he has in mind is the sort of thing that might be done in retaliation--you do wrong in return for being wronged. But 'failing to do what is right' is not a way of retaliating (if anything, retaliation can be a way of not doing what is 'right'). Indeed, if someone thought it were right (all things considered) to do me harm, he could hardly retaliate against me by doing what he thought was wrong, viz. not harming me.

On the other hand, Socrates' 'never do wrong' is not the same as 'never cause someone harm', since sometimes, as you say, causing harm does not amount to doing wrong (an obvious case being punishment)--and this, apparently, not because of a weighing of harms.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me for persisting, but this is an interesting point and I don't yet understand your position. On what possible grounds do you think Socrates worries that if he stays & suffers execution he may be wronging or treating unjustly or doing evil to his family & friends? Crito raises some beliefs of the many to the effect that Socrates' death will reflect badly on them, but Socrates completely dismisses this reasoning. Socrates finds no credible arguments that staying involves doing something wrong to anyone, whereas escaping seems to wrong the polis. It would be very interesting to see Socrates painting himself into a moral dilemma here--wrong if you stay and wrong if you go--but the escape option never finds any moral footing for Socrates in the considerations Crito puts on the table. "Never do wrong in any way" is all the principle Socrates needs here.

Michael Pakaluk said...

I think you are right. 'Never do wrong in any way' implies also that (i) what happens as a result of what we do, and (ii) what we, or others close to us, suffer through what we do, are to be discounted. And Crito's reasons why Socrates should escape fall under those heads.

But then what do you make of 53a-3, and does a similar, but more nuanced, problem arise from this passage?

This is the passage where the Laws argue that Socrates won't accomplish anything good for himself, his family, and friends if he were to escape: Socrates' own life would hardly be worth living; his children would still need to be raised by others in Athens, if they were to get a good education; and his friends would be put at risk.

What's the point of this argument, if Crito's initial considerations should be entirely discounted?

One plausible interpretation: Socrates is conceding that he is bound or obliged to save himself if he can; to raise the children he has begotten; and to safeguard the good name of his friends. If he could accomplish any of these things through escaping, then he would have an obligation, presumably defeasible, to do so.

Yet this obligation would need to be weighed in some way against the obligation to be obedient to the laws--hence (so the problem goes) there is a need for another principle, say, to the effect that 'the common good is greater than a private good', or 'obligations to political society outweigh obligations to self, family, and friends'.

That Socrates deals with these obligations at the very end of the dialogue, as a kind of afterthought, shows that he never seriously regarded them as capable of outweighing any obligations he had to Athenian political society. But then this shows that all along he has been relying on some principle in addition to 'never do wrong in any way'.

Jimmy Doyle said...

It seems to me that the idea of a real moral dilemma (ie a situation in which in which anything you do is wrong and/or blameworthy) is totally at odds with the spirit of ethical rationalism that pervades Socrates and Plato. There is no principle in addition to "Do not harm"; it's just that that principle is understood as entailed by "Virtuous action never harms" and "Always act virtuously"; the latter is too trivial to count as a separate principle. If virtue requires Socrates to face his punishment, it's a priori (if I may be permitted an anachronism) that this course of action cannot harm anyone, including his family and friends. The remark of the laws, that he wouldn't be any use to his family and friends, is partly rhetorical overkill, partly an account of the mechanism whereby virtuous action is guaranteed not to harm: in acting against virtue, one harms oneself, making oneself vicious, and renders oneself no good to anyone.

Question 2: Socrates doesn't think he's bound to obey every law or edict; he says in the Apology that if the city allowed him to go free on condition that he stop philosophising, he would disobey (because he owed his primary allegiance to the god). What he refuses to do in the Crito is not to disobey a particular law, but to strike at the very root of the 'law-governedness' of the polis by seeking to avoid legally-imposed punishment. If he escaped, he'd be breaking a kind of 'meta-law' -- the principle that anyone who is constitutionally determined to have broken the laws (whatever they are) must face his punishment; that's why he envisages the laws and the polis as saying to him (as he is running away) that he is trying to destroy them as far as it's in his power. He wouldn't be doing that by breaking just any old law. Many of the laws of the polis may be bad (as would a law forbidding philosophising); but to strike at the basis of the enforceability of law is to strike at the basis of the existence of the polis.

That's how I understand the argument, anyway.