Political Philosophy Spring 2018



We talked about two of Socrates’s arguments for the conclusion that it would be wrong of him to disobey the law in Plato’s dialogue Crito.

I had three goals.

  1. Understanding the arguments.
  2. Showing you how a philosophical interpretation of a text works.
  3. Explaining some of the motivation behind Plato’s Republic.

Two arguments

Socrates imagines the laws saying “the one who disobeys does wrong in three ways” (51e). We talked about two of them. One had to do with families and the other with agreements.

I went with this for the argument about families.

  1. It is always wrong to disobey one’s parents.
  2. The law is like Socrates’s parents.
  3. Therefore, it is wrong for Socrates to disobey the law.

My way of formulating the argument rests on an analogy between the state and family relations, Simon and several other members of the class were looking for an argument that would show how disobeying the laws would literally involve disobeying one’s parents. They had good reason to do that. What Socrates says is “the one who disobeys does wrong in three ways, first because in us [the laws] he disobeys his parents” (51e). That sounds pretty literal! I did not pick up on that during class. Even if I had better understood what they were saying, however, I think I would have been reluctant to follow them. That is because I think that the text in 50d-e shows that he has the analogy in mind. That said, I do not really understand why Socrates says that the person who disobeys the law disobeys his parents. So maybe I missed something.

In any event, with the argument put as an analogy, you can see where you might disagree. For instance, I don’t think it’s likely that many of us agree that it is always wrong to disobey one’s parents. If my parents said that I had to drink hemlock, I don’t think I would be obliged to comply.

We might also fruitfully explore why we think people are obliged to obey their parents. I suspect that those reasons mainly apply to children. If so, there would not be a strong case for thinking that adults have to obey their parents. Since laws apply chiefly to adults, that would undermine the second point as it would suggest that Socrates’s relationship to the law is not like the relationship that he had to his parents when he was obliged to obey his parents.

Having thought about it, I think this is a better way to put the argument about parents.

  1. It is wrong to harm one’s parents, even if they harm you.
  2. The state is like Socrates’s parents.
  3. Disobeying the law would hurt the state.
  4. Therefore, it is wrong for Socrates to disobey the law.

That fits the text between 50 and 51 pretty well. There, Socrates talks a lot about harming your parents and the state but he does not really mention obligations to obey your parents. Plus it avoids some of the obvious problems with the argument that assumes you are obliged to obey your parents.

If we decided this was the right way to put the point about families, we would want to go through the same process of raising questions about the premises to see if we agree with them. Why are you obliged to obey your parents? Is Socrates’s relationship to the state like his relationship to his parents in the relevant way? How would disobeying the state hurt it? And so on.

As for agreements, I put it this way.

  1. It is always wrong to break one’s agreements (49e).
  2. Socrates made an agreement with the city: he knew about its laws and chose to live there despite being free to leave (51d).
  3. Therefore, it is wrong for Socrates to disobey the law.

Again, we can press on the first premise. Is it obviously wrong to break an agreement if keeping it means your death? I can’t think of any examples where I would say with certainty that the agreement had to be kept.

We can also ask about whether the second premise is true. Does living in a place amount to agreeing to something? Maybe! Locke and Hume will pick up this idea, with Locke roughly taking Socrates’s side and Hume disagreeing. So we can wait for later to resume our discussion of this point.

One thing that is worth emphasizing is that examples are very helpful. One way to show that the premises of the arguments are wrong is to come up with an example that contradicts them. That is what I did in imagining your parents give you an order that you are not obliged to obey. If I can come up with such an example, I will show that the first premise of the argument is false. If you can ignore your parents’ orders some times, then even if your relationship to the law is like your relationship to your parents, it might be the case that you can ignore the law too.

Persuade or Obey

Socrates has the laws say that they offer two alternatives: “one must obey the commands of one’s city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice” (51b).

I think that is revealing in two ways.

First, I think it expresses what political authority claims to be, namely, that you are supposed to obey what the state requires because the state requires it. This is so even if it runs contrary to your interests or your beliefs about what is right. That is what the state claims when it asserts it has authority.

I think that most of us are of two minds about that. On the one hand, we accept political authority; we do what the state says because it says it. On the other hand, I think we’re reluctant to take things as far as Socrates seems to have done. I don’t think I would be obliged to die just because the state says so. Furthermore, as Sarah pointed out, Socrates himself says that he would never do anything unjust. What if the state ordered him to murder someone else? I don’t think he would do it or, at least, I don’t think he would say he was obliged to do it.1

Reconciling these two points is tricky; it’s a problem that we will return to throughout the term.

The second thing about “persuade or obey” that stands out for me is the question of what you’re supposed to do when the state is not open to persuasion. What do you do when you are faced with a state run by irrational or unscrupulous characters? That is what Plato worries about in the first book of the Republic.

Key points

  1. How to translate some text into an argument with separate premises and conclusions.
  2. How to dispute an argument.
  3. The most significant apparent problems with Socrates’s arguments.


Plato. 1997. “Crito.” In Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, translated by G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

  1. In the Apology, a different dialogue, Socrates directly says that he would refuse to comply with several orders by the state. We also believe that he actually refused an order given by the Thirty (one of the governments during a tumultuous time in Athenian politics).