Political Philosophy Spring 2019



We talked about Plato’s dialog Crito. I wanted to get two things out this.

First, of course, I wanted to discuss the arguments that Socrates makes for the conclusion that it would be wrong for him to break the law by escaping. I think it’s fair to say that we were at best uncertain about whether he had genuinely shown that this is so.

Second, I wanted to isolate something that I think Socrates is basically correct about: his understanding of what accepting the state’s authority involves. Even if we don’t accept his conclusion, I think we can take this away from the dialog as a genuine insight.

Doing wrong in three ways

Socrates says that “the one who disobeys does wrong in three ways” (51e):

  1. he disobeys his parents
  2. he disobeys those who brought him up
  3. he breaks his agreement with the state (or, if you prefer, the laws)

The first of these is mysterious to me. Since Socrates has a plausible case for saying that the state played an important role in raising him that is at least similar to that of a parent, I proposed that we move on to the second. No one stopped me, so that’s what we did.

Here is how I understand the second argument.

  1. It is wrong to harm those who brought you up, even if they harm you.
  2. The state brought up Socrates.
  3. Disobeying the law would hurt the state.
  4. Therefore, it is wrong for Socrates to disobey the law.

Before getting into the substance of this, I want to make a note about how it works. The argument starts of with a general proposition that applies to a variety of things: it is always wrong to do harm to those who bring you up, even if they harm you. The subsequent premises (2 and 3) assert that the general proposition in (1) applies to the case under discussion, namely, whether Socrates should disobey the law or not. That’s what we mean when we say the conclusion “follows from” the premises.

As for the substance of the argument, we challenged almost all the points.

I started by asking why Socrates felt the need for the first point since he has already established that it is wrong to harm anyone, even if they harm you (49b-e). If he felt confident in that point, he would not need to go through the trouble of establishing that the state played a role in bringing up Socrates (2); he would just have to show that breaking the law would be harmful (3).

Russell pointed out several reasons for thinking that the very general claim that it is wrong to hurt anyone seem dubious; Xiya chipped in here too. If so, that would be a good reason for Socrates to have tried to make the narrower point that it is wrong to harm those who have brought you up. That said, Chloe had some pretty convincing reasons for thinking that even the narrower point (1) is not true.

Michelle took aim at the third premise. She said that disobedience is not always harmful to the state; sometimes it improves it, especially if the state is behaving unjustly. Adam said that we have to know more about what Socrates means by “harm” in order to evaluate the point. I offered my opinion that individual acts of law breaking do not obviously harm the state; crimes happen every day but the system rumbles on. Of course, if a lot of people ignored the law, that would be a different story. But what is at issue here is whether one guy, Socrates, should break the law by running away from a death sentence. I think Athens would have survived the blow.

The third argument

The third argument appeals to an agreement Socrates is said to have made with the city.

  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.

Thanks to some poor time management on my part, we didn’t discuss this one. (The 2:45 class on Tuesday and Thursday ends on the hour; the 9:35 class ends ten minutes before the hour. When you get to be my age, these things can get confusing.)

If we had, I can predict how it would have gone.

First, we would have had to ask whether it is really always wrong to break an agreement (1). Indeed, as Russell pointed out, we’re about to see Plato himself say that it can be wrong to keep an agreement to return weapons to a madman.

Second, it’s not at all obvious that it’s right to say that Socrates agreed to obey the laws because he lived in the city (2). This is going to come up again when we talk about Locke.


The thing I think Socrates got right is his characterization of the state’s authority. Accepting the state’s authority means accepting that it has the final word. Socrates does not believe that the state was correct in convicting him of corrupting the youth. But, as he puts it, he had an opportunity to persuade the state and the state decided against him. Socrates accepts the state’s authority because he abides by that judgment even though he disagrees on the merits.

Philosophers have an ungainly but useful phrase for this. They say that your reasons for complying with an authority that you recognize are “content independent.” The idea is that when you accept the state’s authority, you do what the state says because the state says it and that is not the same thing as doing it because you think the state is right to have said what it did.

I think it’s pretty obvious that we need authority to get on in even mildly complex social situations. At the same time, it is very difficult to be wholehearted about authority. We aren’t all as courageous as Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or the anonymous Tank Man. But everyone has a point where they can’t accept the state’s authority in the face of their own beliefs.

That’s why the state’s authority poses a problem.

On to the Republic

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). It’s a lot easier to live under the authority of someone else if that person is willing to listen to your concerns and is open to persuasion.

But what if the state isn’t willing to listen? What if it’s led by irrational and corrupt people? That’s the question that motivates the Republic.

Key points

These are the things you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. The two arguments for the conclusion that it would be wrong for Socrates to disobey.
  2. Some of the major problems with those arguments.
  3. The content independent nature of authority.
  4. Why content independent authority is both necessary and a problem.


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