Dr. G's study notes for Crito 


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The choices we make

Socrates decided against escape from prison, but the fugitive Anaxagoras must have reached a different conclusion. When the mob sentenced Anaxagoras to death for teaching astronomy, he fled from them and continued to teach elsewhere. So which of these sages was right? which one took the correct course of action?

In the long run, the decision that Socrates made helped to establish his international reputation, and it may have helped to make Athenian society somewhat more just and tolerant. (The historical record isn't clear, but we know of no other trials of intellectuals in Athens during the decades that followed Socrates' death. Instead, the place became world famous as a place of study.) Perhaps we would draw a similar conclusion from Galileo's acceptance of the verdict of the Inquisition.

Because Anaxagoras did not surrender, he lived to teach again. As we know from Plato's "Apology" (26d), Anaxagoras' ideas reached even into Athens, as manuscripts of his writings were available for sale there in the city where he was an outlaw. Further, Anaxagoras was not entirely in the same situation as Socrates. He was not a native Athenian, so arguably he did not owe Athens the same duties as a citizen. Yet Socrates in "Phaedo" is very clear that he thinks Anaxoragoras' flight from justice was immoral (97c).

What about the choices that you make? Do you make decisions only to please yourself? Do you take public opinion into account?  Do you follow expert opinion? Whose opinion sways you in determining what is right to do? 

These questions often can be mysterious because we are not always conscious of the sources of our behavior. The answers often can be deceptive because we do not always tell ourselves the truth about the choices that we have made in the past. 

Values by agreement: 
further questions

What do you think of Socrates' idea that all of us have agreed to obligations or duties simply by belonging to a group? Isn't this idea the basis for any kind of community or group harmony?

Think of the groups that you belong to: nation, city, religious organization, company, team, family, peer group, whatever. What do these groups expect of you? Are their expectations clear? What are the terms of your "implied contract" with them?

An obvious problem is that we belong to more than one group. Divided loyalties can be presented very starkly: for example, when the colony secedes from the mother country, and everybody chooses sides. Opposing duties call in everyday life, as well. The working mom hears the baby crying at home and also the boss whining at work. Their deals with her are not always compatible. Our ordinary lives seem to be filled with compromises as we "juggle priorities" with too many contracts to fulfill.

Why didn't Socrates consider his implied agreements with his wife and children, or his students and his friends? Weren't they as important as his agreements with the Athenians? He speaks of the Athenian majority, "the many," with contempt at the start of the dialogue and in other passages in Plato.

Obedience: is it always wise?

Is obedience to law always the best course of action, as Socrates advises? When I was a student, admittedly long ago, law breaking was common among students. I don't mean that students were lawless. Their law-breaking was very conventional and predictable: illegal use of alcohol or narcotic drugs, violation of Jim Crow laws (white racist laws against blacks), and/or violation of military draft laws. ( The Vietnam War was on.) Students engaged in these standard violations thought of themselves as defying injustice. In my opinion, most of these protesters never would have considered committing crimes of violence against anybody or even property crimes. They were conforming to protest movements defined mainly by popular culture, peer pressure, or manifestos of civil disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others. These were social movements, and some eventually succeeded in making the nation a little more free and just.

How do you square civil disobedience with the principles of obedience to the implied social contract?

Implied contract update

The "contract theory of values" that Socrates invented has been rediscovered in modern democratic theory, and it remains quite viable in political and ethical theory today.    

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)The idea was reworked during the English Civil Wars in Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), famous for the idea that primitive life in the prehistoric state of nature was "poor, nasty, brutish and short." In Hobbesian theory, the basis for civilized life arose when out of self-interest, to live at peace, individuals banded together to make covenants or contracts to limit violence and oppression. For a modern update on Hobbes' ideas, see David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement (Oxford Press, 1986).

The most influential modern supporter of social contract theory is the late John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice (Harvard Press 1971), John Rawls (1921-2002)Rawls imagines a group of hypothetical social contractors who come together to design a set of principles of justice that all of them can agree to. To achieve fairness, all of the contractors must be blindfolded behind a "veil of ignorance" while designing the new society so that none of them knows what place he or she actually will occupy when the society is established. Without this knowledge of their places in the new society, the contractors should choose fair principles that will provide the maximum benefit for all. Rawls predicts that two basic principles will be paramount in any utopia constructed blindly in this way: (1) each member of the society will have the right to the most extensive liberty that is compatible with the similar liberty of others; and (2) the least advantaged people in the society will be assisted but the most advantaged positions will be open to all under principles of equal opportunity. Complete economic equality will not be attained or desired for obvious reasons--that is, people with harder or more important work to do should not earn the same benefits as people with easier or less important work.

Like other social theorists, Rawls has been criticized from the political left and the right, of course. He defends his position from its critics and he updates his ideas in Political Liberalism (Columbia Press 1993).

Like Plato, Hobbes and Rawls are essentially imaginative writers. Usually, they are classified as philosophers or social critics because most of their language is argumentative and generalized. Yet Hobbes' whole discussion is generated by imagining how primitive people first gathered together in social organizations. (This imagining of humanity in a raw state of nature compares with that in William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies.) And Rawls' concepts flow from imagining an ideal society that might be constructed for the future; his speculative work belongs in the utopian literary tradition of Plato's Republic. Oh yes, Socrates also invented utopia--but that's another story.




Left: Perugino's Courage and Temperance (1497), the virtues that rule philosophers; Socrates is shown second from left.


















































Left: Hobbes.








Left: Rawls




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