Socrates: Moral Obligation to Civil Law

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The Socratic dialogues deal with the definition of certain types of virtue, and how these specific virtues (for example, courage or piety) fit in to the overall definition of doing good and living by the correct moral standards. The dialogues of the Apology and the Crito deal with the trial and sentencing of Socrates, facilitating a discussion about an individual's morality in abiding by the law. Socrates does show us that civil law should be treated as a moral obligation, by proving that to ignore the rule of law would be to commit moral wrong. He then qualifies this by illustrating that lawfulness is not always equal to virtuousness, and explaining how to remain virtuous without damaging the authority of the law. Further examination of his arguments in regards to civil disobedience reveal inconsistency and the necessity for further development.


In the Crito, Socrates gives an explanation about why he must remain in his jail cell and accept his sentence by using moral reasoning. The most important facet in his argument is the claim (which the interlocutor Crito quickly agrees to) that it is never justified to do evil. No matter what has been suffered before, no matter what good comes of it, doing wrong is unacceptable to Socrates any way you put it. He clearly states the underlying principle for the rest of his argument will be that "neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right" (Crito 49d/e).

After making this statement, the next step is to use it to demonstrate that there is a moral obligation to obey civil law. He creates two sound examples to prove this. First, he equates the state to a father-like figure that guides, nourishes and provides protection for its subjects in order that they should flourish and learn. The state is what allows for our existence in the first place. In this way, the state and the individual are not on equal terms; the state clearly takes precedence. Socrates, speaking on behalf of the state, poses the question: "Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to your father or your master, if you had one, because you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?" The answer, according to the principle of evil is never justified, is clearly no. No matter what your feelings about your master, no matter what harm has come to you, reciprocation by committing your own moral wrong is impious. Just as it is impious to "do violence to" your mother and father, it is most definitely morally wrong to do the same one's country. By not adhering to its clearly stated principles, an individual is disrespecting the state and committing moral wrong.

Secondly, he explains the relationship between the law and the individual is contractual. If someone does not choose to enter into this contract, he is free to leave the state at any time. However, if he remains within the state, he is automatically committed to the contract, meaning he must adhere to civil law. In simpler terms, if you choose to enjoy the benefits the state offers you (protection, education, liberty, order, et al.), you have an obligation to do as the state ordains. There is no discrepancy about whether or not an individual thinks the law to be just or desirable. The only loophole to escaping a contract is if, according to Socrates, in order to fulfill it, you must commit moral wrong. We know from above that it is never justified to do evil.

In summary, it is morally wrong to violate a just agreement. Law-breaking would be violating an agreement with the state (which, at this point in my argument, is presumably a just agreement—for a qualification see below), and hence, be an act of impiety.


Although the Crito makes it clear that Socrates demands respect for the law, he does not believe it to be the highest moral...
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