Socrates’ discussion of legal obligation is interesting for at least three reasons.
- He says something interesting and true about the relationship between the rules and pronouncements of a legal authority and private judgments in determining what one should do.
- He articulates two plausible bases for obligations to obey the law.
- His characterization of the weight given to the legal authority’s rules and pronouncements seems too strong. In particular, there is an interesting tension between his hostility towards conventional beliefs and his enthusiasm for the legal system. (I’m not saying his position is inconsistent, mind you. I don’t think it is).
How it works
Crito opens the dialogue with arguments in favor of escaping. Many have to do with Socrates’ personal attachments to his friends, family, and philosophy.
Socrates begins by establishing that doing wrong is never right. This is so even if the wrong is in response to a wrong. By itself, this shows nothing about whether it’s right or wrong to break the law.
There are three arguments for the conclusion that it would be wrong to break the law by escaping. Two concern analogies: Socrates’ relationship to the laws is like the relationship we have with our parents and guardians. The third asserts that Socrates made an agreement to obey the laws. Breaking the agreement by escaping would be wrong.
Allow me a digression about the structure of the arguments from gratitude, the ones that turn on analogies with guardians and parents. It seems to me that they go like this.
- Children have obligations to obey their parents or guardians.
- The individual’s relationship to the laws is similar to a child’s relationship with his or her parent or guardian.
- Therefore, the individual ought to obey the laws.
I think that the first point is simply taken for granted. My snarky remarks were directed at the thought that accepting parental authority involves reasoning or arguments. However, Alex made a good case for saying that there is a sensible way of talking about obligations of gratitude towards parents even for adults.
Digression over. At the end of the dialogue, Socrates returns to Crito’s arguments. He denies that he could really enjoy a good life outside of Athens. So, aside from the obligation to obey the law, Socrates has little to gain by escaping. It seems to me that these observations play into Hume's argument; see the third passage from the handout.