Socrates ranks as one of the most famous philosophers of all time. This is a sample essay on Socrates and his views on injustice. Below, a Ultius writer discusses Socrates’ arguments against unjust acts.
Socratic ideals about justice
According to the teachings of Socrates, it is never acceptable to commit an injustice, even if an injustice is being committed against you. Socrates presents three solid arguments supporting this position on injustice, as summarized below. Socrates also demonstrates through his presentation of arguments that being in a dire situation does not absolve someone from having to abide by the social contract despite their physical location. His concepts of morality and justice were further explored by Thomas Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Descartes. Their writings on political philosophy explores their understanding of right acts in the context of society.
Returning to Socrates and the individual, even if one “gets away” with an unjust act, that does not justify the act and it does not mean that person will not be judged for eternity. When faced with the question of whether it is ever okay to act unjustly, the answer is ‘no’ based on premises Socrates describes. Because of the relevance of these concepts today, applications of Socrates’ teachings are being reconsidered by modern thinkers and advocates. For example, a comparison of Socrates to Martin Luther King Jr., highlights Socratic applications to contemporary problems. Socratic premises can be basically understood as follows: that individuals should live rightly, that individuals should never do wrong, and that individuals should keep agreements.
Socrates and unjust acts
Socrates teaches his lesson on unjust acts while he is prison awaiting execution. His friend Crito comes to him with the intent of helping him escape prison and live peacefully in exile. Crito knows ahead of time that Socrates will not want to escape, so he goes prepared with arguments on why he should escape.
Crito’s most prominent argument is that those executing Socrates are acting unjustly. Therefore, it follows that, by not escaping, Socrates would be aiding them and therefore be acting unjustly himself. Crito is confident in his argument when he presents it to Socrates. However, Socrates is prepared with his own take on what it means to act justly. Socrates offers Crito such a solid argument against escaping that Crito agrees with Socrates that it would be best to remain in prison. The arguments against acting unjustly in all situations are based on three premises, described below.
Socratic premise: individuals should live rightly
- The first of these three is that individuals should live rightly. This addresses the idea that just because an individual can do something does not mean that individual should do something. Socrates had the means and resources to escape prison and live the rest of his life comfortably in exile. However, just because he could have escaped did not mean he should escape. This reasoning can be applied to any situation.
- Whether or not something can be accomplished or “gotten away with” has no bearing on whether or not an individual should it. Whether or not it is a just or unjust act should be the only considerations made.
- This premise is carried throughout the teachings of Socrates who goes to great lengths to describe a “just person.” According to Socrates’ teachings, a just person “will act justly – perform his task, not because of any external constraints – laws and customs, but simply because he is the man he is” (Skydsgaard n.p.). Socrates saw himself as a just man, which meant he held himself to the standards of a just man.
Socrates: individuals should never commit an injustice (never do wrong)
- The second premise of Socrates argument is that an individual should never do wrong. This premise is particularly clear regarding exceptions to the rule. One of Crito’s arguments to Socrates was that he was wrongly imprisoned, so it would not be wrong for him to escape prison; he would merely be righting a past wrong. However, Socrates discredits this argument by declaring it is never right to knowingly do wrong. Clearly, Socrates does not dwell on the relationship of the irony of justice, injustice and revenge. This applies to all situations where people attempt to justify wrong doing.
- Christopher Shields, author of The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy, asserts that Socrates does not suggest that the same individual act might be both just and unjust. It is important to look at an action within the context of the situation to fully understand whether the action is just or unjust.
Socrates states individuals should keep agreements and avoid injustice
- The third premise is that people should keep agreements. This is what Socrates refers to as ‘the social contract’. Socrates explains that when an individual voluntarily chooses to live in a particular area, that person agrees to the rules of that area.
- Within this social contract, each individual agrees to live by laws and in return the laws are enforced on every person to promote safety and order.
- Further, Socrates argues that laws exist as one entity. To break one law would be the same as breaking all the laws and doing this would cause harm to the existence of the laws. Socrates asserts that breaking a law would be no different than a child striking their parent. Socrates uses these arguments to convince Crito that escaping from prison is unfounded.
The laws of Athens and a contradiction
Although Socrates clearly advocates adherence to the laws of Athens, in other teachings, he advocates against unjust laws. According to James Colaiaco, author of Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial, “Socrates distinguishes between obeying legal verdicts and disobeying unjust laws or commands. While he concedes that escaping the death penalty would inflict a retaliatory moral harm upon Athens, civil disobedience might morally improve the state” (2001).
Essentially, Socrates is arguing that even in committing civil disobedience, it is the responsibility of the just man to accept the consequences of his actions. Socrates was in prison for refusing to follow an unjust law. “Socrates refused to allow the state to overstep its proper bounds or to violate his conscience” (Colaiaco 2001). Breaking the law was not an unjust act because the law was requesting him to commit an unjust act. However, escaping from prison and not accepting his punishment for willingly breaking a law would be defined as unjust.
Despite his arguments against the escape, Socrates has not simply resigned. Socrates argues that the best thing to do when an individual feels he has been wronged by the law is to work to change the law. He could appeal to the law and ask them to consider the justness of the law he was accused of breaking. This way Socrates would be working within the laws to change them for the better. He tells Crito that the only way he will be released from prison is if those who put him there are convinced they made a mistake, however, his enemies did not share his ideas about changing moral judgments across time and cultures.Those who imprisoned him did so knowing they were being unjust. They were not convinced of their mistake and unjust behavior. Due to his polarizing views, Socrates was executed.
When faced with the question, “Is it ever okay to commit injustice?, the answer will always be no, according to Socrates. An injustice threatens the order of society by going against the laws, which are in place for the betterment of all people living in the region. Although the arguments presented in Crito may lead readers to believe Socrates was opposed to civil disobedience that is not the case. An unjust act is unjust based on the act; not whether or not it is illegal. To this end, following an unjust law would be the same as committing an unjust act. Socrates refused to set aside his convictions in order to follow an unjust law. Socrates lived as an example of his philosophies.
Colaiaco, James A.. Socrates against Athens: philosophy on trial. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Shields, Christopher John. The Blackwell guide to ancient philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. Print.
Skydsgaard, Jens Erik. Ancient history matters: studies presented to Jens Erik Skydsgaard on his seventieth birthday. Romae: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2002. Print.