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To Obey Morality or to Obey the Law?

Updated on December 4, 2013

From a young age, we are told to obey authority no matter what the circumstances may be. We are forced to obey our parents and our teachers, and if we ask why, we get the famous answer, “because I said so”. Like a child to a parent, citizens of a nation or state are forced to abide by the law or else suffer punishment for disobedience. But what would happen if laws were to be unjust? Ancient philosopher Socrates claims in Plato’s book Crito that breaking a law, albeit an unjust one, is wrong. If this argument were successful, then the freedom of the people could easily abolished by a corrupt government without individuals standing up for their rights. In this paper, I will explore Socrates’ reasoning for his beliefs towards laws and debunk his claim through the courage of Martin Luther King, who defended his rights.

Plato's "Crito"
Plato's "Crito" | Source

"Crito" and Background Information

Before presenting Socrates’ argument for his decision, I will provide some background through the dialogue in Plato’s Crito, which is a conversation between Socrates’ friend Crito and himself when Socrates has been sentenced to death for corrupting the youth and being impious. Crito presented several plausible reasons for Socrates to escape from prison before his execution, but he refuses them.

While some of Crito’s reasons were personal, saying that Socrates was depriving him of a friend and allowing others to judge Crito for not trying to save his friend, others included the fact that Socrates would be welcome in other places (Crito). Crito also said that Socrates would be betraying his sons if he were to allow himself to be killed and that by doing so he would bring shame upon his family. Although Crito meticulously attempted to convince his friend otherwise, Socrates refused to escape. He accepted his fate and had no plans on altering it.


Socrates' Defense

The “Do-No-Wrong” Argument is relevant to Socrates’ argument because of the following three points:

  1. We must never do no wrong, even in response to a wrong
  2. To disobey a law, even a wrong one, is wrong.
  3. Because of this, disobeying a law is wrong

Socrates believed that even though he knew that the laws were unjust, he still abided by them because they were the law. In Crito, Socrates remained faithful to his will because he saw the law and his predicament as the will of God, and to disobey the law would be to disobey God’s will (Crito). Socrates also uses the “Agreement Argument” to defend his actions, which uses the following method:

  1. We have a duty to honor our agreements
  2. Socrates has agreed to follow the laws of Athens
  3. Therefore, Socrates has a duty to follow the laws of Athens

An extension of the Agreement Argument is Socrates’ obedience towards God and his views on who matters and who is unimportant. He was more willing to die a hero than to live long enough to see himself become a villain. This is indicated in the following excerpt from Crito:

...Then, my friend, we must not regard what the many say of us: but what he, the one man who has understanding of just and unjust, will say, and what the truth will say. And therefore you begin in error when you suggest that we should regard the opinion of the many about just and unjust, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable. Well, someone will say, "But the many can kill us."

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. | Source

Martin Luther King's Argument

Doctor Martin Luther King, in his A Letter From Birmingham Jail, refutes Socrates’ claim through premise 2 of the Do No Wrong Argument. In this writing, he has recently been jailed because of nonviolent protests against the treatments of blacks in Alabama. He writes that:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

King understood that injustice may be permissible to the individual, but he saw the power that injustice had over the people – it was a threat that needed to be stopped even at the cost of one’s own fate. Injustice against one individual paved the way for injustice against many. King knew through experience, along with fellow black Americans that, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (Letter From Birmingham Jail).

Whose view do you agree with?

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In this paper, I have criticized Plato’s argument for abiding by an unjust law against his claim that obeying an unjust law would be wrong. In doing so I have brought King’s argument to light, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – which, even in the times of Socrates, was a problem to the sanctity of the law rather than the individual. Through researching both Crito and A Letter From Birmingham Jail, I have come to agree with King’s argument as a successful defense against Socrates’ argument.


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