Civil Disobedience and Justice: Socrates and Martin Luther King Jr.

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The following was a college essay written by Joseph Giessuebel. It has been edited and approved by our anonymous editor, Noein. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Joseph Giessuebel, Catholic University of America

Socrates makes many arguments for his case using both syllogistic and sentential logic; both affirm his final argument which states that since Socrates accepted to live under Athens’ government and laws, Socrates must follow and obey all of Athens’ laws and judgements. If we look at the logic behind this, we see that we have an example of a valid modus ponens  (if p -> q; p ∴ q) proposition. If Socrates agrees to live under Athens’ government, then he must abide by all of Athens’ laws and judgments. Socrates agreed to Athens’ government. Therefore, Socrates must follow and obey all of the laws and judgements of Athens.’ This is his final argument in Plato’s dialogue, Crito in which Socrates uses many augments to reason to Crito as to why he (Crito) is incorrect in believing that breaking out from the jail is not an injustice.

In reasoning to Crito, Socrates surmises, “one should not value every human opinion but only some and not others? And not the opinions of everyone but of some and not others? Shouldn’t we value the good opinions, and not the worthless ones?”  In logical terms, this argument says that “No good opinions are non-human opinions, some human opinions are worthless opinions, no good opinions are worthless opinions. Crito then agrees with Socrates and asks if good opinions are only those from people who are wise. Socrates then answers Crito’s question regarding whether good opinions are only from wise people with a string of valid modus ponens arguments. “If he disobeys this one (wise) man and dishonors his (good) opinion and his praises and instead honors those of the many who know nothing about it, then won’t he suffer some harm? Tell me, if we destroy that part of us which is improved by what is wholesome and corrupted by then what is sickening because we do not obey the (good) opinion of the person who knows, is life worth living when that part is ruined?” Socrates explains what committing an injustice does to the soul and why we should not do it.

Committing an injustice not only taints one’s reputation, but also sickens ones’ soul and robs the person of his or her wholesome qualities. In addition to what justice can do to ones’ soul, Socrates then asks Crito when we should be just, and whether to be just in all cases. “We should never willingly act unjustly, should we (act unjustly) in some instances and not in others? Or is acting unjustly never good or noble, and so one must never act unjustly.” These two arguments are a hidden disjunct because of their hidden either-or statements. Written plainly, it should say: “either we should act unjustly in some scenarios and not others or acting unjustly is never good or noble.” Crito understands this to mean that we must act justly all the time, and draws the conclusion that an injustice should never repay an injustice. Socrates furthers his argument and asks Crito about what is just in his (Socrates’) situation. “When someone has made a just agreement with someone else, must he keep to it, or betray it? Are we keeping to the just agreements we made, or not?” This is another hidden disjunct as well, either we are just and keep our agreements, or we are unjust and betray agreements we have made. After this Crito is left speechless and is unable to answer because Crito understands the flaws with his conception of the just.

If Crito would be just in all situations like he says he is,  then he (Crito) would never repay an injustice to an injustice. In Socrates’ situation, he was given a fair trial and all the laws were followed (although he received an unjust verdict), but leaving jail would be an injustice Socrates would commit himself by breaking his social contract with Athens. This is the point that Socrates is trying to show Crito: that breaking out of jail as a kind of civil disobedience, is unjust. Once Crito realizes his ignorance he becomes quiet and knows that he will not persuade Socrates to leave the jail. Socrates reasoned that it would be unjust to leave the jail since he chose to live in Athens thereby accepting its rule of law, including the possibility of facing injustice from Athens and its laws. Moreover, Socrates could have chosen between exile or execution as an option in his trial but instead chose either freedom or death. Even though his jury was biased and chose death for Socrates he must accept his fate as not doing so would be an injustice. An injustice for Socrates was harm to the soul and body which has long-lasting ramifications. “If we do not heed the opinion of the wise man then we will corrupt and harm that part of us which becomes better with justice and is destroyed by injustice.”

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, King stated his belief in peaceful civil disobedience as a way to bring about greater societal freedom. King argued for what he called “direct action to the threat of injustice everywhere” King argued the converse of Socrates’ stance on civil disobedience; by staying in jail and being compliant, one would do a greater disservice to the country than if one were to revolt in the name of bringing about a better, more just society. Socrates would see a two-fold injustice here, the first being King breaking out of jail, and the second being the cause of soddcietal upheaval. Even though the laws of segregation were very unjust, Socrates would see the breaking of those laws as an injustice to the American Society for, according to Socrates, injustice must never be used to bring about justice. However, one could argue that King and African-Americans of that time never fully agreed to live in the US and by that, I mean never agreed to the existing laws. Socrates would probably respond by saying that if this were the case, the people in conflict with the laws of a particular country ought to relocate to a country that has just laws that they can agree with (though practically speaking, not many could simply pack up and move). This is why King supported the notion of civil disobedience; rather than moving, he wanted to make America more just. Sure, there would be unrest and laws would be broken but, in a sense, all African-Americans were “victims of a broken promise”– A promise of freedom, liberty and justice for all. There was no freedom, liberty or justice for African-Americans, especially in the South, so civil disobedience was an easier way to strive for justice when compared to the prospects of reform or relocation.

I agree with both Socrates and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in different ways: I agree with Socrates’ views on what committing an injustice does to a person, in addition to his understanding of the social contract. However, I agree with King that if the social contract was not being fulfilled on the part of the government, then civil disobedience is a perfectly acceptable reaction towards societal change (provided that an injustice could no longer be committed). In Socrates situation, no procedures/laws were broken in Socrates’ trial. Everything was followed according to the books. Socrates was given a choice between exile or death and he chose death over exile. By remaining in jail, he is behaving justly. Socrates’ jurors were unjust and biased but that is part of the system; Socrates agreed to both the protections and flaws of that system.

No legal system or form of government is perfect; there will always be some form of corruption and bias, but we agree to and acknowledge this reality when we accept and participate in our form of government and live in any given country. Think about it: if you move to France, you must abide by French law–not American law. We have the choice to move if we don’t agree with the contract, however if the contract we agreed to is not being upheld then we should work towards justice and we have every right to do so. This is what I argue King was doing. His rights, along with so many African-Americans’ rights, were non-existent at a time when they were promised equal rights. Remember: separate but equal. This was not being followed, especially in the South, so King and African-Americans had every right to civil disobedience. Even though it caused civil unrest in the end, our society is more just than it was beforehand, and the rights that we agree to in our social contract (the Constitution) are now being applied to all. In one sense, Socrates is still right because King never committed an injustice by being civilly-disobedient; the social contract at the time was not being entirely upheld. Most of the time, civil disobedience is an injustice. We cannot disregard laws whenever we feel like it, and no system of government is perfect; there are, and always will be errors and biases in any legal system. It’s how we respond to those biases and errors in the system that determine if we ought to commit an injustice or not.

I’ll conclude with the following question: do we always work to uphold our side of the social contract? If not, why not?


Plato, Crito, (San Francisco California 2007), Tr. Woods Cathal, Pack Ryan

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