On Crito and Reasons to Obey

In his last days, Socrates is implored by a dear friend to flee Athenian jail and avoid his impending death (for however long one may do that). This compatriot of Socrates’, a wealthy man by the name of Crito, comes to the cell of a slumbering condemned philosopher and tells him of the narrow window by which he might escape. However, we, as fly on a prison wall, come to find that Socrates has certain convictions which could not allow such a subversion of his own state. These reasons include the faulty moral compass of most people and the obligation one has to obey authority. What is striking about the dialogue is the focus of Socrates’ reasoning on maintaining a sense of parental respect for the state. Questions of action and obedience toward master and father are brought into play , invoking the ubiquity of the conceptual“oikos” ,or home, in ancient Greek thought. Further, the importance of this concept in the derivation of reasons for obedience. Another focus of his reasoning for staying and obeying the states laws come from a consideration of the opinions of others. This presents itself as both a prudential reason, in that Socrates’ character could be compromised by shirking his responsibility to obey and also shows the way that social relations play into the authority of the state. Lastly, he makes the distinction of there being a group of people with “correct” opinions, those are the ones to be valued. This delineation left me confused. I asked myself how to reconcile his commitment to community, his own prudential qualms and his rather arbitrary (as he did not justify his decision) claim that the opinions of some men were simply incorrect. But these concerns were actually better addressed in questions such as : Does the state have authority? Where does this authority come from? and What is our obligation, if any, to this entity that we might pledge our allegiance?

Margaret Gilbert’s “A Theory of Political Obligation”, has an opening chapter which searches for the answers to questions similar to my own. The author presents us first with the question of “Are the Laws right?”. This inquiry leads us to the source of authority for these laws, or orders, which Gilbert claims can be either authoritative or purported. Defining an obligation as a “sufficient reason to follow an order” and ascribing the property of genuine to an order would support the claim that one has an obligation to follow the laws of the state. This then begs the question of what the grounds for these obligations might be. These reasons range from moral (universal) reasons to prudential reasons and even a reason for obeying laws that is self contained. In pursuing the the membership problem , Gilbert addresses concerns of other theorists and formulates a more succinct concern which she will address : “Is one obligated to uphold the political institutions (obey the commands)of one’s country simply because it is one’s country”? The many facets of this question and the many of the implications of its terms are discussed. The nature of a state is broadly defined, the potential lives of those residing there are related to a looming imperator who may or may not have the grounds to issue orders. However, I think the most important of Gilbert’s conclusions in the first chapter is not necessarily specific to a single source of the state’s authority or our need to obey its commands. It is the acknowledgement of the many sources of concern and avoidance of alienation that lead to discovery of our obligations, be they uniquely prudential, pertaining to our society, or the world at large.



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