Being all deep and stuff: Why Killing Yourself is Bad

posted by Dr. James G. Hood
Friday, May 28, 2010

Don’t Drink the Hemlock!

            Death is a strange and uncertain occurrence. For most if not all of us, death, especially an unjust death is to be avoided for as long as possible. Unsurprisingly, Socrates has a different viewpoint than the majority. In Plato’s Crito, Socrates argues that remaining in Athens and accepting his unjust death is the most reasonable action to take; however, Socrates argument proves to be unconvincing.  

            The argument begins with Socrates’ concerned friend, Crito, coming to visit Socrates on death row in order to convince him to escape from prison, so his death sentence will be avoided. Strangely, Socrates does not feel that leaving Athens in order to escape death is the most rational course of action, and, being a rational man, he needs rational forms of persuasion. Crito, therefore, desperately lists arguments of varying quality as to why Socrates should escape. Crito will be looked on as an insincere friend of Socrates since he did not buy Socrates’ freedom. The majority of people would not think that Socrates himself would have wanted to stay in prison. The possible negative consequences for Crito’s heroics are insubstantial, he is Socrates’ friend. Socrates’ children will not have a father to care for them. Dying is the easy way out. If Socrates lived and cared for his children he would be more virtuous than if he died. Crito and Socrates’ other friends will look like cowards if they do not help Socrates escape.

            In order to answer Crito’s objections for remaining in Athens and expound his own viewpoint, Socrates begins by discussing Crito’s majority opinion argument. Socrates establishes that people pay attention to some opinions and not others, and the criterion for distinguishing the two is the respective goodness or badness of an opinion. People only want good opinions and those come from wise people. Therefore, asking the opinion of a group will give Socrates an unsound conclusion because the opinion of the majority will involve those that have no or little wisdom of a particular matter at hand.

            Socrates continues to develop his refutation of the majority opinion argument in order to establish the criterion for judging whether escaping will be the most reasonable form of action. The misguided opinion of the majority will damage a part of Socrates that gets damaged by the unjust. In other words, damaging the just part of a person by committing an unjust action would make life not worth living; therefore, the “most important thing isn’t living, but living well” (48b). Living well is synonymous with living justly, so the criterion for judging whether escaping is reasonable has been established: if escaping is in accordance with living a just life, then escaping is the most reasonable action.

            Now Socrates begins to explore how escaping would be unjust, and therefore a violation of the criterion determining the most reasonable course of action. The simple act of bribery in order to free Socrates constitutes an unjust act. Furthermore, freeing Socrates gives the prosecutors more reasons for him needing to die (since the act of escaping is unjust). The old law of retaliation, lex talionis, does not hold up for Socrates. Injustice can never remedy justice. Someone must act justly in all circumstances, and this assumption is crucial for the development of Socrates’ argument.

            Having established that acting justly as a maxim for all actions, Socrates begins to discuss the social contract he entered into by living in Athens and the detrimental effects of his breaking it. The laws are personified in order to illustrate a more tangible injustice that disobeying them creates. Escaping and breaking the laws would make the laws have no force since anyone could break them at any time. Socrates and his family benefited from living in Athens under the social contract, but now that negative consequences arise he no longer wants to be a part of it. Through an argument by analogy, Socrates posits that Athens is like a mother or father—something that deserves to be respected and obeyed. Socrates could have left the social contract of Athens at any time and he therefore would not have had to abide by it, but he did not nor did he suggest the alternate punishment of exile. Additionally, after escape, other cities will look down upon Socrates, and as a result of his lawlessness he will have a low quality of life (which violates the living well criterion for a reasonable action). In effect, by escaping, Socrates will be a hypocrite for pursuing the enjoyment of victuals instead of justice, which he so eloquently defends. The detrimental effects also extend to Socrates’ children and wife who all will also have a low quality of life since they will all be running from the law along with Socrates. As if that were not enough, after Socrates’ miserably extended existence has passed, Hades will treat him no more kindly as a result of his unjust escape.

            At face value, Socrates’ argument for remaining in Athens and accepting death, strangely enough, seems reasonable; however, after shaking off the temporary aporia, Socrates’ argument for remaining in Athens and accepting an unjust death is unreasonable because it rests on an unsound assumption. Socrates assumes that someone must act justly in all circumstances. Clearly, Socrates claim would be at odds with John Locke’s idea that a citizen may legitimately rebel against a government when it fails to uphold citizens’ natural rights (i.e. misapplied rule of law taking away the natural right to life), but why would Socrates disagree? Injustice, especially systematized injustice (the injustice is systematized because it did not consider the possibility of unjust arbitrators and allow for an appellate court or some other just means of reconsideration), cannot be overcome unless those experiencing it take active action against it. The famous leader of a social movement for India’s independence, Mahatma Gandhi, when asked about what to do if he were acting in Germany under the Third Reich admitted that nonviolent action would not work. In the same way, those experiencing the unjust application of law should rebel against it (if there are no other legitimate ways of correcting the problem). Rebels may have to engage in certain individual acts that are unjust, but the ultimate goal, a wisely ruled government is a just one. A just government coming from injustice may seem illogical unless the realization of how things come to be is considered: things come from their opposites. Additionally, Socrates implicitly showed that by allowing his unjust death people would realize its injustice. However, the logical progression should not stop there. The inevitable question is: what would people do with this knowledge of injustice? The people could work through legitimate channels to ensure that another injustice of this kind does not occur or if legitimate channels were unavailable they would have to rebel through unjust means. Unless Socrates truly would only allow a change through legitimate means, this would allow for injustice to go on indefinitely with only the possibility of its being corrected.

            After a thorough examination of the Crito, Socrates argument for remaining in Athens and accepting death follows a logical progression but is based on a flawed assumption; therefore, Socrates conclusion should be rejected. Instead, Socrates should be allowed to rebel against his unjust government because the government did not justly uphold his rights and all other legitimate solutions have been explored. The same situation for Socrates is true for all people experiencing injustice by their government. The difficult question this scenario creates is: to what extent can injustice be practiced? The answer is as little is necessary, but even that is vague. Like many problems of philosophical interest, its answer must be further developed, with time, experience, and careful thinking. Hopefully someday a more clear-cut solution will present itself.

One Response to “Being all deep and stuff: Why Killing Yourself is Bad”

  1. khood4208 says:

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