Ramble. Focus. Ramble.

Deontology in Crito

We find in Plato’s dialogue Crito that Socrates too, like Kant, was an advocate of Deontological Ethics. The word ‘deon’ comes from a Greek word that is commonly translated into the English word, duty. And so, Deontological Ethics define morality in terms of adherence to duty, rules and laws. In simpler words, Deontological Ethics hold right as the fulfillment of duty and wrong as the deviation from it.

While Socrates awaits his death, his friend Crito visits him and tells him how easy it would be for him to escape hemlock. He argues that it is the opinion of the majority that Socrates should escape death, particularly because the trial that declared him guilty was biased and unjust. In reply to this, Socrates sides again with reason and says opinions can be right or wrong. Opinions are not true even if they are held by a majority of people. Socrates, then, gives Crito an argument which is as true as it can get in the fallible world. He says:

  1. It is right to do right.
  2. It is not right to do wrong.
  3. It is right to keep agreements.
  4. Therefore, it is not right to break an agreement.

This truth, that Socrates arrives at through his famous Dialectal Reasoning, is in utter contrast with the opinion of the majority, those who believe that he should escape his death. While they advocate breaking rules Socrates argues against it, even though it will result in his death.

Furthermore, Crito includes another aspect to his argument and demands Socrates to put light on the nature of these rules. He argues that these rules are biased and unjust and which Socrates agrees. Now this is where Socratic Deontology shines bright and glorious. Socrates asserts that the rules are to be obeyed no matter what, just like Kant wants them obeyed. He talks of an agreement he has with his city, Athens, and that a few wrong people should not be the cause of his betrayal of Athenian laws. Kant does not want you to lie even if it saves someone’s life. His agreement with Athens is like a Social Contract that he believes should not be disobeyed, not even in matters of life and death.

4 comments on “Deontology in Crito

  1. J.A.A. Purves
    January 14, 2014

    Ms. Naeem,

    This is a question that I have been wrestling with recently, but I haven’t come up with a answer yet that I can articulate clearly. There are many in our time who define right and wrong by the “Harm Principle” (which you explain a few objections to in your December 12, 2012 post “Problems with Mill’s Harm Principle”). The Moral Law cannot be defined by merely “do no harm.” Clearly there are instances of doing harm that could, in the long run, do good (i.e., a surgeon during a surgery, a soldier in a just war, a friend telling an unpleasant truth to another friend). And clearly there could be instances of “refusing to do harm” that, in the long run, could do more harm than good.

    Paradoxically, one of your most powerful objections to Mill’s “Harm Principle” was that it just ultimately gives more power to majority opinion. At the same time, I would expect Deontological Ethics to be an alternative explanation for morality, but here, Socrates in Crito sort of reduces it to social contract theory again which, in a sense, is also giving way to majority rule.

    But if the majority can be wrong, and I believe they can be, then a higher standard is needed to protect the rights of the minority. The moral law cannot be based on majority opinion. Neither can it be based ultimately on some sort of “do no harm” rule. Neither can it be based on duty to some social contract. I suspect there may be something relevant here in objections (like those of Edmund Burke’s) to regular social contract theory. But I haven’t figured out how to explain it yet. If you progress in your thinking further on this question, please continue to post your thinking on it.


    Jeremy Purves

    P.S., I just discovered your blog by googling Mill’s Harm Principle. It is enjoyable and thought-provoking. Keep up the good work.

  2. hadeelnaeem
    January 14, 2014

    “…Socrates in Crito sort of reduces it to social contract theory again which, in a sense, is also giving way to majority rule.”

    I didn’t look it at it in the light of ‘majority rule’ but you are right that is exactly what social contract entails. What if all ethical theories need to be based in some sort of authority; like that of religion or majority.

    What do you think about Kant’s Categorical Imperative, it is a deontological theory but I would say it is slightly different from the deontology in Crito. Kant urges people to act such that they are actions can be made into universal laws. In his words:

    “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

    This one, instead of being based in some sort of authority, becomes the bases of generating rules and laws. There is no authority involved instead of man himself. What do you think, Mr. Purves?

  3. J.A.A. Purves
    January 15, 2014

    I agree that any sensible ethical theory needs to be based in a higher authority and Kant’s Categorical Imperative doesn’t seem to be. I suspect Kant’s problem is epistemological and has something to do with his idea of the “good will.” The free will can will good or evil, and it is not the willing that makes something good or evil.

    As a ultimate theory, the Categorical Imperative seems like it could be too easily abused. It was not a coincidence that Adolf Eichmann believed (even if wrongly) that he was following it. If there is no authority derived from other than man, then the moral law would collapse into some form of utilitarianism or something like Mill’s “do no harm.”

    As for myself, I believe the moral law is rooted in God’s authority. But I’m not sure basing morality on God completely solves the problem. Those who believe in “Divine Command Theory” argue that good and evil is only good or evil ‘because’ God says (or wills) and not the other way around. But then I think Socrates demolishes “Divine Command Theory” in Euthyphro.

    • hadeelnaeem
      January 15, 2014

      Hmm, so we are on a quest for a theory based in the highest authority? This is going to be hard because man is fallible and God is a difficult concept.

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