Social Philosophy

ImageThis paper describes the ethical arguments presented by Socrates and Dr. King and explaining what the arguments imply about each one’s sense of ethical obligation explain how the arguments are similar or different from each other.

When do the problems of society become the concern of the individual? What, precisely, creates a moral imperative for individuals to engage in protest about causes that do not directly affect them? In the United States, there is currently a debate over whether or not the military should increase its presence in Iraq, with the ostensible goal of increasing order, or start decreasing its presence and leave the Iraqis to determine their own security. For many individuals, the course that the government has chosen thus far has been so offensive, that they are actively protesting the war, and the governments actions. For many others, the debate is still going on in their minds as to whether or not it would be right to protest; for still others, the war question has not reached sufficient priority to spur them to social action.

This is a debate that is as old, and as modern, as society itself. Socrates had quite a bit to say about the individuals obligation to society, as did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King did not live in Birmingham; he did not even live in the same state. However, even though he lived hundreds of miles away, he still felt that he needed to take action regarding the violent racism that was injuring and killing his fellow African-Americans in that city. While sitting in jail for his part in the protests, Dr. King wrote a letter to his fellow clergymen in the city of Birmingham. He wrote that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.In other words, any threat to any Americans personal liberties or security is, eventually, a threat to every Americans freedom. For these reasons, Dr. King felt it necessary to travel to the site of injustice and take action against it.

Dr. King also makes an argument concerning ones obligation concerning the law. Many whites in the South who felt that Dr. King was agitating, on the one hand, for the enforcement of some laws, such as the orders to desegregate the public schools, but, on the other hand, for the violation of other laws, including laws about proper methods of protest, and laws concerning the separation of white and black people in the South. Dr. King responded that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. [He] would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all. In other words, not only is one freed from the burden of obeying laws that one considers unjust, one has a moral imperative to disobey those laws as a sign of protest. Dr. King, then, urges people to risk criminal prosecution in the name of justice.

The death of Socrates was a very early statement in the debate over whether one should obey laws that one finds unjust. He was accused, and convicted of corrupting the young with his teachings, which was then a capital crime. Because there was no precedent in Athenian case law for sentencing people to death for this law, and no legal standard that connected his methods or content of teaching with the corruption of the youth, Socrates supporters broke into the prison where he was being held and offered him the chance to escape. However, he refused to leave with them, because he could not turn against the laws of the government. This did not stop him from teaching these supporters between the time when he drank the poison until his actual time of death. So, interestingly, Socrates did not mind breaking the law, but he refused to escape the consequences of doing so.

Both Socrates and Dr. King appear to support violating laws that they find unjust, but also support the structure that punishes lawbreakers note that Dr. King does not urge the clergymen to free him, nor does he rail against his incarceration. As long as there are laws that enough people will find unjust, this argument will persist.