The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Political philosophy


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Shortly before his execution for the crime of corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates was visited in his prison cell by his friend Crito, who offered Socrates a chance to escape. To Crito’s surprise, Socrates turned him down, remained in his cell, and was made to drink hemlock soon after.

Socrates said that he saw all this coming. He knew at the outset that his determination to challenge presumed authority wherever he found it would make him powerful enemies; knew that the consequences would be dire, perhaps fatal. But because he knew what would happen – and because, motivated by a higher commitment to intellectual honesty, he went ahead anyway – he was duty bound to accept his punishment, however severe. He’d already made his decision. Now he was following through with it.

What we have here is a social contract: a citizen’s implicit agreement to abide by a society’s rules in order to benefit from the services it offers. Yes, Athenian society was corrupt and killed dissenters, but there were other societies to choose from, and Socrates had chosen Athens. He had made a free-market decision that this society offered the best cost/benefit ratio, and going to his death was, to him, keeping his end of the bargain.

Very noble, and very moving; but was his analysis correct?

The notion of accepting a society’s demands because you were free to choose another has a dangerous flip-side. It showed its face in a recent documentary about radical Islam, where a clear-eyed young man and self-confessed terrorist calmly stated that the government of the UK had committed terrible crimes; and because the British people voted for that government in a free election, they are directly responsible for its actions. They are enemy combatants, valid targets for military action.

This is an appalling doctrine. And yet it is only the social contract turned on its head. If you consent to benefitting from society’s gains, you also consent to culpability for its crimes.

That is my objection to Socrates’ acquiescence. He should not have taken it lying down. Contrast it with an assessment by Christopher Hitchens:

…as you read this you are in effect wearing a military uniform and sitting in a very exposed trench. You exist at the whim of people whose power does not derive from your own consent and who regard you as expendable, disposable. You merely failed to notice the moment at which you were conscripted. … I do not recognise the legitimacy of a government that puts me in that position.

No system of representative government perfectly expresses the view of any one person. Nor should it; that way lies dictatorship. Democratic government is a compromise reached between people with wildly differing views. I heartily endorse the machinery of government that takes as input suggestions for policies, and then modifies and improves them with bargaining and debate – but I reserve the right not to be happy with the result.

When Crito came to Socrates, I would rather Socrates had found the government that sentenced him guilty of gross negligence, and decided that the social contract no longer bound him. I would rather he’d escaped. But then, I do like a happy ending.


The Hitchens bit was from Letters to a Young Contrarian.

The dialogue of Crito can be found in its entirety here.

Written by The S I

October 13, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Equality and Equivalence

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We are all born free. That is one of the central tenets of liberalism: that, in the natural order of things, our default setting is absolute freedom to do whatever we want to do and to be whatever we want to be. It is essential that we make this assumption, even if it is only a theoretical ideal, because it lets us do something extraordinary: it lets us look at one person having power over another person and ask: why should that be the case?

It is the presumption of liberty that makes authority look unnatural. Authority, not freedom, is the phenomenon that needs to explain itself, justify itself. It is the corollary to being innocent until proven guilty: the burden of proof is placed firmly on the shoulders of those who would tell you what you can and cannot do.

Those thinkers who accept this presumption of liberty are called ‘liberals’ in the technical sense, but many of them are far from what I would call liberal. Hobbes, for example, recognises that freedom is natural, but that it is also dangerous; and that the best form of government is a repressive tyranny that will keep us in line. For a liberal, this is not very liberal.

A liberal liberal knows that no authority, however noble its intentions, is wise enough to govern with absolute power; and so one of the tasks of liberal philosophy is to try to find the absolute minimum standards of coercion needed to make a society function.

Take the entire spectrum of human societies that exist now or have ever existed and arrange them in a row ­– a cultural police line-up. There will be a lot of variation: there will be monarchies, democracies, theocracies, there will be oppressed minorities, there will be enslaved masses. It will be a mixed bunch, and much that we see will appal us. But we know that nobody, least of all us, knows the right way to run a country. Recognising our own fallibility, we must respect their right to develop however they choose, as long as our minimum standards are met.

What should these standards be? It is an important and immensely difficult question.

How should we feel about societies in which certain groups are excluded from certain professions ­– say, women are barred from engineering, or men barred from childcare? I personally find this a barbaric arrangement. But I do not think it is necessarily below the minimum standard. There may be some ways of setting up a society in which all participants are better off if there is some regimentation of roles.

The measure of its worth would be in the equivalence of opportunity, not in the equality. If people in dramatically unequal roles can all find an equivalent happiness within those roles, then this society cannot be objected to on liberal grounds. To presume that absolute equality is the only way of ensuring equal happiness is to claim a degree of infallibility that no liberal should feel comfortable with.

Written by The S I

September 30, 2011 at 11:59 pm