Socrates on the Moral Authority of the State
In the Crito, Socrates makes some surprisingly strong claims about the moral authority of the state, which might even seem to be inconsistent both with another fundamental claim he makes in the Crito and with certain claims he makes in the Apology. I shall argue that although these claims seem to be in some tension with each other, the crucial claims about the authority of the state in the Crito can plausibly be interpreted in such a way as to remove any real inconsistency with the other claims.
The first, rather striking claim about the moral authority of the state occurs at 51b of the Crito. Socrates argues that, because of the state's role as a provider of security, education, and various important social institutions (such as marriage), the citizens of the state are its "offspring and servants"; and from this he concludes that citizens are subordinate to the state and its laws to such an extent that if a citizen ever disagrees with the state's laws or orders, he "must either persuade it or obey its orders," even if the latter amounts to suffering death. The implication for his own case is clear: Socrates had tried to persuade the court of his innocence and of the injustice of his execution (as detailed in the Apology), but he had failed; therefore, he argues, he must now obey the court and accept his death sentence--even though he still thinks that he is in the right on this matter.
The second, closely related claim, comes only a few paragraphs later, in 51e and 52. Socrates there argues that by virtue of remaining in the state, a citizen enters into an implied contract with it to obey its commands. More precisely, the claim is again that a citizen who has a disagreement with the state must either persuade it that it is wrong, or else obey it. In the voice of the personified laws: "either persuade us or do what we say" (52a). The implication, again, is that if one fails to persuade the state to change its mind, for whatever reason, then one must obey its orders. A citizen has no moral right to continue to resist the state, even if he is convinced that he is in the right and the state is in the wrong.
Now as mentioned above, these claims seem directly opposed to certain other claims Socrates makes. Most importantly, earlier in the Crito itself, Socrates had stressed that "one must never do wrong" (49b). Indeed, this serves as the driving principle behind the rest of his argument in the Crito. But is this really consistent with maintaining that one must always obey the state, if one fails to persuade it that something it orders is wrong? The obvious objection is that the state might well order one to do something wrong--e.g. because one of its laws is an unjust one, as Jim Crow laws were. In that case, Socrates' claim that one should never do anything wrong would entail refusing to do what the state orders--even if one is unsuccessful in persuading the state that it is wrong. Thus, Socrates' claim that one should never do wrong seems inconsistent with his claim that one must always obey the final orders of the state.
Secondly, it might be objected that Socrates' view of the moral authority of the state is inconsistent both with what he did when ordered by the Thirty to capture Leon of Salamis for execution, and with what he says he'd do if ordered by the state to cease practicing philosophy (both from the Apology). When the Thirty ordered him to capture Leon, he refused, on the grounds that this would have been wrong (unjust and impious). (Apology, 32c-d) This seems to be a recognition that one is morally obligated or at least permitted to disobey the state when what it commands is wrong--even if one fails to persuade it of its wrongness. And similarly, Socrates makes clear that he would disobey the state and continue philosophizing if it were to order him to stop--again, on the grounds that it would be wrong for him to stop…