The morality of submitting to unjust laws

Question: In relation to Socrates and his trial, is the act of submitting to an unjust law and/or punishment itself an unjust or just act?

In terms of Socrates’ relation to Athens and his situation before the Council, I believe that this act of submission is a just act for the following reasons:

1) Socrates willingly submits to the laws of Athens, knowing that they are not an expression of the ideal laws of the ideal city. Throughout his adult life, he has been a free citizen of Athens and could have left at any time with all his possessions. This free association is key. As he states in the Crito it is not right to respond in an unjust way to unjust laws. The act of submission is a recognition that the laws one has consented to live beneath have force regardless of whether or not they are totally just because the health of the city depends upon the enforcement of laws.

2) His act of submission is not passive. Before the jurors, he states clearly that he thinks the charges brought against him are unjust. He seeks to persuade, and not appeal to emotion.

However, if his association with Athens was not free, that is to say, if he were unable to leave Athens and live in a city with different laws, this would change matters. In this situation, he would not be submitting (which assumes freedom), but instead, he would be coerced. Also, if he did not speak openly to the jurors regarding the injustice he would be submitting to the laws in an unjust way. He would not be true to his calling or communicating his beliefs in a way which challenged and may ultimately benefit his city.

By way of application, the arrest of the Chinese Pastor Wang Yi, and his letter titled “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience” is a powerful example of how one can be faithfully disobedient while still submitting the laws of one’s nation even while declaring them unjust. The submission of Socrates (and Pastor Wang Y) must be seen in an ultimate way as pointing to the person and work of Christ. One can submit to unjust laws but in the very act of submitting powerfully critique those laws in a way which may well bring about extraordinary change. The justice, in other words, may have to be oriented beyond one’s self to the future and for the sake of others.

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