Is Socrates right in that it is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one (even if you are never caught)?

By Zoë Morris (originally submitted for an essay competition)

Is Socrates right in that it is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one (even if you are never caught)?

Socrates made the statement that suffering an injustice is better than committing one when discussing the nature of evil with Polus in the Gorgias. In his view, the soul remains unharmed when attacked however the intention behind committing an injustice corrupts the soul. Human exposure to ‘evil’ and injustice may harm our physical and psychological state. However, the only harm that can come to the soul, is that of our own intentional decisions to act wrongly. From a modern perspective things are less simple and questions such as the equivalence of justice and legality arise. Socrates’ proposal can only be discussed when the definitions of the terms better and injustice are defined as they can be contextualised in ways as to create many alternative arguments.

In a Machiavellian context, for example, where the end always justifies the means it maybe be argued that if an injustice must be committed for the greater good, not to commit it would also be unjust. Some philosophies adopt this frame of reference such as Marxism where history follows a predetermined scheme in which the triumph of the proletariat is regarded as both inevitable and supremely good. This suggests injustice can be viewed as inescapable where there was never an option to suffer or not to suffer (no moral dilemma as it would happen anyway). Another example that follows this ideology, would be Social Darwinism, where one social class or race (which is fitter) is destined to replace all others. The belief in this inevitability, justifies any injustice. Utilitarianism and the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number run a close parallel with injustice within democracy. If we take Brexit as an example, the fact it can be argued that we had a democratic right to a referendum means the vote to leave the European Union was justified. Though some were outraged and thought the leavers had committed an injustice against them, the fact we all comply with the rules of democracy, means the victims who wanted to remain did not actually suffer an injustice even though a decision was employed against their will. The same could theoretically apply to all Americans who did not want Donald Trump as President. Does this mean, however, that democracy and its utilitarian foundations justify the tyranny of the majority? A similar view can be taken when interpreting the similarities between justice and the law. A commonly shared view is that the legal system represents justice and establishes the barriers between what is right and wrong. However, what is just and what is legal often do not coincide. Cutting off a thief’s hand as a punishment for theft may seem extreme to those who do not recognise Sharia Law. However, it is possible that because we have different cultural frames of reference, our notions of justice may differ. This means there is no single standard for what is just and what is not. Sharia punishments under more extreme regimes are absolute punishments which make no allowance for the motive behind the theft or what was stolen above the value of a quarter Dina as we can see with ISIS and in Saudi Arabia. A thief who stole silver pans in order to sell them and feed his family, is just as guilty as a man who stole jewels for personal gain. This arguably could be an injustice within a law. The fact laws are not standardised worldwide also generates questions as to which laws are the most legitimate and how they can all represent justice differently.

Under what system can we then come to a clear conclusion as to agreeing with Socrates’ statement? The evident one is the Christian one, which refers to a day judgement. God supposedly gives us free will so that we can live our lives and make our free choices. Our righteousness is measured against our sins on the day of reckoning. It is curious how Socrates’ proposal is so close to that of Christianity. If our life is a test and the determining factor of whether we pass or fail is the morality of our actions, than Socrates is right in saying that it is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one as the treachery we undergo as victims of injustices will theoretically become irrelevant if we ascend to heaven. Socrate’s argument can only be considered entirely true in the scenario that we have an omniscient being who observes our actions. Socrates’ point of our souls needing to be pure, is only relevant if there is a super being who can make that judgement. From a christian perspective, ‘better’ refers to our obtaining of a higher moral score on our day of judgement. It is better to suffer an injustice because it does not affect this calculus as we do not accumulate ‘negative points’ by being a victim. However, there can be ambiguities within christianity especially when discussing redemption. Redemption implies that all souls are saved as they are all divinely good. This undermines Socrates’ proposition and arguably christian morals as it claims that regardless what we do, God is omnibenevolent and will forgive us. Luke 15-7 states in the King James Bible; “Just so I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous ones who do not need to repent”. This arguably contradicts Socrates’ statement entirely by suggesting that a sinner who is unjust and repents is the ideal and perhaps better than someone who has simply suffered an injustice.

From an Epicurean perspective, ‘better’ is directly linked to happiness thus all our actions are justified so long as they bring us joy. If stealing a mobile phone makes you happy, then you should do it. In this philosophy, ‘better’ is what you believe in and is supported by your own moral theories. When viewed in a different context involving a moral dilemma, ‘better’ changes its meaning entirely. If for example a surgeon could only save one life, would it be better to save the life of a newborn baby whose future is unknown or a nobel prize winning scientist in his 60’s who may or may not have peaked in their career? How could the surgeon go about choosing whose life to save? In this situation we are forced to allocate scarce resources making the decision much more difficult. The surgeon would be committing an injustice and a justice simultaneously. However, what would justify their decision, is their belief in the best outcome. In this example, ‘better’ lies in the belief of what the future holds. The surgeon would have to decide whose future was the most worth saving. If we apply this meaning of the word ‘better’ to the Socratic argument, better defines the perceived future benefit without any moral considerations. In this context, someone might believe they must commit an injustice in order to then secure justice (similar to the Machiavellian philosophy). Equally it may be better to suffer an injustice if one believes in the future, it will bring them justice (similar to the Christian perspective). The argument becomes very flexible as ‘better’ lies in a personal belief which in turn justifies any action a person might make, just or not.

No act can be viewed in isolation thus the socratic argument is not necessarily correct. Injustice and belief in what is better can be identified in numerous different ways and contexts which are rarely simple enough to support a statement as blatant. Belief in what better is, changes what your views of justice are. Equally, what is just and what is unjust are often unclear. They vary immensely depending on the scenario you view them in. Both terms are so ambiguous that there can be no set answer to the proposal. Our actions have so many consequences and influences that it is impossible to judge them individually and come to a conclusion as to how fair they are. Socrates’ proposition can only work in the context of an omniscient deity who can see through our actions and make a final judgment.

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