Socrates was an independent personality in ancient Greece, much like the boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Socrates said too many prominent citizens were scantily clad.

As a result, he was convicted by democratic vote in an Athenian court on charges of impiety and corruption of the youth. He was also then condemned to death by democratic vote.

Democracy, it would seem, killed Socrates, though some would say it was his obstinate insistence on remaining independent.

The question arises, must we die for our independence? Doesn’t life require compromise?

The concept of rights in Socrates’ time was extremely limited and applied only to Athenian citizens, which meant men. Women, children, slaves, and resident aliens were excluded.

Socrates was a citizen, so he was entitled to a trial. Plato’s dialogue Crito tells the story of Crito’s offer to finance Socrates’ escape into exile. Socrates rejects the offer. His argument is familiar still today.

Socrates said that it would be unjust for him to break the laws of Athens that he has agreed to obey. The citizens’ relation to the state, he said, is the same as that of a child to a parent or slave to a master. This is an appeal to the omnipotence of the state and an implicit social contract that binds citizens to the laws of the land.

The answer to Socrates comes from the modern tradition of individual rights as defined by John Locke and clarified by Ayn Rand, especially Rand’s principle that no one may initiate the use of physical force against anyone. This especially applies to governments to whom one’s rights have been delegated for protection.

This also means that if laws are unjust, by initiating force against citizens, retaliatory force in self-defense can be supported.

For example, it is morally just for a citizen to break an unjust law—provided one is willing to accept the consequences, as in civil disobedience, or is willing to live in exile, as occurred during the Vietnam War era when young men moved to Canada to avoid the military draft’s involuntary servitude. In extreme cases it is just to start a revolution, as occurred in Colonial America.

In contrast, blocking entry to a venue to prevent patrons from hearing a lecture is not civil disobedience. It is criminality.

Socrates should have gone into exile. The state is not our master and the social contract is only a metaphor, a bad one at that.*

Thus, we do not have to die for our independence. Nor do we have to compromise our principles or sell our souls to the devil to live and prosper.

We have no moral obligation to tell the truth when our privacy or other rights are being threatened. Living under a dictatorship with secret police and civilian informants is certainly initiated force. Surviving under such conditions where truth telling can result in jail or execution requires ingenuity. In the Soviet Union, some families resorted to speaking to each other in a foreign language to avoid being misunderstood by spies and snooping neighbors.

Even in a semi-free country as the United States where education is dominated by government-initiated coercion, encouraging students to “give teachers what they want” and then to study on their own to develop ideas that may not be acceptable to the government-controlled schools is just.

Free expression and free thought, contrary to pretensions otherwise, are not endorsed by our government citadels of reason. Ludwig von Mises (pp. 81-83) has taught us that academic freedom originated in European universities and today still means freedom to agree with the government.**

And Ayn Rand has taught us that “morality ends where a gun begins” so where the gun begins, we can lie our heads off. The issue is a practical one. If lying to a thief who demands our money could lead to harm or death, because the thief does not believe us, it would be unwise to practice the deceit.

The same applies to government initiators of coercion. Compromise of principles is unethical, but when under duress, as the Anglo-American legal system allows, self-defense becomes the guiding principle.

On the other hand, making concessions in a business negotiation is not a compromise of principles, because both parties have accepted the principle of trade. Nor is it a compromise to accompany one’s spouse to attend an opera, though you may not like opera. The mutually accepted principle is one of love and shared values.

Life does not require the compromise of principles. We compromise only in areas that involve moral options.

The challenge in living under duress, in a dictatorship or attending coercive government-controlled schools, is psychological. The challenge is to maintain one’s independence while putting on a front for protection. This means maintaining one’s conviction to understand thoroughly the facts of any given situation—or in a student’s case, the facts and truth of an assignment—while on the surface seemingly making concessions to the dictatorship or government school.***

Galileo recanted to the Inquisition, but did not sacrifice his scientific convictions. Faust, on the other hand, made a compact with the devil—and lost his soul.

Did democracy kill Socrates? Yes, but so also did his false premises about obedience to the state and what it means to remain independent.

In a truly free society that respects individual rights, democracy is not as powerful as it was in ancient Athens. Today, democracy is, or should be, relegated to procedural functions, such as selecting our leaders.

* Social contract was an attempt to explain the origin of the state, but it is a fiction. More likely, powerful nomadic tribes conquered the weaker ones to establish control, and later the settled farmers. The state holds the monopoly on the use of physical force. Its origin is in violence and coercion, not agreement. The aim of rights theory was and has always been to restrain and delimit government power. See Oppenheimer on the state’s origin and Hamburger on our current administrative threat.

** Some teachers, of course, are fair so this is a judgment call for students. If a teacher is fair, students should strongly express, argue, and defend their views. If a teacher punishes students for disagreement by giving lower grades, students must do what they have to do to survive.

*** The same advice applies to students attending private schools, as private schools also operate in the government’s coercive environment and must obey its regulations. Free speech, free expression, and academic freedom are rarities in academia today.

Reposted from Blogger.