Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"I'd do anything for my children."


Today I discussed Crito with my two summer classes. Lively discussion. Most of those sympathetic to Crito's view that Socrates should escape are most impressed by Crito's complaint that if Socrates refuses to escape, he is betraying his children.

Beyond the considerations raised in the dialogue--including that Socrates could have his friends care for his children--I tried to get the students to think about this from the future perspective of Socrates' children: if he escapes, might his children lose respect for him, to think that he is a hypocrite? Might they learn from him that doing what one thinks is right isn't important when there's a threat of punishment?

What about cases where a person does something shameful, or even abhorrent, because "the children must eat"? At least one person in class suggested that those children should, when they grow out of their "childlike views," be grateful that they are alive and that their parents did what was necessary to feed and support them. Is that true? Would it be wrong to resent what one's parents did, or to feel that one's own life is tainted by the shame of what they did. Suppose a child says: "I cannot bear to live with the fact that I am only alive because of the terrible things you did." Is that unreasonable? Must one be grateful? (One might understand, but understanding is not acceptance.)

Of course, some people seem to take the position that there isn't anything shameful about doing what is necessary to care for one's children. What might be shameful if done for other reasons isn't so if done out of love for one's children. No doubt there can be dilemmas, but should we believe that doing the thing for one's children automatically removes the shamefulness? If nothing else, I doubt that in every case it is psychologically possible to buy into this, unless one has no sense of shame at all. (That is, there will be something which, even if done for one's children, will leave one with a sense of shame.)

Someone might say: "Then you must not really love your children." I recall this response being made on a comment thread about the possible parole of Michael Woodmansee (who committed a terrible murder)--that the person who does not see the point of killing Woodmansee (as the father of the victim said he would, were Woodmansee to be paroled), of exacting that revenge on him (were he to have killed one's own child), fails to have true love for his children. (I discussed this briefly here.) This strikes me as completely wrong, and perhaps a bit hysterical. It at least begs the question against the person who rejects revenge as a matter of moral principle. Apply this to Socrates' case: "you must not really love your children if you refuse to escape."

This seems like an attempt to make Socrates' principled stand seem merely selfish. Wouldn't that make taking any moral stand, at the cost of incurring risks to oneself, merely selfish (if one has children to care for)? That can't be right. This idea that we should do absolutely anything for our children seems absolutely dangerous. And it points to an important way in which love for one's children can be a source of great temptation.

In a way, I'm tempted to think that just as Gaita says he has never met anyone he credits with actually believing that "meat is murder" (even if they say it), that anyone who says, "I would do anything for my children," has not really thought about what "anything" includes, and so can't be credited with believing what they have said. But I'm not so sure. Maybe some people do believe it and understand exactly what it entails. Is that love? Or: is that the kind of love we should teach our children? Is it not simply to teach them that, deep down, anything goes?


  1. I think I agree with the whole thrust of this post, so mostly I just want to click 'Like,' but I have two small points to suggest too. First of all, wasn't Socrates about 70 years old at his trial? I don't think this is mentioned in the Crito, but he might have wondered how much point there would be in moving if (as he might have thought) he wasn't going to live much longer anyway. He might have thought, that is, that purely practical considerations were more or less irrelevant (on purely practical grounds) and that only principles mattered. I'm not sure how much I would want to press this idea, but it might be worth mentioning or thinking about. Secondly, it seems to me that "I would do anything for my children" might be an expression of love that need not be fully thought through in order to avoid sentimentality. It expresses a kind of commitment which might be valuable even if (or perhaps especially, or only, if) it isn't literally true. Perhaps it should be taken to mean "I would do anything thinkable for my children," and that doesn't seem so wrong.

  2. That's a good point about his age. (We had read the Apology earlier, so they should have remembered his age, and I think I at least mentioned it.) Appealing to his age might seem to weaken the point: if he's got less (life) to lose, then he's putting less at stake. Of course, Socrates would say that since Athens doesn't want him around, he has already lost a crucially important thing--a home--and I stressed his love for Athens in class. Perhaps I should have thought to cast him as a patriot of sorts, though I don't know if that would help.

    (I did get a good rise out of several of the students, when I took some of their remarks about it not being fair or considerate to his children to endanger his life for his ideals, by suggesting that by that logic, it might seem that every soldier with a family is doing something immoral by enlisting. (There's a good contingency of vets, ROTC, and Army folks in my classes, and army brats, and so forth.) They immediately insisted that soldiers go off to fight to protect their children, which makes sense, but seems a bit abstract--at least enough that one could say something similar about Socrates.)

    "I would do anything thinkable for my children," seems about right. But then in Socrates' case, it's less clear why escaping should be unthinkable. He argues that it would be wrong, but maybe (some of) my students see it as merely wrong in the way that stealing food to feed one's starving children would be merely wrong--namely, not "wrong" enough.

  3. Socrates' escaping seems to be a borderline case of the unthinkable. He does think about it and offers reasons for rejecting it, rather than just dismissing it, after all. But then his reasons lead him to believe that he cannot do it. Doesn't he talk about destroying the laws, and of the laws as being like his mother and father? So breaking the law by escaping would be like murdering his parents. (I don't think he says this explicitly, but isn't this the implication?) That would make it pretty unthinkable in the sense of being about as wrong as things get. What he believes in doing is something like upholding the Constitution, so military patriots ought to be able to relate to that. If they can't, it's a sign that Socrates is doing something hard to understand. Which I think he is. He's re-framing the question. Cora Diamond is good on this in, I believe, the introduction to The Realistic Spirit, but you've probably read that.

  4. Yeah. Socrates imagines what the laws would say to him, if they could speak, and that's the gist.

    Another point worth noting--wish I'd remembered to emphasize this more in class--is the whole Crito dialogue starts from the implicit point that escaping from prison is common and easy enough for people like Socrates (Go to jail now, Socrates; nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) so that his escape is, as Crito suggests, expected. And so there's already a deep corruption in the Athenian justice system. By staying in prison, where the people have decided he belongs, he is showing an utmost (if ironic) respect for the democratic principles of Athens. And if he is a fool for staying, then they were even bigger fools for convicting him.

  5. Yes, so the prosecutors and jury (roughly: Athens) might have said that they were justly sentencing him to death but meant that they wanted him to go away. By staying and dying he is, as it were, making them mean what they said. I don't think I've ever thought of ti that way before.