Published in the Cyprus-Mail under the title Army lessons from Socrates June 28th, 2015.
Should one support an immoral institution just because the law says so? What are the options available to those who are ideologically opposed to what is charitably called the Cyprus Army? In this article I address the brave young men of Cyprus who oppose militarism urging them to stay true to their conscience.
When one objects to serving in the army for reasons of conscience he has two options: to pay 50 euros and get a note from a shrink verifying that he is not fit for service, or to declare that he will disobey the law on the grounds of conscience, which is an inalienable right guaranteed by the European Court of Human Rights. Sadly, teenagers usually opt for the first option which is much more straightforward, albeit a cowardly one.
A great man who was killed by the people of Athens when he decided to object to an unjust law has already provided us with the reasons why we should follow our conscience. Fortunately for us today, following one’s conscience does not lead to imprisonment or death, since freedom of conscience is an internationally protected legal right. Now it’s a matter of challenging the Republic of Cyprus, of forcing it to adopt a non-punitive alternative service for those who do not want to partake in an institution that trains young men to kill fellow humans.
Let us consider the reasons why you should not go down the coward’s route, why you should stand up to your parents, to society’s expectations and ultimately, to the state; essentially, why you should follow Socrates’ route.
Socrates in the Apology is on trial for corrupting the youth, an allegation that was obviously false. The Apology is divided in two parts based on the public trials in classical Greece. In the first part, the decision of guilt or innocence is at hand; the accusers present their case against Socrates, and the latter responds in order to persuade the public, who are the ones that will vote in favour or against him. The second part comes after the accused is found guilty. It is during the second part that the sentence is decided upon, following another round of cross-examination.
In the first part of the Apology, Socrates did not seek to defend himself. Rather, he defended his way of life and philosophical inquiry, thus giving munition to his accusers, who were able to prove that the accusations were indeed true. In the latter part, after he was found guilty, he urged the court to sentence him to death. Socrates was subsequently sentenced to death through poison for his act of civil disobedience.
The state has laws and rules. These rules are not always correct. The individual is a moral being and as such has a duty to live by his or her conscience. When the directives of one’s conscience are at odds with the rules of the state, then one has a moral obligation to disobey the rules of the state and face the consequences for his or her disobedience. This is what Socrates did. He was warned about his way of life, which contradicted, as it turned, the established laws, but he refused to move away from his convictions, eventually paying for it with the highest of prizes.
Once Socrates was sentenced to death, he was imprisoned until his execution, which would take place upon the arrival of a ship from Delos. During that time, Socrates was visited by his old friend, Crito. The title of the Socratic dialogue that depicts this scene is titled after the name of his friend, Crito. Crito visited Socrates in order to persuade him to escape from prison and flee the city-state of Athens. A plan, orchestrated by Crito and supported by Socrates’ friends was in place, in order to facilitate Socrates’ escape. Socrates refused on the grounds that he owes his life to the city-state, in exchange for all that it has given him. Remember that Socrates loved Athens. He fought for Athens and only left it a handful of times throughout his life, and did not want to hurt it. If everyone escaped from prison, he argued, there would be no rule of law, and the foundations of the Athenian state, which he passionately loved, would be destroyed.
There is a paradox here. Socrates disobeyed the laws of Athens in the Apology, which eventually led to his death. His civil disobedience was based on the high-order authority of his conscience that led him to violate the law. According to the same moral authority — his conscience — the verdict reached by the court was unjust. The paradox is therefore expressed as follows: if he disobeyed an unjust law that led to an unjust verdict, why not escape from prison, in order to avoid the consequences of the aforementioned unjust verdict and save his life along the way? It is a paradox because in the Apology Socrates defends his disobedience, whereas in the Crito he refuses to disobey the verdict of the court. Why the double standards then?
Socrates’ explanation was that one has a duty to either persuade the state for an unjust law or face the consequences for disobeying that law. A law is unjust because it violates one’s conscience. But given that one chooses to live in a country, and benefits from what it has to offer, then one has a duty to try to persuade their fellow men and women to change the law. In case of failure to do so, then one needs to follow his conscience and disobey the law. Disobeying the law has consequences. Out of respect for what one is offered as a citizen of that state, he or she has a duty to obey the verdict of the court which, ideally, expresses the will of the people. In the case of classical Athens the court did express the will of the people, because, as said above, decisions were made in a direct-democratic setting through majoritarian decision-making.
What reasons, then, did Socrates give, to explain his refusal to escape? His main argument was that if he escaped, he would destroy the city for his part. Obviously, if one person escapes from prison, the harm is rather minimal; the society will still function, the laws would still apply, and one individual act will not destroy the society. What does for his part mean then? If everyone did the same thing — disobeyed the law and refused to face the consequences of his disobedience — then the society would, in fact, be destroyed, because its institutions rely on a daily-renewable contract between the citizen and the state; to ignore the decisions reached by the institutions is to destroy the state for your part, because you destroy the fabric that holds the institutions in place: your own end of the agreement.
The case of Socrates applies to the case of denying a mandatory army service on the grounds of conscience. Young objectors should challenge the state rather than opt for the easy way out. In doing so, they will improve the situation for themselves and for others, whilst staying true to their beliefs.
If you are a young man who objects to the enlisting in the army, firstly, you should be congratulated for having the courage to stand up against the norm. It’s always easy to do what everyone does, but it takes a great person to defy society’s norms and expectations. Secondly, you should read this, which explains why the Republic of Cyprus cannot force someone who objects on the grounds of conscience to enlist in the army. Thirdly, you should start writing down the reasons why you object, along with possible responses to the obvious responses that you might receive. If you have reasons and courage, nothing can stand in your way.