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4. The Principle of No Harm


Socrates. Are we to say that we are never intentionally to do
wrong, or that in one way we ought and in another way we
ought not to do wrong, or is doing wrong always evil and
dishonorable, as I was just now saying, and as has been already
acknowledged by us? Are all our former admissions which

View of the Assembly Where Athenians Made Laws
Photo: Kevin T. Glowacki and Nancy Klein
The Ancient City of Athens
were made within a few days to be thrown away? And have
we, at our age, been earnestly discoursing with one another all
49b our life long only to discover that we are no better than
children? Or are we to rest assured, in spite of the opinion of
the many, and in spite of consequences whether better or
worse, of the truth of what was then said, that injustice is
always an evil and dishonor to him who acts unjustly? Shall
we affirm that?

Crito. Yes.

Soc. Then we must do no wrong?

Cr. Certainly not.

Soc. Nor when injured injure in return, as the many imagine ;
for we must injure no one at all?

49c Cr. Clearly not.

Soc. Again, Crito, may we do evil?

Cr. Surely not, Socrates.

Soc. And what of doing evil in return for evil, which is the
morality of the many -- is that just or not?

Cr. Not just.

Soc. For doing evil to another is the same as injuring him?

Cr. Very true.

Soc. Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to
49d anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him. But I
would have you consider, Crito, whether you really mean what
you are saying. For this opinion has never been held, and never
will be held, by any considerable number of persons; and those
who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point
have no common ground, and can only despise one another
when they see how widely they differ. Tell me, then, whether
you agree with and assent to my first principle, that neither
injury nor retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right.
And shall that be the premise of our argument? Or do you
49e decline and dissent from this? For this has been of old and
is still my opinion; but, if you are of another opinion, let me
hear what you have to say. If, however, you remain of the
same mind as formerly, I will proceed to the next step

Cr. You may proceed, for I have not changed my mind.

Soc. Then I will proceed to the next step, which may be put in
the form of a question: Ought a man to do what he admits to
be right, or ought he to betray the right ?

Cr. He ought to do what he thinks right.

Soc. But if this is true, what is the application? In leaving the
50a prison against the will of the Athenians, do I wrong any? or
rather do I not wrong those whom I ought least to wrong?
Do I not desert the principles which were acknowledged by us
to be just? What do you say?

Cr. I cannot tell, Socrates, for I do not know.

Soc. Then consider the matter in this way: Imagine that I am
about to play truant (you may call the proceeding by any name
which you like), and the laws and the government come and
interrogate me: "Tell us, Socrates," they say; "what are you
about? Are you going by an act of yours to overturn us -- the
50b laws and the whole State, as far as in you lies? Do you
imagine that a State can subsist and not be overthrown, in
which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside
and overthrown by individuals?" What will be our answer,
Crito, to these and the like words? Anyone, and especially
a clever rhetorician, will have a good deal to urge about the
evil of setting aside the law which requires a sentence to be
carried out; and we might reply, "Yes; but the State has
50c injured us and given an unjust sentence." Suppose I say that?

Cr. Very good, Socrates.