Volume 90, 2016
Justice: Then and Now
Kevin L. Flannery, S.J.
Rule of Law and the Virtue of Justice
The Socrates of Plato’s and a Pair of Later Moral Issues
The author considers, first of all, recent and fairly recent interpretations of Plato’s dialogue the Crito, arguing that the character Socrates, whose expressed ideas probably correspond in major detail to the convictions of the historical Socrates, is not saying that the laws of Athens demand unquestioning obedience. The dialogue is rather an account of the debate that goes on in Socrates’s mind itself. A strong consideration in this debate is clearly the rule of law; but equally strong is Socrates’s lifelong commitment to carry out what, in the end, he regards as the most reasonable course of action. The author then considers two contemporary ethical issues: our way of coming to know the natural law and the proper understanding of laws that allow of exceptions. Regarding the first, he argues—consistently with what we find not only in the Crito but also in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas—that we come to know the natural law through being immersed in the laws and customs of a particular society: the more just the society, the better access to the natural law it provides. Regarding the second, he argues that an article in Aquinas is sometimes interpreted as suggesting that the realm of concrete human experience is beyond the reach of law. He argues, in the spirit of the historical Socrates, that the rule of law is equivalent to the rule of reason and that this does reach into the realm of concrete human experience, where exceptions are sometimes recognized as contained in the law.