Socrates, Prisons and Scandals

 Socrates was convicted on dubious charges and sentenced to execution in 399 BC.


Socrates was convicted on dubious charges and sentenced to execution in 399 BC.  His friend, Crito, visited him in prison to tell him that the guards had been bribed and that arrangements had been made for his escape.  But Socrates refused to leave the prison.  He told Crito that he had benefited all of his life from the laws of Athens and that he could not betray them as a matter of either convenience or necessity.  Socrates was convinced that nothing good could ever be achieved by wrongdoing.  In short, a good end, however noble or necessary, cannot justify unethical means.  Socrates believed that anyone who employed evil means would be ensnared in wickedness, that his enterprise would be corrupted, and that he would never achieve his worthy goal.  If one would achieve a worthy end, then one must be worthy.

In 1512, Nicholo Machiavelli, was imprisoned and tortured on equally dubious charges.  Shortly, after his release from prison, he wrote The Prince, a handbook for anyone interested in acquiring or maintaining power.  In it, Machiavelli argued that a ruler with a worthy objective is justified in using evil means in order to achieve it.  Machiavelli realized that his position was directly opposed to that of Socrates, which Machiavelli regarded as unrealistic.  And so it seemed for generations of power's practitioners.

The people who abused prisoners at Iraq's Abu Gharib prison claim to have had a worthy goal.  They wanted to obtain information about Iraqi fighters in order to save American lives.  But they did not achieve their objective.  Instead, their methods sparked flames in the Islamic world that have brought, and will bring, insecurity and death to Americans. 

Machiavelli speaks to our natural inclinations in periods of stress, when we are uncertain of our abilities to achieve objectives that we hold dear.  Yet in the case of the scandal at Abu Gharib, Socrates turned out to be right and Machiavelli wrong.  This is bad enough, but the deeper problem is that Machiavelli has been the patron saint of America's Middle Eastern policy for the last 50 years, and the result seems just as scandalous.

In 1953, the CIA organized a coup to overthrow Mohhamed Mosadegh, the pro-Western, democratically elected leader of Iran, because he nationalized the Iranian oil industry.  In his place, Washington installed the Shah and trained his secret police force, the Savak.  For the next 25 years, the Savak imprisoned, tortured and murdered Iranians.  After the Shah's rule sparked Iran's Islamic Revolution, the United States backed Saddam Hussein in his eight-year war against Iran.  More than a million people died in that war.

When Saddam became uncontrollable in 1990, we went to war and stationed troops in Saudi Arabia to support the regime of King Faud.  Faud and his family have transformed the world's largest oil producing country into a debtor nation. They have imprisoned or exiled many Saudis who defend democratic values that are similar to our own.  Our support for the House of Saud - and the presence of our troops in the Islamic Holy Land - angered some Saudis who see little difference between our presence in the region and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  Since the CIA installed the Shah of Iran in 1953, we have lurched from one misstep to another. With each of these missteps we have sunk deeper into Middle Eastern quicksand.

Typically taking the short view, American policymakers have had American interests at heart every step of the way.  Yet while they may have had worthy objectives, their methods have consistently betrayed American ideals and undermined American values.  President Bush said that the things that were done at Abu Gharib were "not America."  Yet American policy in the Middle East has long been informed by the same Machiavellian presuppositions that underwrote those prison procedures.  President Bush has justified the war in Iraq as an effort to bring American values and ideals to the Middle East.  That may or may not be a worthy goal, but we will not succeed in offering our values and ideals to others until we are true to them ourselves.


Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University--Edwardsville.