Plato, Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau each had widely differing ideals relating to the government, its necessity and the responsibility of citizens towards this government. These views were all closely related to each philosopher's personal ideals regarding how best to live their lives with the greatest of integrity. This also applies to life and politics today. Each individual is free to decide whether to take civil action against their government or not. As Martin Luther King asserts, it is a matter of conscience. Each philosophy mentioned above will then be examined for its applicability to the issue of the war in Iraq and the responsibility of citizens to take action.
Plato's work focuses on the philosopher Socrates, who has been condemned to death for "corrupting the youth" of Athens. Crito attempts to encourage his escape, but Aristotle refuses, on the grounds of his own personal set of ethics. For Socrates, ethics and values are closely related to one's reverence for the government. This stems from a specific paradigm of the time, that citizens are not on equal terms with the government. The government knows best and should not be questioned. Socrates uses the parent-child analogy to explain this view. The government is a parent body to the citizens of Athens. The only protest that can acceptably be made is leaving Athens.
Socrates could perhaps be admired for his strong adherence to his individual focus on his own set of ethics. He does not look beyond the philosophies that he has preached throughout his life. The shame of publicly denouncing his ethics and beliefs is for Socrates worse than death. Thus, even though he is in personal danger at the hands of a government that might be wrong in its decisions, Socrates does not find that he is in a position to protest. The fundamental reason for this is the inferiority paradigm of citizens in terms of the government. The focus here is on an individual's sense of ethics and truths, rather than on the government and its effect on the public. Socrates believes without question that the government as superior force knows what it is doing and that its decisions should be accepted without question. Individually he cannot handle the shame of forsaking this belief. His focus is also on his followers, to whom he has preached a certain set of values. These values are seen as unchanging and inflexible, as are the rules of government.
While it is admirable that Socrates held to his individual values in order to set a good example for his followers, I do not believe that this individualistic point-of-view is applicable to politics today. Today's politics focus on equality and the fact that the government, like other human beings, makes mistakes. The law is no longer seen as unchangeable. Instead, there is a democracy that ensures all citizens of a voice and a vote. Socrates takes a passive point-of-view. Today's focus is on active protest whenever it is felt that the government is in error. Furthermore, the philosopher focuses on his own individual sense of justice and honor. Today's political views focus rather on the well-being of the nation as a whole. Thus, when any kind of oppression takes place, many citizens feel that it is their responsibility to protest.
This is the situation with the war in Iraq. Many citizens feel that this war is instigated with a hidden agenda behind the "war against terrorism" ideal. There have therefore been many protests against this war and against the government and its actions. This protest stems from a concern for the well-being of innocent citizens perishing at the hands of politicians and their army. Many cannot in good conscience allow this to continue without protesting against it.
In terms of Socrates, his conscience inspired him to non-action. Today's citizens are inspired to action by their conscience. This is also true of Martin Luther King, whose view of the government focuses on the suffering he has witnessed at their hands. He has inspired many towards protest, but in a non-violent manner. In contrast to Socrates, King believes that the government does not know best, and that the laws of the country are not always in the best interest of her citizens. Socrates' point regarding this is that there are other options open to the citizens of Athens -- if they do not agree with the laws of Athens, they were free to move to a city with better laws. This option is not open to the African-Americans of King's time. They are the offspring of African abductees and thus do not have the means of escape. The only other option open to them is protest.
Nonetheless, like Socrates, King continues to show the utmost respect for the government and its officials. This stems from lessons from history, that violent action breeds more violence rather than change. Peaceful protests, with a demonstration of respect for the opponent, are much more effective in King's view.
The situation in Iraq shows the American government to have little respect either for their fellow statesmen or for citizens of foreign countries. This is another reason why American citizens have a responsibility to protest. While the government has shown its disrespect for others, however, it is not necessary to do the same in civil action. Instead, certain legal channels (for example by means of voting, reporting, or petitions) can be followed in order to show civil disagreement. Following legal channels shows respect for the government, and according to King's view, will result in less resistance from the governing body.
According to King, it is not wrong to disagree with the government. This contrasts sharply with Aristotle's view, asserting that the government in all cases knows best and should be viewed as a parent figure. The situation in King's United States however is different -- a certain sector of society was treated unjustly, and this is worthy of protest. I tend to lean towards King's view, that the public should take responsibility for what is perceived as immoral or incorrect actions by the government.
Henry David Thoreau also supports the view that civil disobedience and revolution are essential when the government is perceived as inefficient. Thoreau's philosophy is the furthest removed from Socrates', who feels that governments are essential to keep order and peace. Thoreau on the other hand feels that often, governments are completely unnecessary, although this is sometimes not the case. This philosopher thus promotes a type of government that mostly does not govern at all, and intervenes only when absolutely necessary.
Furthermore Thoreau is of the view that the American people has enough character within themselves to have accomplished the country as it was during his time. The government often tends to take credit for the way a country has grown and developed. Instead, Thoreau calls for a greater focus on the contribution of citizens. This also contrasts with Socrates' view, that anarchy will inevitably result with the absence of a governing body.
According to Thoreau it is the responsibility of citizens to reveal their requirements of a government through actions such as voting. If this responsibility is taken, it is the right and the duty of citizens to protest and disobey when a government does not adhere to their requirements. Thoreau uses the words "tyranny" and "inefficiency" to describe possible paradigms against which citizens must take the responsibility to protest.
In terms of the war in Iraq, it appears that the government is indeed tyrannical and inefficient. Citizens can therefore not in good conscience let the matter rest unprotested. It is indeed the responsibility of citizens to protest the actions of its government. Not protesting would imply agreement with the tyranny of the government. This tyranny indeed does not only extend to Iraq, but also to American citizens themselves. Muslims and Arabs for example have been singled out for unannounced searches and detainment without explanation or the chance of escape. Furthermore many of the freedoms enjoyed and promised since the inception of the American constitution have been removed as a result of the "war." The respect of the American people for their government has steadily deteriorated as the war is progressing. The American people should thus take responsibility not only to protest the negative, but also to assert what positive actions could be taken to provide a better country to live in.
All three philosophers above mention the issue of ethics. For Socrates, ethics relate to viewing the government as superior parent figure. Ethically, he cannot in his old age protest the decision of a government that he has honored throughout his life, even if this means his own death. Martin Luther King however cannot from his view of ethics let a certain sector of society go on suffering at the hands of an elitist government. For Thoreau, ethics means the same as for King. When injustice occurs, it is not enough to protest only with words but agree with passivity. Thoreau stresses the responsibility of…