Philosophy 302: Ethics
The Ethics of Socrates
Abstract: The ethics of Socrates is briefly
- Socrates' Life (469-399 BC): Several features of Socrates' life give
some insight into his ethics.
- As a young man in battle, he distinguished himself for bravery several times.
- Socrates exhibited a "daimon" (his genuis or demon)--a sign or inner voice
which issued prohibitory messages in periods of dazes (suggestive of epilepsy).
- The Delphic Oracle: "There is no person living wiser than Socrates." Socrates
interpreted this response as indicating his purported wisdom was simply that
he knew he was not wise.
- His persistent questioning of authorities and public figures was probably aimed
not to humiliate but to discover truth with a view to the good life.
- Socrates considered himself a gadfly annoying the state.
- The "Socratic irony"--the profession of ignorance was probably
sincere but exaggerated because of his presumptions..
- Socrates irreverent cross-examination of prominent persons aimed not
to humiliate but to discover truth with a view to finding the good
- The great example of the trial and death of Socrates demonstrated, as well, the
agreement between his character and his philosophy.
- Socrates was found guilty of impiety (not worshipping the gods the state
worships), corruption of the youth (infusing into the young persons
the spirit of criticism of Athenian society), among other accusations.
- Socrates refused to leave Athens, although he could have escaped:
would have been contrary to his moral principles and (2) escape would have
been an injustice to the state which was his parent, education, and origin
- Apology [28B]: "You are mistaken my friend, if you think that a man
who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects
of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any
action--that is, whether he is acting right or wrongly, like a good man
or a bad one" trans. Hugh Tredennick.
- Socrates was predominantly interested in ethics.
- Self-knowledge is the sufficient condition to the good life. He
identified knowledge with virtue. If knowledge can be learned,
so can virtue. Thus, virtue can be taught.
- The unexamined life is not worth living. One must seek knowledge and wisdom before
private interests. Knowledge is sought as a means
to ethical action.
- What one truly knows is the dictates of one's conscience or
soul: the philosophy of the Socratic
- Socrates' ethical intellectualism has an eudaemological
- Socrates presupposed reason was the way to the good life.
- Our true happiness is promoted by doing what is right.
- When your true utility is served (tending your soul), you are achieving
happiness. Happiness is evident from the long-term effect on the soul.
- The Socratic ethics has a teleological
character -- mechanistic explanation
of human behavior is mistaken. Human action aims toward the good, and
there is purpose in nature.
- The Socratic Paradox: People act immorally, but they do
not do so deliberately.
- Everyone seeks what is most serviceable to oneself or what is
in one's own self-interest.
- If one [practically] knows what is good, one will always
act in such manner as to achieve it. (Otherwise, one does not
know or only knows in a theoretical fashion.)
- If one acts in a manner not conducive to ones
good, then that person must have been mistaken (i.e.,
that person lacks the knowledge of how to obtain what was
serviceable in that instance).
- If one acts with knowledge then one will obtain that
which is serviceable to oneself or that which is in ones
- Thus, for Socrates…
- knowledge = [def.] virtue, good,
- ignorance = [def.] bad, evil, not useful
- Since no one knowingly harms himself, if harm comes to that
person, then that person must have acted in ignorance.
- Consequently, it would seem to follow we are responsible for
what we know or for that matter what we do not know. So, then,
one is responsible for ones own happiness.
- The essential aspect of understanding the Paradox is to
realize that Socrates is referring to the good of the soul in
terms of knowledge and doing what's right—not to
wealth or freedom from physical pain. The latter play no
role in the soul being centered.
- No one chooses evil or chooses to act in ignorance.
- We seek the good, but fail to achieve it by ignorance or lack of
knowledge as to how to obtain it.
- No one would harm themselves. When harm comes to us, we thought we were
seeking the good, but we lacked knowledge.
- Aristotle's criticism: an individual might know what is best, yet still do
- Socrates' influence extended to almost all areas of the history of ethics in the West.
||Zeno of Citium
IV. Objections to the Socratic Ethics
- If evil is never done deliberately or voluntarily, then evil is an involuntary act and no one can
properly be held responsible for the evil that is done.
- Since the good is that which furthers a person's real interests, it
will follow that if the good is known, people will seek it. But
- If moral laws are objective and independent of feelings, and if
knowledge is identified with virtue, then it would seem to follow that
moral problems are always capable of rational resolution. But
they are not.
- Psychiatric evidence is that people behave in an entirely
self-damning manner. St Paul said, "The good that I would
do, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do."
- Freud's disclosure of the unconscious indicates that reasoning is
Apology: Lecture notes on the
trial of Socrates are given in Introduction to Philosophy.