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
insight into his ethics.
- As a young man in battle, he distinguished himself for
bravery several times.
- Socrates exhibited a “daimonion” — a divine
sign or inner voice which issued prohibitory messages in periods
of Socratic spells (which some writers find suggestive of epilepsy).
- The Delphic Oracle states, “There is no person living
wiser than Socrates.” Socrates interprets this
statement as indicating any such purported wisdom is simply
his own knowledge that he was not wise.
- His persistent questioning of authorities and public figures is
probably intended not to humiliate them, but instead to bring to light
truth which might elucidate a view of the good life.
- Socrates considered himself a gadfly annoying the state.
- “Socratic irony” — Socrates' profession of
ignorance when he interviews others is probably sincere in a sense
but appears to be much exaggerated in light of his leading questions
which often shape the path of dialectical inquiry.
- The great example of the trial and death of Socrates demonstrates
the close connection between his character and his philosophy.
- Among other accusations, Socrates is 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 refuses avoid his death by leaving Athens, although
he could flee, but such an escape would be contrary to his moral
principles and would be an injustice to the state which was his
parent, his education, and the origin of law.
- Ultimately, Socrates' decision not to flee is based on the following
principle of action expressed in Plato's 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.”
- During his life Socrates was predominantly interested in ethics.
- Self-knowledge is a sufficient condition to the good life. Socrates
identifies knowledge with virtue. If knowledge can be learned,
so can virtue. Thus, Socrates states virtue can be taught.
- He believes “the unexamined life is not worth living.” One
must seek knowledge and wisdom before private interests. In this manner,
knowledge is sought as a means to ethical action.
- What one truly knows is the dictates of one's conscience or
soul: these ideas form the philosophy of the Socratic Paradox.
- Socrates' ethical intellectualism has an eudaemological
- Socrates presupposes reason is essential for the good life.
- One's true happiness is promoted by doing what is right.
- When your true utility is served (by tending your soul), you
are achieving happiness. Happiness is evident only in terms of
a long-term effect on the soul.
- The Socratic ethics has a teleological
character — consequently, a mechanistic explanation of
human behavior is mistaken. Human action aims toward the good in
accordance with purpose in nature.
- Socrates states no one chooses evil; no one 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 what is good.
- He believes no one would intentionally harm themselves. When harm
comes to us, although we thought we were seeking the good, the good
is not obtained in such a case since we lacked knowledge as to how
best to achieve the good.
- Aristotle's criticism of Socrates belief that no one intentionally
harms oneself is that an individual might know what is best, and yet
still fail to act rightly.
- Socrates' influence extends to many different subsequent ethical
theories in the Western World. Some specific aspects of Socrates' ethical
influence is shown in the following chart.
||Zeno of Citium
IV. Some proposed objections to the Socratic Ethics are as follows.
- If evil were never done deliberately or voluntarily, then evil
would be an involuntary act and consequently no one could
properly be held responsible for the evil that is done.
- Since, on Socrates' view, 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 many times people do not.
- If moral laws were objective and independent of feelings, and if
knowledge were to be identified with virtue, then it would seem to
follow that moral problems are always capable of rational resolution.
But often they are not.
- Psychiatric evidence shows sometimes people behave in an entirely
self-damning manner. For example, St. Paul said, “For I do not
do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I
- If Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytical theory is correct, we are often
unaware of rationalizing unethical actions in order to maintain our
self-respect. That is, this kind of defense mechanism leads to
self-deceptive. With respect to Freud's definition, Margaret
Boden points out, “Insofar as defence mechanisms are employed
by normal, neurotic, and psychotic personalities, they may be regarded
as universal features of the human
Lecture notes on the
trial of Socrates are given in Introduction to Philosophy.