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Philosophy 302: Ethics
The Ethics of Socrates 

Abstract: The ethics of Socrates is briefly outlined.

  1. Socrates' Life (469-399 BC): Several features of Socrates' life give some insight into his ethics.

    1. As a young man in battle, he distinguished himself for bravery several times.

    2. Socrates exhibited a "daimon" (his genuis or demon)--a sign or inner voice which issued prohibitory messages in periods of dazes (suggestive of epilepsy).

    3. 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.

    4. 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.

      1. Socrates considered himself a gadfly annoying the state.

      2. The "Socratic irony"--the profession of ignorance was probably sincere but exaggerated because of his presumptions..

      3. Socrates irreverent cross-examination of prominent persons aimed not to humiliate but to discover truth with a view to finding the good life.

    5. The great example of the trial and death of Socrates demonstrated, as well, the agreement between his character and his philosophy.

      1. 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.

      2. Socrates refused to leave Athens, although he could have escaped: (1) escape 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 of law.

      3. 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.

  2. Socrates was predominantly interested in ethics.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. What one truly knows is the dictates of one's conscience or soul:  the philosophy of the Socratic Paradox.

  3. Socrates' ethical intellectualism has an eudaemological character.

    1. Socrates presupposed reason was the way to the good life.

      1. Our true happiness is promoted by doing what is right.

      2. When your true utility is served (tending your soul), you are achieving happiness. Happiness is evident from the long-term effect on the soul.

      3. 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.

    2. The Socratic Paradox: People act immorally, but they do not do so deliberately.

      1. Everyone seeks what is most serviceable to oneself or what is in one's own self-interest.

      2. 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.)

      3. 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).

      4. If one acts with knowledge then one will obtain that which is serviceable to oneself or that which is in ones self-interest.

      5. Thus, for Socrates…
        • knowledge = [def.] virtue, good, arete
        • ignorance = [def.] bad, evil, not useful

      6. Since no one knowingly harms himself, if harm comes to that person, then that person must have acted in ignorance.

      7. 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.

      8. 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.

    3. No one chooses evil or chooses to act in ignorance.

      1. We seek the good, but fail to achieve it by ignorance or lack of knowledge as to how to obtain it.

      2. No one would harm themselves. When harm comes to us, we thought we were seeking the good, but we lacked knowledge.

      3. Aristotle's criticism: an individual might know what is best, yet still do what's wrong.

    4. Socrates' influence extended to almost all areas of the history of ethics in the West.
Socratic Ethics
Platonism Hedonism Cynicism Stoicism
teleological
character
Aristippus
Epicurus
Diogenes Zeno of Citium
Epictetus
Marcus Aurelius
"the good" happiness the example
of Socrates
emotional
independence;
self-knowledge

IV. Objections to the Socratic Ethics

  1. 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.

  2. 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 they don't.

  3. 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.

  4. 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."

  5. Freud's disclosure of the unconscious indicates that reasoning is rationalization.

Recommended Sources

Plato's ApologyLecture notes on the trial of Socrates are given in Introduction to Philosophy. 

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