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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 insight into his ethics.

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

    2. 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).

    3. 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.

    4. 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.

      1. Socrates considered himself a gadfly annoying the state.

      2. “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.

    5. The great example of the trial and death of Socrates demonstrates the close connection between his character and his philosophy.

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

      3. 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.”[1]

  2. During his life Socrates was predominantly interested in ethics.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

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

  3. Socrates' ethical intellectualism has an eudaemological character.

    1. Socrates presupposes reason is essential for the good life.

      1. One's true happiness is promoted by doing what is right.

      2. 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.

      3. 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.

    2. Socrates states no one chooses evil; no one 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 what is good.

      2. 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.

      3. 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.

    3. 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.
Socratic Ethics
Platonism Hedonism Cynicism Stoicism
Diogenes Zeno of Citium
Marcus Aurelius
"the good" happiness the example
of Socrates

IV. Some proposed objections to the Socratic Ethics are as follows.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 do.”[2]

  5. 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 mind.”[3]


  • 1. Plato, “Socrates' Defense (Apology)” trans. Hugh Tredennick in Plato: The Collected Dialogues ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 14.

  • 2. Romans 7:19 Revised Standard Version

  • 3. Margaret A. Goden, “Freudian Mechanisms of Defence,” in Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays ed. Richard Wolheim (Garden City: Doubleday, 1974), 247.

Recommended Sources

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

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