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Socrates: 'no-one ever does wrong knowingly'


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Socrates: 'no-one ever does wrong knowingly'
Date: 28 January 2004 10:51

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your e-mail of 17 January, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''No-one ever does wrong knowingly.' - why is this a paradox? Explain the philosophical problem of weakness of will.'

There is much here that I agree with. The clash, or 'paradox' arises when we try to apply our ordinary, folk psychological notion of ethical 'knowledge' to the Socratic doctrine of the identity of knowledge and virtue. Yet the sheer inconclusiveness of many of the Socratic dialogues leads us to the conclusion that, maybe, true ethical *knowledge* is very difficult, if not impossible to obtain. If you *really* knew, then action would necessarily follow. But most of the time, we simply do not know - we merely believe with more or less conviction.

That shows a way to get Socrates off the hook. However, we face this problem too. Indeed, to the extent that ethical knowledge is made easier, more accessible, the Socratic paradox bites all the harder. This is a surprising upshot of the rejection of the 'absolutist', 'holy grail' picture.

The point needs to be made that we have not simply adopted the Socratic view out of choice. That right action follows from knowledge is logically implied in the rejection of subjectivism. Knowing what I morally ought to do, I do not require a further (subjective) motive to do 'what I know is right'. If I did require a further motive, then the claim that ethical knowledge was 'objective' would be empty.

One needs to look more closely at cases (like that of McNaughton which you cite) where one would say that the defendant 'did not know right from wrong'. I don't know the details of this particular case. Let's suppose I went to 10 Downing Street to kill Tony Blair. Here are some 'reasons' why I might do this:

(a) I hate Tony Blair and I do not see any reason why I should not kill people I hate.

(b) Michael Howard ordered me to kill Blair, and Howard must be obeyed.

(c) Tony Blair is already dead (killed by aliens) and has been replaced by a Tony Blair simulacrum which is plotting the destruction of the world.

(d) Tony Blair deserves to be killed because he sent my boy to Iraq where my boy died.

Only (a) looks like a clear case where the agent 'does not know right from wrong'. Case (b) also involves delusional thinking, which need not involve entirely losing one's sense of right and wrong. 'I know it's wrong' (as Lieutenant Calley said about murdering the Vietnamese villagers) 'but I have been ordered to do it, so I'm not the one responsible'. Case (c) might make a good plot for a science fiction film. We can conceive of circumstances - admittedly far fetched - which would lead a perfectly sane person to do such an act in order to save the world. Case (d) could - just conceivably - be the action of a sane person, driven to an extremity by grief.

You make a good point when you say, 'Perhaps, there is some risk in portraying ourselves as reasoning machines that clank and sputter, sometimes working well and sometimes not...' We are not reasoning machines because reasoning is something we *do*, a human action, rather than a process that happens. It is not necessary to embrace a Kantian metaphysical split between the material world of cause and effect and the noumenal realm of freedom, in order to hold onto the idea that there exists an essential difference between the personal and sub-personal perspectives. The human world is the world where we engage in interpersonal dialogue. The material world is the world where we do things, in order to make other things happen. (As when, for example, the clinician decides whether talk, or giving drugs, is the best way to 'deal' with a patient.)

This gives the clue to how emotion (as displayed in Socrates speech before the judges) might be involved in reasoning. You can reason responsibly, or irresponsibly. Reasoning can be courageous or cowardly. This is not knowledge processing but responsible action. We are responsible for the way we think just as much as the way we act.

I don't want to push this too far. Of course, belief is fundamentally different from choice or action precisely because it is not voluntary. When the facts impress themselves on us in the particular way which leads to belief, we 'have no choice' but to believe. The mother who refuses to believe that her son is dead in the face of all the evidence is responding in a way which we would describe as 'irrational' - a response which we can perfectly well *understand* nonetheless. It remains the case that it is a matter of responsible human action how we strive to put ourselves in a position to acquire beliefs about the world.

All the best,