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Socrates on doing wrong knowingly


To: Ruy R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Socrates on doing wrong knowingly
Date: 18th August 2011 14:15

Dear Ruy,

Thank you for your email of 6 August, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Are there good reasons for Socrates' claim that no person commits unjust acts knowingly?'

This is not a bad answer. You do (eventually) cover the main points, even though your initial analysis of the question could be challenged. The result is that the core of the essay -- where you should be getting to grips with the problem of weakness of the will -- is very thin. You don't really say anything to support the claim that, if I do wrong, then that proves that I didn't 'really' know what was the right thing to do.

The point here is that we need to say more, in order to justify the use of the term 'know'. If it is axiomatic that doing wrong proves lack of 'knowledge', then this is a rather uninteresting sense of 'know'. How does one acquire this 'knowledge' (in scare quotes)? Evidently, not simply by learning ethics, or even practicing how to live well, because each and every one of us at some time or other experiences weakness of will. One is left in the dark as to what more needs to be done to give a person the 'right kind of knowledge', knowledge which will never desert them at a time of great threat or temptation.

Your interpretation of the question is not quite correct, in my view. The question asks, 'Are there good reasons...?' This means, can YOU find good reasons, independently of whatever reasons Socrates gave. Perhaps Socrates (and Plato) failed to make the best case. In which event, you are being asked to elaborate, offer additional reasons, perhaps make a stronger case than Socrates made.

You also allude to Socrates' 'motivation' for holding that no person commits unjust acts knowingly. That Socrates was attempting to hold back the tide of relativism and shore up the traditional virtues and values in the face of the teachings of the Sophists, is relevant as background information, but it is not an answer to the question. Socrates may have had the best motivations in the world, but he could still have been in the wrong. We are only concerned with the reasons which could be put forward to support a particular philosophical position. Are there good reasons, or not? Why, or why not?

Having said that, it is relevant to the question that the problem of weakness of the will, and the claim that no-one does wrong knowingly, is associated with an 'objective' view of moral values. Here you could have said more. Hume's argument concerning the gap between facts and values is relevant here. Let's suppose I know some 'fact' about moral values. How is this different from knowing ordinary empirical facts? (''Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger' remarked Hume.)

As Mackie argues in 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong', the 'moral facts' of Plato and Socrates have a special quality not possessed by ordinary empirical facts: when you know the fact in question, you must act accordingly. What 'queer' entities are these? ('queer' is Mackie's term).

Here is the heart of the problem. An objectivist must hold that there is a necessary link between the thing known and appropriate action. How is that possible? Surely, one can always drive a wedge in between a fact or truth, as such, and the actions which we choose to do or not do, as the case may be.

However, I do think that your idea that Socrates is talking about 'techne' rather than 'episteme' is a worthwhile lead to follow.

Episteme of the Forms fails to answer Mackie's 'queerness' objection. I can 'know' the form of Justice, but why must I always be just as a consequence? Why can I not experience the shame and guilt of knowing what I ought to do, and yet failing to find the wherewithal to do it?

With 'techne', on the other hand, we are close to Aristotle's take on this problem. Right action flows from a virtuous disposition, a form of practical knowledge. This is knowledge that the merely 'continent' man (the man who has the wrong urges but succeeds in suppressing them) lacks. Here, it does look more plausible (contrary to what I said above) that failure to do the right thing 'proves' lack of knowledge.

Incidentally, I don't think that a lot hangs on the choice of 'just' rather than 'good' or 'virtuous'. The question isn't about Plato's account of justice, as such, although the argument in the Republic certainly illustrates (as you show) how Plato thought of the nature of our 'knowledge' of justice.

All the best,