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Socrates on doing wrong knowingly (revisited)


To: Ruy R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Socrates on doing wrong knowingly (revisited)
Date: 7th September 2011 13:23

Dear Ruy,

Thank you for your email of 28 August, with your second attempt an essay in response to the question from the University of London BA Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, 'Are there good reasons for Socrates' claim that no person commits unjust acts knowingly?'

It is a good question to ask, whether 'No person commits unjust acts knowingly' entails, or is entailed by 'Weakness of the will is impossible' (not quite the same as 'lack of will', a terminological point), and similarly for the proposition, 'Virtue is knowledge.' You also raise a good point when you consider the possibility of a range of cases of weakness of will which are not concerned with ethics but rather with prudence (what you term the 'individualist perspective').

Let's start with this. As it happens, the second unit of the Pathways Moral Philosophy program looks at the problem of weakness of will in the case of prudential reasoning, before moving on to consider the consequences for our view of moral knowledge. There is some advantage in doing this, because it avoids all those questions about what 'queer' objects (Mackie) moral values might be and how knowledge of these objects necessarily entails right action.

As you observe, we all experience weakness of will. I know that I will be sorry that I didn't heed my doctor's orders, but right now all I want is a stiff drink and to hell with the consequences. Is it plausible that when I sip my third glass of single malt whisky, the knowledge of the irreparable damage it is doing to my liver somehow becomes questionable, merely a view which someone (my doctor) holds but not one that convinces me?

Human beings are like this. You can know a thing but not really *know* it, if you allow your focus to wander, or allow yourself to entertain doubts, however fanciful in the light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is not enough merely to 'know', you have to *focus* on the knowledge, take it to heart.

These are merely common observations from folk psychology, hardly a philosophical theory. But they lend some support to the Socratic idea that knowing, really knowing that I (prudentially OR morally) 'ought' to do X is sufficient for me to do X. If I didn't do X that was because I didn't really 'know'.

The point of starting with prudential examples is that if you can't make the case that prudential knowledge (e.g. that I ought to ease up on my whisky drinking) is sufficient for action, then there is no hope of making the case when we are dealing with examples of putative moral 'knowledge'.

Leaving that aside, we can look at the controversial argument from 'induction' which Socrates uses: 'The man who knows music is a musician... the man who knows justice is just.' I would not put much weight on this argument. It is a dialectical ploy or move, designed to *raise the question* how it could be that a man who allegedly 'knows' justice might not act justly. An expert lyre player can play the lyre badly, if he chooses, just for fun. You could be clever about this and argue that if he really is an expert then his 'bad playing' is done with great expertise. But it really doesn't help the case for justice. An evil tyrant can 'know' what justice is, can recite Plato's Republic and all the arguments for justice, and yet choose to be unjust. Why not?

Here is where the real reasons for Socrates' claim that no person commits unjust acts knowingly come to the fore. We are imagining an individual who knows, and sees, the damage he does to his own soul by acting unjustly, yet (allegedly) 'chooses' to be unjust despite this. Plato would need to show that this is flatly incoherent. Yet it doesn't seem to be.

Behind this is an issue which you don't mention in your essay, the theory of forms. There is a Form of Justice, which exists as an objective metaphysical fact. If you accept the arguments for the existence of the forms (a big 'if') and also accept that there is such a thing as justice, hence a form of Justice, then... what, exactly?

Moral forms are a special case for Plato. Knowing the form of a Horse enables me to recognize any horse when I see one. Why can't the tyrant say that knowing the form of Justice enables him to recognize any example of justice? This is very useful, e.g. if you want to defend your tyrannical regime by imprisoning or killing all persons who show a tendency towards acting justly. I won't labour this point because I talked about this in my previous email.

I think you would get credit in this essay for showing that you see the difficulty of the problem. Examiners are more impressed by this than they are by confident assertion, for or against.

All the best,