|Short Lectures on Ethics – David Keller
Ethics in Action: Socrates Imprisoned
My name is David Keller. In the last lecture we defined ethics as the philosophical study of morality, and morality is the propensity in human nature of making moral judgments about how best to live one’s life. The making of moral judgments includes judging the character of yourself and others, as well as actions of yourself and others. Now last time we decided there are many different ways of making moral judgments. You can flip a coin, you can go for mystical experience, you can defer to precepts of religion, or you can use the tools of reason. Using the tools of reason is the method of ethics. Now the focus of this series of short lectures on ethics is the Western intellectual tradition. Before we move on and define ethics in greater detail, let’s get clear in our minds what we mean by the Western tradition. The Western tradition is that cultural tradition stemming back to the Hebrews and the Greeks, each representing faith on one hand and reason on the other. These two great traditions came together in the Roman Empire and Roman culture which laid the groundwork for the rise of Christianity and European civilization and its offshoots. So the focus of our attention here today is the Western intellectual tradition, and how the Western tradition has employed the use of the tools of reason to make moral judgments. And that is ethics.
If we say that making moral judgments using the tools of reason and rationality is ethics, we need to understand in greater detail what it means to be rational. What does it mean to be reasonable? I offer to you four criteria. The first criterion for rationality is comprehensiveness. For a theory to meet the criterion of rationality, it should include all of the relevant information, or at least not exclude anything obvious. For example, a theory that claimed that all sentient life is morally valuable, but failed to make any mention of non-human animals, those animals such as primates and mammals that appear to be sentient, could not be considered a comprehensive theory, because it makes claims about sentience but excludes critical considerations about sentient life. Such a theory would not be considered comprehensive, and hence not rational.
Secondly, theories which are considered to be rational should be coherent. The theory must link all related concepts into a unified whole in a systematic and integrated way. For example, if you were to give me an argument about gun rights using an intermixture of constitutional law and astrology, I would not consider your theory to be coherent, because astrology and constitutional law cannot be integrated into a unified whole, a unified theory. Your theory would fall short of the criterion of coherence.
Thirdly, theories that are rational should be consistent. That is, they should not be logically contradictory. For example, an argument that claimed that all human life, including potential human life, is intrinsically valuable, and that therefore women who have abortions should receive the death penalty, could not be considered consistent. That theory would be logically contradictory. That argument was made in a class of mine, incidentally. It is not one that I made up. It is logically contradictory, because it holds human life to be valuable, but then denigrates human life by upholding the death penalty in an inconsistent way.
Fourthly, rational theories should be adequate. That is, they should be supported by empirical evidence. They should connect to the world somehow. They should not just be abstract conceptual systems, but have connection with the world we live in and the world we see in our everyday lives. For example, the claim that preemptive war is prudent foreign policy ought to provide some concrete examples of how this policy is more adequate than détente, and how détente has failed in ways in which preemptive war succeeds. In other words, to be convinced by a hypothesis, all of us want some concrete evidence to back it up. And that is captured by the criterion of adequacy.
Now, I have argued that we all make moral judgments, and that ethics is that method which employs the tools of reason as I have captured here with the four criteria. I would like to provide you now with an example of ethics in action in the person of Socrates. Socrates, at least depicted by Plato, is an exemplar in reasoning logically about moral problems and arriving at conclusions which guide his actions. Socrates accomplished this in two ways. First, he made himself the object of rational inquiry. The philosophers before Socrates typically were concerned with the natural world. They wondered about the constitution of nature, what natural processes consisted of. Their attention was generally focused outward at the world—all of them, all of the pre-Socratic philosophers. We call them nature philosophers, in a way. They were metaphysicians. Socrates changed the emphasis of rational inquiry of philosophy by turning the object of inquiry back from the world onto himself. And in this way, he refocused philosophy from the outer world onto himself. That is why we call him the first moral philosopher, the first ethicist of the Western intellectual tradition.
After recounting the trial of Socrates and Socrates’ prosaic defense of himself in a dialogue called the “Apology”—Socrates was brought to trial for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens and inventing divinities of gods on his own. After he was found guilty on those charges and sent to prison to await his death sentence, Plato pictures Socrates wondering whether he should escape, whether he should take the advice of his good friend, Crito, and flee Athens. In this dialogue, the “Crito,” Plato gives us an excellent example of ethics in action, of how one can make moral judgments using the tools of reason which meet the four criteria that I have just outlined. In the “Crito,” Socrates is in prison. It is before dawn. Crito comes to Socrates, pleading with him to escape, because on that very day, he will be put to death. He will be forced to drink the hemlock. Crito gives, in an emotional outpouring, many different reasons why Socrates should escape. Socrates will be harming himself by playing into the hands of his enemies, making his enemies victorious. Socrates will be deserting his own sons, and hence be a poor father. It would be more courageous and manly to escape. Crito and others will lose a friend if Socrates is put to death. And most prominently, there will be adverse public opinion. The people of Athens will assume that Crito and others were too cheap to bribe the guards and facilitate Socrates’ escape, and they will be labeled lousy friends.
In his response to Crito, Socrates says, you are my good friend, Crito. I appreciate your concern, but in questions of ethics. In questions of moral judgment, one ought to reason through the situation carefully and not act on gut emotion or gut instinct. And so Socrates, first and foremost, decides whether it is ok in situations of ethics, in moral situations, to react to public opinion, to what others think. Socrates gives an argument which briefly is this. He says to Crito that an athlete in training, an athlete preparing for the Olympics, could either take the advice of the masses, of all one’s friends and all one’s family, or the advice of a very small number of people, or perhaps only one person, the expert, the coach. Socrates asks Crito if you are and athlete in training, do you take the advice of the many, or the advice of the few, the experts. The conclusion is that it is better to take the advice of the expert, the coach, because taking the advice of the many, the friends and the family, and everyone else that is very supportive of you getting to the Olympics, might result in damaging you body. Your friends and family might give you the advice to train eight hours a day, and run, and swim, and do pushups, and gymnastics, and all kinds of stuff, which might result in damaging y our body—pulling a ligament, straining a muscle, damaging cartilage or something. Where as a coach is an expert in the field of athletic training and knows that you need to train in a systematic and methodical way to achieve your full potential. The conclusion of this argument is that an athlete in training should listen to the advice of the expert, not the non-expert or the masses. I forgot one critical thing. Socrates draws an analogy between the body and the soul. And Socrates says that questions of ethics are just like an athlete in training, except for what is in question is the health of the soul, not the health of the body. And just as we as athletes in training want to listen the experts and not the masses, in questions of ethics, which affect the health of our soul, we also need to listen to the experts, not the masses. And the question of escape from prison, repudiating the verdict of the jury, is a moral question. It is a moral issue. The outcome of making the right or wrong decision could be damaging the soul or helping the soul.
So since Socrates should not listen to the advice of the masses, and he therefore rejects Crito’s notion that adverse public opinion in this situation has any relevance at all, the question becomes who is the expert in ethics? Who should Socrates go to to decide whether he should escape from prison or stay in prison, face his death sentence, and die? Socrates initially got himself into trouble by engaging in conversation in the public marketplace with some of the most powerful and prominent people of Athens on questions of ethics, piety, courage, beauty, truth, and so on. And he concluded that many of the people who claimed to have knowledge of these things really didn’t, and that in questions of ethics, there was no one in Athens that really was more wise that he was, because he at least was wise in his own ignorance. Therefore Socrates is the expert in ethics, if there is one. So there is no one that he can go to and ask what the right thing to do in this situation is. He has to figure it out for himself. So he says to Crito, “Crito, I appreciate your concern, but here we cannot defer to the opinion of the masses. We, you and I, have to reason through this ourselves. We need to figure out what the right thing for me to do is. I cannot just react unthinkingly to the opinion of the masses. I have to figure out what to do myself.” The then turns to Crito and says, “Crito, you and I have been engaged in conversations for many years, and in all these conversations we have arrived at two conclusions. They are that one ought to never do harm, and one ought to abide by one’s agreements, provided they are just.” And Socrates looks to Crito and says, “Given the fact that these have been our two paramount conclusions over innumerable conversations over many years, it is obvious what I should do.” And Crito says, “I am upset, Socrates. It is not clear in my mind. I am not sure what you are getting at.”
So Socrates, to make it more clear to Crito, gives us what is known by philosophers as the Speech of the Laws of Athens, where he fleshes out the nuances of these two premises. Building on the fundamental assumptions that one ought to never do harm, and one ought to abide by one’s agreements, provided they are just, Socrates points out through the Speech of the Laws of Athens that Socrates has tacitly agreed to live by the laws of Athens by not leaving. He had the free will to march outside of the city walls and move down to Sparta or any other town city-state in Athens, but he never chose to do that. Socrates, in fact, loved living Athens and chose to stay. So through his actions, he tacitly consented to live by the laws of Athens. Socrates says that in fact he owes his very existence to the laws, because it was under the laws, under the social framework that that laws provided that his parents married, he was educated, and he became a philosopher. And so he owes a lot of his being, his existence, to the laws of Athens by providing the social structure within which he grew up.
Given this, Socrates is within the scope of the law’s authority. And by repudiating the verdict, by ignoring the law, he has the capacity to injure or damage the law by undermining its very authority. What is important to notice here is that Plato is not implying that is it the particular verdict that is in question here, the verdict being corrupting the youth and inventing divinities of one’s own. Rather it is the authority of the laws themselves that is in question. If Socrates by example ignores the verdict, flees Athens, he undermines the authority of the law and possibly damages the social structure within which the laws give order and stability to the civil society of Athens. The laws for Plato provide the very social structure through which the citizens live as moral agents, and so on. So Socrates concludes that if he escapes, he incurs a form of harm which repudiates the first fundamental premise. And he has agreed to live by the laws of Athens by his actions, and by leaving he would repudiate or deny the validity of the second premise that one ought to abide by one’s agreements, provided they are just.
Socrates concludes that he ought not to escape because if he does so, he will go back on his agreement to live by the laws and Athens, and he will harm the social structure of Athens, which concretely might harm his family and his friends. And therefore it is unethical for him to leave Athens, flee his death sentence, as ludicrous as it may be, because he will be incurring harm and going against his agreements. So at the end of the “Crito,” Socrates concludes if I escape, my body will benefit, but my soul will be harmed. I will have done something unethical. I will have repudiated fundamental moral principles based on reason, and my soul, my moral integrity, my very being, my humanness, will suffer. If I stay and face my death sentence, my body will be harmed, I will die, but my soul will remain intact with full integrity, and I will have done the right thing. I will have done the ethical thing. And so Socrates, because the soul is more important to the body in terms of what it means to be human, it is much more important to benefit the soul than to benefit the body. The conclusion is obvious in Socrates’ mind. As absurd as the verdict was, and as absurd as the court trial was, as recounted in the “Apology”, nonetheless, Socrates ought not to escape.
Now I claimed that Socrates as depicted by Plato in the “Crito” represents ethics in action. That is, using the tools of reason and rationality as applied to moral problems. Let’s go through quickly each one of my four criteria and see how this is so. Socrates demonstrates ethics in action because his reasoning is comprehensive. He carefully and methodically catalogues and itemizes the various kinds of harms that can be done by his alternative actions, to his soul, to his body, to his friends, to his family, to the laws, to the social structure. His reasoning is impressively comprehensive and sweeping. He doesn’t seem to leave any relevant information out, given the situation at hand.
Secondly, his reasoning is coherent. The parts of his argument are all connected by the theme of harm and upholding one’s promises. So the parts of the argument hang together. They cohere into a unified and integrated whole.
Thirdly, his reasoning is consistent. In fact, consistency is the backbone of the argument in the “Crito,” and it is the thing that makes it so impressive. He has promised to live according to the laws of Athens. He will harm the body if he stays and faces his death sentence, but he will not harm his soul. And he addresses the necessity of accepting the verdict, dubious as it is, because it is the authority of the laws that are in question, not the verdict itself. So his reasoning is consistent throughout, leading to a conclusion that we may not suspect, but nonetheless, he lives by his actions. He is consistent.
Lastly, his reasoning is adequate. It addresses the concrete outcomes of alternative actions and varying degrees of harm to the city-state, the social structure, to his friends, his family, and himself. And so he addresses every empirical concrete factor that seems to be relevant to the situation at hand.
If you are like me, at first reading of the Crito, you react that Socrates was wrong, that he should escape, given the ludicrous nature of the charges. But upon careful analysis, and a careful reading of the “Crito,” and a careful consideration of the line of argumentation, we see the brilliance of his reasoning. In this way, Socrates epitomizes the philosophical approach to the study of morality that is ethics. Next time, in lecture three, we will turn to different kinds of ethical theories in the Western intellectual tradition and distinguish between what philosophers call normative ethics, that is the actual ethical theories themselves, and metaethics, which are questions about those ethical theories. Thank you.