Socrates: His Ethical Philosophy


Introduction: Prior to Socrates, ancient philosophy tended to focus on questions that today might be considered the domain of physics. ‘Pre-Socratic’ philosophers tended to focus on fundamental questions about the nature of the universe – like the building blocks of matter or the nature of time and motion.

Socrates came along and elevated a completely different set of questions for philosophical deliberation. He drew attention away from questions about how the world is and towards questions about how we are to be in the world.

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.

Socrates’ ethical intellectualism has an eudaemological character.

  1. Socrates presupposes reason is essential for the good life: Socrates argues for the view that all of the virtues—justice, wisdom, courage, piety, and so forth—are one.  He provides a number of arguments for this thesis.  For example, while it is typical to think that one can be wise without being temperate, Socrates rejects this possibility on the grounds that wisdom and temperance both have the same opposite: folly.  Were they truly distinct, they would each have their own opposites.  As it stands, the identity of their opposites indicates that one cannot possess wisdom without temperance and vice versa.

This thesis is sometimes paired with another Socratic, view, that is, that virtue is a form of knowledge. Things like beauty, strength, and health benefit human beings, but can also harm them if they are not accompanied by knowledge or wisdom.  If virtue is to be beneficial it must be knowledge, since all the qualities of the soul are in themselves neither beneficial not harmful, but are only beneficial when accompanied by wisdom and harmful when accompanied by folly.

2. All Desire is for the Good: One of the premises of the argument just mentioned is that human beings only desire the good.  When a person does something for the sake of something else, it is always the thing for the sake of which he is acting that he wants.  All bad things or intermediate things are done not for themselves but for the sake of something else that is good.  When a tyrant puts someone to death, for instance, he does this because he thinks it is beneficial in some way.  Hence his action is directed towards the good because this is what he truly wants.

Those that desire bad things do not know that they are truly bad; otherwise, they would not desire them.  They do not naturally desire what is bad but rather desire those things that they believe to be good but that are in fact bad.  They desire good things even though they lack knowledge of what is actually good.

3. Socrates states no one chooses evil; no one chooses to act in ignorance.

  • We seek the good, but fail to achieve it by ignorance or lack of knowledge as to how to obtain what is good.
  • 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.
  • 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.

4. “It is Better to Suffer an Injustice Than to Commit One”: This argument must be understood in terms of the Socratic emphasis on the care of the soul.  Committing an injustice corrupts one’s soul, and therefore committing injustice is the worst thing a person can do to himself.  If one commits injustice, Socrates goes so far as to claim that it is better to seek punishment than avoid it on the grounds that the punishment will purge or purify the soul of its corruption.

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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Ultimately, Socrates’ decision not to flee is based on the following principle of action expressed in Plato’s Apology:

“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.”

Objections to the Socratic Ethics:

  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.