Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Suqraati Ethics (part 1): Moral Responsibility.

The idea that moral harm is a distinctive kind of harm that we can inflict on others or have inflicted on us, is the key insight into the nature of morality of Socrates and Plato. In moral philosophy or ethics, the point is sometimes put by saying that moral goodness and moral harm are sui generis(a kind of their own). The view of morality that takes this point as its fundamental principle is often called Socratic ethics.

There is an episode in Tolstoys novel, Anna Karenina, where Anna flirts with a vain young man named Veslovsky who is visiting her home. She does this, not because she is attracted to Veslovsky, but because she wants to amuse her bored lover, Vronsky, and to show him that she is still attractive to men.

'He is just a boy,' she says of Veslovsky, 'and like wax in my hands...I can do what I like with him.'

Tolstoys's emphasis in this episode falls on the harm that Anna does to herself in misusing her beauty and intelligence; but he also makes it clear that Anna wrongs Veslovsky. Not that Veslovsky suffers any natural harm- he enjoys the flirtation and never discovers Anna's real attitude towards him. No, the wrong Anna does him is that she cynically treats him as a pawn in her relationship with Vronsky. Veslovsky suffers a moral harm rather than a natural one.

Normally, of course, moral harm also involves some kind of natural harm- violent rape involves terrible physical and mental distress; murder involves death. But sometimes we can recognize a moral harm without any accompanying natural harm- and Anna's treatment of Veslosky seems to be a case in point.
However, if Anna were to ask Veslovsky's forgiveness for manipulating him and exploiting his naivety, she would be extending to him a moral good- the good of her honesty and her remorse- rather than any natural good. In fact, Veslovsky might be angered and distressed by her confession of wrongdoing. Socrates' insight also implies that every human being- even foolish ones like Veslovsky- have a profound value that demands our restecpa(heh). Every human being is my moral equal because every human being can be wronged as I can. What the Socratic view assumes is that I am pained or outraged when an innocent person is blamed or punished and moved when one of that individual's accusers acknowledges her innocence and seeks to make ammends for that false accusation.

Socrates' insight implies that morality is groundless. This means that the practice of judging that someone has suffered a moral harm- like being betrayed or benefited by a moral good- like having another refuse to betray them, is just something we human beings do that requires no further justification. The Socratic view is said to be a non-naturalistic view of the nature of morality. 

By contrast, philosophers like Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas ( I like to call them the "frandshippers") claim that morality is grounded in what is naturally good for human beings and what naturally harms them. They think that betraying a friend is wrong because it damages friendship and friendship is one of the basic goods in human life- one of the things that helps us to mature and flourish as human beings. So, unlike Socrates, they hold a naturalistic view of morality; and their view is often called Natural Law Theory.
Vain talk, slander etc is a moral harm according to Socratic ethics, as the business of the moral life involves refraining from doing evil to others or wronging them; and, more positively, the moral life involves respecting others as our moral equals and responding to them accordingly. This will inevitably involve using the rich vocabulary that we have in our language that enables us to charecterize one another in moral terms. I suppose one can call Socrates an early proponent of political correctness.

Socrates went on to claim that the one thing that is essential to a life that is worthy of a human being is precisely the moral virtue he called justice- respecting others as your moral equals and refusing to do them evil or to wrong them.

"It is better to suffer evil", Socrates famously said, "than to do it". But to live up to this principle may require great courage- the kind of courage Socrates himself displayed when he refused the order of the Thirty Tyrants to bring in Leon of Salamis for summary execution even though he risked execution himself.


Louise J. Pojman, How We Should Live?, Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. (Chapters 3 and 4).

B.Williams 'The Truth in Relativism' in Moral Luck, CUP, Cambridge, 1981. (pg 132 - 143).

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