Socrates’ view that moral truth is personal

Brett asked:

Socrates thinks that the moral truth is personal. What does he mean by that, and how do we arrive at that truth?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

The way Socrates arrived at the moral truth was by a conversational method which we call dialectics. In other words he asked questions of his conversation partner such as: ‘What is virtue’? When his partner answers, he would then ask another question about the answer. Then he would ask more questions, and very often at the end of the dialogue the other fellow was forced to admit that he did not know the answer to the first question. He merely assumed he did, or took the conventional point of view. Socrates invented this kind of dialectic, which is why it is called the Socratic method.

By itself this questions and answer game would not lead anywhere. One of the reasons the Athenians disliked Socrates so much is because he was showing up their ignorance. In reality there is a truth finding method right in front of their nose. It consist of this: Socrates will usually draw on examples from different ways of life. For example, let’s say we want to know what is good. Socrates would ask, if a ship’s captain runs his ship on to a beach and causes lots of damage, is that good or bad? If a cobbler makes my shoes too small is that good or bad? If a baker leaves dead flies in the bread is that good or bad? Each of these people know their responsibilities perfectly well and therefore what is good or bad practice in their profession. Because of this, Socrates adopted the point of view that knowing what is good will lead to these people doing the right thing. So in this limited sense they have knowledge of the good. Now you can continue this list of examples across the whole of society. In every situation people know what is good and behave accordingly.

The trouble is too often they don’t. In those cases, Socrates would say they are driven by motives of doing good for themselves but end up doing bad things for everyone else. Socrates would say, this is based in a confusion about what is good for them. Therefore any behavior that is not good actually reveals that person’s confusion, which is ignorance. You can see the drift of it, which is that you will quickly make an inference from all those cases that it is better to do good than do bad. We call this inference from induction. Usually induction deals with particular examples which all add up to some common feature. In this case Socrates would make the point that it is always better to do good than bad.

From this basis Socrates came to understand that people who do bad things cannot have made this kind of inference and therefore they are ignorant. So the important thing is to draw their attention to it and show them that this is the way to acquire knowledge.

And this is how he established the dialectical method in order to educate Athenians, for the purpose of their self-development and truthfulness.

However, Socrates did not think he knew the answers to all questions. But he saw that no-one else knew them either and so his questions where open to debate for all people. Socrates persisted with his questioning in the market place and the street because he wanted to jolt the Athenians into examining themselves and their lives. Socrates maintained that to live an examined life is a good life because it is in accordance with virtues.

In effect Socrates was the founder of moral philosophy. Except he wanted to give this philosophy to the people to become good citizens.

Socrates believed that if an individual has good moral standards, he would then put it into practice and be a good citizen. What he means by this is that once we discover these moral virtues we can put them to good use and perform actions for the benefit of all society.

The conclusion of all this is that moral truth is not an abstract concept, not something for philosophers to debate in a social vacuum. Moral truth is personal, because it affects society for good and for ill. Most importantly moral truth is carried into society by every individual. So if a society wishes to be a moral institution, it can only be so if every citizen is aware of and acts on their knowledge of the moral good.

5 thoughts on “Socrates’ view that moral truth is personal

  1. Then in that case the moral good consists of seven duties: beneficence, non-maleficence, gratitude, justice, self-improvement, reparation and promise-keeping, and self-interest, because the only good is motivated by self-interest.

  2. When you say “truth is relative” you are stating an absolute. There can be no reality without absolutes.

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