Socrates’ view of applied ethics vs ethical theory

Roger asked:

I am studying Socrates right now and am having trouble with this question. Could you provide some better insight? ‘What is Socrates’ view of the distinction between applied ethics and ethical theory?’

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Before we begin you have to separate the two. Namely that the applied ethics belongs to Socrates, and the theoretical ethics to Plato. This is even though Plato puts them in the mouth of Socrates in his dialogues.

Socrates wrote nothing. He was a commonsense man. He was practical and wandered around the streets of Athens asking questions of everyone, and nearly always they had to do with ethics — with the way we live. He would engage people in conversation for the purpose of educating them (often against their will). He was convinced that one could act only on the basis of truth. Socrates was of the view that truth depends on having the right kind of knowledge. To understand this, and to live by it was second nature to him. But he wished also to inspire others to improve their life by adhering to ethical behaviour.

For Socrates this was the same thing as ‘caring for your soul’ and he put a lot of emphasis on this. He said ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’, and this means you are to nurture your soul for the sake of your personal and social life — obviously in this life, not the next.

If you constantly examine who you are as a moral agent, in relations to others, and your life in the community, you are on the right path. This implies that we must build up personal values and social values in an ethical manner. Socrates himself was the best example of this, he lived an ethical life himself, until the end. He even died in ethical manner.

He taught discipline, because this is how we learn and understand our social responsibilities. He also taught virtues, justice, courage, piety and temperance. We know all of this because Xenophon and Plato wrote about it in their dialogues.

So to conclude with answering the first half of your question: For Socrates there was no theory as such: applied ethics is applied by living an ethical life. There is no other meaning to the term.

Whether or not he actually entertained an ethical theory, I doubt very much. He does not seem to have been a theoretical man at all. We have to be discerning on this issue. Reading Plato, you can easily be seduced by his character portrait into believing that everything he says was actually somehow Socrates’ intellectual property. The real point is rather that Socrates in all likelihood was Plato’s energiser, meaning that he recognised in Plato this depth of thought and craving for knowledge and encouraged it. So when Plato begins to write in a theoretical way, you can be sure it’s his philosophy, often not that of Socrates. In fact, even Plato says that Socrates was the ‘authentic’ philosopher, because he did not write, but talked and got at the truth dialectically.

Plato of course recognised that Socrates was mainly concerned with ethics and politics. Now it is very interesting to observe how Plato changes the whole perspective of his political doctrine after Book I. Book I was an early dialogue; and you will have noticed that none of these offer any conclusion or theoretical model. They are all open ended, leaving the interlocutor to learn and think from the question and answer game. And this is exactly how things work in Book I of the Republic.

To give you an example: the question comes up about justice. Several answers are given by different speakers. One said, justice is to pay your debts; another said ‘might is right’. But Socrates had something simpler in mind, e.g. ‘give each man his due’. This means concede what he owns, what is natural to him and what benefits him. But this is where it ends. No answers, just issues for all to think about.

But from Book II onwards, it will seem that Socrates is expounding his ethical and political theory. Certainly no-one other than Socrates has much to say for the rest of the 300-odd pages. This is not how the living Socrates debated!

However, Plato clearly took up what he learnt from Socrates and developed it. But so as to avoid confusion, I’ll keep saying ‘Socrates’ even in cases where I should really say ‘Plato’.

So to go on from that profoundly ethical dilemma posed by politics: Socrates observes the distinction between individual justice and social justice. The difficulty here is that all the virtues intersect with justice. So Socrates arrives at the idea that a state is a little cosmos, and works best with harmony. Where every individual plays his own role.

If everyone does his best without interfering in another doing his best, then the state will function harmoniously.

So justice is done when in social intercourse, people respect others and co-operate with them. This is why selfishness is bad, and why it is unjust. It is why making debts is unjust. It is why ambition can be unjust.

Therefore justice in a state is seeing when all citizens co-operate harmoniously. So that society functions like an organism.

You can see here that a lot of this has practical implications. By the same token, Plato is also beginning to peel off the layers of applied ethics and introducing concepts (theory) that are more suitable for intellectual debate. You can’t always draw a clear boundary line between them. So let us go on for a moment.

The individual is responsible to play his own role ethically. Therefore, in the eyes of Socrates justice is seen as the benefit of each citizen. And this of course implies that all the other virtue flows into this great social virtue which is justice.

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.

This is how Plato shows Socrates applying ethics in a practical way in his way of life. Whatever theoretical merit there may be, trust Plato to discover and articulate it — without necessarily debating.

So as a hint, I will say the following:

Socrates was the dialectical speaker par excellence. All his interrogations of people on the street, in the gymnasium, on the agora or in the schools of the sophists, had one aim. To make the other fellow think about ‘why is Socrates asking such obvious questions?’ Some would understand, others never did. But the essential point is that Socrates philosophised only in a practical way. And all his teachings are focused in one way or another on applied ethics.

So when you read Plato, this hint will serve you to recognise how much of Plato’s ethical doctrines belong to Socrates and to Plato respectively. Whenever Plato makes Socrates deliver long speeches without the interlocutor getting a chance of responding, you know that Plato has an urge to preach, and that maybe this is not really Socrates!

Consider also, in this context, that Socrates maintained that he did not teach but rather served, like his mother, as a midwife to truth. In other words, he helped others to the truth. He never claimed that he knew the truth.

However, he was quite capable of recognising an untruth when he saw it. E.g.

in one of the dialogues with the famous sophist Protagoras, he exposed the latter as a conventional thinker on ethics. He is famous in history for his slogan that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’ What does this mean? It means that ethics and values are completely relativised. There is no truth as such. Values change from place to place, and all are equally valid in their cultural context.

For Socrates this was a pernicious doctrine. This is because you cannot give a sound reason why you cultivate your values or give a good reason why other people’s values may be bad or even evil.

Let me give you an example of applied ethics vs theoretical ethics. It is a situation where theoretical ethics might condone something which practical ethics finds totally unpalatable.

Throughout Greece, human sacrifices, were abolished after about 800 BC. But in other cultures, they persisted. For a Humanist like Socrates, this was a remnant of primitive evil. You must not respect a cultural value or ethics, if their outcome is evil.

But if you are a theorist (you know how it works) you could possibly find the best of reasons for human sacrifices, cannibalism, even other crimes against humanity.

And so to conclude:

Socrates lived his life ethically, and that was his philosophy. Plato took this example, but many other examples as well, such as the theories already written by other philosophers (Pythagoras, Heraclitus a.o.) to arrive at his own ethics. But these are a doctrine (repeat in capital letters: DOCTRINE). Which means, they are philosophy, theoretical models, recommendations, and powerful reasons.

So Socrates was the one who applied, and Plato was the one who philosophised. Socrates was the debater, Plato the thinker. Socrates ‘applied’ by hoping to persuade person to person; Plato ‘theorised’ and wrote, hoping to persuade readers who can reflect on the subject matter.

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