Friday, January 20, 2006

Socrates' Equivocation (Part IV)

If (as I have been arguing here, here, and here) cognitivism and noncognitivism are not appropriate distinctions to make within the context of 5th century Athens, then, arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, Socrates does not represent a complete shift in ethics from an authoritarian religious basis to an autonomous form of thought based on an individual’s reason. To be sure, there is some truth in that description, but the whole truth is more complicated. In this section, I would like to explore one way of accounting for the threatening shift that Socrates does represent without resorting to anachronistic terms like cognitivism.

In this vein, there are two aporiai arising from Socrates’ ethical position that I would like to consider briefly. First, Socrates claims, on the one hand, that “the bad harm those who are always nearest them” (Apology 25d8-10), while, on the other, he contends that Meletus and Anytus, who are morally reprehensible, cannot do him any harm because “it is not allowed by the law of God for a better man to be harmed by a worse man” (30c8-d1). Unless Socrates intends to equivocate on the sense of harm in these passages, an aporia ensues and requires further explanation. Secondly, Socrates’ rejection of retaliation (e.g., Crito 49c-d), if taken as a universal principle for settling disputes, seems to stand in stark contrast to the typically Homeric code of ethics, which Socrates himself invokes when proudly recollecting his own military feats. In this case, his actions seem prima facie to contradict his stated beliefs, and this leads us to the second aporia. In the first case, the aporia seems to be internal to the concept of harm and thus to involve a logical contradiction. In the second case, the aporia arises because his actions appear to be at odds with his principle for action and therefore seem to involve a performative contradiction. I propose to solve these aporiai by asserting that Socrates’ ethical position stands out from its contemporary context as radically different insofar as many fundamental ethical concepts (e.g., harm) take on new meanings in his thought, but his position, nevertheless, retains vestiges of the Homeric code and fails to universalize its principles completely.

In the first case, Socrates uses the concept “harm” in the traditional sense when claiming that the evil person tends to harm those in close proximity, but he shifts the concept of harm to a radically different moral sense when asserting the principle that the worse man can never harm the better man (N.B., the terms “worse” and “better” have shifted in equivalent ways as well). When Socrates speaks of the traditional sort of harm, he means any sort of non-moral activity that may diminish one’s happiness (e.g., physical harm, loss of wealth or honor, etc.). He accepts this definition for the sake of the elenchus because his opponent, Meletus, would likely subscribe to such a belief and could be refuted through its use. Later, however, when he speaks of his own beliefs, no longer in the elenchus, he explains that “harm” has a moral sense which by far outweighs its non-moral meaning. In this case, harm refers to any activity that diminishes one’s virtue and adversely affects one’s soul. Let’s call this “moral harm.” In his radically new moral principle, Socrates contends that no non-moral harm can do moral harm to a person. In this way, Socrates avoids logical contradiction by intentionally employing an equivocation of the term “harm” (non-moral versus moral) in order to establish a radically new ethical code.[1]

As for Socrates’ apparent performative contradiction, the crucial factor involved in this aporia is the moral scope of his ethical position. To his credit, Socrates initiates a shift toward universal moral norms by rejecting the culturally circumscribed norms of the Homeric moral code, but his cosmopolitanism does not extend to all social inferiors such as women, aliens, and slaves.[2] In the Homeric code, moral obligation is never universal but always specific, i.e., based on social status and contingent circumstance. Socrates indeed extends moral obligation to any ξενος, but only in the sense of guests rather than all foreigners. Thus, the apparent performative contradiction is resolved by the fact that Socrates’ ethical position does not have a truly universal moral scope though it is considerably wider than its Homeric predecessor. History must wait for many centuries before the truly deontological principles of Immanuel Kant are to arrive (though perhaps the relativism of Protagoras or the agapic message of Jesus—spread to the ends of the earth, as Luke writes—makes an earlier approximation of moral universalism).

[1]. This ethical view, however does not entail the Identity Thesis, as Vlastos calls it, which simply equates virtue and happiness (or, more precisely, asserts that virtue is the only constituent of happiness). Indeed, Vlastos persuasively offers a “multicomponent model of happiness” whereby Socrates can prefer to avoid non-moral harm while denying its adverse effects on the soul. For example, in the Gorgias, Polus asks if Socrates would wish to suffer injustice rather than do it, and Socrates replies: “For my part I would wish neither. But if I were forced to choose between suffering injustice and doing , I would choose to suffer it” (Gorg. 469b12-c2). (See Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, p. 227.) With this multicomponent model of happiness in mind, Vlastos’s position can be reconciled with that of Brickhouse and Smith which asserts that virtue for Socrates is not necessary for happiness because virtue is viewed as only one of many constituents of happiness. Their positions differ, however, with respect to the sufficiency thesis which Brickhouse and Smith also deny, thereby denying that virtue is constitutive of happiness at all, but that is another story. (See Brickhouse and Smith, Plato’s Socrates, pp. 103-36, esp. p. 118.) In any case, the notion of harm has entered the moral realm through Socrates’ ethical inquiry and can no longer simply apply to matters unrelated to the well-being (eudaimonia) of one’s soul.

[2]. Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, p. 179.


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