Irony and Moral Reflection: The Philosophy of Socrates

Published in Classicum, 1992.

For those of us who have inherited the Western intellectual tradition it has become highly dubious whether there is or could be such a thing as moral knowledge. Most contemporary philosophers – and not only them – think that the title of knowledge is most securely conferred upon some of the results yielded by scientific thinking and its methods of research. Admittedly, we also consider practitioners of various practical skills and crafts as being knowledgeable -as having `know-how’ – but we would be most unwilling to regard outcomes of moral reflection that issue in personal, moral, or political action as knowledge in either of these two ways: we do not think there is a science of how to live well nor an acquirable skill of doing so. Concerning our most assured and, even, our most successful attempts at moral reflection we would not endorse the claim that what we had concluded was good or bad, right or wrong, constituted knowledge. And this is so even when the beliefs we have arrived at after a good deal of thought are supported by the strongest justificatory reasons.


This seems paradoxical: when we say of scientific or technical experts that “they know what they are doing” we imply that in relation to the matters they are expert in there is ` a truth of the matter’, a truth these experts arrive at through reliable ways of investigation and inquiry. But we also say of those we consider wise that they know what they are about, that their judgements and decisions are not a matter of luck or accident. Why, then, don’t we also think that the wise are those whose intelligent reflection on moral matters has arrived at some truths by following reliable methods of inquiry appropriate to these matters? Is it because we believe there are no such truths, or that there are no reliable methods in this case, or both? The paradox would lack real bite if it had been the case in our culture that for a predominant number of people morality was an unimportant and trivial matter. This is clearly not the case. People have strong moral convictions which, like Socrates, they are prepared to stick by even when threatened with death. Others regard the moral pronouncements of religious or secular sages as possessing absolute authority when it comes to assessing their own and other people’s conduct. And the concern about what sort of people our children will grow up to be is deeply embedded in us, even when we lack strong moral or religious beliefs. Worries about the existence of moral truth and about whether it is accessible to us are real and urgent because we find the prospect of being morally mistaken not easy to bear.


What is distinctive about the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is not that he was the first to bring these issues into prominence; they were part of the general intellectual climate in which he operated (cf. sect.A of handout). His peculiar and strange contribution, I want to suggest, lay in two remarkable and challenging thoughts:

i. that though these issues were important, what was more important was their elucidation. He felt that the debates and intellectual attitudes surrounding the questions about the nature of morality and whether people could be taught to be virtuous or morally excellent were pursued on the wrong kind of register: ordinary people and intellectuals alike thought that the answers to these questions, if any, would rest on a true, or at least agreed upon, account of human beings and societies. Socrates thought that no such account could even begin to be the right sort of account if it did not acknowledge that moral perplexity and the search for moral truth was constitutive of what it was to be human. Morality, he thought, is not something built upon a foundation of knowledge of individual and social make-up. If anything the reverse is the case; knowledge of oneself, of others, and of how best to live together can only begin by submitting to critical scrutiny one’s own moral understanding; one’s convictions about, attitudes towards, and responses to actual or imagined situations, as well as to different characterisations of them. To be human, he thought, is to be morally responsive, and to be morally responsive is, or at least crucially involves, being prepared to engage in the sort of rational activity that may result in the radical modification or refutation of one’s moral understanding.


ii. The other challenging thought bequeathed to us by Socrates closely follows the first: that the activity of moral self-scrutiny is best conducted with others and among others. If my interpretation of Socrates’ first challenge is correct, then engaging in the elenchus, in a communal moral self-scrutiny, itself has moral import: not to engage in that activity, or to refuse or be reluctant to participate in it, is to neglect or to avoid being morally responsive; which, in turn, implies that one does not care about or take seriously enough one’s own humanity. It would seem, then, that, for Socrates, engaging in the elenchus is a morally (not merely logically or methodologically) inescapable activity for moral inquiry. Let me underline the radical implication of this: whether such inquiry leads the participants to moral truth or not, the claim to possess moral truth, even if true, would not count as moral knowledge if the claimant either had not or was not prepared to engage in an elenchus.


Without wishing to underplay Plato’s genius as a dramatic writer, as an inventor of a philosophical kind of theatre-writing, I would like to emphasise that he comes closest to reporting the paradigmatic character of the historical Socrates not so much in what beliefs or arguments he puts in the mouth of the character in his dialogues, but in conveying clearly and forcibly how and why, for Socrates, engaging in critical moral self-scrutiny with others and among others was what it is for a human being to lead a morally responsive life.


Whether we agree or disagree with Socrates we should not close our minds to the intriguing portrait of him we find in Plato. For, not only does Plato bring to life the persona of an individual he both loved and admired; he also succeeded in putting before us a paradigm or exemplar of how philosophy contributes to moral reflection. In the dialogues he originated a dramatic way of contrasting the model of such reflection represented by Socrates with both the ordinary conventional conception of it and the more “professionalised” version represented by the sophists. Like all good theatre it is open-ended; it sets up a similar dialectic with audience or readers. We are invited (or seduced) to enter critically and actively into the give and take of moral communication and debate. And like spectators at a play are invited to reflect on the meaning and implication the events set before them have for their own system of values, the reader of the dialogue is invited to reflect on their own understanding of an ethical issue by seeing how an argument or inquiry is motivated. We are shown how and why non-philosophical characters enter into argument, what sort of problems call forth this philosophising, and why and when we ourselves should care about ethical reflection. Moreover, by connecting different positions on an issue with concretely characterised persons, the dialogue, like a play, can make subtle suggestions about the connection between belief and action, between an intellectual position and a way of life. Above all, however, like good theatre, the dialogue, no matter how inconclusive, is meant to leave us with a strong sense of moral development having taken place, of the intellectual superiority of some ways of pursuing moral reflection over others. I believe you will find all these features in the excerpt from the LACHES I have appended in the handout. It would take too long to go through the detail of the arguments there; I suggest that you discuss them in the tutorial. In the remainder of this lecture I would like to concentrate on the question of whether and how Plato succeeds in showing the Socratic mode of moral reflection to be superior. In the process I shall be returning to the issues about moral knowledge and Socrates’ challenging thoughts I began with.


Let us note two features of Socrates’ contribution in the LACHES (we meet them often in other dialogues) apart from his evident skill in critical interrogation: concerning the question of helping someone to make the best of themselves, Socrates firmly disclaims that he is in a better position than any other in the company to do so because he does not possess any knowledge in the matter that the others lack. He also insists that they should all look for an expert who might teach them, as well as the young boys in question. Yet, both at the beginning of the dialogue and at the end (cf. 180 b-d and 200 d-201 c) the more senior members of the company still believe that something is to be leant from Socrates, in spite of his disclaimer and the fact that the discussion has left everyone unclear about what exactly the nature of courage is. When first introduced into the discussion by Laches, Socrates is presented as both a courageous man in battle and as possessing a keen intellectual interest in matters concerning education. “Socratic irony” is the term usually applied to Socrates’ denial of any knowledge in moral matters and his ability nevertheless to show that claims to such knowledge by others turn out to be unfounded since the particular theses they put forward do not avoid inconsistency. The implication of the label is that Socrates must know something about the matter in hand otherwise how could he so successfully pinpoint the problems in what others say. So, why does he not come out and say it? Furthermore, given the importance of the issues under discussion, if he does know something which would help resolve the conflict between the competing beliefs that landed the interlocutor in the inconsistency, why does he keep calling for moral experts? Is this his way, an ironical one, of making fun of our mistaken hope to find moral experts? Or is it a serious but indirect way of stinging us into realising that the real illusion here is thinking that there could be expertise in this matter? The illusion would be that there is or could be (perhaps it is just around the corner) a form of thinking or inquiry (analogous to the ones we have developed in the various fields of practical and theoretical skills such as medicine, agriculture, animal husbandry, navigation, the military art, shoemaking, etc.) whose exercise would yield authoritative advice about, and techniques for, the production of good and virtuous human beings and societies. If “irony” is understood in the second way, Socrates can be interpreted as suggesting that the desire or wish for the moral expert is mistaken on two counts, one which is conceptual and the other moral. The desire is mistaken on the first count because no one can be made virtuous (courageous, self-controlled, wise, just, etc.) and lack what the supposed expert producer of virtue must have, namely, the capacity to discriminate (and to continually refine that capacity) between the genuine article and bogus or counterfeit versions of it. This condition is necessarily absent from the products of the exercise of the ordinary skills; it is not the products but only other experts in the field who can pronounce what is a success or failure. If we thought the same about the moral field we would have to accept as intelligible the following: a person, who on being confronted with the accusation that he is a moral monster, replies “but why blame me? After all, I was assured by those in charge of my upbringing (here you can fill in whatever you like _ child psychologist, parents, religious institution, behaviour therapist, social environment, etc.,etc.) that behaving this way was what it was to be morally excellent”. We cannot make sense of this, I suggest, because our concept of a person (whether good or bad) cannot be divorced from the capacity to make moral discriminations. And though this capacity is indefinitely refinable, the form of its exercise remains, as it ought, the critical and philosophic scrutiny of one’s moral understanding practiced by Socrates in the dialogues. Socratic irony is, then, first and foremost a conceptual and philosophic challenge to revise our largely unreflected upon ideas about moral reflection itself.


But there is an equally important moral dimension to that irony _ one that I believe is a first with Socrates. He was the first to see that not only ordinary action and decision are matters of moral appraisal, but also how one speaks to others about moral matters, whether such speaking takes the form of discussion, advice, recommendation, condemnation, or persuasion in general. Let us call this ” the ethics of belief-inducement” for want of a better title. It is a complex matter that deserves a lecture in itself. Here I will only give it the briefest of sketches to highlight the moral dimension of Socratic irony.


Socrates often appeals to examples of practical skills or crafts (technai) when talking about experts and the possibility of teachers of virtue or moral excellence. What he seems to have in mind is this:

The fact, if it is a fact, that there is a knowledgeable way of dealing with matters in a certain `field’ (say, bodily health) -that there is a skill of medicine – is what makes it possible for people who possess that skill to discriminate within that field between correct and incorrect ways of dealing with matters that arise there. The existence of such knowledge also rules out as inappropriate, foolish, misguided, or plain wrong, proceeding to deal with matters in that field on the basis of opinion -on what seems to people as the best way to meet the `needs’ of the situation. I mean, for example, proceeding on the basis of popular or widespread opinions about how best to deal with some injury or disease.


But suppose in some areas of life, such as those that involve moral and political decision, there does not appear to be a knowledgeable way of discriminating correct from ignorant ways of proceeding. There are no experts in these areas and opinion seems the only alternative. Take, for example, political advice that a city should build fortifications, or a non-medical friend persuading a patient to follow some prescribed cure where the doctor had failed to induce the appropriate belief in the patient (both examples come from the GORGIAS). A consequence of proceeding on opinion in this way is that, unlike the situation with crafts, the activity of advising does not cope objectively with the `needs’ of a situation. To be perplexed or to be finding it difficult to decide is not a `need’ that advising `copes with’ the way injury or ill health is a `need’ that calls for medical (i.e., knowledgeable) treatment. We have no way of determining knowledgeably whether the activity (advising) was correctly performed or not.


A strong temptation here is to think that if the opinion on which the advice was based was true, then the advice was good, and the opposite if the opinion was false. But this cannot be so since, even if following that advice turned out to be beneficial to the advisee, the activity of advising often produces a belief in the recipient of the advice, and the question then arises whether it was good or bad for the advisee to come to hold that belief. How a person comes to hold a belief, and, correspondingly, how a person induces a belief in another, cannot be separated from the question of whether the advising was good or bad. For, while the content of a belief may be true at one time and not at another, or true for some situations and not others, or true for some kinds of people but not for others, and so on, a person is always morally responsible about how they hold their beliefs, and about how they induce beliefs in others. It seems, then, that our inclination to assess advice on the basis of whether action based on it was successful or beneficial is not sound if it neglects the moral dimension of coming to hold beliefs. The criteria of good advice must ultimately depend on what is the best way of believing something _ whether the belief is based on sound reasons or just blindly accepted, or taken up for social and ideological reasons, or because it is fashionable to do so, or because `it feels nice’ to do so, etc., etc. The range of motives for holding onto a belief is vast and exceedingly varied.


To sum up: whereas in the case of medicine and ill-health a treatment can be said to be good or bad if it succeeds or fails to restore health, the goodness or badness of advice is not shown by the fact that action based on it was successful or beneficial. Since advising and other similar activities involve the formation of a belief, how that belief comes to be formed affects the moral value of the activity.


Returning to Socrates, we can identify the moral dimension of his irony with how he succeeds in constantly alerting us to the fact that communicating about moral matters is itself a matter for moral scrutiny and investigation. Talk about morality is itself a moral issue because talk can induce belief. And it matters morally whether the way we come to hold moral or political beliefs leads to moral understanding or not, whether we come to believe things the way the good do. And this, like all matters pertaining to morals, is itself subject to moral scrutiny.


The legacy bequeathed to us by Socrates, then, is that even when we cannot claim to possess knowledge of what moral excellence is, there is a moral constraint upon us, a strange and fearful obligation, to examine philosophically not only how we act, but also how we live. He saw the latter as something that crucially involved examining how we articulated and communicated our beliefs about how we should live. This immediately implicates philosophers in how discussion and public debate is conducted. Given the passionate and heated nature of such debates philosophising can become very unpopular indeed _ but then, if Socrates is right, don’t we all have an obligation to engage in it?