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The Examined Life: Lessons from Socrates

The Examined Life is a rotating column. Contributors share ideas or observations about society, whether local or broad.

by Richard Miller
Guardian contributor

Iwas thirteen years old when I met Socrates. My parents had taken me with them to visit friends of theirs, a childless couple whose decor included a collection of green faux leather-covered “Great Books.” Unoccupied, I pulled volume one from the shelf.

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Image: Kelvin Alfaro. (Click for artist’s page.)

I met Socrates chatting with a fellow named Euthyphro. They were in front of the courthouse: Socrates to defend himself against charges of corrupting the youth, Euthyphro as plaintiff in his own case. The Euthyphro, the first of the four-part dialogue on Socrates’ trial and death, is a conversation on right and wrong.

Euthyphro came from his father’s farm where two of the workers got into a drunken brawl. The aggressor, badly wounded in the process, killed his victim. Euthyphro’s father tied the man up until authorities in town could be notified.

The murderer, however, died before help arrived. Euthyphro, a self-proclaimed religious expert, tells Socrates that if his father had taken better care of the assailant, he might have survived. And that is why Euthyphro is at the courthouse: to charge his father with murder.

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Euthyphro’s family is appalled at his actions; surely a son ought to have more loyalty than this! They think the father did nothing wrong and that Euthyphro should not press charges.

But Euthyphro is adamant. He knows the difference between right and wrong. He knows it is his duty to prosecute the wrongdoer. He is right and everyone else is wrong.

Unlike all the other people with whom Euthyphro has spoken, Socrates does not ask about the details of the case in order to determine whether Euthyphro is in the right or in the wrong. Instead Socrates’ interest is in what Euthyphro means when he says that what he is doing is right.

Euthyphro isn’t the smartest guy in town. When Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain what it means to do the right thing, instead of providing a definition, Euthyphro uses himself as an example. To do the right thing is to do exactly what I’m doing now: prosecuting the wrongdoer.

Socrates tries to clarify his question: what do all right actions have in common, he asks. What makes right actions right and wrong actions wrong? When Euthyphro responds by telling stories about the gods, Socrates tells him that these stories are just more examples, and besides that, probably aren’t even true.

The two examine a series of possible definitions only to reject each in turn. The only thing proved in the end is that Euthyphro has no clear ideas about right and wrong at all.  When it comes to right and wrong he is a man of strong feelings and muddled thinking.

Even though he admits to the muddled thinking, Euthyphro is not deterred. He bids Socrates farewell and rushes off, still full of confidence and self-righteousness, to file murder charges against his own father.

At thirteen years of age, this story sounded all too realistic and believable. I saw the same combination of strong feelings and weak thinking in people all around me. When it came to judging right from wrong, I saw people trusting their gut feelings and distrusting reason. I felt that the problem Socrates saw had not gone away.

Now in my sixties I still think that. If we lived in a uniform society in which everyone was raised to think and feel in similar ways, trusting our gut feelings would work reasonably well. But in modern America, the differences in our gut reactions are so deep that we are fracturing into a multitude of mutually hostile societies.

There are Americans who deeply feel that homosexuality, for example, is a moral abomination. There are Americans who feel just as deeply that there is absolutely nothing wrong with homosexuality. The vast majority of Americans on both sides of this issue, like Euthyphro, trust their gut feelings and have never taken Socrates’ question seriously. People seem not to know how to have an intelligent conversation about moral issues.

Both sides offer arguments in support of their gut reactions, but neither side starts from a clear and defensible definition of the nature of right and wrong. Everyone seems satisfied with their own personal vague sense of what they mean. Trying to construct a sound argument from a vague concept is like trying to build a piece of fine furniture out of rotten wood. It just can’t be done. The talk about moral issues that fills the public sphere arises, not from rational thought, but from the messy emotional depths of the human psyche. Like Euthyphro and his family, Americans with different gut reactions look upon each other with incredulity and contempt.

My beloved teacher continues to smile ironically at us all.

Richard Miller is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at East Carolina University.

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