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A Socratic View of Wrongdoing
Morality is a term that refers to our adherence to rules that govern human behavior on the basis of some idea of right and wrong. Although the terms moral and ethical are often interchanged, in this essay I restrict my use of the terms ethics/ethical to refer to our process of reasoning about morality. Whatever your concept of morality, it must address the human capacity to identify and choose between right and wrong and then to act accordingly. Socrates believed that nobody willingly chooses to do wrong. He maintained that doing wrong always harmed the wrongdoer and that nobody seeks to bring harm upon themselves. In this view all wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. This means that it is impossible for a human being to willingly do wrong because their instinct for self interest prevents them from doing so. This is an extraordinary statement that strikes disbelief in many people going all the way back to Aristotle. It seems contrary to experience that nobody knowingly does wrong. Perhaps you have personally witnessed examples of people who did wrong and seemed to know full well that their behavior was wrong. We propose that this belief of Socrates is true in a clear and simple way.
It is true that people can choose to do things they know other people think are wrong. It is even true that people can choose to do things that they believe are wrong for others while trying to benefit themselves. However, people do not choose to do things that they perceive in the moment of decision to be wrong (harmful) for themselves. Humans have a powerful instinct for benefiting themselves. Even when there is an obvious inherent self harm in the action, people can do wrong and cause harm while their goal is to seek after the good they believe will benefit them. Our objective knowledge is often subordinated to the power of our intuitive personal self-understanding. It is our personal intuition into a sense of our own well being that causes us to choose to do, or have a compulsion to do, a particular wrong even when that wrongdoing will obviously harm us. We have an instinct to engage in our own personal calculus about what is best for our own well being. One example is a psychologically distraught person obsessed with cutting themselves. We know that such persons are merely trying to relieve psychological stress. They discover that, for some reason, cutting their flesh provides this relief. Here, we must keep the distinction between ends and means clear in our minds. They do not cut in order to harm their flesh. That is just a means. They cut in order to relieve stress, which is the end that their action seeks to obtain. In their intuitive calculus of personal benefit, they conclude that their overall state, which results from cutting, is better than the state of unrelieved stress. Even though the rationality and efficacy of such actions can be questioned, these persons believe they are benefiting themselves. A basic principle in this Socratic perspective is that choices, right or wrong, serve the ends that the chooser seeks to obtain and not the means through which the ends are realized.
Ask Yourself Two Questions:
1. Do you believe that all humans have an instinct to benefit themselves?
2. Do you believe that all humans, to the extent that they suffer, instinctually seek to relieve their suffering?
If you answered yes to the above questions, then you can accept the idea that nobody chooses to do wrong when they perceive that the wrongdoing in question will bring harm upon them. To the extent that we simply obey our instinct to benefit ourselves and relieve our suffering, we are not willing to harm ourselves. Socrates’ believed that persons who seek what they understand to benefit them are not trying to do wrong. They do not act for the sake of the wrong, but for the sake of obtaining the perceived good with which they are trying to improve their lives.
If you answered no to one or both of the questions above, then you are responsible for giving one clear example relevant to our subject that shows the truth of your belief. In this example you must describe a human committing an wrongful action with no ulterior desire to either benefit herself or relieve her suffering. This is more difficult than you may think.
The difference between objective knowledge and our personal intuitive insight into our own well being is important. People can know that stealing is wrong, but they experience a benefit through theft that makes them feel the wrongful action results in obtaining some good, which improves their lives. Remember the important psychological principle, there is no motive for committing actions that are right or wrong, which bring no perceived benefit. If we keep the distinction between the ends and means clear, we see that nobody commits an act for the sake of the wrong involved but with a view to obtaining the perceived benefit or good, which results from the action. Even when the benefit of horrendous actions defies our understanding, the actor usually still has a conscious motive to benefit herself. So it is that some people can commit horrible actions with no sensible benefit. In such circumstances, either the benefit of the action is only perceptible to such person's own distorted inner sense of well being or such persons are aware of acting out of uncontrollable compulsion. In the latter case they are rendered unable to make real choices and are thus removed from the realm of morality altogether. To the extent that we are unable to choose, we are unable to be moral.
We all have a powerful instinct to benefit ourselves. This instinct is our natural morality. We all have a natural instinct to create criteria and guidelines for behavior so we may be benefited. It is our nature to see what we perceive to benefit us as being good and right. It is also our nature to see that which harms us as being bad and wrong. We may objectively see that some particular circumstance may harm us in some way, but calculate what is of overall benefit according to the character of our self interest. Even when we are merely choosing between the lesser of two evils, neither of which interests us per se, we are still expressing self interest in the choosing. Even when one makes the ultimate sacrifice of choosing to give up their life (an act which one may be loath to do per se), self interest is still expressed in the act when the one who chooses has a purpose in mind. Self interest is persistent. It operates continuously in our capacities to give and receive, to labor and play, to attend to and ignore, and it always operates with a view to benefiting ourselves in some way.
Self-Interest and Morality
Our obsession with benefiting ourselves brings up the relationship between self-interest and morality. Deciding that a particular behavior is morally wrong in a particular circumstance is a value that can only be imposed by a self-interested being. A non self-interested being is incapable of conceiving of right and wrong in a moral sense. There is no such thing as moral right or wrong until there first exists self-aware self-interest. Right and wrong, in the perception of the actor, are defined by the ends that the actor’s natural instinct of self-interest guides her to embrace. The ends that we seek are always defined in the context of our self-interest and moral choices are always expressed in light of the ends we seek. We are not saying that morality IS self interest; nor are we saying that structures of ethical reasoning are synonymous with self-interested reasoning or motivation.
Mathematics provides a clarifying example. Nobody would say that mathematical reasoning and self-interest are the same thing. The structures of mathematical reasoning are independent of the phenomenon of human self-interested reasoning. However, all mathematicians always use the structures of mathematical reasoning in a self interested manner. Also, the only reason that mathematicians ever discover new mathematical structures is because they are responding to self-interested motivations. In the same way the structures of ethical reasoning are independent of the phenomenon of self interest. However, it is only by responding to self-interest that people embrace moral rules and ethical reasoning, and only through self-interest has any ethical thought ever been developed. So it is that our ethical thoughtfulness about moral right and wrong is born of and embraced through self-interest. Our self-interest is the foundation of our capacity to be moral. Our instinct to benefit ourselves makes our participation in moral choices possible.
That this instinct for self-interest may assert itself in minds that are ignorant, confused, twisted, broken and utterly unable to know what is truly good is a separate issue that does not negate the fundamental truth of Socrates’ insight that people never willingly harm themselves. Action based on ignorance still has the motive of benefiting the actor but lacks the knowledge to make good of that motive.
1. Have you ever committed a wrong action in which you did not seek to benefit yourself in some way?
Even motives of entertainment, stress relief or avoidance of anxiety count as seeking to benefit you. If you answer no, then your own life is a testimony to the truth of Socrates’ belief. If you answered yes, you must try to asses your answer. Did you really commit a wrong without trying to gain something...anything...from that action? If you commit any action, wrong or right, without a view to any end then you have done something extraordinarily rare. Completely motiveless actions are virtually unknown except perhaps in the case of disease or brain trauma. Even in cases of disease or brain trauma there is usually some kind of motivational context although it may be incoherent. It is highly likely that you have never committed a wrong action in which you did not seek to benefit yourself.
It is at this point that we come to an important clarification. Socrates did not state that doing wrong to others is ever right, but that the motivation for such actions determines the character of the will involved. Socrates maintained that people are never motivated to bring harm to themselves. Since Socrates believed that wrongdoing always harmed the wrongdoer, he saw all wrongdoing as a mistake in judgment or an expression of ignorance. This is especially true in cases where a life full of wrongdoing never physically harms the wrongdoer. Socrates believed that the most pitiable of humans were those who lived under the delusion that their wrongdoing benefited them. According to Socrates, the successful tyrant who is able to do great wrong for many years without ever being held accountable, was the most terribly harmed of all human beings. Socrates believed that doing injustice made us less just and diminished our character. For Socrates, the only harm in life comes through our own wrongdoing (Apology 41c-d). When we see people knowingly doing wrong to others, they are not cognizant of the harm that their wrongdoing brings upon themselves. So it is that even the most flagrant examples of willful human wrongdoing, which may seem to contradict Socrates’ belief, actually confirm Socrates belief by being examples of our instinct to benefit ourselves misguided by ignorance. If all wrongdoing harms the wrongdoer and all people make decisions only to benefit themselves, then all people commit wrongdoing through ignorance and not through a will to do wrong.
1. Do you believe all wrongdoing harms the wrongdoer?
2. Do you count harm to a person’s character, or soul if you like, to be a real type of harm?
If you answered yes to these two questions and have answered yes to previous questions about the instinct in humans to benefit themselves, then you have no logical problems with the idea that humans never willingly choose to do wrong because they never seek to harm themselves. If you answered no to question one above, then question two is important for you. The only ambiguities with question one are to the extent that wrongdoing does not physically harm the wrongdoer. If there is no harm to our body or to our ability to physically survive and thrive then the idea of harm to self is less clear. This clarity is further reduced when wrongdoing both fails to hurt the body and also improves our ability to survive and thrive physically. When wrongdoing only harms character, some may question if it harms at all. The problem is in trying to precisely define harm to character.
Identifying Harm to Character
Let us consider the relationship between character, harm, and functionality. When wrongdoing offers benefits with no obvious harm, it can be difficult to assess the existence of wrongdoing. Consider that harm is always related to some measure of decrease in functionality. It is impossible to identify wrongdoing or harm in the absence of any decrease of functionality where said functionality is determined to be a good in its working context. If my leg is harmed, then it loses some aspect of optimal functionality. How can we define harm to character? We would have to identify a decrease in the functioning of human character. We can identify a decrease in functionality when lapses of character cause us to be less useful or skillful either in cooperative group efforts or in our own private living. A decrease of the functioning of human character in cooperative group efforts is relative to goods that are identified and worked towards by the group. The functioning of our working and living relationships with other human beings is a fundamental issue in morality. In the absence of any obligation to the other (human, animal, environment), morality becomes undefinable except in terms of self-care.
The strength and well being of a society is largely determined by the capacity of its members to work cooperatively together towards common goals (a common good). The most significant disruption of this strength is related to the integrity of human character with regard to how we relate to and work with one another. Socrates spent most of his life in the context of Athenian democracy. In Socrates' Athens, the role of the citizen was much more central to the functioning of Athenian democracy than it is in the democratic republic of the U.S.. Male citizens were required to participate in their government through mandatory military service and through their participation (randomly chosen) on the council. The ability of all citizens to relate to one another with integrity was of the utmost importance because acquiring a high position in the government was possible for any male citizen who was at least 30 years old. When Socrates asked questions such as "What is justice?" or "What is virtue?", he was not interested in academic abstractions. Socrates' goal was to learn what it meant to live as a just and virtuous citizen. This was of the utmost importance to Socrates because he knew that the good character of individuals contributed directly to the survival and well being of his whole society. When the learning and thinking habits of the people become slack, that is, when the masses do not live examined lives, democracy becomes a fast road to tyranny. When the justice and skillful virtue of the human character of individual citizens is harmed, society is harmed. This reality underlays Socrates' comment in Plato's Republic (564a) that, "tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy...the greatest and most savage slavery out of the extreme of freedom."
The relationship between character and functionality is easy to see. When a group's goals depend on accurate information, lying causes a decrease in needed functionality and reduces the group's chances of achieving their goals. When the effective distribution of resources is critical to the survival and thriving of a group, stealing, or any unjust distribution of resources, disrupts the flow of resources defined by a group's vision of cooperation. When understanding one another is necessary to function together, bigotry lobotomizes our skill at interpreting other human beings. When accuracy with regard to fulfilling plans is a matter of life and death to the group's achievement of a goal, people who say what they mean and do what they say optimize group functionality. The quality of human character manifests visible and measurable results in the group functioning of our daily living. Why is group functioning so important?
Unlike sea turtles, humans do not just lay eggs then swim away. We spend great energy and time working together so that our offspring may thrive. A fundamental truth of human history is that we survive better and thrive better when we form a group. The greater the effective functionality of our group relationships, which depend on the skillful human character of its members, the better our chances of thriving well. When a group's cooperative efforts suffer under the lack of accurate information, unjust resource distribution, a seriously impaired mutual understanding of one another, and the unreliability of word and deed, that group's ability to thrive is harmed. In harming the group's chances of success we often harm our own individual chances. In this essay, the term virtue refers to the skillfulness of human character with regard to our successful functioning in private and public life. When our character lacks virtue and thus is less skillful in cooperative efforts, we isolate and weaken ourselves. When wrongdoing harms the human character of the wrongdoer, this manifests real results in terms of reduced functionality. This is true even if we perceive some kind of benefit from wrongdoing. When human character is made healthier, stronger, and more functional, our skillful character helps us to thrive.
The necessity of skillful and reliable human character for working with groups is practically a law of physics. The simple truth is that humans form cooperative groups because it is easier to survive and thrive with the help of others. When the group's ability to survive and thrive is harmed, the individual is harmed. Cooperative effort is a wellspring of usefulness in humanity's quest to survive and thrive. The more able we are to cooperate effectively in a group, the more capacity we have to benefit our own individual welfare in a society. Human character is the foundation of competence in all cooperative efforts. For Socrates', knowledge is the foundation of a skillful and healthy human character. The key to the relationship between knowledge and character is the ability of a person to submit their willful living to the influence of knowledge. The subordination of the will to knowledge is the primary outcome Socrates sought in the examined life. When the human will is able to allow itself to be influenced by knowledge, this is a manifestation of a basic virtue of human character that we all need to live well.
A broken character is no different from a broken leg in terms of giving rise to a reduction in functionality. When your leg is harmed, you limp. When your broken character diminishes the cooperative skill of society, the cooperative group (family, work, etc.) limps to that extent. Such limping of a society will eventually tread upon the well being of those who caused the limping. This is always true to the extent that we survive and thrive better as a group than as a hermit. Nobody wants to let a brain surgeon, who cheated in medical school and is lazy about their work, to operate on them. Nobody wants you to do anything in your social and work related functions with anything less than the full integrity of your character. The virtue of human character is not just a motif in mythic tales about gods and devils, it is a practical reality of daily life that is exercised every time we work and relate to one another.
Even when we are alone, we must be disciplined in learning, persistent in developing our skills, and faithful to improving our character in order to work towards a life worth living. Even for the hermit, mother nature teaches her that human character will bless her or kill her. The lazy and the ignorant do not survive alone in the wild. Heraclitus said that "Character is destiny". The persistent effort to develop functionally skillful character is the most important willful act that any individual can perform to make their destiny something worth living. If harm to character is real harm, then nobody wants bad character. In this Socratic perspective, the phrase "good character" is not used beyond the development of character based skills that are useful to the task of living well. A healthy human character is a usefully functional character.
Aristotle's Moral Weakness
The idea that people seem to knowingly do wrong is an ancient and persistent one. Aristotle proposed that, sometimes, people know what is right but do not have the strength to do it. Socrates’ belief that nobody ever willingly does wrong and Aristotle’s idea that there is such a thing as moral weakness, in which people know what is wrong but lack the strength to do right, are not mutually exclusive. Even in cases of moral weakness, the lack of strength to benefit oneself without wrongdoing is a form of ignorance. It is an ignorance of method and an ignorance of what is most important and beneficial. It does not matter if your ignorance is constructed out of an actual lack of knowledge or just the blinding haze of your own weakness, your resulting beliefs and priorities will either cohere with knowledge or not. When moral weakness reinforces a set of priorities that contradicts better knowledge, ignorance is propagated not through a lack of knowledge but through the existential gravity of weaknesses that forces the moral actor to embrace inferior priorities.
The end result is that the morally weak person really believes that some things are more important for them than others and acts accordingly. Either the priorities are true and cohere with knowledge to bring benefit to the moral actor or they are false and cohere with ignorance, showing themselves to be delusions of weakness. It does not matter if the wrongdoing is the result of pure ignorance or was a product of moral weakness, the failure to live better in accordance with knowledge is ultimately a form of ignorance.
Starving people do not often have the luxury of maintaining their highest ideals. Even though a starving person may know that forcibly taking food from another hungry person is wrong, she still does not will wrongdoing as an end. Such a person only wills to benefit herself, but lacks the strength or know-how to do so while leaving higher ideals intact. This type of example gets as close as possible to an example of moral weakness that stands apart from ignorance. Our hypothetical starving person really believes and values the idea that forcibly taking food from a hungry person is wrong, but under compulsion of starvation, she does not have the strength to live up to her ideals. This is different from cases in which a person's moral weaknesses generate false values that are embraced as valid, which constitutes a clearer form of ignorance.
According to Socrates, knowing what is wrong and being forced under the compulsion to do it is still ignorance insofar as the starving thief does not recognize the greater harm of doing wrong. People regularly fail to see that the harm to their character through wrongdoing is greater than physical harm. Socrates’ believed that giving up our lives in order to maintain our good character is more important than survival at the cost of being less just or less noble. The case of a starving person is extreme. We will leave the ethical issue of determining if stealing in this extreme context is actually right or wrong for some other essay. We would only say that to the extent that the act of stealing harmed the other person or even the human character of the one who stole, the possibility of it being wrong exists. In some circumstances, we do not really know what is right and wrong. For Socrates, this type of circumstance was the greatest reason to be diligent in seeking to improve our human character through the development of our understanding.
The development of good character was the focus of Socrates' obsession with questions about justice and virtue. For Socrates, wrongdoing through ignorance is the only harm and knowledge is the only good. Socrates believed that the only life worth living is a life that is persistent in seeking good character. The primary manifestation of good character in this Socratic perspective is that a person of good character is able to subordinate their willful living to knowledge. This ability is strengthened by developing the habit of living the examined life, where the daily quest for knowledge and the critical examination of our own ideas, character, and behavior strengthens our ability to allow our behavior to be influenced by knowledge. When human character is weak, this correlates with a lack of knowledge or the lack of ability to allow knowledge to influence us. The lack of opportunity to gain and examine knowledge results in a lack of opportunity to subordinate the will to knowledge. This results in having more problems with the weakness of our character. In Socrates' view, knowledge and character are developmentally linked. Both a pure lack of knowledge and the weakness of character associated with Aristotle's concept of moral weakness fit into Socrates' conception of ignorance as the source of wrongdoing. Socrates saw ignorance as the basis of all wrongdoing and all wrongdoing as harmful to human character. In this Socratic perspective, our potential for developing good character depends on the quality of our practice of seeking to put reasoning and knowledge at the center of everything we do. Socrates' ideal of living the examined life recognizes the need for the daily practice and exercise our ethical reasoning in order to strengthen our human character.
Defining The Use of The Term Evil
We will now connect the idea of wrongdoing to the term evil. In the west, the term evil is so overloaded with Christian theological content that it will be necessary to limit the semantic range of the term. The vestige of influence that we wish to identify and eliminate is the cosmological and ontological aspects of the Christian concept of evil. In Christian thought, evil is a term with cosmological contexts that are used to explain the existence (ontology) of human wrongdoing. This style of explaining human evil in the tradition of the Abrahamic religions is connected to concepts of sin, rebellion against God, and the fall of humanity from divine paradise. This is pushing the term "evil" for more than it is worth in a Socratic perspective.
In this Socratic perspective, evil behavior is the same thing as wrongdoing. When we speak of human evil, we will use it solely in association with harmful human behavior (including the harmful withholding of action). This is because it is only through harmful behavior that any measure of human evil (no matter what your concept of evil) is recognizable. Harmfulness is the only evaluative criterion used for assessing the evil, or the wrong, of behaviors. If a behavior is not harmful at all then there is no basis of defining the evil of that behavior. Any other theological meanings we carry for the term evil are irrelevant to evaluating the most essential truths of actual human behavior in daily life.
Can you name an example of an evil behavior that is not harmful in any way?
When we (the authors) speak of evil, we choose to associate the element of fear as a cause of evil (harmful behaviors). Socrates believed that fear, insofar as it is associated with evil, is a manifestation of ignorance. For Socrates, wisdom involves knowing what is right to fear and what is wrong to fear, which means that fear in itself is not wrong, harmful, or evil. Human fear grows to have a powerful life and influence of its own. Fear is related to Socrates' idea of ignorance to the extent that fear often blinds us to better knowledge. Through fear we are often inhibited from trying to gain better knowledge. Through fear, we often abridge our own accountability to ethical reasoning in favor of the quick and the easy. This is particularly true when we must choose to be moral in the most horrifying circumstances. As such, fear can be partly an element of moral weakness, even though it can also be a product of ignorance. As fear works its magic upon us, the result is to reinforce ignorance when the task of seeking knowledge is even more frightening than remaining in our current state. The fear of what we should not fear is guided only by ignorance. For Socrates, the only thing to fear was wrongdoing.
The Recognition of Evil
The ability to recognize what is truly harmful (evil) is key. The recognition of human evil is usually mishandled in the minds of most people. Human evil is usually measured in terms of the intensity of its destructive result without regard to understanding its nature. This is a categorical error. If you went to a doctor with a headache and the doctor just gave you aspirin for your pain, but failed to discover that the cause of the pain was a brain tumor, we would say that the doctor was incompetent. The identity of the problem is not the pain, which is just a symptom. The identity of the problem is the tumor that causes the pain. In the same way the identity of human evil is in the cause of behaviors that harm not in the harm itself. In this Socratic perspective, the origin of behaviors we consider to be evil or wrong is found in ignorance and fear.
Identity must relate to persistent features. The identity of evil with regard to classifying behaviors or measuring results is less consistent. A particular behavior may be harmful in this or that circumstance but not others. A particular harmful result may indicate great evil in one person (harmful habits and lack of character resulting from a persistence of ignorance) but merely be a one time fluke of circumstance for another person. However, ignorance and fear are always the origin of wrongdoing. No matter if the harmful result is slight or great, the presence of ignorance and fear as the origin of harmful behavior is what constitutes the identity of evil. The identity of evil is not increased or decreased by variations in the resulting intensity of harm. Only the behavior originating ignorance can offer us the identity of evil. Just as a larger wooden building has no more the identity of being a work of carpentry than a smaller wooden chair, because the identity of a product of carpentry is due to its being made of wood and not its relative size, so evil behavior has no more or less the identity of evil because of the relative size of its harmful effect. This Socratic perspective maintains that evil behavior is evil because it is born of ignorance and fear, not because of the relative measure of its harm.
This raises the question of behaviors that are grounded in ignorance and fear, yet happen to have a good effect that is not harmful. Measuring the identity of evil by its results is always a categorical error. Even when ignorance and fear happens to lead us to a non-harmful result, our ignorance and fear represent a character liability that must be overcome with knowledge and courage. Socrates did not accept behaviors that have their origin in ignorance and fear as good just because they happen to not cause harm. This means behavior that is grounded in ignorance and fear always have the character and identity of human evil regardless of its results. Socrates would ask who is better off. Is it the person who, in a spastic fit of ignorance gets lucky and does good, or is it the person who knows what is good and does good with full intention? According to Socrates, the only real good is associated with knowledge and the virtue of human character that is needed for knowledge to be able to influence our will. In a Socratic perspective, physical harm in itself is not evil nor truly harmful. Only the wrongdoing caused by ignorance (and fear) is evil to the extent that it brings the harm of wrongdoing upon the character of the fearful and the ignorant and is always divorced from better knowledge. It is the deterioration of the justice and virtue of our human character that Socrates believed was the only definable harm. He is not alone in this. Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Buddhist philosophy, the Abrahamic religions, and many other world views all concur that it is better to suffer the wrong of others than to do wrong ourselves. This is why Socrates claimed that “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.”
The advantage of this Socratic perspective is that we do not have to wait for a tsunami of harm before we recognize real evil. In rejecting the identification of evil based on measures of harm, we can learn to see the seriousness of our gravest evil in the smallest things and significantly advance the moral integrity of humanity. Consider that you cannot commit to the genocide of the many without first being discourteous to a single human being. You cannot build gas chambers and ovens for the millions before you have first resorted to being discourteous to at least one person. The most vicious holocausts of human history, the most barbaric social atrocities and the most brutal oppressions all begin in the relationships of our youth where the smallest discourtesy first takes root in the heart and the acceptance of discourtesy is normalized. However, this beginning is not as a seed that grows into a tree. That metaphor would only apply to the fruit of evil as measured by results. The full identity of human evil is already manifest in the smallest of events, because the smallest of discourtesies find their origin in the same grounding of ignorance and fear as the largest of holocausts.
The acceptance of the smallest discourtesy or the normalization of the slightest disrespect is not just the first step on the road to human evil. It is the whole of the journey. For human evil must not be measured according to the amplitude of its destructive force. It must be understood according to the character of its nature. There is no difference in the character of discourtesy and genocide. The fundamental nature of both is to be an expression of ignorance and fear. The identity of discourtesy and genocide as being evil is the same, because the nature of their origin is the same. Eliminate even the smallest discourtesy and the larger and more destructive results of human evil are never brought into being.
The Nature of Human Evil
The nature of human evil does not rest in the mythic explanations of our wrongdoing. We do not need to understand the origin of the universe or have a mystical understanding of a theologically defined cosmic balance between good and evil in order to gain insight into our daily morality. What we need is to understand the structure of our own self interest, our capacities for reasoning, the relationship between knowledge and character, and the importance of a persistent quest for knowledge in order to have a life worth living. This applies to all persons interested in living well regardless of their religion or philosophy, because the relationship of knowledge and character to the art of living is the same for all human beings. Although the nature of human evil is grounded in our ignorance, our ignorance is not in itself evil. Total ignorance is the natural state of every newborn human being. It is the essence of innocence. The harmfulness of ignorance only rises as we gain power and seek to express that power. The more we grow, the more powerful we become, the more we need to learn to allow knowledge to influence our behavior.
Even when we lack courage or knowledge, we are still being guided by our simple instinct to benefit ourselves. No matter how brutal and terrifying our capacity to destroy one another, we are all just little children trying to find some goodness in our little lives. In all of our moral choosing there is the constant expression of this natural instinct to benefit ourselves and a corresponding instinctual simplicity of innocence that dwells in all humanity. In this Socratic perspective, human ignorance and fear make up the nature of human evil. What is the face of this human evil? Is it the face of a monster? Is it the face of the Devil? No, the face of human evil is the face of every lost and frightened child. It is the face of innocence under stress.
A PHILOSOPHICAL EXERCISE IN COMTEMPLATING
THE NATURE OF HUMAN EVIL:
Remembering the Nazi Shoah
Let's take our contemplation of the nature of human evil to a more concrete level by thinking about a piece of human history as it relates to our own lives. In the light of your reading of the above portion of this essay, watch the video below, which was created to accompany this essay. All of the people in this video were real human beings. We want you to imagine that you know them. Imagine them as your family, neighbors, and friends. We give you warning that this video contains disturbing film and pictures of the Nazi concentration camps, the Nazi Lebensborn project, and the Hitler youth program. Determine ahead of time if you are able to expose yourself to this. After watching the video, read the text below the video. There are essential things for you to consider. If you feel you are unable to watch this video, then continue reading the text below it. Even if you have limited knowledge of the historical events pertaining to the Nazi Shoah, the exercise still works.
(If the embedded video does not work, use this link:
Using the Nazis
to Contemplate of Our Own Evil:
Keep the video in mind as you read the following:
The underlying perspectives and principles that helped make it possible for human beings to commit the horrible wrongdoing (evil) seen in the video were taught with state sponsored propaganda and force to a generation of German youth. These Nazi teachings were not just meant to last a lifetime, but 1000 years worth of lifetimes. Above, we wrote that Socrates believed the most terribly harmed of all human beings was the tyrant who was able to commit great wrongdoing for many years without being held accountable to justice. Socrates believed that doing wrong was a much worse fate than suffering wrong.
This leads me to say something that, on the surface, seems to strain common sense to the point of offense. That something is this: In the Nazi Shoah, the most terribly harmed people were the ones who committed the most wrongdoing. If it is true that doing wrong is more harmful than suffering wrong, then the Nazis were their own greatest victims. They harmed themselves in ways worse than the harm that fell upon those victims who suffered without doing wrong. The scope and intensity of Nazi crimes gives us pause with regard to allowing this thought. Think of it this way, would you rather be killed by Nazis in a concentration camp or be a Nazi running a concentration camp? Would you rather suffer greatly because of the lack of justice and virtue in the human character of other people or would you rather cause people to suffer greatly because of your own lack of justice and virtue? Which is worse, to do wrong or to suffer wrong?
Doing Wrong or Suffering Wrong: Which is the greater harm to the goodness, integrity, and value of your life?
If you have decided that you believe that doing wrong is more harmful to your well being than suffering wrong, then we ask you to consider if this is a consistent principle that should govern all of our choices at all times. Are there exceptions?
It is at the point of considering the possibility of exceptions to the principle that doing wrong is more harmful than suffering wrong, and in the throes of suffering we all have a strong and persistent instinct to consider this possibility, that people enter into their own personal calculus of measuring the results of wrongdoing compared to the intensity of their own suffering. It is in these calculations of personal intuition that humanity often succumbs to the fear of suffering and to the lack of understanding regarding the nature of our own well being. In these calculations, we make choices, commit our energies to fulfill our choices, and in our willful choosing give birth to all the good and evil that flows from the heart of humanity. In these calculations, it is easy to mistake what is right for what is easy.
I think most readers, with regard to the example of Nazi wrongdoing, would agree that doing wrong is a worse fate than suffering wrong. When the measure of the negative results of wrongdoing are extreme, the choice is clearer. Not many people would say, "Sure, I will be a mass murdering Nazi if it is convenient for me in the moment." If our daily moral choosing never failed to be clarified by extremes, it would be much simpler to have moral clarity. However, it is not in the extremes that human evil is propagated, no matter how much the bizarrely vicious results of such extremes may lead us to believe otherwise. It is not in the extremes that we find our greatest moral difficulty. The spread of human evil most often requires the subtlety of lesser consequences in order to find its springtime.
It is in the smaller dimensions of wrongdoing that we most often lose our way. It is in regularly losing our way in the small things that we find ourselves unprepared to handle the extremes of life. It is much easier to believe that a small wrong, which spares us from great suffering is justifiable. When subtlety challenges us, our personal intuition about our own well being will be prone to translate possible wrongs into sure rights. Those who are absolutely sure they are right stop questioning the possibility that they may be wrong. In ceasing to question, we cease to be capable of being moral. For, in the cessation of thoughtful questioning, ethical thinking is murdered with the result that moral action stops being a thoughtful choice and is transformed into a matter of blind repetition. In such blindness the movement from the small wrongdoings of daily life to the extremes of human evil is a fast and compelling one. One change in circumstance, one additional danger, and the daily exercise of committing the smaller wrongdoings, which are the fruit of our ignorance, will be amplified according to the nature of our habits. Small wrongdoings that inconvenience are quickly transformed into actions with life devastating consequences. When preexisting bad habits are the ground upon which we first meet the extremes of life, disrespect can become murder in the blink of an eye.
Inverting Godwin's Law
Godwin's law says, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1". This law describes a comparison used for the purpose of argument that is usually seen as a negative weakness in discussion. If a conversation with enough participants goes on long enough, and there is sufficient controversy, the law seems to hold. Inevitably somebody eventually compares someone or something to Nazism or to Hitler. In a public discourse with differing perspectives, resorting to such comparisons is seen as a failure to uphold the necessary standards of an intelligent conversation. When an expression of Godwin's law is manifested in a conversation, the most persistent correlation to that manifestation is that the rational examination of ideas has collapsed.
With regard to the internal conversations we have with ourselves, we can invert Godwin's law for the good. Instead of using a Nazi comparison in an attempt to win an argument against someone who thinks or behaves differently, this inversion of Godwin's Law is used to examine ourselves. Instead of needing many people to manifest, it requires just one. Instead of the idea that, given enough time a Nazi comparison will manifest, its principle is to willfully manifest the comparison in the short term. Instead of the collapse of reasoned examination being a requirement for most instances of manifestation, the inverse of the law requires that reasoned examination be alive and well. Instead of shutting down the conversation with others, this inversion of Godwin's law opens up the conversation within ourselves. We can and should compare ourselves to the Nazis in order to think about the nature of human evil as it has life in our own hearts. All human beings have more in common with one another by virtue of the fact that we are all human beings than we have differences between us.
There is no person who is completely devoid of ignorance or the wrongdoing that rises from ignorance. Furthermore, there is no person who can even precisely define right behavior down to the smallest detail for all circumstances. In this deficit of expressed behavior and knowledge, we must regularly think on our feet. Socrates believed that we must persistently set our hearts to the task of questioning the nature of human justice and virtue as a matter of daily practice. This habit should include the consideration of even our smallest behaviors. In the practice of this habit, we become skillful at thinking on our feet in real time. In this daily practice, questioning ourselves becomes a matter of life affirming necessity. In this necessity of living ethical practice, we share a common fate with the Nazis. That fate is the common human dilemma that comes from our common human character. In our ignorance we all make mistakes and embrace wrongdoing, thinking it will be good for us. Under the influence of fear, we all circumvent and abridge our ethical thinking. Perhaps the idea that you have something morally or ethically in common with the Nazis is revolting.
Does it make sense to compare our tiny wrongdoings with the horrors of Nazi extremes? We ask you to consider what was discussed above, that "The full identity of human evil is already manifest in the smallest of events, because the smallest of discourtesies find their origin in the same grounding of ignorance and fear as the largest of holocausts." A truth of human life is that the greatest harmful results of human evil have small beginnings. The motivation for our smallest wrongdoing is not to become a monster. The motivation is to benefit ourselves, to protect ourselves. We aspire not to be the devil, but merely to survive and thrive. We desire what we believe will be, in the light of our own idiosyncratic personal calculus, good for us. We commit the smaller wrongdoings (and all wrongdoing according to Socrates) because we are motivated by our own instinctual aspiration to virtue, which is misguided by our ignorance.
With regard to motivation and goals, Hitler did not begin his rise to power because he gave speeches about burning millions of people in gas ovens, which were responded to by a universal cry of "Heil Hitler!". Hitler's speeches focused instead on the goal of restoring the virtue and vitality of the German nation and people. He spoke of creating great good. Hitler talked passionately in service to the ideal of how they could make Germany great again. When Hitler expressed his belief that he alone could bring Germany to greatness, he saw himself as a great good and not as a great evil. Hitler's basic idea that Germans should devote themselves to improving themselves and their nation were not wrong. They were an expression of the natural human aspiration to live well. Like all human beings, Hitler, and the Germans who followed him, were required by their instinctual human character to seek to better themselves.
Not all of his talk fit the stereotype of a madman raving about war and genocide. It would have been impossible to rally the German people with horrifically destructive talk. Even Hitler had to appeal to the human instinct to seek virtue. For example, below is a video with subtitles where Hitler speaks like a combination of Bernie Sanders and Jesus:
In spite of the non-objectionable focus in the video above, the correct methods required for transforming nice sounding ideas into living truths requires real knowledge about what is good, just and virtuous in human life. It requires that such knowledge affect our actions. With regard to method, the knowledge that is gained through the reasoned examination of ideas was absent. Hitler also spent a lot of time speaking in simple and passionate ways to the fear and outrage of the German people, who's outlook on life in Germany was grim.
Employing the standard methods of the demagogue, Hitler scapegoated and alienated the Jews, worked to inflame the passions of the German people, and met those who disagreed with him with dismissal and violence instead of intelligent questions. The surety of approved knowledge became more important than the critical self examination of individuals and the state. Easy lies were more important than difficult truths. Winning was more important than the intelligent discussion of issues. Consensus was created through passion and force rather than the reasoned examination of ideas. The Nazis failed tragically not because they were inhuman monsters. They failed because they were ordinary human beings following ordinary human instincts in the lack of adequate knowledge. Confidence in our ignorance is not a virtue, and acting on the behalf of such confidence is not righteousness. Acting out with blind vigor on behalf of false confidence is the highway to hell. If we are human, we have a great deal in common with the Nazis. This comparison is not to measure wrong for wrong according to the scope of results. This kind of inverse Godwin's Law comparison is an acknowledgment that all human beings share common basic aspirations to survive, thrive, and attain virtue in their living. It is the recognition that we share common motivations with the Nazis that lead to common failures, because our small wrongdoings have the same fundamental nature as large wrongdoings. If we are not careful, we can find that a lack of daily thoughtfulness about our small wrongdoing will, if life pushes us in a provocative manner, allow us to commit greater evils than we previously thought possible. Remember...
The greatest of human evil has small beginnings.
Be mindful each day of your capacity for wrongdoing and for good.
The most terrifying thing about contemplating the Nazis is not that they were some kind of inhuman monsters. The most terrifying thing is that they were just like us. They were ordinary human beings filled with the amazing human potential for virtue and beauty, and who were also capable of behaving like monsters. We all have this capacity. If we are human beings, remaining mindful about even the smallest wrongdoing in our attempts to live well is more important than many imagine, because the nature of human evil is the same in both small and large wrongdoing according to the ignorance and fear within the heart of the wrongdoer. The character of both small and large wrongdoing, as a fruit of ignorance and fear, is identical.
Does your smaller scope and intensity of wrongdoing mean that the character of human evil within you is really different than the Nazis? If one uses deception to conceal wrongdoing that harms only one person, is it less the character and identity of human evil than the lies used to cover the wrongdoings of an entire government? If you steal a small thing, is it less the nature of evil than those who try to steal the entire world? If you fail to honor the human dignity of one person who is not like you, is it any less a product of ignorance than the evil of those who mass murder the people they identify as different?
We can trace differences in the scope and intensity of the results of our wrongdoing, but its essential character is the same. Like the Nazis, we all have the desire to benefit our living. Like the Nazis, we all have the capacity to be undone by our own ignorance and fear. When the ignorance of uniformed opinion is unquestioningly embraced to be as good as knowledge, when the examination of our own understanding and character is discarded in favor of acting out on the basis of uninformed surety, the escalation of wrongdoing is at hand. The bad habit of always being sure of our opinions in the absence of reasoning always manifests fruit according to its nature. This bad habit is something that Socrates fought against.
The Examined Life as a Protection Against Human Evil
Socrates' belief that the only harm in life is in our own wrongdoing must be seen in the context of Socrates' remedy to that evil. In Plato's Apology, Socrates says, "I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living" (Plato. Apology. 38a)."
According to Socrates, a life lived in the absence of being mindful of our virtue and wrongdoing is a life that is not worth living. A life lived in the complete absence of critically examining and questioning our own ideas, knowledge, thinking, behavior, habits, and character is identical, in the worst way, to the life of a committed Nazi who does not question his orders. If you believe that your character is fine in the absence of living the examined life, keep in mind that just because life has not provoked you beyond the parameters of behavior that you are comfortable with, does not mean that you are not in danger of being able to commit horrific wrongdoing under different circumstances. For Socrates, the examined life as illustrated in the Socratic dialogues of Plato is, for the greater part, a daily practice of being ethically thoughtful. Socrates believed that the living of the examined life is the most important safeguard for our moral integrity. Regularly giving our energies to thoughtfully examining even our smallest wrongdoing helps us prevent the greatest fruits of human evil from ever manifesting in our lives and our communities.
It is a tragedy to live a whole life being absolutely sure that this law or action is just and that law or action is unjust without ever thinking about the question, "What is justice?". To live the unexamined life without collapsing into great evil is more matter of incidental luck than a product of human wisdom and virtue. To always be sure that this type of person is good and that type of person is bad, without ever thinking about the question "What is good?", is to live more as a mimetic robot than as a living human being. In this Socratic perspective, excellence of character and behavior depends on a commitment to excellence in reasoning. To commit actions and follow ideologies just because we are told they are right is our own personal version of the "Nuremberg defense" regardless of the results of our actions. Socrates regularly asked questions about justice, virtue, courage, friendship, holiness, knowledge, temperance and more. He examined the definitions and ideas given in response to his questions in order to see if they were a "false phantom or an instinct with life and truth" (from Theaetetus). He questioned others (and himself) not just about abstract ideas, but also questioned them about how they lived their lives. In the following quote from Plato's dialogue Laches, Nicias is speaking to Lysimachus about Socrates habit of questioning. This quote illustrates the personal accountability inherent in Socrates' vision of the ethical practice that is the beating heart of living the examined life,
"you seem not to be aware that anyone who has an intellectual affinity to Socrates and enters into conversation with him is liable to be drawn into an argument; and whatever subject he may start, he will be continually carried round and round by him, until at last he finds that he has to give an account both of his present and past life; and when he is once entangled, Socrates will not let him go until he has completely and thoroughly sifted him. Now I am used to his ways; and I know that he will certainly do as I say, and also that I myself shall be the sufferer; for I am fond of his conversation, Lysimachus. And I think that there is no harm in being reminded of any wrong thing which we are, or have been, doing: he who does not fly from reproof will be sure to take more heed of his after-life; as Solon says, he will wish and desire to be learning so long as he lives, and will not think that old age of itself brings wisdom."
The idea of flying from reproof is a crucial aspect of understanding the art of living the examined life. Humanity often shuns being corrected and clings to the sureties of their knowing, with a tight fisted grasp, under the illusion that we must be right merely because we feel desperately that we need to be right. If we do not examine ourselves, failing to carry ourselves "round and round" until we have to give an account both of our present and past life, until we are reminded of any wrong thing which we are or have been doing, we put ourselves in much greater danger of expressing a capacity to commit more evil than we thought possible. The one who lives the examined life wishes and desires, "as Salon says", to be learning so long as we live, and not to merely go on beveling that old age of itself brings wisdom and virtue. The virtue of the one who does not live the examined life is limited to merely grasping received truths and living them out with blind vigor. There are no major world views in which blind vigor alone is considered to be sufficient for human living.
When blind vigor in the exercise of our instinct to thrive is strengthened with the understanding that comes from the practice living the examined life, it strengthens us to resist the decline into greater wrongdoing. The reasoned examination of even our smallest behaviors is important. Eliminate the smallest discourtesy and wrongdoing then the greatest of human evils (as measured by results) never arise. Socrates was obsessed with the daily exercise of our capacity for ethical thinking. Regular work to improve the justice and virtue of our human character was the essential goal of his philosophy. Good living through good character was the holy grail of Socrates' vision of living the examined life. The horrors of the Nazi Shoah found its beginnings in the small details of the daily living of the German people. The ability of the Shoah to manifest drew its strength from the preexisting habits of ordinary people. When the lack of habits associated with the examined life is a prominent characteristic in the lives of human beings, the presence of artful demagoguery in politics will seduce our human desire for virtue to allow an unprecedented rise of evil in a society.
Here is Socratic variant of Godwin's Law, "In any society in which the people's lack of the habit of living the examined life goes on long enough, the probability of the functioning of that society becoming capable of being justly compared to the Nazis approaches 1." In our personal living as well as in the sphere of our politics, Socrates believed that living the examined life is our greatest protection against human evil.
The Virtuous Nazi
The examined life is not just about avoiding wrongdoing. It is also about increasing the power of our virtue to affect our lives and the world for the good. We all have instincts that force us to enjoy the power to affect our surroundings. We do this to our imagined benefit. When the results of our expressed instincts defy our imagination, it does not mean that we are evil (using evil in a Christian sense just once). It means that the fruit of our ignorance is made manifest. The goodness of life cannot be subsumed to the mistakes of instinct. There are very few human beings who are so damaged that they literally have no good at all in any aspect of their hearts, minds and lives. When comparing ourselves to Nazis, it is a mistake to assume that there is no good whatsoever in the soul of a Nazi. It is a mistake to automatically make such an assumption for any human being, and more so for any group of people.
If our comparisons only reference the horrors of the Nazis' misdeeds, we run the risk of unconsciously turning them into inhuman, alien monsters. Any comparison between our own humanity and an imaginary conception of inhuman, alien Nazi monsters must, by definition, be shallow. The most useful element in our learning from Nazi history is that the Nazis were ordinary human beings with the same capacities for justice, virtue, and beauty as anyone. Our comparisons must keep in mind that human beings, who are all embodiments of the human potential for excellence of virtue, can fail horrifically. By including both virtue and evil in our capacity to compare ourselves to the Nazis, the inverse of Godwin's Law is made complete, and the impact of our comparison becomes more challenging.
In order to begin our focus on virtue, consider the poem below, which speaks of the life affirming need to serve one's elderly mother with a glad heart. This is a poem that actually requires it's author to have a human heart and a real human capacity for virtue and beauty. For those of you who have an elderly parent, pay attention to this important poem:
“When your mother has grown older,
When her dear, faithful eyes
No longer see life as they once did,
When her feet, grown tired,
No longer want to carry her as she walks –
Then lend her your arm in support,
Escort her with happy pleasure.
The hour will come when, weeping, you
Must accompany her on her final walk.
And if she asks you something,
Then give her an answer.
And if she asks again, then speak!
And if she asks yet again, respond to her,
Not impatiently, but with gentle calm.
And if she cannot understand you properly
Explain all to her happily.
The hour will come, the bitter hour,
When her mouth asks for nothing more.”
How many of you could write so beautiful a poem about caring for a mother? Is this poem any less beautiful or deeply human just because it was written by Adolf Hitler ("Denk' es!" 1923)? So, it turns out, that the head of the Nazi Party could love his own mother, perhaps even better than some of us. Dr. Bloch, who was Klara Hitler's physician said of the impact of her death, "In all my career, I have never seen anyone so prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler." It is highly likely that there were some Nazis who were capable of being devoted to their own children with a quality of attentiveness and caring that would make you wish all persons were at least that good to their children. Yet, in the larger scope of their living as citizens, something went horribly wrong.
As Hitler had some human sensitivities that may exceed some of us in terms of its beauty and virtue, so any one of us may be morally compromised in ways that may exceed Hitler. Have you disrespected your own mother? Are you too lazy or uncommitted to your own goals that you cannot even affect your own life, much less affect the course of a nation? Just as we all have a capacity for darkness and wrongdoing within us because we all have a capacity to act on the basis of ignorance and fear, we all have a capacity for good. Just because life has not pushed us to express the fullness of our capacity for wrongdoing does not mean we are better than anyone else in every way.
In preparation for a few questions, imagine that Hitler or some other Nazi had a more virtuous understanding on what it means to take care of their own parents than you do. Also, imagine some other aspect of human virtue existing in a Nazi that exceeds your own, regardless of the remainder of Nazi failures. Imagine the German doctors who dedicated their lives to just and virtuous goal of caring for the health and wellbeing of their patients, only to wind up serving in the concentration camp selection lines (some having to drink themselves blind just to be able to show up for work, but show up they did). In the video, you saw the faces of many innocent German children with extraordinary potentials for virtue and good. These children, living in the Nazi state, were raised under the influence of state sponsored demagoguery. You saw some of them hanging from a rope for their misdeeds with their futures completely erased. Think of your children and their need to regularly and independently consider and examine the justice and virtue of their own character as they live out their lives. Consider that where we are in our current perspectives is never sufficient for tomorrow. If it were, then we would never need to learn. Consider that the thinking involved in our necessary learning and in the creation of new perspectives requires regular practice. It is like exercise. Nobody would ever say, "Hey, I am fit now because of exercise so I never need to exercise again".
Does a mere potential for virtue in itself guarantee that we will not succumb to ignorance and fear, with horrific results, at some point in our lives? Think of your own realized and potential virtues. Do you imagine that you are a better human being than all Nazis just because life has not pushed you over a dark edge? Do you believe that you can coast on the laurels of your your past virtue to conquer all future challenges? Can the existing virtue of your character protect you in the absence of all present and future ethical thinking about what is right and wrong? Is your confidence in your existing knowledge a sound basis for all future action in the absence of future learning and thinking? Do you believe that your present habits of examining your ideas, values, and the justice and virtue of your own character are sufficient to guard your future well being? Do you want your own children to develop the habit of living the examined life in which they regularly exercise themselves to thoughtfully examine their own knowledge and character in order to strengthen and better themselves?
Melete said, "The factual process of improving ourselves is never ceasing. We never arrive. What you know and are now is never sufficient for the future. It is, at best, only sufficient for now."
If we learn anything from the Nazis, we should learn that we have a tremendous obligation to the welfare of our own living and the welfare of all others, and that we cannot afford to fail to give due diligence in our daily ethical practice of examining our ideas and character. Germany was not destroyed because a few non-human alien monsters took control. Germany was destroyed during Nazi rule because ordinary human ignorance and fear in the hearts of many people shaped the governance of a nation. We are no different. In the small actions of daily life, the people can allow for the rise or fall of the virtue of a society. The ordinary thoughts of the people, which breath in the exercise of routine habits, make up the soul of a nation. Socrates believed that the habit of living the examined life was the greatest weapon to protect us from the rise of our own evil. According to Socrates' ideal of living the examined life, we must learn to give due diligence each day to being mindful of even the smallest wrongdoing in our living and to be mindful of cultivating our virtue as much as possible. The one who lives the examined life is mindful of the truth that in our smallest misdeeds, the possibility of great evil finds its beginnings. And in the slightest neglect of our own virtue, the full beauty of our best future may never come to be.
Prior to reading this essay, some readers may have never imagined that their smallest misdeeds could be so intimately related to the largest evils. Similarly, you may not realize that your slightest virtues are also intimately related to the greatest good (as measured by results). Think of the man who committed suicide. In his suicide note he wrote that as he walked to the place of his death, he would not kill himself if somebody smiled at him. Did you know that a casual smile could save a life? A line from the movie Shindler's List says, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." In contrast to the idea that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one" (Spock and Kirk), the line from Shindler's List resonates with the idea that the quality of human character needed to save the one is the same that is needed to save the whole world. To be mindful of even our smallest capacities for virtue is to be mindful of the world. The greatest of human powers for both good and evil that hold sway over the whole world are not separate in their nature from the smallest manifestations of that power in the life of one individual.
A smile with the power to "save the world entire" sounds like the power of a superhero. It is not the power of a superhero. It is a natural capacity of our humanity. It is difficult to imagine the extent to which we are capable of participating in great evil. It is also difficult to imagine the full extent that even our smallest virtue can affect the world for good. The point of living the examined life is not just to avoid dire evils that are beyond your imagination, it is also to make yourself capable of giving beautiful good to the world in ways that go beyond your finest dreams. Here we arrive at an important concept, which is that our full capacity to affect the world for both evil and good is beyond our natural imagination. It takes regular work to develop an understanding of our own nature and potential. In this work we gain the crucial element to put us in good relations with morality. That crucial element, which is a primary fruit of the examined life, is self-knowledge. In this Socratic perspective, living the examined life is the engine of human moral excellence, which is powered by the quest to discover ourselves. To be persistent in the discovery of our own being is to enrich our discovery of the whole world. To increase the virtue of our own life is not separate from increasing the virtue of all humanity. To secure the quality of the justice of our own actions is to make the world a better place.
The Auguries of The Innocent
"To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."
- William Blake
(Auguries of Innocence)
The harbingers of the future of all human good and evil have their hearth and home in the seeking eyes of every child. The most powerful manifestations of human good and evil, which impact all of humanity and even affect the universe beyond our earth, have their small beginnings in the innocent workings of tiny hands. The nature of human evil is bound to the nature of sensitive human babies held hostage by fear and stumbling in ignorance. We do not hold this morally awkward posture because we have rebelled against all that is holy. We move innocently through life, compelled by instinct to thrive, often tumbling head over heels. We find ourselves often ethically paralyzed because we are extraordinarily delicate and fearful beings facing life's blunt and brutal challenge to survive. In that challenge, we embrace whatever we can to make it easier for us to find some kind of virtue. We repeat, as much as possible, that which makes us feel as if we are not being crushed to death in the present moment. Even when such relief is merely an illusion created through our desire to benefit ourselves, we have a persistent tendency to cling to our illusions like a life raft. In all of this we are innocent. We are born perfectly innocent and perfectly ignorant. In our nascent ignorance, we begin the journey of seeking virtue. In the lack of sufficient knowledge, our natural instincts lose their way. The relationship between our instinctual innocence and knowledge as it is expressed in the present living moment is the foreshadowing of all future human good and evil.
In this quest to thrive, our ordinary daily habits shape us more than we realize and make us much more vulnerable to the whims of circumstance in the absence of living the examined life. Socrates believed that the daily exercise of ethics, which involves our reasoning about the nature of justice and virtue (metaethics) and our reasoning about the specifics of the right and wrong of our behaviors (normative ethics), is to be conducted in service to improving the justice and virtue of our own human character. This helps us to be more effectively and life affirmingly willful. Living the examined life, in which the daily exercise of questioning our own ideas, habits, and character help us to reject forcing ourselves to be absolutely sure we are right just because we are fearful and needy. The verification of knowledge requires more than fear and need. The habit of living the examined life is a fundamental staple of a life worth living. The only people who cannot learn and grow are the people who are absolutely sure they are right. These are also the only people who are capable of committing the greatest evil.
Justice and virtue, in Socrates' view, was not something restricted only to the big events and the extremes of life. Socrates believed that the justice and virtue of human character are in play with every breath we take and every action we make. Every small action and every ordinary thought is important to the larger integrity of life. The habit of regularly examining our thoughts, values, behaviors, character, and knowledge exercises us in ways that make us mindful of even the smallest potential for wrongdoing and virtue in our hearts, minds, and behaviors. The exercise of this habit of reasoning strengthens our ability to face dire circumstances with greater temperance of character in order to remain steadfast in our commitments to doing what is right on the basis of knowledge.
The examined life reduces our capacity to allow ignorance and fear to govern our actions and strengthens our power, through the subordination of our willful living to knowledge, so that we are able to give beautiful goodness to the world. As the will learns to bend to the influence of knowledge through living the examined life, this restrains us from acting out with blind vigor in the surety of our beliefs and puts reasoning in its proper place, which is at the center of everything we do. The personal daily quest to improve the justice and virtue of our human character through the subordination of our willful living to knowledge is the essence of a life worth living. It is the natural prerogative of the innocent to willfully seek to benefit themselves. In this quest to benefit ourselves, the fundamental good is knowledge. In our journey to empower ourselves, the fundamental human virtue is the ability to allow knowledge to influence our willful behavior. According to Socrates, being persistent at living the examined life is the primary weapon we have to both fight against human evil and to excel in moral excellence. Each one of us is "a heaven in a wildflower". If we are persistent in being mindful of justice and virtue in our living, we take care that the auguries we manifest in even our smallest behaviors will foretell of a future worth living.
A Clear and Present Danger4>
In the United States, our freedom of speech is embraced as part of the foundation of our existence. Socrates believed that the freedom to think and speak is a necessary condition for human virtue and the justice of a society. As citizens of the United States, Melete and I have been observing the status of reasoning in public discussion in the U.S. with increasing concern. The citizens of the U.S. are free to speak, but how have we chosen to express that freedom? The quality of public speech about important issues is a reflection of the status of free speech in our society. For Socrates, conversations that are useful to protect us from the rise of human evil required that real ideas and issues be truthfully discussed in detail and that all differing points of view be heard and examined.
In the U.S., the detailed examination of ideas in public speech has been replaced by over simplified talking points and platitudes. The useful discussion of different perspectives and solutions has been replaced by ad hominem attacks and social divisiveness. The cooperative effort to build new knowledge has been replaced by a competition to win the debates of the day. Winning has become more important than informing, sharing, learning, solving problems, and telling the truth. The reasoned examination of ideas is lacking in the public discourse of our society so much that the way a person feels is treated as being just as valid as knowledge for deciding issues. The random tweet of an uniformed person can carry as much weight as a knowledgeable report signed by hundreds of scientists. Bickering like children, being rude to one another, lying and inciting violence have become the common offerings of public speech, which have replaced the necessary mutual reasoning we desperately need in order to create real solutions to problems. Appeals to fear and the surety of talking points have come more frequently than appeals to due diligence in gaining real knowledge through the critical examination of our own understandings.
For Socrates, living the examined life was the safeguard of moral integrity. If moral integrity, as seen in light of the citizens' habits of living the examined life, is required to safeguard the nation then the United States is on the precipice of catastrophe. If this massive lack of private and public thoughtfulness is allowed to continue, it cannot end well. Remember the Socratic variant of Godwin's law, "In any society in which the people's lack of the habit of living the examined life goes on long enough, the probability of the functioning of that society becoming capable of being justly compared to the Nazis approaches 1."
The collapse of the reasoned examination of ideas and issues in public discussion in the U.S., which has been illustrated more vividly than ever before in the 2016 presidential campaign, is a clear and present danger. The character of the public talk surrounding the election was an incoherent mess whose lack of detailed focus on the issues made most of the talk irrelevant to the purpose of the election process. These speech acts are not dangerous because they will bring about consequential evils that give the United states congress the right, in light of the clear and present danger doctrine, to limit our freedom of speech. As per this essay, the results of human behavior (including speech acts) are not the focus with regard to the identity of evil. The public speech itself is the focus. Talking endlessly about all national issues only in terms of over-simplified, ad hominem focused, party approved talking points that both exclude the full range of perspectives and divorce public conversation from the reasoned examination of issues IS the clear and present danger.
In the 2016 presidential election, more than ever before, the capacity of politically motivated people to lie as easily as they breath, to otherwise willfully twist the truth merely for the sake of winning, and to refuse to discuss issues in detail vividly transformed a potentially valuable public discussion into a fountain of useless verbiage in front of the eyes of the whole world. These speech acts are evil. These low quality speech acts embody the identity of evil to the extent that they are the necessary manifestation of our collective ignorance and fear. In this disturbing collapse of reason, we are made vulnerable to the rise of great evil. The collapse of public reasoning is so severe in the U.S. that all it will take is just one frightening shift in circumstances, one provocative danger for human evil to dramatically rise in previously unimaginable ways. The worst of what we have seen in the 2016 presidential elections is only a whisper of the potential of evil to increase in the United States. The collapse of reason in public speech is a severe problem that is far more dangerous to the citizens of the United States than any defects in the human character of any of the candidates.
The good news is that there is a powerful remedy that is available to all. This remedy has to do with the nature of the freedom of speech and the responsibility of citizens to exercise their freedom of speech. The type of conversations shown in the dialogues of Plato give us a glimpse of what is called the Socratic method. In the Socratic style of conversation, there is to be found a Socratic version of the clear and present danger doctrine as it relates to the limiting of our freedom to speak. Like a government utilization of the supreme court ruling, we must limit our freedom of speech when we recognize a clear and present danger. Instead of the government limiting the free speech of the individual, the individual recognizes the clear and present danger of allowing ignorance to govern our actions and limits her own speech in service to seeking knowledge.
The Socratic style of conversation limits free speech by avoiding idle and divisive talk. It limits the focus of speech to the examination of ideas and issues in service to our cooperative efforts to create a future worth living. Socratic conversation is a way of limiting one's speech to a rigorously held focus on good questions in order to maximize the benefit of sharing different perspectives. When we discuss ideas in a Socratic style, we limit our freedom of speech in order to give those who think differently the freedom to speak. Asking useful questions and examining answers through intelligent reasoning becomes more important than winning. We limit ourselves from talking over one another. Sharing a common space to productively work together becomes more important than defeating imaginary enemies. We limit our freedom of speech to stop ourselves from making ad hominem remarks. Seeking knowledge and solutions becomes more important than personal attacks against another citizen. We limit our freedom of speech from blindly serving our ill-defined need to score a win in a debate and focus instead on our need to work together in order to create new knowledge that can improve ourselves and our societies. All of this limiting is done in order to free our speech so that it may rise to the hight of its power in conversations devoted to the reasoned examination of life. Allowing the collapse of reason in private and public discourse is a clear and present danger to personal lives of citizens as well as to the national security of the United States.
The Socratic response to this clear and present danger works by joining our instincts for benefiting ourselves with the daily practice of ordinary reasoning. The essence of this Socratic response is the recognition of evil according to its nature. Socratically speaking, it is a clear and present danger to continue living our lives in the absence of exercising our capacity to reason to the fullest extent. For Socrates, allowing ignorance to take a stand in the governance of our behaviors and our nation is the ultimate evil. You do not need a PhD, technical skills, or billions of dollars in your bank account to make a valuable contribution to your life, your society, and the world. Vlastos and Graham wrote this about the Socratic method:
"Why rank that method among the great achievements of humanity? Because it makes moral inquiry a common human enterprise, open to everyone. Its practice calls for no adherence to a philosophical system, or mastery of a specialized technique, or acquisition of a technical vocabulary. It calls for common sense and common speech. And this is as it should be, for how a human being should live is everyone's business."
When we live the examined life, it is not only a benefit to our individual living and liberty. When we are thoughtful on a daily basis about justice and human virtue, it benefits our society. When we are thoughtfully attentive to those who think differently, the value of reason touches the world. The extent to which citizens devote themselves to living the examined life is a measure of the strength of the nation. Ethics, which is our reasoning about morality, is at the heart of living the examined life. Increasing the practice and quality of ethical and other reasoning in the daily lives of citizens is the most powerful way of confronting a clear and present danger which threatens our way of life.
This solution does not depend merely upon politicians, bankers, and celebrities. This solution depends on all of us. The most powerful reform of government and big business does not focus on the actions of an inaccessible few, who need to be corrected. It focuses on the failure to cultivate reasoning in the masses to the fullest extent possible. This Socratic reform focuses on correcting and strengthening the blind vigor of our human instinct to thrive by establishing a persistent practice of seeking to replace ignorance with knowledge. It focuses on the temperance of human character that is gained when the habits of the examined life become the habits of our daily living. It is not from the lack of natural capacity to reason but from the lack of the habitual practice of reasoning that we the people of the United States find ourselves submerged in evil.
In the examined life there are no Republicans or Democrats, no atheists or theists, and there is no "other" who does not belong in the discussion. Restoring sound and courteous reasoning to private and public conversation is an absolute necessity if we are to avoid the greatest evil, which is that we destroy ourselves through our own ignorance. Developing the daily practice of examining our knowledge, values, character, behavior, and skills in the Socratic style strengthens our ability to bring different perspectives together in service to the creation of knowledge and the improvement of ourselves. In the essay, "The Fundamentals of Education: A Socratic Perspective on the Cultivation of Humanity: Part II - Socratic Talk: Hospitality to the Stranger in Dialogue", we wrote:
"Recall the question from part one: "What do biologists call a pond with only one life form?" The answer given to that question was: "Dead". As asserted earlier, differences are the wellspring of human cognition. As it is true that a mind with only one idea or way of seeing is dead, so it is true for a nation. Solving problems that resist initial attempts at correction require there be more than one point of view. This is always true. When it comes to solving problems and creating new knowledge, people with different perspectives and ideas are your best friend. The only person in all the world we should never want to talk to is the person who always thinks exactly like us.
From a Socratic perspective, always talking to people who merely agree with us is useless. In this Socratic way of thinking, it is a privilege to be able to discuss issues with people who think differently. This is not just preferable. It is absolutely necessary. At all levels of education, it is necessary for the good of society to teach people to see value in discussing important and controversial topics in a non-polemic and productively cooperative fashion with those who have different ideas. They must be educated to see the value of seeking truth, especially if that truth overturns what we currently believe. A dialectic of teamwork amongst people who differ in good conscience must replace the oppositional structure of enemies that dominants our current manner of discussing our differences. Productive teamwork among persons of different ideas is always needed if the goal is to actually create solutions to problems or to elevate the quality of our understanding."
Even Melete and I have radically differing perspectives in our experience of life. This is what makes the joining of our minds a fertile union. In the examined life, there is no alien "other" who must be excluded from respectable conversation on the issues. There are only different ideas that need to be examined in detail without personal disputations. In the examined life, ideas are not excluded through divisive polemics nor the refusal to discuss issues. Socrates believed that we examine all ideas until they either break or prove themselves.
If the U.S. is to avoid the greatest of evil, which is to destroy ourselves through our own ignorance and fear, the examined life is the path we all must share as we work together to build a life worth living. We cannot afford to wait until we are swept away by a tsunami of harm before we recognize the presence of real evil in our society. That evil lives and breaths in the U.S. to the extent that we have failed to be fully thoughtful about our living as private persons and as citizens. Being content with ignorance, remaining unfocused on the acquisition of knowledge, unconcerned about the development of our human character, and uninterested in our role as good citizens is a harbinger of great evil in the united states to the extent that it allows ignorance and fear to take the lead in the governance of our personal lives and our nation.
The bizarre 2016 U.S. presidential election is a fruit of the failure of a nation to take the ideal of living the examined life seriously. Instead of examining the issues in detail before the eyes of the public, which is the purpose of the process, the people of the United States were led on by the political parties and the media to spend the vast majority of their time trying to determine which candidate was too naughty to be president. Worthless! No time was spent discussing the many issues of the nation at a depth of detail required for the people to participate meaningfully in the political process. The detailed examination of different perspectives was completely absent. The major media outlets not only cooperated, but magnified the worst of these tendencies. However, they did so with a mandate from the viewing public.
The viewing public allowed this to happen. For many years we watched the main outlets of public talk on important issues become saturated with childish bickering, ad hominem attacks, and deceitful one-upmanship, which stole the show from the intelligent examination of the nation's issues. We are the ones who have become accustom to it and we are the only ones who can change it. When the citizens learn to love giving their own due diligence to the reasoned examination of all issues, there is no profitable market for selling oversimplified cheap talk. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the comedic, yet terrifying, clown show that was the 2016 presidential election process. The 2016 election has exposed beyond the shadow of a doubt how far we have fallen. The long term insidious decline of reason in pubic and private talk can no longer hide behind the pretense that our prosperity makes the development of our fullest capacity to reason unnecessary. Our wealth as a nation, which hangs by overly strained threads, can no longer offset a lack of thoughtfulness about how we should live and govern the nation. The 2016 U.S. presidential election has been a vivid illustration of the brutal fact that living the examined life is not the national pastime of the United States. If the people demanded greater due diligence to thoughtful dialogue in their private lives, they would have never tolerated the complete public collapse of the reasoned examination of issues that was displayed in the 2016 presidential election.
This is not to say that there are no people in the U.S. working hard to reason well. In the complete absence of the thoughtful examination of life by its citizens, the republic of the United States of America would have already died. No nation can survive the complete collapse of the practice of ethics and the total absence of reason. There are a great many citizens who spend a proper amount of time developing their mind and character in the best ways. However, there are also very many citizens who spend more time doing independent research on how to level up in their favorite video game than they are willing to spend on learning about the issues that are important to the governance of the nation. There are many people who are willing to spend more time researching how to get the best price on an airplane ticket than they are willing to spend learning how to be a more just and virtuous human being. This phenomenon is described in our essay "The Fundamentals of Education: A Socratic Perspective on the Cultivation of Humanity, Part II - Socratic Talk: Hospitality to the Stranger in Dialogue (p.24)", where Max discuss the dystopian dimensions of the failure of citizens to live the examined life:
"My upbringing in the 1960's and 1970's told me to fear the Orwellian type of dystopia. I was told that the ultimate downfall of free people would come through dictators who want to ban and burn good books. This did not happen in my country, which is the United States. What has happened is a different kind of tragedy of tremendous proportions. It is not a downfall of our infrastructure or our government. It is not a downfall of the people's ability to say or think whatever they want. It is a downfall of our people's desire to work hard to make sure that the quality of what they say and think is worthy of the highest standards. There are many people in the United States who have the precious freedom of speech to say and think anything they want. However, what they want is to indulge in trivia and entertaining distractions, which shortchanges their thinking life. The most common and insidious reinforcement of the self imposed concision of our thought life is our amazing appetite for distraction. The media is happy to comply, but the fault rests with the citizens. If I had to choose a symbol from dystopian literature to represent the greatest danger to freedom in United States, it would not be the "memory hole" from Orwell's 1984. It would be a bauble of entertainment from another dystopian vision, namely, the Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy from Huxley's Brave New World.
We eagerly spend our prosperity in the attempt to distract ourselves. In the United States there are 1001 Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy proxies to distract us from investing our energies and attentiveness in the development of our human potentials. Discretionary time and income is often lavished upon any entertainment distraction or additional material comforts we can afford. Playing video games takes up more time and personal priority in many people's lives than working to become a just human being. That one can generate more popular interest in a YouTube video of someone farting on a toilet while singing a song than can be generated by calling upon people to work hard to be more educated, just and virtuous citizens is the hideously destructive result that manifests when entertainment becomes the only virtue of prosperity. Many U.S. citizens grow up more preoccupied with imaginary super-powers, which is the theme of a great many entertainment distractions, while mostly ignoring the development of their real human powers. If the average citizen spent the same time each week trying to improve themselves as they spent watching video for distractive entertainment purposes, we would not have to think about the social implications of concision in the media." ("concision" relates to a criticism of Noam Chomsky's critique of the media - read that page of our essay for context)
The 2016 election process, as it was publicly discussed in the media, was an extraordinary abridgment of the due process of our necessary thinking. The fact that the media, and the nation, spent more time talking about the penis size of a presidential candidate than we spent on the thoughtful examination of the important issues pertaining to the governance of the nation is a terrifying and irrefutable sign that the United States of America is on the verge of internal collapse. When a television channel with the beautiful name, "The Learning Channel" (TLC), offers shows such as "Toddlers and Tiaras" and "America's Worst Tattoos", we must realize that we are rapidly spiraling downwards towards our own destruction. The ultimate evil, in this Socratic perspective, is that we destroy ourselves through our own ignorance. Many people all over the world have wondered how the childish talk and foolish distractions of the 2016 presidential election could have been allowed to exist. The answer to this question is found in the preexisting habits of the people of the United States.
We, the people of the United States, brought forth this political result as we unconsciously tolerated for decades the slow decline of ethical and other reasoning in our own lives, in our media, and in the functioning of our government. We did this because we were intensely focused on benefiting ourselves. It is our natural right and our fundamental good to be intensely focused on our own benefit. However, we worked so hard to embrace the American dream of prosperity and to leverage every new service and technology to our personal benefit that we forgot the important truth that the personal virtue of our human character cannot be purchased like a happy meal from McDonald's. We forgot that the fullness of justice cannot be secured and delivered to our front door like a pizza. It is not possible to subscribe to a cheap online service that allows us to download our personal integrity from the Internet. The highest standards of what it means to be a functioning citizen were sold out decades ago for a discount in a shopping mall. By vigorously following our natural human instinct to benefit ourselves in the context of historically unprecedented prosperity, we inured ourselves against the harsh truth that bringing forth the best of the justice and virtue of our own living, which cannot be delivered to us in our role as passive consumers, still takes attentive daily work. A citizen cannot have an intelligent perspective on the justice and virtue associated with the proper governance of a nation if she does not develop the persistent habit of considering the justice and virtue associated with her own character as it relates to the management of her private living and public life.
In Socrates' Athens, every citizen was expected to live as if they had the responsibility to prepare themselves to step up and take their place in the leadership of the state. In the United States, the citizens are expected to stay out of the governance of the nation. They are willfully denied, by the public media and the policies of government and party communications, the opportunity to meaningfully discuss the issues pertaining to the governance of the nation. Their primary role, as conceived by the established powers of governance, is that of the passive consumer of services, goods, and information. This goes some way towards explaining why citizens in the U.S. are more skillful at finding discounts than contemplating the nature of justice. This is why the nation's talk about one presidential candidate's genitals and the sexual habits of another candidate's spouse took up more time in the thinking of the people than the detailed examination of the actual issues of governance we needed to discuss during the 2016 election process. The primary threat to freedom and well being in the U.S. is the infantilization of the American citizen. No matter how hard and well we work, a prosperous lifetime devoted only to consuming goods and services is insufficient to bring forth the full virtue of a citizen. What use is gaining the wealth necessary to purchase a gold plated toilet if we allow our hearts and minds to be full of shit, or worse yet, to be empty.
Solon's saying hold true. Old age does not in itself bring wisdom, no matter how many pieces of awesome technology we have in our homes. To be the best person and citizen we can be, we must desire to be learning for as long as we live. This learning, although enhanced by modern technology, is not focused primarily on technology. This learning is about gaining self-knowledge. Self-knowledge, in which our basic animal instinct to benefit ourselves becomes most potent in the light of understanding, is our only path to the best of our moral being. This self-knowledge is gained through the daily habit of examining and our knowledge, character, values, and behavior as we express our will to live well. Our self knowledge is expressed and enhanced when the results of our examinations are put into living practice. The daily habit of examining every aspect of our being and our living teaches us to not fear replacing a false belief with knowledge. This daily habit is Socrates' ideal of living the examined life. The examined life is the foundation of the virtue of the citizen.
Living the examined life is the most important safeguard against the rise of evil in a society because the persistent habit of working to insure that knowledge, not ignorance, takes the lead in governing our behavior is the only path to moral and civic excellence. The principles in which the examined life walks and breaths are world view independent. It does not matter what religion or philosophy is embraced by an individual. The value of living the examined life is true for all of us. The principles of the examined life are necessary principles for all world views that claim a concern for the task of living well. Living the unexamined life, in which our instincts to benefit ourselves grovel at the lowest level of functioning, is the path to allowing our own ignorance to destroy our lives. Our long term preexisting habit of the lack of reasoning together increases our potentials for manifesting the injustices that come with social divisiveness, violence, and a failure to create solutions. The remedy of Socrates stands at the center all personal well being and is the foundation of all productive social unity. Now is the time to awaken from our slumber and discover ourselves. Now is the time to willfully awaken ourselves to the discovery of one another in the bonds of good citizenship, where deeply thoughtful exchanges dominate the landscape of human differences. If we make the mistake of allowing the unfolding of history to do the awakening for us, the injustices that are born as the inevitable end result of the Socratic variant of Godwin's law shall be all that is left of United States.
The Essential Truth
We all have an intractable obligation to benefit ourselves. This obligation is enforced through our relentless instinctual desire to always focus upon benefiting ourselves. It is our natural duty to life. If we examine together the consequences of performing this duty poorly, we will find that there is a universal consensus that all human beings prefer to live well. The virtue of human character, as it is needed to thrive in the art of our living, is the central focus in this Socratic perspective on human morality. Good living through good character was the holy grail of Socrates' ideal of the examined life. Socrates believed that knowledge is the fundamental good and the governing dynamic of all human action. At the heart of the good character, which Socrates sought through living the examined life, is the ability to be skillfully virtuous at subordinating our willful living to knowledge. The ability to allow knowledge to influence our world view and behavior is the fundamental good that makes all other human goods stand up and live. This is not just about book learning, as said in the essay, "A Socratic Perspective on the Zombie Apocalypse",
"Learning must become the high value in our pantheon of values. It is not just learning with a view to advancing in academia. Most of the best knowledge a human can encounter is not taught in schools. The desire to learn and to grow through learning must permeate every aspect of life. Learning from books, learning from love, learning from loss, learning from work, learning from play, learning from our laughter and tears, all of life is filled with the opportunity to grow through learning. However, we must first choose to value learning and we must also choose to be deeply attentive to life in order to facilitate the experience of learning."
If we want to live well then we must learn to live in accordance with the best of our understanding. This means that it is necessary to practice seeking knowledge and to persist in the improvement of our human character for the duration of our lives. The ability to allow our willful living to be guided by the best of our knowledge is a virtue of character that is developed as we live the examined life. The best of our understanding, and of our ability to participate as citizens in the governance of our societies, is founded upon our own self-knowledge as we actively examine our own living and life itself. If we want to live well, we must embark on a lifelong journey to discover ourselves and we must learn to live according to our knowledge. Melete said, "The only real goal of Socratic questions is to find out what it means to be human, then learn to do it well." This requires practice. This daily moral practice is the practice of living the examined life.
Do you desire to better yourself and your living? Do you know what that means for you? What is good? What is justice? What is virtue? What is beauty? What is temperance? What is courage? What is knowledge? Do you possess these qualities in any way? Do you believe you can live without these qualities? How can you strengthen your character in order to be a greater blessing to your own living? What does it mean to you to become a more just and skillfully virtuous person and citizen? Do you desire to live according to sound knowledge? Did you do anything today to improve your knowledge? Did you do anything today to test your knowledge and behavior for the purpose of improving yourself? What are your guiding principles? Are you mindful daily about living by your principles? Have you ever questioned your principles? If you could be a much better person, would you be willing to suffer for it? Which is worse, to do wrong or to suffer wrong?
If you desire to read more detailed information about the nature of a Socratic style of conversation as compared to the nature of public discourse in the U.S., check out:
In Part II, We refer to the nature of public conversation in the U.S. as a style of anti-Socratic conversation. Part II begins with a criticism of the six teachings of the anti-Socratic. In Part II, there are references to George Steiner, art, hospitality, and common space, which require first reading Part I of the essay in order to understand. Although it is necessary to read Part I - The Art of Living: Hospitality to the Stranger Within in order to get the full context of our thought in Part II, Part II can be read independently with profit. If you wish, you can also start reading Part II at the beginning, which discusses the beginning of Max's 35 year experiment in living the examined life. You can read a summary of the whole "Fundamentals" project, including the upcoming unpublished Parts of this essay on the introduction page. Read the essay, "The Socratic Temperament". This short essay gives a description of four characteristics needed to live the examined life. The Socratic temperament was written for teachers, but is relevant to anyone interested in the examined life.
to educate, see the MISSION STATEMENT PAGE
 Read Plato’s Gorgias.
 See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 7.3.1146b-1147a32
 In Gorgias, read the conversation between Socrates and Polus.
 In Gorgias, read the conversation between Socrates and Polus.
 See Plato’s Apology: Socrates says this after being condemned to death on false charges.
 Gregory Vlastos, & Daniel W. Graham (1971). "The Paradox of Socrates." In The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays. Anchor Books, p 20. (Quote was gender neutralized)