by John Wyatt
I could not imagine why I had been called to meet the head of the Philosophy department. Was I in trouble again? The tiny office looked ancient, the décor consisting of a pair of wooden chairs, sagging under the weight of age, a coffee stained oak desk, an old fashioned typewriter, and file folders stacked in piles against the walls. Apparently professors of even this prestigious college had little budget for office space.
Gingerly, I lowered myself into the less battered looking chair and waited. Within minutes, the door opened and a short, middle-aged gentleman entered. Without ceremony, he flipped though the stacks of files, picked one, then sat behind his desk. His eyes sparkled as he removed a bundle of papers from the file.
“I am professor Socrates, the head of the Philosophy department,” he smiled as he spoke. “You may have heard of me?”
I nodded, unsure what offense I had committed that had called me to his office.
“I have read your paper, and I must say that I find your thoughts on ethics to be interesting, though they are in opposition to many of my own ideas. I thought that perhaps we could discuss the matter in more detail. That is why I asked you to come here.”
I started to relax. The head of the department was interested in my paper!
I ventured to restate the thesis of my paper: “My main point is that, while there may be an absolute moral standard, most people simply manipulate ethics to justify their desires. History’s philosophers have left us with a wide menu of ethics from which to choose, so whenever I am in doubt, all I need to do is search for an ethical standard that matches my desires, and adopt it.”
Socrates smiled condescendingly as he spoke. “That is indeed what many people do, but my main concern is not how people do behave, but how they ought to behave. That is the realm of the true ethicist. Did you hear professor Thrasymachus earlier, when he declared that Justice was simply the interest of the stronger?” (Plato, 1977, p. 298).
“Yes,” I responded, “he argued that governments make laws with a view towards their own interests, and that injustice was simply disobedience to the laws. I was left with the impression that he held all ethics to be merely an attempt by the weak to corrupt the strong with Ideals, and thus make the strong feel guilty for exploiting the weak!”
Socrates laughed. “Yes, one would think so! And do you recall my counter-argument?”
“Your counter-argument was quite effective.” I was warming to this man, whose arguments had so profoundly influenced me; yet with whom I had disagreed enough to write my final paper refuting one of his ethical discourses. “At first you suggested that Rulers may be mistaken about their own interest; and may even, through error, command to their own injury. Therefore, if professor Thrasymachus were correct, and Justice was merely obedience to authority, then Justice could work either for the good or the injury of the Ruler. This contradiction led to your inquiry about the nature of the ideal society, in an attempt to define Justice.” (Plato, 1977, p. 300).
“Precisely, and it is my definition of an ideal society about which you wrote so heatedly as to catch my interest! But first, please explain in your own words what you heard me say about the ideal society.”
I shifted to get more comfortable and began my argument. “Professor Thrasymachus had concluded by stating that mankind only censures injustice out of the fear that they will be the victims of injustice, and not because they shrink from committing injustice (Plato, p. 306).
“You responded at length, asserting that the Rulers must rule for the good of the people, and not for their own good. I agree that this is true in the ideal society. However, you then spoke about how the government goes about determining what is best for the people. You described how the beginning of any work is the most important part, especially in training the young. For that reason, you felt that the government must censor the arts – to prevent the young from hearing stories that would cause them to lose respect for the authorities. You proposed that children only be told stories that would shape their minds in the most virtuous fashion, and that the censors should be the ones to approve those stories. (Plato, p. 353).
“However, in doing so, the government then places itself in the role of determining what is best for everyone. This censorship strikes at the heart of the individual freedoms that we value today. If the National Endowment for the Arts were to espouse such theories, the public would throw them out on the streets!”
Socrates listened intently to my discourse, nodding in agreement as I restated his main points. Now he turned his gaze upward, leaned back in his creaky chair, and replied, “A young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thought (Plato, 355).”
I leaned forward, hoping the aged chair was at least as solid as the professor’s arguments. Clearly, I would have to be persuasive if I was to convince him of my own points.
“Professor Socrates,” I replied, “your justification for censorship is based on yet another point which you made later – your concept of the ‘noble lie’. When you described the various roles that people would fill in the ideal society, you spoke of the need to quell potential unrest by telling people that God had fashioned each one differently – that in some people God had used gold, in others he had used silver, and in the lowest he had used brass (Plato, p. 409). This was intended to make the people content and accept their role in life. Whether God had actually fashioned people in this manner was not relevant; you held this assertion to be a deliberate lie, which was justified because it was for the common good. This is the part of your ethics which I hold to be the most contemptible. I think that a lie by another name is still a lie!”
I stopped suddenly. I had not intended to become so outspoken, and certainly not with the head of the department! But the professor’s smile only broadened.
“My,” he beamed, “you certainly have developed a passion for philosophy! That is good, for you must always question your beliefs, and keep seeking for the truth. My argument is predicated on the premise that enlightened philosophers will become the rulers, which is why education is so important. That is also why I divided the people into three classes: the traders or merchants, the auxiliaries who provide protection, and the guardians who rule; and then defined Justice as each person doing their own business, according to their class (Plato, p. 435). However, I also understand that most people today feel that all people are created equal, therefore they cannot accept the concept of a wise Guardian class censoring the arts, or using a justified lie to encourage the common good. I must soon go to my next class, but before we part I would ask you to consider if there are those in government, your church, or even your own family, who believe in the noble lie? When you were a child and a loved one died, did not your parents simply say that they would be ‘asleep for a long time?’ Did they not do this to spare your feelings until you were old enough to understand death? Also, I ask you if predictions of economic recovery are sometimes made in the hope that the lie itself will instill confidence and perhaps stimulate recovery? And cannot a person’s hopes become their own ‘noble lie,’ stirring them to action?”
My thoughts spun as Socrates rose, tossing my folder onto the nearest heap. I thought back to the time when my mother had asked if a certain dress made her look fat, and the hurt look on her face when I said that it did. I had not thought that there might be occasions in which a lie could be justified. Clearly, not all ethical questions could be answered with a simple set of rules.
I rose politely as Socrates walked to the door. “I hope my opinions do not affect my grade.” I blurted.
Socrates turned and smiled, “Of course they do! Your paper was quite good. Remember, wisdom only comes to he who questions, and you are clearly not afraid to question the authorities. In that respect, we are in perfect agreement. I hope we can talk again soon.”
I stood dumbfounded as Socrates left the room. Glancing at my watch, I saw that I only had five minutes to reach my next class. As I rushed out, I could not help feeling a greater respect for this man whose ethics seemed to focus more on questioning and seeking knowledge than on making absolute pronouncements. I looked forward to our next encounter.
Plato. (1977). Republic (B. Jowett, Trans.). In S. Buchanan (Ed.), The Portable Plato (pp. 281-696). New York: Penguin Books.