Socrates, Philosophy and Hubris: 

Did Socrates Think Philosophy is Impossible?


 by Shaun Baker 



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(c) Sic et Non - Forum for Philosophy and Culture (2003) -


            Via an examination of some early Platonic dialogues, I argue that Socrates believed he had inadvertently discovered that philosophical ethics is impossible.  His considered opinion is similar to G.E. Moore’s.  Both believe moral terms are impervious to discursive analysis.  We cannot define “good”. Because of this, Socrates believed we cannot properly differentiate the purported science of ‘what is best’ (wisdom) from other sciences.   We cannot answer questions regarding the desiderata of the science, other than in very general and unsatisfactory ways.  Nevertheless, both Socrates and Moore believed we can reliably detect things that have the property goodness, and conduct effective arguments concerning right and wrong courses of action.    Careful use of dialectic helps us more reliably find the good people and the proper acts, even if we cannot define goodness.  In addition, dialectical activity limits the likelihood of two sorts of dogmatic hubris: uncritical belief that one is morally correct, or uncritical belief that the inability to define moral terms implies that no justified moral judgments can be made.


In Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates produces arguments that throw doubt upon the prospects for success in philosophical ethics.  In the Apology, Socrates tells us he had become convinced that ethical knowledge is not possible for human beings.  He says such knowledge is ‘property of the gods’. Human wisdom, is by comparison, worth very little, or nothing at all. 

He found that it is not possible to analyze or define moral terms such as ‘good’, or ‘just’.  Because of this inability, a science of the good (wisdom) is not possible.  The practitioners of this alleged science are not able to verbalize the desiderata or goals of the science, except in the most general and question-begging ways. This is in marked contrast to other sciences, such as medicine, and military science. 

Paradoxically, Socrates did believe in the benefits of philosophical investigation.  We may not acquire any positive knowledge via philosophy (beyond the knowledge of our own ignorance); nevertheless, the best life must include dialectical examination of ethical concepts, and discussions concerning the good.  Why does he hold this apparently conflicted view? The answer is complex. 

On the one hand, Socrates believed that we have an ability to detect goodness, even if we cannot fully define it or understand it. Goodness does exist.  Nihilism, the view that there are no objective moral values, is not necessarily connected with ethical skepticism, the view that definition or analysis of moral terms is not possible.  Critical reasoning allows us to find the good people and acts, and more reliably find the frauds, bad people or acts.  It also allows us to find the conditions necessary in order for something to be good or fail to be good.  Critical reasoning can do this, even if it cannot deliver the goods in terms of definitions.

On the other hand, dialectic is a tonic against twin dangers, both examples of dogmatic hubris: One twin, (Charybdis) is the uncritical belief that one has the right view because one also uncritically believes he has the right definition of good.  The other (Scylla) is the uncritical belief that practical, real-world ethical judgments are relative, impossible, cynical power plays, or mere matters of opinion, because philosophical ethics is impossible.  Dogmatic nihilism falls into just as lazy and potentially dangerous a dogmatism as does its more positive counterpart. (1)   The behavior of those that fall into these traps tends to be injurious.

In what follows, I would like to fill out this picture, presenting supporting material from the early Platonic dialogues Apology, Euthyphro, Charmides, Laches and the later Meno.  Euthyphro offers a specific instance of failed definition. The Apology presents an inductive argument for the impossibility of ethical definitions based upon instances like that presented in the Euthyphro.  The Charmides uses these results to prove that a science of the good is not possible.  In addition, it considers other possible definitions of wisdom.  None is satisfactory.  The dialogue has a broader conclusion, that we have no idea what wisdom is.  However, for our purposes, the impossibility of wisdom as a science of the good is the paramount point.  Finally, the Laches presents an argument that knowledge of the nature of goodness has nothing to do with the virtue of courage. It, in concert with similar arguments for the other virtues, falsifies the claim that knowledge of the good is a necessary condition of being a virtuous person.  Despite this, we can have a critical and practical ethics.  The Meno makes this case and explains how this is possible.  To begin, it will be useful to have an outline of the Socratic arguments for the impossibility of ethical definition.


1.  If discursive knowledge of moral goodness is possible, then one must be able to intellectually grasp and understand what moral goodness is.

2.  If one is able to intellectually grasp and understand what morally goodness is, one is able to define or give an account of it.

3.  But no one is able to define or give an account of moral goodness.

4.  So, no one is able to intellectually grasp and understand what moral goodness is.

5.  So, discursive knowledge of moral goodness is impossible.

In support of 3A.


1. If definition or account of moral goodness is possible, then the favored definition or account will beg no questions.

2.  Every possible definition or account of moral goodness begs questions.

3. Definition or account of moral goodness is not possible.

In support of B2


1.  Any definition of moral goodness must work either from non-moral terms, or in terms of one or more moral terms.  (A mixed bag of examples: pleasure, utility, duty, justice, right, contract and service, divine approval, virtuous character traits.)  There are a finite number of plausible defining terms (call it set P).

2.  Working from any one of these members of (P), one can produce counterexamples that show one can be adhering to its strictures, yet not be acting in a morally appropriate manner.  One can state what is wrong with each of these cases only by reference to another one of the family of terms in the finite set (P).

3.  Working from any combination of the terms of (P), one can produce counterexamples that show one can be adhering to the strictures of that combination, yet not be acting in a morally appropriate manner.  As above, one can state what is wrong with each of the cases, only by reference to another one of the family of terms in the finite set (P).

4.      The situation in (2) and (3) will always occur, no matter what term or terms you are dealing with

5.      Therefore, all possible definitions or accounts of moral goodness beg question.

Argument A will be our entry point.  It comes from the Apology.  Plato gives us some valuable insight in his retelling of Socrates’ defense.  An intriguing story accounts for Socrates’ occupation as a gadfly to the body politic.  According to this story, Chaerephon, a friend, asked the oracle at Delphi if there was any person wiser than Socrates.  The Pythia answered that there was not.  This mystified Socrates.  He was confident that he did not possess any very important information, certainly nothing like wisdom.  The answer seemed to have the implication that Socrates was the wisest man on earth!  How could there be such a disparity between what Socrates most intimately knew, and the word of Apollo?  Surely, the God could not be so ignorant of Socrates’ state.  Surely, there must be some way to account for the answer. 

Assuming that Apollo really did think Socrates was the wisest human, what better way to show the god wrong than by finding one person wiser than Socrates? Socrates set about doing just that.  While Socrates may not have begun his examinations due to Chaerephon’s query, he at least intensified his quest in light of the oracular response. (One suspects that Socrates was already pestering folks, and that this fact compelled Chaerephon’s trip in the first place!  He appears in two other dialogues, Charmides and Gorgias, as a witness to Socrates’ interrogative skills.) 

Socrates tells us that he began to search out citizens with reputations for wisdom. He asked such people about subjects with which the wise should be conversant.  He asked them to tell him the nature of ‘goodness’, ‘justice’, ‘right’, etc.  In each case, the result was the same.  With regard to the first examinee (an anonymous politician), Socrates describes the sorry results as follows:

In conversation with him I formed the impression that, although in many people’s opinion, and particularly in his own, he gave every appearance of being wise, in fact he was not.

               (Defense, 21 d)

Socrates found very quickly that no one else he interviewed fared better:

Since I was trying to find out the meaning of the oracle, I was bound to interview everyone who had a reputation for knowledge.  By the dog, gentlemen, for I must be completely honest with you, my impression was this: It seemed to me, as I pursued my investigation by command of the God, that the people with the greatest reputations were by far almost entirely deficient, while others, supposedly below them and inferior, had much more wisdom.

              (Defense, 22a)

The ‘wisdom of the inferiors’ here is technical wisdom, as is evidenced by the context of the passage.  In the sequel, Socrates tells us that he interviewed tradesmen, poets and artisans.  He found that they had a more useful (though technical), knowledge than the gentry and politicians.  However, they most certainly did not have wisdom.  Socrates spent years in this search, and after enough instances of the sort described above, he formed an inductive generalization concerning human wisdom, and the import of the oracle from Delphi:

The truth, men of Athens, is certainly this.  Wisdom is the property of God, and by the oracular response he intends to tell us that human wisdom is worth very little or nothing.  He is not really talking about Socrates in particular; he is only using me as an example, by way of illustration.  It is as if he is saying ‘The wisest man is he, who like Socrates here, knows that his knowledge or wisdom is in truth, completely worthless’.

              (Defense 23, a-b) [italics mine]

Socrates examined politicians, sophists, artisans, military men, poets, slaves, the young and old.  The results were always the same.  His interlocutors could not define or give an account of goodness, even if they were able to competently discourse about their own professions. 

He had canvassed all of the likely defining properties both individually, and in combinations, and had found that each failed. He had attempted to find definitions of terms that presuppose moral goodness (such as ‘justice’), with equally futile results.  This is strong inductive evidence against the possibility of such definitions. 

Using dialectic, Socrates had inadvertently discovered something like G. E. Moore’s open question argument for the simple undefinable property goodness.  The Euthyphro presents one piece of evidence in support of (B) and (C). The examination of Euthyphro looks like an application of Moore’s open question argument.  On the surface, the dialogue is an attempt to define holiness or piety.  Just underneath this surface, the discussion revolves around the question of whether or not Euthyphro is acting in a morally appropriate manner in prosecuting his father for negligent homicide. Before looking at this example in detail, though, I first want to take a detour through Moore, comparing him with Socrates.  This will take some time, but we will get back to the Euthyphro!


Moore (2)

For Moore, a “naturalistic” definition of moral goodness is any definition that attempts to work from some non-moral property.  A natural property is anything that we can detect without having to rely on some alleged capacity for moral intuition.  Natural properties are usually more or less quantifiable.  For instance, pleasure, utility, and desire are things that we can in some way quantify.  No definition of moral goodness in such terms can succeed according to Moore.  That is ultimately because these things may or may not possess the property goodness, but do not constitute goodness.  We can show this by asking, of any such definition, if something that satisfies the definition is good.  If the question makes sense, and (more to the point) if it is possible to construct a counterexample for that defining natural property (or a set of such properties), this shows the definition is not adequate.  The nature (no pun intended) of goodness is left open, and undetermined.  The counterexample shows that the candidate property can have goodness in some circumstances, and not have it in others. There is a finite set of likely properties in terms of which goodness could be defined.  Each is prone to a counterexample, and Moore’s open question.  Hence, the “open question argument” for the existence of one undefinable non-natural property, moral goodness. According to Moore, we have a distinct capacity to intuit this property even though goodness resists discursive analysis.

Moore’s stance is one possible way to respond to the open question argument.  There are some other possible interpretations of the data.  I list them all, putting Moore’s interpretation first: 

1.      Goodness is a non-natural property of things, and humans are unable to define it, even though they can detect it.

2.      Goodness is a non-natural property of things. Humans are unable to either detect or define it.  We are mistaken in thinking we can do either of these things. 

3.      There is no non-natural property ‘goodness’.  There is no natural property ‘goodness’, and hence, man can neither detect nor define goodness.  Once again, we are mistaken.

4.      Goodness is only definable in terms which are either synonymous with it, or by using related terms contained in a more or less clearly demarcated family.  Normal usage demarcates this family for us.  Such terms are “just”, “virtue”, “appropriate” or “right”.  There are others.  No definition in naturalistic terms (e.g., “useful”) is possible. The only way we can explain to someone why any attempt this way fails, is by using one of the family of terms here in (4) to show and describe to them a counterexample.  The open question argument establishes this. This forces us to stay within the family of terms.  This circularity is fatal to the view that we can adequately define goodness.  Circular definitions are never satisfactory.

5.      All adequate definitions are circular in the above manner.  They inevitably will involve terms that come from a family of like terms.  Moore’s argument establishes this with regard to moral terms.  It is irrational of us to expect any definition to be non-circular.  What is more, this is not fatal to the enterprise of defining goodness.

These seem to be the only possible interpretations of the data. Which of these positions did Socrates take?


Too much of what Socrates says belies the view that he was a moral nihilist.  He acted as if there is a morally appropriate way to behave, and he more than once said things like “It is always better to be wronged than to wrong”. (3)  He also believes we can intelligibly discuss ethical problem-situations. While he may have been unable to define moral terms, his actions indicate that he considered the moral good to be a reality.  So, we can strike (3) as representative of Socrates. 

The second interpretation paints a picture according to which there is moral good, but we are cut off from it altogether.  Clearly, Socrates doubts that problem free definition of goodness is going to work out. Yet, does it follow from this that Socrates thought we are unable to detect goodness?  The above would militate against this interpretation.  Also, he does allow that we usually agree concerning which states of affairs and people are good, and which are not. (4) This seems to be more than would happen by chance.  But, if (2) were true, goodness were out there, but we were utterly unable to detect it, it would seem that the probability of our being in such widespread agreement would be no greater than that allowed by chance.  However, we all agree on similar earmarks of a good society, or a good man.  For example: Most would agree that a well ordered state or psyche brings about a higher level of happiness than does its opposite.  So, we consider such individuals and states better.  If we were totally cut off from goodness, it seems we would be groping in the dark more and all over the board in attempting to find the good things.  It seems that a fair number of us would think the disordered society or man was good, or that murder is morally acceptable.  This is not the case.  This unanimity gives some level of justification to the notion that we can detect goodness in people, acts or relations.  So, I think we can strike (2) as being representative of Socrates. 

These considerations clearly support (1).  Socrates considered goodness to be a detectable though non-definable, property, something like Moore’s non-natural property. We can read Plato as developing this view and its implications with his theory of Forms.

Next, consider (4) and (5).  Is (1) compatible with these?  Suppose we can detect goodness, but cannot define it.  Suppose we are unaware of this, and we attempt to do so. We may attempt the definitional strategy of defining goodness in terms of natural properties that appear to partake of goodness.  We may attempt, for instance, to define goodness in terms of utility.  When confronted with counterexamples, we may come to realize that goodness is better defined in terms of just use of utility, and attempt to improve the initial definition by incorporating this additional term.  Then, we may wonder what the term means, and attempt a definition of justice.  We may apply the same naturalistic strategy, and attempt to define this second tier term.  If so, we will run up against some further problem counterexample, and find ourselves making use of some other family related term to point out the shortcomings at this second level of definition.  We will incorporate this third term into a third tier definition, and so on.  At some point, we will find ourselves repeating things.  We will see that we are caught in a circle. 

If, on the other hand, we try to steer clear of defining goodness, or the second and third tier terms, in terms of natural properties that have them, we will find ourselves staying within the more narrow family of moral concepts of which “good” is a member.  We will avoid counterexamples, but will wonder about the cognitive content of the definitions thus produced.  The definitional enterprise will begin to look fatally circular all the sooner.  

This situation will arise, no matter what ethical term we choose to start with.  If we start with “justice”, for instance, this same sort of scenario eventually develops.  Noting this, we may suspect that we will always fall into circular traps, and cannot really define the moral terms at all.  If we have this worry (that we are not defining if we are being circular), then we are more in sympathy with number (4).  That interpretation implies circular definitions necessarily are vacuous.  If that is true, and philosophical ethics cannot help falling into the circularity trap, then perhaps the whole enterprise is a waste of time. 

If we accept the possibility of the circular state of affairs, and do not think that this runs the risk of vacuity, we are more in league with number (5).  This is because we do not accept the thesis that circularity is fatal to definition.

The Platonic texts present us with lines of reasoning that instantiate statement 2 in argument (C). Attempts are made to define moral terms in terms of ‘natural’ properties or relationships.  For example, justice is defined as giving to friends what is theirs and harming enemies. (5) Counterexamples are produced. Socrates shows that it is possible to give a friend his due, yet in so doing, do something wrong (I give my suicidal and irrational friend his weapon).  So, improvements are attempted: Justice must be giving friends their due in the morally appropriate way, in a way that is in their best interest, fair, right, or whatever.  What is the sense of “best”, or “appropriate” here?  What does “fair” mean?  What does “right” mean? This futility goes on. In early dialogues, it is not resolved, and aporia is the result. The skeptical tone seems more in league with (4).  Socrates intends to show us that the only way to avoid counterexamples is to retreat into circular trivialities.  Does he intend to show us that circular definitions are actually acceptable as well as being inevitable?  If we side with a positive answer, we buy (5) as Socrates’ considered opinion.  If we side with ‘nay’, we buy (4).  How do these commitments affect our commitment to (1)? 

If we combine (4) with (1) we can understand Socrates’ interpretation of the oracular response.  Human wisdom is worth little or nothing because circular definitions accomplish little or nothing.  We can also understand why Socrates would so confidently claim to know certain things are right.  He knows it, not in the sense that he can give a discursive account of right, and then demonstrate that the things he considers right have that property, but in a lesser sense of being able to detect the good things.  Similarly, we can detect water even when we cannot ‘define’ it chemically.  It is not impossible to find water via this route, first having a chemical description of it, and then venturing out with sophisticated equipment, testing samples, but we do not have to go about it this way.  However, unlike this chemical example, it is, in principle, not possible to come up with an adequate definition of what goodness is, because there is only one route to that knowledge, and that route is necessarily vacuous, and lacking in content.   

If we combine (5) with (1) we have a harder time squaring things with Socrates’ interpretation of the oracular response.  If he thought circular definition was acceptable, then why would he consider Apollo’s message to be so pessimistic with regard to the possibility of human wisdom?  We also have trouble squaring things with Socrates' repeated statements that apparently circular definitions are not adequate stopping points for dialogue, but mere indicators that more work needs to be done.  He urges that we move on.   On the positive side for (5), in concert with (1) we can still make sense of Socrates’ claims to ‘know’ certain things are right, just in the way we did with (4).

Taken individually, the unsettled results from any one dialogue, such as the Euthyphro may not be troubling.  One could say that a single definition fails because it is the wrong one.  However, taken collectively, all attempts at defining goodness in ‘naturalistic’ terms seem prone to the open question argument.  The method of producing counterexamples is at the heart of ethical thought, and shows no sign of running out of fresh naturalistic victims. Socrates found this to be the case over the many years of his own examinations.  I think we can consider dialogues like the Euthyphro as providing grist for the skeptical mill.  The early Platonic dialogues give support to argument C, and hence, to B.  If we are to trust the portrait given by Plato, it is not only consistent with that portrait, but apparent, that Socrates thought he had established that goodness is un-definable, save in a circular manner. In his speech, he holds out that the Gods have a satisfactory knowledge of what terms like ‘good’ refer to.  But, he also says humans are incapable of Wisdom.  This means we cannot intellectually grasp the good.  Since we can always rightly ask Moore’s question for any proposed naturalistic definition, and the only definitions that avoid this question are circular, it follows that discursive knowledge of goodness is not possible for us.  Despite this, we are able to recognize things that are good in the predicative sense of the term.  We can detect things that partake in goodness.  We now turn to the Euthyphro, and other dialogues to flesh this out some more.

Detour Completed:

Back to the Euthyphro

Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for something like negligent homicide.  Socrates wonders whether the Gods think the prosecution is the right thing to do.  This is what he means by asking Euthyphro whether he is sure that what he is doing is “pious” or “holy”.  Euthyphro is convinced he is behaving piously.  Naturally, Socrates wants to know why.  So, he asks for Euthyphro’s definition of the term “holy”.  Not realizing that he is repeating himself, Euthyphro’s definition essentially involves the approval of Gods:

..what is pleasing to the Gods is holy, and what is not pleasing to them is unholy

             (Euthyphro 23-d)

The statement is not clear with regard to how many gods must be pleased with something in order for it to be holy.  It also has a counterintuitive consequence.  If at least one God must approve of something to qualify it as good or right, and at least one god must disapprove in order for something to qualify as evil or wrong, then it is possible for the same thing to be both right and wrong in exactly the same circumstances, and in the same respect. 

It is also possible that something that is in fact right could have been wrong, or both right and wrong in exactly the same circumstances.  For, while all the Gods may agree in condemning the murder of an innocent, they may disagree about particular cases, some thinking that a given case is a killing of an innocent, others not.  But, granting Euthyphro’s definition, if they could disagree, then the act could be both right and wrong, even if it actually is right.  This will happen even in case all the gods approve of an act.  In that eventuality, the act is, so to speak, ‘actually right’.    However, since it is possible that the gods could have disagreed on the act, it follows that it is possible for that ‘actually right’ thing to have been both right and wrong in exactly the same respects, at the same time! 

Not wanting to admit this consequence of his view, Euthyphro decides that all of the Gods must either approve or disapprove of something in order for it to be either right or wrong.  He adds that he is confident that all of the Gods approve of his particular action.  Convenient for him!

Socrates provides reason to doubt this confident claim.  He provides a divine parallel for Euthyphro. Zeus and Cronos are in a relationship not unlike that between Euthyphro and his father.  Because his son (Zeus) punished him, Cronos likely disapproves of Euthyphro’s act.  Zeus, on the other hand, likely approves. Euthyphro still claims to be confident that all the Gods would approve of his action.  Socrates understandably asks for the grounds of this confidence.  Euthyphro’s reply is amusing:

But, Socrates, that, very likely, would be no small task, although I could indeed make it very clear to you.

I understand.  You think I am duller than the judges; obviously you will demonstrate to them that what your father did was wrong, and that the gods all hate such deeds

I shall prove it absolutely Socrates, if they will listen to me.

                (Euthyphro 9-b)

Unable to explain how it is he knows that all of the Gods would approve of his act, Euthyphro is also unable to guarantee that one or more of the Gods will not have a change of heart.  Granted that this is the case, it follows that his prosecution could have been wrong in exactly the same circumstances, even if it is ‘as a matter of fact’ right.  Similarly, an act, which is in fact wrong (because frowned upon by all gods), could have been right in exactly the same circumstances.  Also, if there could be a diversity of divine opinion, then an act that is actually right could have been neither right nor wrong in the same circumstances, because there would have been no unanimity of opinion.  All of this conflicts with our intuitions. 

We normally think the moral qualities of an act are fixed and unchanging once we know all the relevant features of the circumstance.  Moral properties are supervenient upon certain other properties and relationships, and once these latter are instantiated, we tend to think a certain moral property necessarily is instantiated as well.  It is not an accident that wrongness ‘attaches’ to killing innocent individuals for fun.  There is some necessary connection between the one and the other.  At least so far, Euthyphro’s definition of moral right cannot account for this. 

Socrates thinks there is some distinct ‘right making’ property that right acts possess which accounts for their divine approval.  He is after a discursive definition of this property. He asks Euthyphro:

Is what is holy holy because the Gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?

(Euthyphro 10-a)

Euthyphro admits that the gods approve of the holy things because the holy things have a right making characteristic.  Socrates asks him to concentrate on that feature, and tell him what it is, setting aside the fact that the Gods approve of it.  Euthyphro is at a loss.  Socrates, in an effort to jump-start the stalled conversation, asks him whether the holy is related to justice.  Euthyphro believes holiness is a subspecies within the broader sphere of just things.  Holy things must also be just, but not all just things are necessarily holy.  Yet, as he and Socrates explore this avenue, they discover they have traversed a circle concerning the main question, the nature of right or goodness. 

As in so many dialogues, this point in the conversation is a pivot point.  Socrates grants, as an assumption, that all Gods agree on Euthyphro’s prosecution.  He and Euthyphro try to find out what feature of the act accounts for the approval, by assuming it has some relationship to the justice of the act. We seem to be making progress toward a definition of goodness that has nothing to do with divine approval or pleasure.  It seems unlikely that the act could be wrong, yet just.  Therefore, if we can determine what makes it just, perhaps we will also be working toward a determination of what makes it right.  It is true that we are staying within the family of moral terms, but perhaps this is not a problem.  It is often the case that one can examine species and learn something about subsuming genus.  Why should this case be any different? 

So, what appears to be the nature of justice?  Justice has something to do with interactions between beings, and expectations brought about by those interactions.  Socrates compares it to the sort of rule-based behavior that is involved in commerce.  It is considered just to pay for services rendered.  Someone who renders a service expects a certain level of compensation and if they do not receive it, they feel they have been treated unjustly. The appropriate compensation depends upon the level of benefits acquired from the service, and upon mutually recognized ability to pay.  

This idea is examined, and applied to holiness. Perhaps holiness is essentially connected to interactions with gods.  Perhaps it is something like rendering appropriate payment for services rendered. Since they provide us with our existence and sustenance, the payment we owe gods would have to be very high.  However, we cannot give them anything of similar importance, for they lack nothing necessary for their existence or sustenance.  Gods are perfectly self-sufficient.  Yet, we must pay them something.  They do not expect us to pay in coin we do not possess.  Yet, we should pay in the coin we can afford.  We must pay in the form of some sort of service.   Because no human service would supply anything essential to the Gods, the service must be in mere trifling amusements, or, in short, things that are merely pleasing to them.  This is all we can pay them, but, because we do owe them so much, we must pay in this currency. To refuse to do so would be unjust.  But, if piety or holiness just is the appropriate ‘commercial’ relationship just described, then it just is the rendering to the Gods of things that will be pleasing to them, but not necessary for their existence.  However, if this is the property that makes holiness just, it is also a property that makes holiness right or good, for holiness cannot be just, and at the same time be wrong.  So, it seems that at least part of what it is to be right is that right things are pleasing to the gods, in the way described.   So, we have answered our question “what is it that makes acts such as prosecuting wrongdoers pleasing to all the gods?” with the answer, “One of those things is that prosecuting wrongdoers is pleasing to the gods”.  We have asked for the feature of the right things that accounts for their being approved of by the Gods, and have answered that it is at least partially the fact that they are approved of by the Gods! This circular answer is obviously not satisfactory. The question remains open, and we have made no apparent progress.

We end up with aporia.  In the Euthyphro, we end up defining holiness, or rather, the right making property of holy things, in terms of what is pleasing to the gods.  We end up having argued in a circle, and having made no progress.  We are led down this road by an examination of a plausible account of the essence of justice.  The larger project of defining rightness has failed. 

The early dialogues tend to be like this.  Attempts are made to define moral terms via non-moral properties, such as approval or pleasure, or knowledge.  Such definitions lead to Moore type open questions.  On the other hand, if definitions of moral terms are attempted via family related terms, such as justice, we get no further along, and seem to, at best, be making vacuous and trivial claims.

Other dialogues are even more to the point of showing the impossibility and uselessness of philosophical ethics.  The Meno argues that virtue cannot be taught. The Charmides generates a minimal and trivial account of the subject matter of this alleged science.   We cannot say much more than this; Philosophical ethics is a body of positive knowledge concerning a very general sort of human advantage, indicated by phrases such as “what is best for us”.  When we try to specify what this phrase refers to, we will fail or we will move in circles. Lastly, in the Laches we see the assumption that wisdom has anything to do with the virtues leading to counterintuitive consequences, and it leads us to question the value of wisdom for the virtuous life.  Let us look at the Charmides first:


Socrates has inductive evidence that suggests wisdom, a positive ethical science, cannot exist.  Above, we looked at an example of such evidence.  The Charmides presents an argument that uses this inductive result. In order to see how the inductive argument impacts upon the possibility of wisdom as a science, we should get clear about Socrates’ conception of science. 

A science must exhibit certain features.  First: A genuine science has a clearly defined subject matter, a defined area of study.   Socrates’ example: Medicine deals with the maintenance of health. (6

Second and third: A science should have a more or less stable body of accepted truths, accepted standards of application and research, and a set of universally acknowledged experts.  Medicine’s accepted truths and standards of success in application and research are preserved and promulgated in medical schools by doctors. 

(We should note that Socrates and his friends considered various arts, crafts, or professions to be scientific.  Horse training, navigation, architecture and military science are examples.  Socrates considered these professions to be sciences because they have these three features.)

A fourth feature Medicine has, but which may be lacking from disciplines that have the first three features: It offers substantial benefits.  Socrates has a negative attitude toward rarified and exceedingly speculative investigation.  If a science cannot generate substantial benefits, we should not waste our time with it.  This is the thinking behind Socrates’ rejection of cosmological and natural speculation ala Anaxagoras.  In the Apology, he ridicules his accusers for conflating his interests with those of Anaxagoras. (7)   Socrates rejects the speculations of the early cosmologists, (and perhaps of his earlier self) because they are so far removed from the marketplace as to do us no good. 

(It is interesting to note here that Socrates does not reject a science if it is possible to harm people with it.  If a science is used to harm, that is not necessarily the fault of that science, but of those who misuse it.  If it is equally possible that the science can benefit, then he does not reject it. Socrates’ opinion regarding rhetoric bears this out. (8) Rhetoric can be used in the service of what is perceived to be good, but it can also be used cynically for power, propaganda, and control.  Most sciences are like rhetoric.  They can harm or benefit. Socrates the soldier must have been thinking of the science of military strategy as well.) 

In general, if a science can serve to benefit us substantially, then it is a science worth studying.  If, on the other hand, a science is not a potential source of substantial benefit, we should not waste our time with it.  This is the message from Socrates.  We now come to Socrates’ conception of philosophical wisdom as a science.

Socrates claims that anything called “wisdom” must have substantial potential for benefit, in order to hold the title rightfully.  However, there is something unique about wisdom as a science.  According to Socrates, wisdom, should it truly exist, is very special indeed; it is incapable of being used to harm. All other sciences can be so used.  (For instance, a chemist may use his chemical expertise to manufacture and use dangerous drugs.)  Assuming wisdom exists, then, and assuming it is a science, it stands apart from the other sciences as exempt from this possibility.  Possession of wisdom precludes its owner from harming anyone via its exercise.  Why is this?  Wisdom is an ultimate knowledge of what is best for us.  As such, the following is true: If you have this knowledge, you will know what is truly good for you and others.  You will also know what is truly harmful.  Since you know this, it is irrational that you would act contrary to that knowledge and knowingly produce harm.  Therefore, the wise person cannot harm either himself or another. What is more, it would be equally irrational for him to choose not to act on his knowledge of what is truly good.  Assuming he can bring about what he envisions, the wise person will create the greatest amount of true benefit possible.  To opt for any lesser course would be irrational.  So, wisdom not only is incapable of harm, it cannot help but give substantial benefits! (9) 

What is more, the scope of this science seems universal: certain questions can always be raised that seem to require answers from this discipline; questions concerning ‘what is morally best’ in a given situation, and when it is ‘best’ to exercise the technical sciences.  Because it is so ubiquitous, wisdom seems to be a universal science that oversees all human activity.

Applying all Socrates’ criteria for a useful science, we say the following about wisdom:  If it is a science, it should have certain “science indicating” empirical earmarks. There should be a clearly accepted body of experts; they should be in possession of a paradigm of their science, an accepted methodology, and standards.  These experts should be able to formulate and answer wisdom’s basic questions. They should be able to give detailed and specific descriptions of the desiderata of ethics, just as the M.D. or strategist can describe the goals of medicine and military science.  They should be able to explain this goal in a non-question-begging way.  Socrates found none of this is to be the case. No one can agree who the experts are.  It is not even the case that there is widespread agreement that wisdom can be taught! 

Now that we have an idea of what wisdom would be, should it exist, we can move on to ask the question that Socrates found himself confronted with after enough dialectical futility:

Is Wisdom Possible?

At least since the trip of Chaerephon to Delphi, Socrates’ life took a drastic turn.  He took on a mission that he believed came from Apollo, (or ‘the God’).  From that time forward, he spent his time wandering Athena’s city attempting to prove that he did not have wisdom.  He was sure he did not have answers to bedrock ethical questions.  He attempted to find someone who did have these answers.  Over time, he became convinced that no one had answers.  We have already seen what wisdom would be like, if it truly existed: Anybody that had this body of knowledge would be able to ‘oversee’ all human activity, and assure that it was for the ‘better’. 

However, Socrates became convinced that no one has this knowledge.  No one can possibly have this knowledge. After enough futility, he became convinced that the very terms of moral discourse are in grave ways impervious to analysis.  He could not coherently explain what his philosophical questions were looking for except in question begging ways.  He came to wonder if indeed, there were any questions being asked.  Where there are no questions asked, there can be no answers.  Therefore, wisdom, as a field of inquiry does not in fact exist, and is in actuality not possible. 

Socrates arrived at this conclusion by attempted philosophical investigation, attempted search for this body of knowledge called “wisdom”.  The method Socrates employed in his search was dialectic, the critical examination of assumptions that underpin moral judgments, the critical examination of attempts at clarifying the meaning of phrases like “what is best”.  Using this method, he attempted to formulate and answer the basic questions and goals of wisdom.

While wisdom is concerned with ‘what is best for us’, it is not directly concerned with what is best in what can be described as a technical sense.  It is not concerned with the benefits or advantages generated by specific human activities such as military science.  Wisdom is assumed a sort of overseer for these professions telling them when it is morally permitted for them to exercise their powers.  For example, a question from military science might be:

What is the best way to defeat a naval force that is superior in number?

This is a technical question requiring strategic and naval expertise.  It is a question requiring some empirical information regarding ship maneuverability, logistics, human psychology, etc.  It asks for the conditions and actions best suited to bring about victory.  Victory is the technical benefit that military science aims at.  An accomplished general like Themistocles may be competent to answer these sorts of technical questions.  So, the force of the word “best” in the question is to ask for these technical pieces of advice. 

On the other hand, there are ethical questions related to military science.  They too, often use the word “best”, but more often use some related words like “right” and “wrong”.  Examples might be:

When is it right for us to fight by naval force or any other military force, and when is it wrong?

Will we be doing the right thing in pursuing a naval victory in such circumstances?

When is it right to inflict civilian casualties?

Generals may feel unable to respond to these questions, and often do not believe it is within their purview to determine such things (Themistocles being a notable exception).  These questions ask us to take on the role of a sort of overseer deciding when it is and when it is not proper (in a non-technical sense of “proper”), to use the various sciences.  In order to answer these ‘overseeing’ questions the wise person should have some idea of what constitutes this sense of ‘proper’.  He has to worry about ethical terms.  This leads naturally to Socratic questions: “What is the nature of the good?” “What is a pious act?” “What is justice?” “What is the best life for a human being?” “What is the best sort of society?”  It leads to questions concerning the inter-relations between the alleged referents of these words (“Is Justice a subspecies of the Pious, or vice versa?”) Positive answers to these queries are hard to come by.  But, speaking negatively, we can say this much: These are not questions dealing with what is expedient with regard to bringing about an end aimed at by a ‘practical’ or technical wisdom.  They involve a level one step up in generality from these concerns.  We normally indicate our cognizance of this fact by saying they are ethical questions, not technical questions.  They are questions concerning morally appropriate use of these skills.  These questions concerning moral appropriateness, right and good ‘hover’ over all human activities, begging non-technical answers.  These questions pestered Socrates and compelled him to pester others.  The answers to these questions would be the body of positive knowledge wisdom.  If we can find answers to these basic questions, we will be able to oversee all human activity, and guarantee that it would generate only true benefit.  However, when attempts are made to find answers to these basic questions, the attempts flounder.

I think this is Plato’s nod to the historical Socrates.  Socrates very much doubted humans could obtain this positive knowledge and cash in on wisdom’s substantial promise of benefits.  A lifetime of experience led him to this belief. 

He found a highly useful research method (dialectic), but was not so sure that method would produce positive results, even though it undoubtedly is effective in the more negative task of finding faulty ‘would-be’ pieces of ethical knowledge. 

Socrates might have initially thought employment of dialectic would eventually lead to positive answers to the basic questions of ethics, but, after repeated instances of futility, Socrates came to this conclusion: The best method for finding philosophical knowledge is dialectic.  However, if you use the method long enough, it will become apparent to you that it gives strong support for a negative answer to the philosophical question “Is wisdom possible”.

Use of dialectic in attempts to formulate and answer ethical questions invariably ends in aporia, an unsettled and unstable situation in which the questions posed remain unanswered, and the very terms of the questions are often not any more clearly understood than they were initially. 

We read discussions where dialectic produces circular results, and no positive progress toward answers to the basic ethical questions.  We also see discussions where several possible avenues of approach are exhausted, and all found unsatisfactory.  After years of such futility, Socrates thought he had inadvertently shown us that dialectic cannot help but produce such negative results.  For, supposing we have exhausted all the possible definitions of ethical terms, and supposing we have discovered that each definition either begs the question or leads us through circular paths of reasoning, then we should believe that we have demonstrated that the whole enterprise is doomed to failure.

While Plato’s Socrates makes no explicit argument to this effect, he does at least present us with examples of such futility in dialogues like the Euthyphro, and the Charmides does offer an argument that is very critical of the notion of wisdom.  Socrates always invites us to see if we can do better, by continuing to attempt to do ethics.  ‘Continue to ask your questions, and answer them,’ he encourages.  ‘But,’ he continues (and Plato fails to report), ‘you will always fare just as badly.  Your results are, while not quite proof; nevertheless pretty convincing empirical evidence that I am right.  Wisdom is not possible for human beings.’  Reading the 2500 years worth of subsequent literature on the subject, one cannot help but think we have borne this skeptical Socrates out. 

If what we are after is explicitly formulated definitions of ethical terms, we are not going to find them.  I now present the Charmides argument in a schematized form.

An Argument in the Charmides

This dialogue presents an argument by elimination.  It presents alternative definitions of wisdom, and by eliminating each in turn, concludes that none is true.  It leaves us with one option not explicitly stated, but implied by the Apology: Human wisdom is constituted only by an awareness of human ignorance.  Keeping this in mind, I add that implied premise, and outline the argument as follows:

1.  Wisdom is one of the following

a. a science that allows us to know when we have knowledge and when we do not

b. a science of the moral good

c. an awareness of our lack of knowledge

2.  If 1a, then Wisdom should either be applicable to any individual proposition that may or may not be a piece of knowledge, or it must be applicable to any subject who claims to have knowledge.

3.  If the consequent of 2 is true, then wisdom should either be able to tell us whether a proposition is a piece of knowledge or whether or not a subject is in a state of having knowledge.

4.  If the consequent of 3 is true, then wisdom should either be conversant with any knowledge that is related to a proposition and will help in determining whether that proposition is a piece of knowledge, or it should be conversant with any knowledge that will help in determining whether or not a subject is in a state of having knowledge.

5.  But, any body of knowledge related to determining whether a proposition is a piece of knowledge would be a science related to that proposition.  Any knowledge that would help in determining whether a subject is in a state of knowledge would either have to include knowledge of the individual sciences or not.  If it includes knowledge of the individual sciences, then any other knowledge would be superfluous.  If it does not include knowledge of the individual sciences, then the wise person could know that a subject has scientific knowledge, yet not know what that subject knows.  It follows that the following could be true of any wise individual:  He could know that he himself has scientific knowledge, yet not know what he knows.  He could be aware that he has a bit of scientific knowledge, but not be aware of the content of that knowledge.  But, this latter is absurd.  Therefore, this avenue of argument is closed. There can be no science of sciences unless it is a collection of the individual sciences. This leaves us with the former propositional route.

6. But according to that route the following is true for any individual proposition that the wise person is to examine:  The wise person would have to already be in possession of a relevant science in order to determine whether or not that proposition expresses a piece of scientific knowledge.

7. If the wise person has to be in possession of a relevant science in order to determine this, it follows that it is generally true that only persons trained in the relevant sciences can be wise.

8.  But, this argument can be repeated for any proposition that is an alleged piece of scientific knowledge.

9.  So, there is no wisdom without knowledge of the individual sciences.

10.   If 1a, then wisdom must include knowledge of the individual sciences.  In fact this is all wisdom can contain. (Notice here, that the wise man must be a Renaissance man!)

Note that this dispenses with the notion that Wisdom is a sort of meta-scientific arbiter able to sift out true from apparent knowledge.  We have yet to get to the notion that Wisdom is an ethical science.  This is the next stage of the argument.

11.  If 1b, then wisdom should be able to do the following things: 

(a) It should be able to tell us what the various terms of its discipline are, and it should be able to clearly define or delineate them. 

(b) As a practical science, it also should be able to tell us what its goals are, and what the best ways are for achieving those goals.

            Notice here that the wise person may need to make use of some knowledge from other sciences in order to figure out how best to bring about the goals of the ethical science ‘wisdom’.  However, this information is not directly relevant to his discipline.  Therefore, we can leave it aside as we continue.  This is why 11 (b) is left off from now on:

12.   If 11 (a) is the case, then we should not run into circular or dead-end definitions of the relevant terms. We should also not find ourselves begging the question repeatedly.

If we do find ourselves falling into these traps, we have no good reason to assume that this science exists, for its terms are practically vacuous.  In any other science, if we continually run into such problems, we would not continue to countenance its claim to legitimacy.  So, the wise person should have clear working concepts of right and wrong, justice and the like, concepts that do not beg the question.  These are the basic terms of the alleged science, and can be construed as referring to the ends aimed for, just as ‘victory’ can be considered a basic term of military science, referring to vanquishing and nullifying ones enemies.

13. But we do run into these problems when we attempt to define the basic terms of ethical science.

14.   So the practitioner of wisdom is unable to clearly define or delineate the basic terms of his science.

15.  So, 1(b) is false, and wisdom is not a science of the moral good.

16.  Since 1(a) and 1(b) are both false, it follows that 1(c) is true.

For us, the crux of the argument revolves around 1(b) and its refutation in 13.  What reasons does Socrates give us for accepting 13?  It is true that he runs into these difficulties repeatedly, but does he move from that to the further conclusion that we will invariably find ourselves traversing question-begging paths when we attempt to answer the basic questions of ethics? 

Logically, this does not follow, unless one is justified in thinking that the number of candidate defining terms is finite and that one has covered them all.  I hope I have already established that Socrates thought he was justified in believing these two things.

Put yourself in Socrates’ shoes.  He spent years interrogating people like Euthyphro and Charmides.  The typical discussion took the following form.  Socrates asks for a verbal formulation of the essence of some ethical concept.  The person usually begins by listing examples, or giving one example.  Socrates finds this unsatisfactory.   Using a simple example, like the concept (‘shape’ for instance), he demonstrates the sort of definition he is looking for (e.g., ‘shape is that which always accompanies color’).  Socrates’ friend, now getting it, proceeds to define the ethical term by reference to qualities that are clearly distinct from that term.  He may, for instance define ‘right’ as ‘whatever is in the interests of the stronger’, or the ‘good’ as pleasure.  Socrates, by a careful application of dialectic, shows that the proposed terms of definition are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for the defined term.  He points this out by getting his interlocutors to admit, for example, that right use of pleasure is essential for pleasure being a morally good thing.  He points out that the stronger can, at times, work against their own good despite the fact that they are working in their own interests.  The criticisms stick, and one of two things happens: The terms of definition are modified in a way that will take account of the criticisms, or they are abandoned.  If the definitions are modified it is always in unsatisfactory ways: Terms having a suspicious air of synonymy with the defined term are introduced into the definitions (right is what is in the best interest of the stronger.  Appropriate use and enjoyment of pleasures is the good).  On the other hand, if the initial definition is abandoned all together, and another offered, it meets the same fate as its predecessor.  A modification begs the question, or the definition cannot satisfactorily pass Moore’s test.  In either case, no progress is made.

‘What is best’ and ‘appropriate’ (in the sense intended here), are members of a family of problematic phrases or terms.  All these terms are closely related or synonymous.  Other family members: “morally good”, “right”, “virtue”. Yet other terms appear to presuppose these (“justice”, “pious”, “courage”).  We have looked at the Euthyphro’s discussion of the term “holy”. The argument in the Charmides gives reason to believe that wisdom, as a science does not exist.   For a last illustrative example, we should look at the Laches’s discussion of a virtue, courage.  It seems to show us that wisdom is useless toward the purpose of cultivating virtue:


The dialogue, true to our general sketch of the Socratic dialogues, initially defines this term making no use of suspicious family related terms.  The definition turns on the notion of knowledge.  (Note that the success or failure of this definition will have an impact on the success or failure of the related notion that there is a sort of body of knowledge that constitutes ethical wisdom, and possession of which is a necessary condition of behaving virtuously.) When Nicias and Socrates attempt to explicate this line of thought, they run into difficulties. 

Nicias claims (195, a):

Courage is the knowledge of that which inspires fear or confidence in war, or in anything else.

Socrates and Laches quickly help Nicias establish that the “anything else” clause needs to be dropped. Courage cannot be constituted by technical knowledge.  Such knowledge certainly inspires fear and confidence.  For instance, medical knowledge can inspire fear or confidence, depending on ones medical situation.  If courage is constituted by anything that inspires such reactions, then the knowledgeable doctor would be courageous.  Nicias does not want to admit this consequence of his view. Nicias does not allow that knowledgeable doctors are courageous, yet they do have knowledge of the grounds for hope and fear concerning health. 

Nicias obligingly modifies his definition to say this (195 – 196): 

Courage is knowledge of the grounds of hope and fear, as related to what is best for a person.

Nicias admits that doctors cannot, via medicinal science, tell whether it is better for a person or persons to suffer pains, or hardships attendant upon the application of their science.  It may be true that enduring treatment will save your life. It is a separate question whether or not continuing to live is ‘best’ in the appropriate sense of the term.  It may be best, in view of preserving life to take a certain medical treatment, but it may not be best for you as a person to take that treatment.  It may, for instance compromise your personal sense of integrity, because those who employ the doctor to save your life will use you for some nefarious end.

The first clause also talks about hopes and fears.  Hope and fear are essentially future directed attitudes.  Assuming that knowledge of what is best is in your possession, you would be able to make appropriate adjustments, and take actions that would, in your judgment, help you acquire ‘what is best’ in the future.  This knowledge is referred to by the word “wisdom”.  So, someone who is wise can be courageous, on the proposed definition of courage.  However, can anyone else possibly be courageous? Apparently not, if possession of this knowledge is a necessary condition of courage.

What of the assumption that the other virtues are like courage and essentially knowledge based?  If knowledge of what is best for humans is necessary for the exercise of any virtue, then only someone who is wise can be courageous, just, pious, good, etc.  But, early in the dialogue Socrates, Laches and Nicias had agreed that courage was but one of a family of virtues more or less on a level, wisdom being another.  They also thought it possible to possess one virtue, yet not possess others.  However, the argument has led them to claim that one must have wisdom (knowledge of what is best) before one can have courage. Not only that, this is the only way you can possibly have any virtue!  This knowledge is the essence of virtue.  The virtues are really applications of that wisdom to particular situations (as courage is the application of wisdom to dangerous situations with uncertain futures).  If any of this holds water, wisdom is necessary for being virtuous. None present are comfortable with this conclusion. 

What led the friends down this primrose path?  The notion that virtue requires ethical knowledge. There are further problems:

A definition of virtue in terms of knowledge necessarily has to involve the concept “what is best”, if it is to attempt at clearly demarcating the field of operations for wisdom, as opposed to other bodies of knowledge.   Otherwise, we cannot distinguish wisdom from other sorts of knowledge that involve grounds of fear or hope.  Where medicine is knowledge of the grounds for hope and fear concerning the maintenance of health, wisdom is the knowledge of the grounds for hope and fear concerning ‘what is best’ for persons.

Socrates drives this wedge in another way. (10) A simple ability to predict or see the future does provide grounds for hope and fear, but it does not provide quite the right set of grounds for hope and fear that with which the wise should be conversant.  Someone who can predict the future is not necessarily courageous, because this person, although able to tell whether or not dangers will be survived, is not necessarily able to tell us whether or not it is morally “best” to have survived such dangers.  Omniscience is not wisdom.  The gods are not wise because they can see future events.  They are wise only if they know ‘what is best’ in the moral sense. 

Any wise person should presumably be able to tell us what the morally best life is like, and how to attain it.  However, no ostensibly virtuous person has yet been able to do this.  The Laches shows this with regard to courageous people.  It would seem that ostensibly courageous people do not have the required knowledge.  Therefore, on the assumption that courage requires wisdom, they are not courageous.  In fact, no human can be courageous, due to the inevitable failure of philosophical ethics.

The assumption that courage requires wisdom leads to the conclusion that there are no courageous people!  If an assumption leads to a logical absurdity, we know it is false.  While this result is not a logical absurdity, it flies in the face of common experience.  We count a great many people as courageous. The results in the Laches give us good reason to doubt the assumption that courage essentially involves wisdom. 

All of this falls out from the assumption that courage is a sort of applied wisdom, an application of the science of ‘what is best’.  How should we react to this?  It looks as if the ‘knowledge route’ to defining courage is a dead end.  It is still open to us to take another route.  We can try a definition of courage in terms of something other than knowledge.  This would seem to be the best route.  Perhaps courage is the ability to fight toward goals despite ones fears of pain or fear for ones life.  The ability to prevent ones fear of death, injury or harm from causing one to shrink back from making attempts at attaining ones goals.  This ability need not be something that comes about because of some knowledge.  It may be an ability more rooted in personality, self-training, etc.

The attempt to link courage to wisdom leads to the counterintuitive result that people like Socrates and Laches are not really courageous.  This is reason to doubt that this particular virtue has anything to do with knowledge.

If we whittle away at individual virtues in this way, and show good reason to doubt that wisdom has anything to do with any of them, in so doing, we will show that wisdom has nothing of any great value to give to us.  For, we will have shown that it has nothing to do with cultivating or possessing virtue, the most important task for a human being.   It will turn out to be not unlike the speculations of the cosmologists (Anaxagoras), in being a waste of time.  If we are incapable of attaining ethical knowledge, and wisdom really has nothing to do with virtue anyway, then the attempt at ethics should be abandoned.  This seems a plausible position given Socrates stated opinions in the Apology and Laches.  The question arises; is this Socrates’ considered opinion. Is philosophy a waste of time, useless toward virtue and finding the good life?


If ethical knowledge is not possible, it follows that humans can find no guidance from it.  However, if it is true that goodness is out there and detectable, perhaps we can still find some sort of improved moral guidance if we can somehow sharpen our detecting abilities.  If a highly effective method for doing so involves critical reasoning, then, even though that reasoning cannot deliver knowledge, it can deliver reliable moral guidance.  If all of this is true, the best humans can obtain, via use of reason, is some sort of analogue of wisdom.  It is not unreasonable to assume that we should be able to tell inferior from superior moral guidance, and be able to tell who offers the best analogue to wisdom.  Is there any ground for making claims like this?  Is there any ground for claiming that we are able to tell who offers the better analogue to wisdom?  I believe the answer is ‘yes’.  For support, we can look to Plato’s Meno. (11)  

The ‘true opinion person’ of Plato’s Meno has an analogue of topographical knowledge.  There is a man who has never traveled to Larissa, but who when asked is able to give correct directions to the town.  As long as he is able to give these correct directions, he is just as useful to us as is the man who actually traveled and mapped the route.  We can tell the better purveyor of true opinion from the inferior, because he has a record of accomplishment of getting people to Larissa.  What does this example show us concerning ethical matters? 

In the Meno, Socrates points out that it is not necessary for competent moral leadership that leaders have discursive knowledge of what is truly good or evil.  They need not be able to answer the basic questions of ethics.  It is enough for us if we can detect people that are able to hit the target more often than not when they are attempting to advise or legislate on moral matters.  We do have good reason to believe we can detect such folks, because we have good reason to believe that true opinions on moral matters would tend to benefit us in important ways.  Similarly, we have good reason to expect that someone with true opinions concerning topography or routes will tend to benefit us in his own particular area of ‘expertise’.  In fact, this is rather obvious.  He gets us where we want to go!  We should expect that happiness, prosperity, and other such things would exhibit high levels when someone who offers the analogue to wisdom guides us.  This person should also be generally considered fair or just.  Despite the fact that he has no knowledge, the person with the analogue is nevertheless someone to whom we should pay attention.  It simply does not matter if he or we ourselves are not sure what goodness or justice is.  It will not matter that he is unable to account for his apparent ‘knack’ for such things. He still brings about good things.

If Socrates follows Moore in thinking we can reliably detect the good things, we can easily tell folks who offer the wisdom-analogue from people that do not.   What is more, there is a place for critical attempts at defining moral terms. Dialectic can go some distance in weeding out false or suspect opinions, and reminding people in prominent positions of their own ignorance.  It is a tonic for hubris.  By the same token, use of critical reasoning in moral matters will allow us to better assign weights and values to the various morally relevant factors and features of specific sorts of situations, and allow us to make better informed decisions.  Counterexamples often become actualities.  Philosophical reflection on such cases often finds fruits in application, even if final definitions of goodness are not forthcoming.   That is as much as we can truly expect from dialectic. It will never give us final knowledge of ethical matters.

In fact, a carefully tended and maintained awareness of human ignorance is the closest approach we can make toward a more general and overarching science of the good or wisdom.  This awareness, if pursued selflessly, will foster tolerant attitudes toward others, and less arrogance on our own part.  To the extent that this awareness involves knowledge of our ignorance, it is a piece of knowledge.  To the extent that this awareness generates tolerance and humility, it produces good.  However, this simple awareness is the only thing humans can possess that can be called philosophical knowledge or wisdom.  A more substantial possession, a more substantial wisdom, a scientific body of knowledge concerning the ultimate nature of the moral good, if it exists, is the property of the Gods, not humans.   

These statements are the essence Socrates’ contention that philosophical knowledge or wisdom is impossible.  


1.      See the Republic 538 – 539, and Phaedo 89 - 90 for discussion of the dangers of this sort of lazy or contentious skepticism. (back)

2.      Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica, Chapter 1. (back)

3.      Gorgias 469, 475, 489, 508, 522 (back)

4.      Meno, 97.  We can tell the good man because of the level of benefits he generates. (back)

5.      Republic, Book I, 331. (back)

6.      Charmides, 165 – 166. (back)

7.      Apology, 26. (back)

8.      In the service of the truth, or improving folks, rhetorical art is used properly.  Used as a mere persuasive device, or flatterer, it is used wrongly.  It is clear that Socrates had the Athenian politicians and lawyers in mind!  It is amazing the degree to which ancient Athens and modern America are similar. (back)

9.      Meno 88. (back)

10. Charmides, 173. (back)

11.  Meno, 97 - 100 (back)


Cooper, John M.  Plato: Complete Works, Hackett Publishing Company,   1997.

Hamilton and Cairns, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Princeton University Press, 1982.

Klemke, E. D. ed., Contemporary Analytic and Linguistic Philosophy, Prometheus Books, 1983.

Plato, Volume I Euthyphro Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Loeb Classic Library, Harvard University Press, 1999


  About the author:

I presently teach at the University of Michigan Dearborn, U.S.A. Received M.A. and PhD. from Wayne State University, in Detroit. I reside in nearby Livonia with my family (Wife of 18 years, and son).  I am a strong believer in the use of the web as a worldwide forum for philosophical dialogue.