In dialogue with Socrates 1: Our sense of right and wrong

7 October 2007 at :00 am

Far more important than the answers he gave were the questions that he asked. It was because of his questions that he was regarded as a danger to the state. Like Jesus, he never advocated violence, but he was condemned to death and executed. One of the reasons he has been remembered ever since is because of the extraordinarily vivid and moving account we have of his last moments. I am referring, of course, to Socrates.

There is a handy Penguin book called The Last Days of Socrates,1 which brings together four short texts about the end of his life. In these texts, written by Plato, Socrates raises some of the most fundamental questions about what it is to be a human being. More than four hundred years before the time of Jesus and Paul, Socrates was asking some of the questions to which Jesus offered new and exciting answers.

The question I want to look at this morning is this: how can we be sure we know what is right? This is a pretty fundamental question, one that plays a vital part as we grow up. When we are children, we naturally assume that our parent or parents know what is right. The first adolescent doubt or questioning that they really do know what is right is a key moment in our growing up. Bit by bit, we have to learn that they do not always know what is right, and we have to work out which bits of their understanding of right and wrong we will take on for ourselves. Hopefully, before we become parents we have some basic ideas about what we ourselves think is right and wrong and an ability to handle new questions as they come up (because if we have children, they surely will).

In the dialogue with Euthyphro, which is a very short and so a good place to start, Socrates meets Euthyphro outside the court of judgment. He asks what he is doing there. Euthyphro tells him he is bringing a case of manslaughter against his own father. Socrates is shocked. Is it really right2 to bring such a serious charge against his own father? Yes, says Euthyphro. He is confident that this is the right thing to do and tells Socrates why. One of his labourers got drunk and knifed a family servant. In a rage, his father had the labourer bound hand and foot and thrown into a ditch, and left him there while he made enquires from the city authorities about what should be done with him. The man in the ditch wasn’t given food or water and he died before a decision was made about what should happen next. Euthyphro says his father is clearly in the wrong and should be prosecuted.

Socrates is shocked that Euthyphro is so confident about it all. How does he know it’s the right thing to do? Now, underlying Socrates question is an important sub-theme. Socrates himself is about to be prosecuted for doing wrong – for corrupting the youth of Athens. Though he never quite spells this out, he is himself asking the question, how can my accusers be so sure they know what is right and what is wrong? How do they know that when I encourage young people to question the wisdom of their parents, what I am doing is wrong?

Socrates assumes there’s something about all right actions which makes them right (unfortunately there’s no time to go into the detail of what he says: you must read it for yourself). If we could only understand what that is, we should know what is really right and what is really wrong. So, he asks Euthyphro, ‘Since you are about to do something as serious as bring a case against your own father, tell me how you define “right”’. That which is ‘right’ says Euthyphro is that which pleases the gods. But, says Socrates, ‘Does it please the gods because it is right, or is it right because it pleases the gods?’

Now this may seem a silly question to us, because we don’t believe in the gods as Socrates and Euthyphro probably did. But some of the best questions at first look silly. Supposing we could say, as Plato who wrote this dialogue did, that something was pleasing to the gods because it was right. We would be saying there was a separate source of right that the gods recognised but which was different from them. How could there be a source of right which transcended the gods? Where would it have come from? Wouldn’t that mean the gods weren’t really gods? Perhaps then, we have to put the idea the other way round. We have to say that right is right because it is pleasing to the gods. This raises two further questions: supposing the gods don’t all agree on what is right? How then can we tell what is really right? And, should we always just accept that what the gods decree to be right really is so?

When Socrates puts these questions to Euthyphro, Euthyphro begins to get quite muddled, which is exactly what Socrates wants. He wants to get Euthyphro to the point where he has to admit that he is not so sure what is right and what is wrong – but that would a pretty embarrassing admission when he is already committed to taking his own father to court. The argument goes round in a circle, Euthyphro gets fed up, and he walks out on Socrates.

It is a circular argument, but we can take from it three really important points:

First, we can ask ourselves, as Socrates asks Euthyphro, ‘How can we be sure in the various circumstances of life we know the right thing to do?’ I guess we are much more likely than Euthyphro to admit that on some things – abortion, sexuality, financial ethics, the environment – we don’t know what is the right thing to do. It is as though there were some of our gods committed to one set of ideas about what is right and some to another. From where are we going to get our understanding of what is right and what is wrong? That, it seems to me, is one of the most important questions we can ask in life.

Second, if we believe in one God rather than many gods, and we think that our sense of right comes from God, does it come from God because God delights in and promotes what is in and of itself right, or are certain things right because they are what God delights in and what God promotes? I don’t see how for a Christian it can be anything other than the latter: certain things are right because they are what God delights in and what God promotes. What is right is related to who God is. For a Christian, our sense of right and wrong has to be rooted and grounded in God himself. It can’t have a free-floating life of its own. How often, though, do we ask God to endorse what we think is right, rather than continue with the struggle truly to ground our sense of right in God Himself. But if that is what as Christians we have to do, this makes the place of prayer and the Holy Spirit vitally important. As Christians, we need to be open to the slow process of education by which God moulds our sense of right and wrong, so that the things we once thought were right (like slavery) are no longer see as right and the things we once thought wrong (like critical study of the Bible) no longer seem wrong.

At the centre of Christianity (and this is the third point) is the belief that Jesus makes plain the fundamentals about right and wrong. His teachings are right because he tells us truly what God delights in and what God promotes – he bears faithful witness to the character of God. And his teaching is not just a matter of the intellect. Like Socrates, Jesus bears witness in his own life and death to a sense of priorities and purposes in life, a sense of right and wrong, that is radically different from those of our everyday lives.

Socrates raises the question ‘How do you know that what you think is right really is right?’ As Christians we answer, ’Because we have been shown by Jesus what pleases God.’ When we say that it is right to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves, we are not making an educated guess. When we say that the highest human good is self-giving love, we are not talking about a life-style option, or something that might be true. This at the heart of what Jesus teaches and at the heart of his identity - so it is true in any culture and at any time. It is a bold claim, a claim of faith, but who ever said that the Christian faith was not bold in the claims that it makes?

It is also a dangerous claim. The Christian Faith attacks the very roots of the sense of right and wrong in cultures which run on greed, exploitation and oppression. It may take a long time for ideas of right and wrong to change, but they do change, and in certain areas – such as the imperative of universal education and universal heath-care – Christian influence has done a great deal to bring about those changes. In other areas, such as care for the environment, there is a long way to go. In still other areas, particularly at the moment sexual ethics, we have to be patient with one another while we try to work out what is most in accord with the character of Christ and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. These are major changes, and as they come about major idols, such as the supremacy of males, the supremacy of the market, the supremacy of our inherited and damaged notions of right and wrong, have to be dethroned. No wonder Socrates and Jesus - troublers of Athens and of Israel – were put to death by those who would not or could not face the questions that they raised. And they still raise troubling questions: from where, at root, do we get our ideas of right and wrong? And what, for us, is so precious and so true about being a human being that it is right to die for?

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