Plato’s Republic begins in earnest with what seems a fairly innocuous question.
After having been invited to the home of Cephalus and Polemarchus – father and son – Socrates asks the father for his thoughts on old age. Far from being offended by the question, Cephalus says he doesn’t mind old age at all, although he does confess that life is made easier by having accumulated much wealth over a lifetime. Socrates doesn’t dispute the benefits of having money in old age, but instead hones in one particular aspect of Cephalus’s words. What does it mean to be ‘doing right’ in one’s life?
Socrates suggests that according to Cephalus, a good life involves ‘truthfulness and giving back anything one has borrowed from someone’. However, Socrates immediately dismisses this argument. What if you borrowed a knife from a friend who subsequently turned insane and then went around to your house demanding that he get his knife back? In these circumstances, would it be ‘doing right’ to hand the knife over to your friend?
Cephalus retires at this point, probably well aware of what Socrates is like and not wishing to stay up all night. His son then steps into the picture to offer a slightly modified definition of ‘doing right’: giving back anything that is owed when it is appropriate to do so. This means it is morally acceptable to help your friends and harm your enemies.
Socrates again takes up the challenge and makes four points in response.
Firstly, Socrates considers the practical benefits of ‘doing right’. He asks Polemarchus for specific examples of when morality is needed for carrying out a task. After going through a number of professions – such as doctor, farmer, ship’s captain, shoemaker – Polemarchus is forced to conclude that morality is never the primary concern of any of these roles. The ship’s captain must rely on seafaring knowledge and the doctor must rely on medical knowledge. Socrates suggests that this makes morality sound rather useless. There is no profession that requires morality to be the primary responsibility of the job.
In response to this, Polemarchus could have replied with an obvious point. Yes, a ship’s captain requires seafaring knowledge, but this doesn’t preclude him from having other skills as well. A moral ship’s captain would still be preferable to an immoral one. And for that matter, who said morality was even a ‘skill’, the sort of thing you might include on a modern day CV? Even though Polemarchus remains silent, Socrates seems to pre-empt questions of this nature, so this leads on to his second train of thought.
Socrates indicates that morality isn’t actually a skill at all. A true skill gives the practitioner an ability to do something good, but it also gives him or her an ability to do something evil. A doctor can certainly cure people, but if she really wanted to, she would also be more skilled at seriously harming people, perhaps via incorrect medication. A true skill works in both directions, granting one the ability to use the skill in ways that are both good and bad. Morality does not work in the same way. Just because person A is more moral than person B doesn’t mean that person A has a greater capacity for immorality than Person B.
The third point Socrates makes in refuting Polemarchus’s argument concerns the identity of friends and enemies. Who exactly should we consider a ‘friend’? Someone who seems good or someone who is actually good? Polemarchus believes we use our own judgement when having to decide such matters. But isn’t it possible, replies Socrates, that we are mistaken in our views? Could we not be fooled into a treating a real enemy as a friend, and vice versa?
At this point, both Socrates and Polemarchus are overlooking a couple of things. Firstly, what about the friend who we know is a bit on the dodgy side, but we can’t help liking nonetheless? Is he still a friend under Polemarchus’s definition. Secondly, what about another category of person: the stranger, someone who is neither friend nor enemy. What do we owe to such people? Do we owe them nothing at all? Does this mean we can harm them in any way we like? Perhaps Socrates felt that interacting with strangers would open a whole can of worms, so decided to stick to the simplistic division between friend and foe.
Polemarchus accepts that his reasoning is flawed, so perhaps it is better to judge a person on a more objective basis. No longer do we care whether our friend seems good, he must actually be good. And the same goes for an enemy. He must actually be bad.
This leads Socrates into his fourth and final point. Consider what happens when you do harm to someone or something, such as a horse or a dog. The end result is that the object of your harm worsens in terms of its own goodness. A horse becomes a worse horse. A dog becomes a worse dog. A man must therefore become a worse man. Any man in this state is also likely to be less moral. How can a good person really be acting morally if all he does is make somebody else less moral? Therefore, it’s never right to harm anyone, friend or foe.
Polemarchus could have argued that on some occasions, the harm is intended to help the person in question, such as punishing a child who has just committed a wrong, or attempting to reform a drug addict. However, Polemarchus seems to have had enough with Socrates and the current line of argument, so humbly accepts defeat.
But Socrates is by no means finished. Can he come up with a better definition of morality?