Do we actually knowingly do wrong? Joking about Cadbury’s mini eggs aside (but my goodness, aren’t they good?), it is almost a reflex reaction to say in response to this question, ‘of course we do’. Plenty of people commit illegal acts seemingly in the full knowledge that it is wrong, but they still do it. However, Socrates answered with ‘no’. He is depicted in the Protaoras as arguing that if people had perfect knowledge, they could not make the wrong decision; no one knowingly desires evil, so when they do wrong, it is not a truly wilful, cognizant act. So, taking the silly mini-eggs example, if I truly knew and understood the effect of wolfing an entire bag, I wouldn’t. It’s only because I don’t really understand why not wolfing it is better for me than sating my immediate desire for mini eggs.
Is there a certain truth in this argument? Socrates would apparently have argued that I did not have the perfect knowledge of the true consequences of scoffing all the mini eggs. What would those be? Long term physical consequences? It was only one bag, I would respond (well….). I did not understand the implications for my soul by taking so reckless a decision? Well, in a way, maybe yes. This is something of a slippery slope argument, but Socrates’ point may well have been that, if we had a true understanding of how making the ‘wrong’ decision affected our overall strength of decision-making. My lack of restraint over the mini eggs could weaken my resolve vis-à-vis something more harmful. If I understood that truly, I would practice restraint all the time. This reading makes sense in light of what Socrates says in the Phaedo about the appetites of the body and the damage they do in blocking the reason of the soul. Food, clothing are unfortunate necessities, but one can minimise their blinding effects by avoiding excessive indulgence. Once one is already blinded by excess, the ability to see the implications of our decisions and to harness the logic of the soul that would save us from ourselves is greatly diminished if not rendered impossible.
It is appealing, but we may legitimately ask whether perceived need and necessity merely about degrees of knowledge? The person who steals to feed their family, are they simply lacking in knowledge? Surely, they are torn. Yes, it is illegal, and they don’t want to do wrong, but a sense of care and duty prevails. Has Socrates forgotten external pressures and factors from without? Not forgotten. He would reply that these necessities are what block perfect knowledge. It is easy to see how Socrates theory about preserving and guarding one’s soul and protecting its natural logic to guide one’s life chimed with the Stoics, influencing their advocacy of distance from the complications of engagement in political life, and instead harmonising with the divine and rational laws of nature. I do think there is something in what Socrates says in the Apology about not forgetting one’s moral well-being and the values that matter due to being swept up in ambition and reputation.
We may legitimately wonder whether Socrates has over-simplified the problem. What about the Catch-22 situation, where one might have to do something wrong to avoid a greater wrong? Is this simply a question of knowledge? What about the knowledge of whoever has backed them into the proverbial corner?
Moreover, some would argue that evil is real and people can even take pleasure in doing wrong. One could apply Socrates’ argument in the case of someone claiming that evil is an external force. The force may make someone think they are enjoying doing wrong or even think that something is right, but their true knowledge is in fact being blocked and inhibited.
There are a great many more questions to ask. Does someone who acts arrogantly out of insecurity operate from a lack of knowledge? Socrates would argue so. Their insecurity makes them desperate which affects their rational judgement. They are not knowingly doing wrong. Against Socrates, one could point out that they are fully aware their action is wrong and choose that path to offer a cry for help.
This post ends, I am afraid, in something of a Socratic aporia and I can only end with a question. I think knowledge DOES play a role. But, given the complexity of human beings, reason and knowledge. although they might help point us to the correct decision and are the best chance of us making it, are they necessarily guarantees of successful realisation of a decision?