This is a question that has bedevilled philosophers of all disciplines, authors, and many other academics for a very long time. It is probably even fair to say it’s one of philosophy’s oldest questions. And I am not proposing to answer it here. What I am going to offer is a critical thinking activity inspired by this question, a great one for encouraging questioning and reflection.
I would start with a proposition that pupils will probably react against initially. Socrates argued that no one did wrong knowingly; that there was no such thing as weakness of will; that it was a lack of true knowledge and understanding that led to ‘wrong’ choices due to ignorance, or mistaken belief or opinion.
Is this as weird as it sounds? Socrates believed the appetites of the body blocked the reasoning and search for knowledge inherent in the soul. Essentially, does this mean that the body is what leads us into irrationality and, therefore, poor choices?
There are a number of ways this debate could go. I offer a few thoughts that could help spark discussion:
What is knowledge?
Where do our notions of right and wrong come from? Are they internal or external?
Are they universal absolutes (as Socrates implies) or are they relative values?
Explain the process that leads from reaction, to idea, to decision, to action.
Is this solely a personal decision? Is there a social element?
What factors prevent us from using our knowledge?
Can we be made to go against our better judgement? If so, how? Or, can you make the case for this being due to a lack of knowledge?
Does this mean that moral dilemmas don’t really exist? Is it that we simply don’t know which the better choice is? Where does this leave the famous prisoners' dilemma, for example?
Here are some possible imagined scenarios. I hope that these could cater for different age groups.
SCENARIO 1: Young Ellie didn’t finish her lunch. She left her veg. So, she has been told she can only have fruit for dessert, not a cake. Miffed and a little hungry, she later sneaks into the fridge and steals a bakewell slice. Does she knowingly do wrong? (age of decision-maker could certainly be an interesting angle for debate).
SCENARIO 2: After a stressful day at work, Ethan goes to the pub with friends. He can walk home, no need to drive, and he is offered one more drink. He knows it will give him a cracking hangover, but he needs to relax. After some dithering, he has the drink. He wakes up with a corker of a hangover, but feels better about facing the stress of work, although his head is pounding.
SCENARIO 3: A knows that B in her class (let’s say year 12) is very keen to be friends with C, and she has finally been invited to one of C’s house parties. She is very excited. A then overhears C and a bunch of her friends saying terrible things about B and that she only invited her because she was so desperate. They laugh at her cruelly. Should A tell B? She does. Was this right? What considerations would govern her actions?
I am sure you can think of plenty more. But here are some suggested starting points. Older years may enjoy bringing current affairs into this, or may even enjoy Aristotle’s detailed scrutiny of Socrates’ claim in the Nichomachean Ethics (1145b-1151a).
I hope this proves an interesting activity. Enjoy!