Philosophical decision-making clarifies the truth–or meaning–of the facts and specific value most relevant to the situation. Socrates’ reasoning about whether to escape or to remain in prison is presented in Plato’s dialogue, the Crito. After some preliminaries, Socrates expresses the premise for all that follows, his supreme commitment to goodness. He asks whether what matters most is staying alive or living well—in accord with goodness. Next, Socrates begins to interpret the meaning of goodness. He asks whether living in goodness is the same as living in beauty and justice. For Socrates, beauty is the supreme value next to goodness; and beauty connotes what is admirable as opposed to disgraceful; thus beauty in this situation has ethical implications. Justice is included because it is the specific quality of goodness relevant to the question of whether it is just—right—to break out of prison. Socrates implies that the decision required by goodness is the same as that required by beauty and justice. (In ancient Greek philosophy, justice is first of all virtue, a quality of character that involves the habit of acting excellently in a specific type of situation.) Socrates goes on to interpret the meaning of justice; and he reasons that, if we adhere to justice, we do not return harm to others for harm done to us.
Then Socrates shifts to focus on the meaning of the facts of his situation. Socrates had been a life-long citizen of Athens whose parents’ marriage was certified under the laws of the city. He enjoyed the benefits of growing up and living in the city and never made any effort to bring about change in the laws. Although he could have moved to another place with a different kind of legal code, he chose to stay. Now by due process he had been found guilty of a capital crime and was in prison awaiting death. Socrates interprets these facts by bringing in the philosophical idea of a social contract: If citizens remain in a political community accepting its benefits, they incur a duty to abide by the law. To break out of prison would injure the fabric of law, with its established system of laws, court, and prison and its determinations regarding what crimes may carry the death penalty. To break out of prison, then, would violate citizens’ implicit agreement to accept the law-fabric of the state in which they choose to live. Socrates would not return injustice for injustice; he would not retaliate against the unjust judgment of the jury by violating his agreement with the political community.
Can you give an example of a decision you have made or are working on now in which goodness is specified in terms of a different virtue than justice? Do you find that it helps decision-making and develops your concept of goodness to specify the meaning of goodness that is most important in specific types of situation? The meaning of the facts of the situation is wisdom’s key to specifying goodness. One situation may involve pain or danger; another may involve a tempting but wrong pleasure. Goodness is specified differently in each type of situation. Some everyday activities—such as selecting items to eat at the cafeteria or grocery store—involve surprisingly many aspects of value.
You can read a translation of the Crito online (it’s a short dialogue):http://www.san.beck.org/Crito.html
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