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Throughout the history of humankind, almost every religion and philosophical teaching have sought to define what good and what evil are. Those opposites have preoccupied the minds of many scientists, politicians, psychologists, and researchers. One may readily see how establishing the causes of evil deeds could benefit society through crime prevention. However, the outlooks on the issue vary: for instance, Socrates was convinced that evil was born out of sheer ignorance. His opponent Glaucon, on the other hand, reasoned that people misconduct out of the possibility of impunity. This essay will examine Socrates’ views in detail and will support Glaucon’s hypothesis with two examples from history and criminal statistics.
Socrates’ Views on the Roots of Evil
Socrates developed the first systematic approach to morality even though, as of now, his findings may not be considered exactly comprehensive. To Socrates, a human being was a creative species that thrived on ideas and knowledge. The philosopher’s inquiry into the nature of human morality was closely tied to the examination of how one could live his or her life in the most fulfilling manner. Back in Ancient Greece, there were two schools of thought that dealt with the issue of practical life philosophy: stoics found solace in resilience, whereas hedonists prioritized the pursuit of happiness.
Socrates stated that the meaning of life was in being happy; however, an average human being was confronted with significant inhibitions. The greatest obstacle, according to Socrates, was ignorance about what constitutes happiness. To overcome that fundamental presumption habitual for every human being, one needed to awaken to moral wisdom (Ahbel-Rappe 180). As opposed to intellectualism, true wisdom allows for distinguishing between good and evil, endowing a person with practical life advice. Thus, if a person knew what he ought to do to be good, he could not do evil deeds – that was improbable (Ahbel-Rappe 180).
On the contrary, those who committed crimes or acted immorally could not be held accountable since they were in the dark and lacked awareness. Even though the idea of ignorance as the root of all evil is worth taking into consideration, it is practically inapplicable, and below are two reasons why.
The argument against Socrates’ Point of View: Military Crimes
One of the darkest pages in the history of humankind is undoubtedly the Nazi regime in Germany and the crimes against humanity committed by its leaders and adherents. Among the most heinous deeds were medical experiments on human beings. There is an extensive body of evidence describing the atrocities that took place in concentration camps. For instance, many prisoners were frozen to death in an array of scientific trials aimed at determining deadly temperatures and the limits of human aptitudes to survival (Weindling 20). Other experiments served medical purposes: professionals studied the pathology of contagious diseases by making the victims contract the viruses (Weindling 101).
Now, if one takes Socrates’ explanation of the nature of evil, it is abundantly easy how wrong it is. The doctors at the concentration camps were aware of the impact of their actions – both moral and physical suffering. Moreover, medical professionals are usually taught ethical principles such as non-maleficence. Hence, the perpetrators were not ignorant – they merely did what benefited their causes.
The argument against Socrates’ Point of View: Recidivism
Recidivism is a phenomenon characterized by the repetition of misconduct or criminal behavior even after facing the consequences, such as having to pay a fine or serve a sentence. The existence of recidivism undermines Socrates’ views on the causes of evil. Nowadays, in many Western countries, criminal justice prioritizes reformation over strict punitive measures. Instead of merely punishing a person found guilty of a crime, legal authorities seek to provide moral guidance and give the said person opportunities to change his or her life for the better. Yet, in the United States of America alone, the statistics on recidivism rates leave a lot of space for improvement.
For instance, within the first three years after release, 67.8% of former convicts get rearrested, within the first five years, two-thirds are facing new charges (“Recidivism”). It is safe to assume that punishment and counseling (if provided) would allow delinquents to know better. However, even in the absence of blatant ignorance, these people decide to continue with their former lifestyle.
With time, each human society has developed its notions of justice and morality – two overlapping but not interchangeable concepts. To this day, people cooperate, solve their problems, and maintain order operating on the principles of what is fair (justice) and what is right (morality). It is important to note that justice and the systems built around this phenomenon – such as criminal justice systems – deal with the consequences of harmful intentions or poor judgment by punishing the perpetrators. Morality, on the other hand, sets goals that transcend minimally acceptable human behavior and seeks to find the origins of evil.
Socrates claimed that all evil was born out of ignorance, and if a person were to be shown the right way, he or she would never do harm to others in their lifetime. Such an argument can be debunked by two prime examples of people possessing enough knowledge and yet committing crimes. First, some doctors in Nazi Germany were involved in human experimentation even though they were cognizant of the sanctity of life. The other illustration is the phenomenon of recidivism: punishment and advice do not compel the majority of criminals to change their behavior.
Ahbel-Rappe, Sarah. Socratic Ignorance and Platonic Knowledge in the Dialogues of Plato. SUNY Press, 2018.
“Recidivism.” National Institute of Justice, 2014. Web.
Weindling, Paul. Victims and Survivors of Nazi Human Experiments: Science and Suffering in the Holocaust. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.