One reader's comments to my previous post (available HERE) got me thinking again about the elements of Socratic morality.
Reader apsterian wrote:
>>I agree w[ith]. Plato/Socrates that no one willingly sins. There's insanity, but no "evil." Why would anyone do something that gets him sent to heck?--only insanity.<<
These are certainly deep philosophical waters. Let's dive in.
Socrates and Plato are provocative thinkers. Of course, what we know of the historical Socrates - who wrote nothing of his own - comes primarily from Plato's dialogues. Those dialogues are generally divided into three groups, the early, middle, and late. Although there is disagreement, the consensus is that Plato's early dialogues fairly accurately represent the views of his mentor, Socrates. In the middle dialogues, Plato begins to experiment with his own ideas. By the late dialogues, Plato simply uses Socrates as a vehicle to deliver his own, mature thought (and, indeed, his criticisms of his own views).
Assuming this threefold categorization, it is clear that Socrates surely did hold that no one willingly does what it is bad. However, it's not at all obvious that "Plato/Socrates" ever said "that no one willingly sins."
Our English word "sin" derives from the Greek word hamartia. Aristotle certainly wrote about hamartia, and subsequent Christians picked it up via the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Old Testament). But as far as I know, neither Socrates nor Plato ever used the term "hamartia." Moreover, neither Socrates nor Plato used any other term that straightforwardly maps onto the Christian concept of "sin."
It seems, therefore, that we need to make a distinction between "doing bad" and "sinning."
As I understand it, Socrates's basic position can be sketched (roughly) as follows.
1. If an act, choice or object, x, is bad, then x is harmful.
2. If x is harmful, then x makes the actor or subject, S, more miserable or worse off than he or she was before choosing x.
3. If x makes S more miserable or worse off, then S becomes a failure or unhappy.
4. Therefore, if x is bad, then S becomes a failure or unhappy.
But then Socrates expressly states that:
5. No one wants to fail in life or to become unhappy.
6. Therefore, no one wants what is bad.
Firstly, even if this argument succeeds, I do not think that it shows that no one willingly sins. Rather, if it succeeds, it seems to show that there is no such thing as sin.
Western Christians of almost all theological hues have historically held that "sin" is (bound up with, if not identical to) "willful disobedience." So, for instance, in the Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Protestants Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki and Cherith Fee Nordling, "sin" is defined as "...a person's purposeful disobedience to God's will as evidenced in concrete thought or act" (p. 107).
This is even clearer in Catholicism. In "A Simple Glossary of Catholic Terms," by Fr. Jerome Bertram and Raymond Edwards, we read that (mortal) "sin" is: "A serious violation of the law of God; it must be freely chosen, be an act that is objectively gravely wrong, and the person committing it must be aware that it is gravely wrong" (p. 59).
The problem becomes, then, that if:
7. No one ever willingly does what is bad;
8. "Sin" is willingly doing what is bad;
9. Therefore, no one ever sins.
(That is: 7'. No person is a person who willingly does bad; 8'. All sinners are people who willingly do bad; 9'. therefore, no persons are sinners.)
From a historic Christian point of view this is not correct. So either:
10. At least some people willingly do what is bad;
11. "Sin" is not willingly doing what is bad;
But as I said, in the historic Christian tradition - as far as I can tell, anyway - "sin" is willingly doing what is bad. But then it follows 10. is true. If 10. is true, then 7. must be false. But if 7. is false, then EITHER one or more of the premises 1. - 6. must be false, OR one or more of the moves from premises-to-conclusion must be invalid.
By my lights, the best candidate for a false premise is 5. Very briefly, I think that 5. ("No one wants to fail in life or to become unhappy.") is not clearly more plausible than it's negation. Some people do appear to me to want to be unhappy.
But also, I think that 6. may not follow. I think that there is an unexpressed assumption that:
12. S wants x.
13. S wants everything that follows from x.
Indeed, Socrates is well-known to have held that virtue is a sort of knowledge. He also distinguished "wanting x" from "seeing fit to do x." The difference is that one only "wants x" if one has all the relevant knowledge about x. Else, one only "sees fit to do x."
I doubt that "wants" functions like this. Is it the case that if: S wants A and A implies F; then: S wants F?
For example, from:
14. Jane wants to divorce John;
15. Janes knows that divorce would hurt the kids;
Does this follow?
16. Jane wants to hurt the kids.
Or again, from:
17. Bob wants to buy a bigger house.
18. Buying a bigger house would put bob into debt.
Does this follow?
19. Bob wants to be put into debt.
I just don't think 16. and 19. do follow.
Socrates would probably rejoin by saying that "wants" can be irrational or rational. After all, this is just one way of cashing out his distinction between "wanting" (properly Socratically so-called) and "seeing fit." "Wanting" would be "rationally desiring;" and "seeing fit" would be "irrationally desiring."
If Jane does not "want" to hurt the kids, then Jane should not want a divorce. It wouldn't be rational; she would only be "seeing fit" to get a divorce. Additionally, if Bob does not "want" to get into debt, then Bob should not want a bigger house. He's not rational to want to buy a bigger house if buying it would put him in dire financial straits.
Maybe this is true. Maybe it's not enough that Jane merely "not want to hurt the kids." Maybe she needs to "want NOT to hurt the kids." Likewise, perhaps Bob ought to "want NOT to be in debt."
I am just not sure about this!
I am tempted to say that BOTH "Jane wants a divorce" AND "Jane does not want to hurt the kids" are possibly true and possibly rational, even if getting the divorce would hurt the kids. It even seems likely to me that Jane could BOTH rationally want to get a divorce AND want not to hurt the kids.
Likewise, I would like to say that BOTH "Bob wants a bigger house" AND "Bob does not want to get into debt" are possibly true and rational, even if getting the house would put him into debt.
These issues point to larger ones concerning the difference between theoretical and practical rationality.
An agent, S, is practically rational BOTH:
if BOTH she wants some end, e, and she believes that performing some action (i.e., by φ-ing), she is more likely to bring about e than she would be without φ-ing;
these considerations bring S to begin φ-ing.
Practically, then, if S wants to separate from her husband or pursue another love interest, and S believes that getting a divorce is likely to secure these results, then S will get a divorce.
On the other hand, if S wants to avoid hurting her children, and S believes that NOT getting a divorce is likely to secure this result, then S will NOT get a divorce.
But practical rationality alone cannot adjudicate between these competing desires.
Socrates seems prepared to say that increasing Jane's knowledge should be sufficient to help her to adjudicate between what she merely "sees fit" to do and what she really "wants" to do. I am sympathetic with this. After all, suppose that Jane were to discover – for example by direct divine revelation – that if she pursues one course of action, c, then her life would veer onto a trajectory that would lead to her eternal damnation. For the Christian, this is the ultimate, negative teleological consideration. What can we say?
Can we say that, if Jane is hell-averse, then she would presumably want to avoid c? Or can we say that if Jane is hell-averse, at least she ought to want to avoid c?
I think that we can only say:
If Jane is hell-averse, then she would avoid c – regardless of what she wants.
Of course, perhaps this information, which I have given to Jane via direct divine revelation, would be unavailable to her otherwise. Or maybe she would have to intuit it, or discern it in the voice of conscience, or detect it in some scriptural injunction, or solicit it as advice from a competent pastor, or whatever.
But I suppose that, for me, the philosophical bottom line would be that we are called to exercise our wills in accordance with (our apprehension of) the objective good. Furthermore, we are called to know the objective good – that is, to know the Triune God, whose nature is the Good.
I think that Christians have historically maintained, therefore, that we are called to choose the good - not to want the good. This does NOT mean that it wouldn't be better to want the good also. But this would seem to mean that choosing the good is good enough - regardless of what we want.
The "moral" might then be this. We - none of us - are slaves to our desires. Our will is capable of transcending our desires, whether they be good or bad. When we have strength of will, perhaps through God's grace, we are able to choose the good despite our bad desires. We may even, through sanctification, eventually find that our desires are themselves purified. But when we experience weakness of will (akrasia), we may indeed choose to do what we know is bad.
This, I take it, is what Christianity has historically called "sin": choosing to act on desires that we know (or justifiably believe) are bad. Far from impossible, I also take it that this is constitutive of the human condition.
But this entails that, on this point anyway, Socrates was wrong. We can willingly do bad; we do it all the time.
What do you think?
 The following is an adaptation of notes that I took from various lectures delivered by Professor Jon McGinnis.
 Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999.
 See, e.g., articles like "Are You Addicted to Unhappiness?" by David Sack, Psychology Today, Mar. 5, 2014, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/where-science-meets-the-steps/201403/are-you-addicted-unhappiness>.