28 November 2005

"I Didn't Mean to Do It." So what?

For my money, Gorgias 500b-523a, where Socrates looks back on his refutation of Polus and reveals his mind about its significance, is one of the more interesting passages in the Platonic corpus. It's rich in suggestive and fruitful ideas. In this passage, I think, perhaps more than any other, one seems to hear Plato speaking freely.

Here's something I found there yesterday.

I have usually interpreted the strange Socratic maxim, "No one willingly does wrong" as, if anything, tending to excuse conduct which might seem bad. Doesn't the maxim effectively make everyone basically good? And it attributes our badness to ignorance, which we naturally take, at first, to be something that is not up to us. (Socrates even uses it in that way in the Apology).

Consider what Paul Woodruff says about it in his entry in SEP ("Plato's Shorter Ethical Works"). After mentioning the Socratic denial of akrasia, Woodruff remarks:

A related doctrine is that no one errs voluntarily. If acrasia is impossible, then every moral error involves a cognitive failure about the action or the principle that it violates, and cognitive errors negative [[sic] sic] (or at least weaken) responsibility for actions caused by those errors. Socrates generally assumes that actions taken in ignorance are involuntary, and that therefore the proper response to wrongdoing is not retribution, but education, as he says in the Apology (25e-26a).
So "No one willingly does wrong" suggests "Excuse and educate; don't punish".

And yet in the Gorgias passage one finds the maxim being used to an almost opposite effect. There the doctrine strengthens blame: you cannot claim (Socrates argues) as an excuse for wrongdoing, that you never wanted (intended, wished) to do wrong, because that's true of everyone, both good and bad! After all, no one willingly does what is wrong. Thus, to show that your action is blameless, you have to say something beyond that:
Then of these two, doing and suffering wrong, we declare doing wrong to be the greater evil, and suffering it the less. Now with what should a man provide himself in order to come to his own rescue, and so have both of the benefits that arise from doing no wrong on the one hand, [509d] and suffering none on the other? Is it power or will? What I mean is, will a man avoid being wronged by merely wishing not to be wronged, or will he avoid it by providing himself with power to avert it?

The answer to that is obvious: by means of power.

But what about doing wrong? Will the mere not wishing to do it suffice--since, in that case, he will not do it--or does it require that he also provide himself with some power or art, [509e] since unless he has got such learning or training he will do wrong? I really must have your answer on this particular point, Callicles--whether you think that Polus and I were correct or not in finding ourselves forced to admit, as we did in the preceding argument, that no one does wrong of his own wish, but that all who do wrong do it against their will.

[510a] Callicles
Let it be as you would have it, Socrates, in order that you may come to a conclusion of your argument.

Then for this purpose also, of not doing wrong, it seems we must provide ourselves with a certain power or art.
(Greek through Perseus here.)

Socrates is urging, to Callicles, that if we don't take all available means to seek out and acquire whatever "power or art" (dunamis kai techne) might keep us from doing wrong, then we are at fault--because our simply not wishing to do wrong is clearly insufficient to avoid wrongdoing.


Anonymous said...

Nice post, but one minor point.

The word "negative" can be used as a transitve verb with its meaning often equivalent to that of "neutralize" or "blot out." So I don't think that the "sic" is necessary in the Woodruff quote.

Here's the full definition from Merriam Webster's:

Main Entry: negative
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): -ed/-ing/-s
transitive verb
1 a : to refuse assent to (as a candidate, proposal, program) : refuse to accept b (1) : to reject by or as if by a vote (2) : VETO
2 : to demonstrate the falsity of : DISPROVE
intransitive verb : to deny or reject or refuse something
synonym see DENY, NEUTRALIZE

Citation format for this entry:

"negative." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (30 Nov. 2005).

Michael Pakaluk said...

Well, thank you. I didn't know that. I'll negative my negativing.

Macuquinas d' Oro said...

I fear that the misintrepretation you flag Woodruff for is quite widespread. I am puzzled by the willingness of commentators to saddle Plato with such an implausible theory of responsibility & excuse. Think of the implications of allowing ignorance simpliciter to mitigate, much less exculpate. Why should anyone in any morally difficult situation undertake to inform himself when remaining ignorant will excuse whatever error he makes? The morally safest course, on this principle of responsibility, is the action a person chooses maximally in ignorance of its consequences.
GORGIAS 509e-510a shows clearly that Plato does not fall into this error. To avoid the culpable ignorance that underlines much of bad decision making, he proposes a bouletic or deliberative art that carefully weighs the good & bad of the options we face.

huetenan said...

Anchronism aside, does this not make Socrates into a Pelagian?