10 REM: Define Ethical Algorithm;
30 GOTO 10;
40 END;

If you don’t know the answer then search for it.
Once you think you know the answer. Look at it, critically; look hard; examine it; pour over it; tear it apart; ask for help looking at it.
And if it works – look again. And if it doesn’t work, search again.
In a word: search.

SocratesThis is not the answer to the question; it is the answer to finding the answer to the question if it exists. It may not, but we don’t know; this is why we search. This is what Socrates is doing. This is what Socrates tells us we should do. When Socrates stops asking questions for once and tells us something positive – admits to an actual belief – it is this:

“….I would contend at all costs both in word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things that one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it.” – Meno, 86c

And if it makes us better men, braver and less idle then isn’t that virtue; the belief that we can know and must search to know? Isn’t that the definition of ethical behavior?

So, what am I suggesting: that wanting to know what it is to be virtuous or ethical or questioning how to deal with a particular ethical dilemma, together with the willingness to expend the effort in searching for the answer to that question, results in an actual answer? Isn’t that just wishful thinking? What proof can I offer that thinking deeply about things isn’t just narcissistic behavior; that it really isn’t just a way of avoiding making an unpleasant decision? Does thinking about things really make us less idle, or is it just laziness? And more specifically, doesn’t Plato contradict himself, if this is the answer?

When Socrates speaks of virtuous men later in this dialog he states:

“As regards knowledge, they are no different from soothsayers and prophets. They too say many things when inspired, but they have no knowledge about what they are saying” – Meno, 99c

and further:

“Virtue… comes to those who possess it as a gift from the gods.” – Meno, 100a

These sorts of statements seem to devalue the need to search. Aren’t they saying that virtue can’t be taught or learned, but rather that you either got it or you don’t?

I actually don’t think so. I think that the search, for Socrates, has a purpose, and that purpose is not to define or create logical explanations or rules about ethics or virtue. It IS virtuous in itself. Or if not quite that, it is a meditation on virtue that can lead to a first hand knowledge of virtue, or at least to inspiration.

But the argument that virtue/morality comes from inspiration sounds weak. Why should we spend our time in so much logistical/verbal analysis if the result of all that heavy thinking is just to jettison it like so much extra ballast in a storm at sea. And inspiration itself sounds suspiciously like that old legal saw about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

But notice that none of Socrates’ interlocutors ever come out and answer that “I’ll know it when I see it.” Only Socrates is brave enough to claim ignorance. They always fall back on reasons. They believe in reasons; they claim to have reasons for their actions or beliefs about things, and they suppose that these reasons are valid or self evident without ever bothering to examine them. And so Socrates is not finding reasons, he is debunking them. He examines the conventional reasons, and finds them wanting. What he is looking for defies reason and expectation. It is inspiration. In fact, I will go further; reasons interfere with inspiration.

In every case, verbal logic fails to capture the essence of virtue and ethics. The method is too inexact. It’s like trying to cut sushi with a carpenter’s saw. Plato holds that these ethical properties are real. There is a real virtue, a real piety, a real justice but they are not their words. Words can’t contain them. Words are just the tags we label them with. They point to something, but the definitions can’t explain the thing in itself because the thing is inspired in us on some level that words an logic can’t quite reach.

To know these things requires an Eureka! moment, like the child discovering the diagonal. There is a real principle, but it is blinding in its abstractness. This is the source from which our moral precepts derive, but it is not identical to the precepts. What the search achieves is to keep us in contact with that source. Analysis of these moral constructs, debate on the dilemmas they engender, keep us close to the inspiration and allow it to work through us. It can’t really answer any questions, but it can put us in the proper frame of mind to have that Eureka! And that is more than ethics, it’s metaphysics.

This is my take on ethics. At least it is for today. I will search again tomorrow.