A Socratic View of Ethics

(Article is by guest writer Ed Kelly Jr. See bio below.)

“Socrates advised us not to live a life which is not subjected to examination.” Epictetus Discourses 1:28

How should we live? What is ethics rooted in? How do we determine right and wrong? These are the questions I have been grappling with since I expelled God from my life. I have not always thought deeply about these questions. For most of my life I only accepted the thinking or ethical pronouncements of others. Socrates defined ethics as “no small matter but how we ought to live our lives.”[i] There are now multiple philosophical theories on the origin and framework of ethics but they all can be simplified to two conflicting approaches: God and man. These two approaches explain the current American cultural war.

For the first 50 years of my life I followed the first approach: the transcendental theistic approach. It is also been called the Divine Command theory or “authoritarian ethics.”[ii]  This is the morality of obedience to those in power whether it be God, or the commandments allegedly derived from some all-powerful deity or from religious leaders. Religious texts (the Bible) provided the moral absolutes for my life and I never questioned them. That way of life was easier and provided a degree of security. But looking back, I realize there was a cost. It had a crippling effect on my growth as a human being. It detracted from freedom and responsibility. The authoritarian morality was regulated by fear and without inquiry and examination. It seemed less human. This approach can lead to a very dangerous arrogance and is one of the reasons why there are so many people in America who believe that only they know how everyone else ought to live. I was one of those “authoritarian preachers.”

The second approach is humanistic ethics or naturalistic ethics which I entered when I began reading Socrates. It is based on reason and the belief that ethical inquiry is an essential human activity. It does not look to a supernatural being for input. Socrates is an example of this kind of ethical approach. He taught that a person should live by the light of reason, follow his conscience, attempt to do good, and not blindly follow customs nor the gods.

One of the first lessons I learned from Socrates was how to avoid that arrogance that I mentioned earlier. Yes, even atheists and spiritual naturalists can become like “fundamentalist” expressing themselves with an authoritarian or arrogant attitude. I believe we are all susceptible to a “holy arrogance” that blinds us and keeps from entering a dialog with others.

The first words of the Greek text of the Apology of Socrates is the phrase “I do not know.” It foreshadows the main thesis. A friend of Socrates had told him that the Oracle of Delphi had made a divine pronouncement that Socrates was the wisest man in the world. Socrates sought to understand this. In the end he concluded that if he was the wisest man, it was because he was aware that “he did not know.” This became for me a key to understanding ethics and how we ought to live. Realizing our intellectual limitations results in a humility that will spur us to reach out in dialogue with others – grappling with others for the answers to our moral questions.

There are two components to Socratic ethics:

Internal Self-Examination
Socrates was like the Prophets we read about in the Hebrew Bible. The cultural issues were the same. Both ancient Israel and ancient Greece had a voracious appetite for wealth and power rather than virtue. Both Socrates and some of the Prophets experienced death for challenging their communities. But they differed in their approach. The Prophets came with “authoritative” divine answers while Socrates came with human questions. At his trial, Socrates said in his defense, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”[iii]  Humanistic ethics begins with a rigorous self-examination, otherwise our lives lack autonomy. When we stop and reflect on our lives and values, it helps us to change and grow. This kind of self scrutiny makes ethics a process and journey, not a destination.

Communal Dialogue
Socrates believed that humanity could only come to know morals that value the common good through communal dialogue and he demonstrated that in his life. He developed a unique dialectic method of asking questions, listening to replies and asking further questions. This was done to challenge assumptions and inconsistencies and to elicit ideas. This step in the process is not easy. Last year, my wife and I took part in a Conservative/Liberal dialogue for several week in Omaha, Nebraska. One of the hardest lessons I learned was not to argue with others to win them over to my position. Rather I learned that listening and then questioning to make sure I understood lead to better results. I think in our high-tech world, we have lost the fine art of listening.

Ethics, or how we ought to live, is determined not only by self-examination but from sharing values and ideas with others, listening to others and, on occasion, challenging other’s ideas and values. Through such dialog we can together develop a humanistic ethics.

[i] Plato, Republic

[ii] Erich Fromm, Man for Himself,

[iii] Plato, The Apology of Socrates


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Guest writer Edward Kelly Jr. lives in Red Oak, Iowa, with his wife Rose. He was a Fundamentalist Pentecostal preacher for 20 years and in 1995 began a journey out of fundamentalism through the influence of such writers as Paul Tillich and James Barr. He has a Masters in Theology from Franciscan University (Steubenville, Ohio) and is now a Humanist Chaplain and Celebrant.

2 thoughts on “A Socratic View of Ethics”

  1. Thanks to Ed for this excellent article. It touched on so many relevant things for us all today and a good reminder! 🙂

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