Saturday, November 13, 2010

Critique of Euthyphro, Crito, & Letter from Birmingham Jail: Mixed Platonic Ethics

In Euthyphro, Plato's characters converse in attempt to determine whether there can be a universal measure in determining the virtue of piety. In this dialogue, the men agree that there is a certain unity of the virtues; that all virtues are tied together. As such, Socrates and Euthyphro's dialogue indirectly addresses the issue of whether there is a universal measure for morality in general (because it is moral to be virtuous). At the end of the dialogue, this is left unanswered.

In Crito, Plato's characters are in agreement that, “We are never intentionally to do wrong...that injustice is always an evil and dishonour to him who acts unjustly.” Though simple, this is nonetheless an answer to the question raised in Euthyphro. Based on this measure of morality, an act merely is pious if it is made with pious intention. Here is the universal measure, and it is short and to the point. So in determining whether Euthyphro is acting piously by prosecuting his father for murder, one needs only to determine if Euthyphro is acting with pious intention. According to the dialogue, Euthyphro initially believes his action is pious, else he would not have become drawn into a discussion about the nature of piety with Socrates. Therefore, Euthyphro's actions are pious.

“We are never intentionally to do wrong,” serves as an excellent moral measure for the virtuous individual, though it can be amended to be a more precise determiner of morality. In Plato's dialogue, “we must do no wrong,” is agreed upon by the characters, to which they induce, “...nor when injured, injure in return...for we must injure no one at all.” A direct relation between injury, or harm, and wrong is made here.
The word 'wrong' should be replaced with the word 'harm' in Plato's moral measure. If it is not initially interchangeable, true 'wrong' in its most basic understanding is either causally preceded or succeeded by harm. One should take note that harm in itself is not wrong; harm is a very subjective term. To intentionally produce harm, as a singular or primary motive, is the only real wrong.

As such, if the nature of right and wrong lies in the containment of harmful intention, morality is a matter of the point of view of the actor at the moment of the act.

Immediately after hearing this, one must remark on the subjectivity of such a moral measure. This is one of the strengths of Plato's measure, however, because other moral measures, especially at the time, such as relying on the judgment of the many, ultimately result in immoral or robot-like action. Freedom of will is a strength of 'do no intentional harm.'

An interesting facet of 'do no intentional harm' as a moral measure is very different, even opposite actions can be taken and both can be moral, as long as the person who is doing the action is doing so without purposeful harmful intention. A mother could use spanking as punishment one day, then a month later switch to rewarding her child's positive behavior while giving no attention to unhealthy behavior. Both stances on child rearing are morally right at the time they are used, because the mother's primary intention is to raise a respectful child, even if the former practice is physically harmful to the child. This moral measure allows the individual room to grow and improve the basis of their personal morality.

Though truly an excellent measure of personal morality when adopted on a individual basis, 'do no intentional harm' would have much difficulty being put into political practice. The past has not shown personal accountability to be a strong human trait in the whole of society. Without some sort of enforcement, it would be very difficult to get murderers, rapists or thieves to admit that their motives were to intentionally harm, when they could easily lie about their intentions. With a 'do no intentional harm' constitution, it would be likely impossible to impose any physical laws regarding conduct without contradicting the freedom of action Plato's premise requires. In any existing society, laws inevitably come out out of a need to hold accountable those who are compelled to act immorally. As there is no known way to prove intention, this moral measure would soon break down. No society is of yet ready to handle this responsibility.

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail, he addresses a group of fellow clergymen who did not agree with a peaceful march protesting segregation. King's ideology is poured out through this letter. His account of justice is as follows:

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
This premise concisely sums up King's moral code. It proves to be a more tangible measure of morality than 'do no intentional harm.' It may not allow for as much free action as a 'do no intentional harm,' but King's premise is highly applicable to society and law. Even if the majority of a population is not accountable enough to act morally, as such was the case when King wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail and Plato wrote his dialogues, the morality measure is still strong enough to keep those immoral in check. Laws can be built from King's premise on justice. It does not matter here what the motives behind an action are, so long as the result of the action brings about an uplift in the human personality.

In the case of segregation, King stated, “It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” Clearly this is degrading of human personality. Under Plato's measure 'do no intentional harm,' segregation could be morally permissible. Many Southern whites still honestly believed black people were less intelligent, dangerous, less civilized and overall less capable then their white counterparts. Operating on this belief, segregation made sense to them at that time in order to preserve the integrity of their 'race.' The primary motivation of these Southern whites, in allowing segregation, could have been for the good of their community. The harm done to their black neighbors, if they were aware of it, could have been an unfortunate result of their primary motive. Thus, from a white person's point of view at that particular moment, there was nothing morally wrong with segregation. Plato's moral measure falls short as a political ideology.

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