In Plato's Socratic dialogue in Apology, Socrates makes the bold declaration that "the unexamined life is not worth living" (Apology 38a). Since I am a great believer in the value of self-examination, this quote seemed to be a perfect opening to my essay. However, as I delved deeper into the text, I began to realize that this quote is often taken out of context. On a surface level, the "unexamined life" concept seems to represent the notion that if we do not reflect on our experiences and apply them to our own lives as an apparatus for learning and self-improvement, then our experiences are of little value. However, on a deeper level, this Socratic proposition stems from the inevitable alienation that an individual experiences by holding true to this. The need to feel that we are part of a group is in many ways an inherent part of being human. There is also a part of most of us that cherishes the time we spend alone, away from the distractions and conflicts that other people can cause. I have personally struggled with this dichotomy on more than one occasion. The challenge, I find, is to fuse these two sides of ourselves so that we can be alone without feeling lonely, and conversely, can feel part of a group without losing our uniqueness and individuality. It is then that we have achieved true wisdom; when others' opinions of us are no longer the determinant of our actions.
The following exchange between Socrates and Crito supports this conjecture:
Soc. But why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many? Good men, and they are the only persons who are worth considering, will think of these things truly as they happened.
Cr. But do you see. Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, as is evident in your own case, because they can do the very greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion?
Soc. I only wish, Crito, that they could; for then they could also do the greatest good, and that would be well. But the truth is, that they can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance (Crito).
In the end, wisdom for Socrates is a goal that is only attainable through introspection; but it is also one that can never be truly achieved because of mankind's dependency on the influences of others. Thus no one can ever truly be wise unless he exists in isolation, which is a paradox in and of itself in that without anyone around to share one's wisdom with, it is essentially devoid of value.
I have personally always struggled between my desire for social acceptance and my desire for isolation. As such, I not only see the world in accordance with Socrates' speculations in Apology and Crito, but also with the inhabitants of Plato's cave. In Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the cave acts as a barrier of protection against the harsh realities of life that are waiting to destroy the innocence from which the womb-like cavern shields its inhabitants. The inhabitants of the cave do not question their existence because it is all they know. So to them, the cave is the only reality; the only truth. Plato's cave is thus a metaphor for the limited realities that mankind allows himself to see: "Like ourselves…they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave" (Plato, Allegory). I have often viewed my surrounding environment as being much like the cave, with the shadow puppets on the wall representing the ignorance of the masses. At times, I too am one of the oblivious, trapped shadows, and at other times I allow myself to break free from unawareness and truly experience self-reflection and an evolution of personal growth. What accounts for the difference I cannot say for sure, however I tend to believe that it has something to do with my fascination/fear of enlightenment.
I have always admired the Buddhist commitment to walking the path of enlightenment; but at the same time, my fears of what the truth might reveal tend to hold me back from experiencing a full exploration. To this dilemma, Aristotle would likely respond that the problem with remaining in the dark is that it blinds us to the reality of truth; and no matter how harsh that truth might be, it is better to have knowledge than a lack of knowledge. Knowledge is, after all, for Aristotle, the catalyst for good and reasonable actions. Thus in Book I of The Nicomachean Ethics he expresses the following sentiment: "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim" (111). Later, in Book VI, he states "Excellence then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it" (117). I agree with Aristotle that it is not enough that a person has the knowledge and ability to accomplish what the virtuous person does. He must also accomplish them in the same manner as the virtuous person would accomplish them. This involves not just what gets done, but what state of character the actions achieve.
According to Georgios Anagnostopoulos, Aristotle's view of ethics "constitutes a mode of knowledge that is neither totally nondemonstrative on account of its inexactness nor free of the important epistemological difficulties common to all nonmathematical disciplines" (91). More simply stated, the core of Aristotle's ethical suppositions rests on the notion that ethics apply not only to individual choices, but also communal choices; and they are reliant on both internal and external influences.
The relationship between knowledge and ethics has been a central concern for a myriad of philosophers, including Immanuel Kant. In Kant's view, reasonable action is rooted in knowledge. Kant argues that in order to be truly ethical and make ethical decisions, it is essential that we know 'how' we know and 'what' we know. This cannot be achieved however solely through experience because experience is not definitive (i.e. It is subjective). Therefore in order to be truly ethical in Kant's view, I would have do to more than count on what little knowledge I have to guide me in my decision-making behaviors. For example, at one point in my life I struggled with the decision of whether or not to help a good friend cheat on a paper in a class that he was failing. I certainly had the knowledge that cheating is wrong, and I also had the knowledge that failing this class could have many negative consequences for my friend. However, from a deontological (Kantian) perspective, this limited amount of knowledge was not sufficient to make an ethical decision because as Terry Cooper points out, "when the available moral rules prove ineffective in a particular case, when they conflict with each other, or when the actions they seem to prescribe do not feel right, a fundamental reconsideration of our moral code may be required" (p. 22). It is in precarious situations such as these that ethical dilemmas tend to occur.
I ultimately chose not to help my friend cheat because I felt that while failing to help a friend in need went against my moral fiber, cheating went against it even more. This is how I often resolve ethical dilemmas, and it is also how Kant recommends that such quandaries be resolved. As Steven Cahn…