The Socratic Method and Moral Relativism

A lecture on Plato’s work, particularly his account of the Socratic dialogues, frequently attracts and inspires some university students to bring about a myriad of subjects that relate to morality. As is often the case, these students formulate questions in a way that points out to a commonly desired response: that what is considered “wrong” is backed by societal norms and not “truth.” The next step is then to argue that “truth” is fundamentally a mode of perception of reality. And the conclusion is to assert that each of us has a “truth” of our own, and that it does not require validation by others who do not accept or share it.

However, the relentless search for wisdom carried on by Socrates, which generated the form of inquiry known as the Socratic method, is not a search for answers that vary according with the context, but rather for answers that always apply. Hence why Socrates was not convinced that there were wise men in Athens: every inquired person resorted to relativism to define moral concepts. For instance, Euthyphro’s attempt at defining “pious” ultimately demonstrated that it was relative to circumstance and, therefore, lacked a referent. Conversely, the problem was not that a universal definition of the concept did not exist, but that it had not yet been found.

Socrates also looked up to the Gods for wisdom and there were truths to abide to as established by this higher power. Such truths were not relative to circumstance either. Although he has argued in the Apology that even the Gods disagree among themselves, he reiterated in his inquiry that such disagreement happens sometimes and not consistently. His unwillingness to escape from prison after being sentenced to death set an example as to where he stood when it came to morality: he preferred to die than to transgress the laws of the city, under which all citizens lived in collective agreement and with the respect (blessing) of the Gods.

For Socrates, one does something wrong out of ignorance. As such, his inquiries did not aim to point out the impossibility of universal truths in face of individual perceptions. Instead, he engaged in a truly scientific method hoping to unveil the rules in motion that regulate life. He sought to find them, not question their existence. And he believed that wisdom was intrinsically related to both knowledge and application of these rules.