The Nature of Human Character
One of my mentors ranked these three things in order of importance:
If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense why character is the most important thing. After all, you need to be a good person for people to like you. But most people will only focus on the last one.
I got very interested in why we value “good” character so much. What even is a “good” character? What are the fundamental ideas that shape our character? Do all humans have an instinct to benefit themselves?
Socrate is a philosopher who answered a lot of these questions. First, let's figure out who he is.
Who is Socrates?
Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher who developed a lot of the fundamentals of modern Western philosophy, along with his students Plato and Aristole.
Socrates was a strange guy. Imagine a barefoot, muscular, thick-set man, with a snub nose and heavy brows walking around and talking to you about wisdom, happiness, and philosophy? Yeah, this was Socrate.
“An unexamined life is not worth living” — Socrates believed that the purpose of life was to grow spiritually, and philosophically. This is why he questioned all values and beliefs in order to determine if they were the correct ones.
He was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens”. He was teaching them to question everything like government, god, among other things.
Socrates was in constant search for definitions. He was very keen on developing knowledge. His way of finding a definition was often the same:
- He would try to get a person — who claims to be knowledgeable in the field Socrates is trying to find answers in — to discuss what an appropriate definition of the topic would be.
- This back and forth between Socrates and the other person would frequently take place in the market square in Athens or in a private home. In many of Socrates’ discussions, a number of other people would also take part and contribute different amounts of input to the debate.
Through lots of pondering and debating, he formulated views around evil, good, virtue, happiness and knowledge.
The virtue of human character
A virtue is a trait or quality that is deemed to be morally (discipline of a person) good. Examples of these are things like honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, and integrity.
We all have a nautral obligation to benefit ourselves. Everything we do, even if it’s helping others is done because in one way or another it makes us feel good.
The virtue of human character is the central focus of Socrates’ perspective. Good living through good character was the holy grail of Socrates’ ideal of the examined life. Socrates believed that knowledge is the fundamental good and the governing dynamic of all human action.
The ability to allow knowledge to influence our world view and behaviour is the fundamental good that makes all other human goods stand up and live.
It is necessary to practice seeking knowledge and seek improvement of our human character for the rest of our lives.
A Socratic View of Wrongdoing
Generally, morality in one way or another addresses the human capacity to identify and choose between right and wrong and then to act accordingly. Socrates believed that nobody willingly chooses to do wrong.
He maintained that doing wrong always harmed the person doing it and that nobody seeks harm on themselves. Because of this, all wrongdoing is the result of ignorance.
This means that it is impossible for a human being to willingly do wrong because their instinct for self-interest prevents them from doing so. If you have the knowledge to know what is good then you will practice that.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. This can’t be true especially after personally seeing people who did wrong and seemed to know full well that their behaviour was wrong.
I think generally this belief of Socrates is true in a clear and simple way.
It is true that people can choose to do things they know other people think are wrong. It is even true that people can choose to do things that they believe are wrong for others while trying to benefit themselves.
But people would never choose to do things that they perceive in the moment of decision to be wrong (harmful) for themselves. Even when there is an obvious inherent self-harm in the action, people can do wrong and cause harm while their goal is to seek after the good they believe will benefit them.
Self-Interest and Morality
The difference between objective knowledge and our personal intuitive insight into our own well being is important.
For example, people can know that stealing is wrong, but they experience a benefit through theft that makes them feel the wrongful action results in obtaining some good, which improves their lives.
The psychological principle is that there is no motive for committing actions that are right or wrong, which bring no perceived benefit. If we keep the distinction between the ends and means clear, we see that nobody commits an act for the sake of the wrong involved but with a view to obtaining the perceived benefit or good.
It is also our nature to see that which harms us as being bad and wrong. We may objectively see that some particular circumstances may harm us in some way, but calculate what is of overall benefit according to the character of our self-interest.
The Recognition of Evil
Human evil is usually measured in terms of the intensity of its destructive result without regard to understanding its nature. This makes no sense. Lets say you went to a doctor with a headache and the doctor just gave you aspirin for your pain but failed to discover that the cause of the pain was a brain tumour. The identity of the problem is not the pain, which is just a symptom. The identity of the problem is the tumour that causes pain.
This is the exact same way that the identity of human evil is in the cause of behaviours that harm not in the harm itself.
This Socratic perspective says that evil behaviour is evil because it is born of ignorance and fear, not because of the relative measure of its harm.
Character and Knowledge
For Socrates, wrongdoing through ignorance is the only harm and knowledge is the only good. Socrates believed that the only life worth living is a life that is persistent in seeking good character.
When a human character is weak, this correlates with a lack of knowledge or the lack of ability to allow knowledge to influence us.
In Socrates’ view, knowledge and character are developmentally linked. Both a pure lack of knowledge. Essentially, ignorance = wrongdoing = harmful to human character.
In this Socratic perspective, our potential for developing good character depends on the quality of our practice of seeking to put reasoning and knowledge at the center of everything we do.
Socrates’ theories helped me better understand that the ideal life recognizes there is a need for daily practise and exercise to our ethical reasoning in order to strengthen our human character.