Ethics are the norms by which acceptable and unacceptable behavior are measured. According to the beliefs of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, one develops ethics through maturity, wisdom and love. Socrates introduced the concept of teaching ethics and acceptable standards of conduct in 400 B.C. and has had a profound and lasting impact on the course of Western philosophy and history ever since. He believed virtue was found primarily in human relationships, love and friendship, not through material gains.
Socrates was the first person to give a practical and political focus to philosophy and ethics. Before Socrates, philosophy had focused primarily on questions of metaphysics, religion and science. The abstract, theoretical streak in philosophy has persisted even until today, but Socrates was the first philosopher to assert that the human realm was the proper focus of philosophical inquiry. Socrates believed, to the contrary of many around him, that the most pertinent questions that philosophy had to deal with related to how people should live their lives, what kinds of actions were righteous, and how people should live together in communities and states.
Socrates essentially invented a new mode of investigation to define virtuous and ethical behavior. He believed that the best way to find knowledge, and one of the important components of being a good, ethical citizen, was to have meaningful conversations with people about basic principles. He is known for his presence in the marketplace where he engaged in long conversations with ordinary citizens about ideas like justice, righteousness and virtue. This method is known as the dialectic, and it is the first instance in which philosophical inquiry was performed by conversation rather than by solitary contemplation. Through his interactions with his fellow citizens and the city of Athens, and his influence on his students, (most notably Aristotle and Plato) the legacy of his thought has formed the basis for much of modern philosophy, science, ethics, social theory and other fields.
Socrates equated knowledge with virtue, which ultimately leads to ethical conduct. He believed that the only life worth living was one that was rigorously examined. He looked for principles and actions that were worth living by, creating an ethical base upon which decisions should be made. Socrates firmly believed that knowledge and understanding of virtue, or "the good," was sufficient for someone to be happy. To him, knowledge of the good was almost akin to an enlightened state. He believed that no person could willingly choose to do something harmful or negative if they were fully aware of the value of life.
Socrates was put on trial and found guilty of "corrupting the youth" of Athens by asking them to question authority. Socrates believed deeply that people should inquire and ask questions, even about - or perhaps especially about - those things that everyone takes for granted. He did not believe that judging an action based on life and death was virtuous. Instead, Socrates taught that decisions should be made based on what was right or wrong, or good or bad, standards you can achieve through discussion and moral guidance. His belief in the process of inquiry was so strong and pure that it got him killed by being forced to drink hemlock.
- Auburn University: Ethics Study Guide: Socrates in the Laches by Robert T. Long, philosophy professor
- Good Character.com: Socratic Approach to Character Education
- Muslim Philosophy: Socrates
- Ancient Greece: Socrates
- Santa Clara University: Can Ethics Be Taught?
- Lander University: The Ethics of Socrates
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: What are Ethics in Research?
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."