The Wannabe Philosopher King

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The Wannabe Philosopher King

Plato’s Republic begins with a debate on the subject of morality. One by one, Cephalus, Polymarchus, and Thrasymachus put forth their definitions of morality and one by one, they come up short. None survive the merciless scrutiny of the author’s mentor, Socrates.

The first moral precept is introduced by Cephalus. This old but wealthy businessman offers a definition that Socrates eventually exposes to be far too narrow, and far too influenced by his own trade to be deemed adequate. Cephalus establishes that morality is to “always speak the truth and to give back whatever one has borrowed”.  

In response, Socrates points out that while honesty and timely repayment of debt may be relevant and important moral qualities in the business world, the application of these very principles may not result in moral outcomes when applied in a broader context. “I am sure everyone would agree”, he goes to explain, “that if you’d borrowed weapons from a friend who was perfectly sane, but he went insane and then asked for the weapons back, you shouldn’t give them back.”After all, if morality is to pay off all debts without exception then, acting upon his moral obligation to ‘return what is owed’, the borrower will surely commit the irresponsible and immoral act of giving weapons to a friend who cannot be trusted with them due to insanity. The contradiction is clear. Socrates concludes in light of such evidence that to “speak the truth and to give back whatever one has borrowed” cannot possibly be a complete definition of morality.  Without putting up a fight, Cephalus submits.

Not satisfied with what was just proven, Polymarchus interjects and promptly takes over the discussion. He draws on the thinking of a Sophist, Simonides, who believed that apparent acts of immorality are sometimes moral if justified. Therefore, in attempt to remain consistent with this precept, Polymarchus establishes that it would be moral to harm enemies and to help...
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