2 It's not all Greek to me!
The first section introduced some basic ideas and vocabulary to get you started on thinking about ethics and ethical questions. In this section I would like to start using those ideas and vocabulary to tackle some examples taken from a selection of dialogues.
One of my reasons for focusing on dialogue is that dialogue is a written form of conversation. A crucial point about conversations is that they do not have to be logical. If a conversation comes to a halt, then someone starts on a new topic. In a conversation people can exaggerate: there's a rhetorical element to it. When dealing with ethical matters you cannot avoid the influence of your feelings, in the way you express things and in the nature of your argument. We might like to think that when we're working out what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we are being ‘logical’, but experience shows that this is rarely the case. Irrationality, the effects of our emotions, slips into the judgements we make. Indeed, it's interesting we use the word ‘judgement’ rather than ‘logic’, because ‘judgement’ seems to imply that we somehow extrapolate from incomplete evidence, possibly from rather dubious sources. In other words, you have your dubious, incomplete evidence, so what you're stuck with is not drawing a ‘good’ conclusion but making a ‘judgement’. Logic may be helpful but maybe inadequate in the face of uncertainty.
Therefore, one of the reasons for my using dialogue as the source of material is to actually reinforce this point.
I have selected for you some extracts from three of Plato's dialogues: Protagoras, Meno and Gorgias. Plato's dialogues are quite extensive and deal with a number of complex issues, but these three particular dialogues are specifically about ethics. Indeed, these dialogues constitute three essential texts in any study of ethics and are really worth engaging with, if you are interested in the area. I will ask you to look at some extracts not only to get a feel for what the Greeks said about ethical matters, but also to introduce you to different kinds of dialogue. Protagoras, for example, uses a device for putting across the argument that is very different from what is done in the other two texts, which are very much like plays. As I said earlier, I'm interested in exploring not only on the ethical matters, but also how these matters are presented, and these dialogues provide an excellent starting point for this exploration. Once you read the texts you may come to agree with me (or not!) that (the character) Socrates is a bit of a ‘bully’, and you may also wonder whether actually there is dialogue at all. Indeed, it is worth noting at this point that there are some quite considerable critiques of Plato available (see, for example, Bruno Latour's Pandora's Hope, pp. 216–265).
As you may know, Plato and Socrates were two Ancient Greek philosophers. What little remains from Socrates’ thinking, however, is available through surviving texts written by his students, including Plato. In Plato's dialogues Socrates appears as a central character, but it is not entirely clear to us whether the words spoken by Socrates in these dialogues were indeed part of his teachings or, perhaps more likely, Plato's interpretations. In other words, although Socrates is the person who does most of the talking in the dialogues, he is, indeed, a fictional character. Click on the links if you are interested in reading more about Plato and Socrates. The OpenLearn course AS208_1: Europe's awakening will also tell you a little about these philosophers whilst putting their legacy within the context of European cultural development.
Although the dialogues were written over two thousand years ago, they are relatively approachable even if they present intricate arguments (and some are fairly long). Translations of Plato's dialogues are accessible online at sites of projects that are making copyright-free texts openly available, for example, the Project Gutenberg or the Perseus Digital Library. These sites, however, offer fairly old translations in formats that are not particularly reader-friendly. So, if you would like to read the dialogues in their entirety, I would recommend a more recent, possibly annotated, translation in print, which makes things easier to follow. For your study of this course, however, I am recommending that you read some specially prepared versions (which you can download directly from this course in the relevant activities) that contain annotations and highlighting to indicate the passages you need to read. I have tried to select representative parts of the dialogues to allow for discussion of the main ideas they contain as well as their shape in terms of how arguments are put together.