Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences
Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

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Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

2.2 Three Greek dialogues

Activity 8

Read the excerpts of Plato's Protagoras highlighted in the version attached below. Jot down a few ideas about the final vocabulary that Socrates uses in the dialogue.

Protagoras [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Discussion

Comments

Socrates talks about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ linking these to ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’, respectively, so the final vocabulary that Socrates is talking about in Protagoras is ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’. The extracts I chose from the dialogue try to establish ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ as the only two terms needed for ethical deliberation. Nevertheless, Socrates concedes that there are degrees of ‘pleasure and ‘pain’, and he also accepts that our perception is affected by the distance from the experience.

It is also interesting to note that Protagoras is, indeed, a report of a conversation rather than a transcribed dialogue. Consequently, it looks much more like a novel than a play.

An interesting point that Socrates makes is that, if we're going to weigh up the ‘pleasures’ and ‘pains’, we need to be ‘scientific’ (although he did not use this word, which is a nineteenth-century European construct). Because sometimes ‘pleasure’ is in the distance and ‘pain’ is in the present, things may look more like the medicine or the physiotherapy treatment that may be painful but achieves ‘good’ in the end. He claims that, if we're going to assess things of different kinds, then we need some kind of measurement. He indeed says that it is rather important to have measurement. Unfortunately, he never gets around to telling us how we set about measuring things, and this provides a background to some of the other dialogues. The assumption is that what we need to do is to measure the ‘goods’ and the ‘bads’, as in a scientific-like procedure, but he doesn't give us a method. In the end he suggests that, when we make a decision, then we will basically choose the ‘lesser evil’.

Although I used the term ‘scientific’, I did it with great care and a note. Word choice is a potentially problematic issue with these dialogues, which have been repeatedly translated from primary and secondary sources. For example, we might be tempted to assume that Socrates, who begins by weighing up the balance of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and ends up weighing up ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’, might be referring directly to emotions, that is, more human and immediate ‘things’ that may be relatively easier to weigh up. Although emotions are an essential element of judgements and decision making in my understanding (and I will discuss this later in more detail), that is not an appropriate way of approaching the Socrates in Plato's dialogues.

Activity 9

Read the excerpts of Plato's Meno highlighted in the version attached below. Jot down a few ideas about the final vocabulary that Socrates uses in the dialogue.

Meno

Discussion

Comments

Meno is about ‘virtue’, and Meno himself says, ‘Socrates, tell me what it's all about, what's this virtue stuff and can you teach it?’ In the end, Socrates says, ‘Well, we don't really know what it is, but we do know it can't be taught because virtue is not knowledge.’ Socrates assumes that, if it can be taught, it is knowledge. Virtue is not knowledge and, therefore, can't be taught. Virtue is something like an opinion, like the divinations provided by people in the temple. They get divine inspiration and come up with a statement which is a ‘true opinion’, and he says that you can't teach it, but some people are inspired and can give it. Socrates uses the term ‘true opinion’ but doesn't really tell us how we would identify that. He uses politicians as examples and argues that knowledge cannot guide politics and good politicians cannot teach others. Good politicians, he asserts, are like others who guide with no knowledge, and that makes them ‘divine’. Virtue, it seems, is possessed by those who have ‘good opinions’, but by the end of the dialogue we do not know what virtue is or how those opinions are acquired.

Of course, this is all highly problematic. Although Socrates might say that ‘virtue’ can't be taught, you might claim that, perhaps, it can be learnt, learnt in the sense that you can learn from your mistakes, you can learn to do better. Perhaps you will not be convinced that what he was talking about was not knowledge, and, so you will not be convinced that it cannot be taught. Before I discuss this further, I would like you to tackle Activity 10, which asks you to read some excerpts from the last chosen dialogue, Gorgias.

Activity 10

Read the excerpts of Plato's Gorgias highlighted in the version attached below. Jot down a few ideas about the final vocabulary that Socrates uses in the dialogue

Gorgias

Discussion

Comments

In this dialogue Socrates is trying to dismiss the claims of Gorgias, the speechmaker, that he can persuade anybody of anything. It is interesting that, in the end, Gorgias walks off, as though he's fed up with talking with Socrates, who is then left talking to Callicles. Callicles is a youngster, and what it seems to me is that at the end of the dialogue Socrates is telling Callicles how to lead a ‘good’ life. In other words, it sounds as though Socrates is actually trying to teach ‘virtue’! It does seem that he's trying to turn Callicles into a ‘virtuous’ person by presenting all sorts of formulae. In Gorgias Socrates focuses on the individual and on instructing the individual on how to lead a better life. I think the dialogue should be looked at as a way of helping people to become more virtuous. In this sense, Socrates puts himself in the role we might think of as a parent instructing a son or daughter on how to lead a ‘virtuous’ life.

Although in one dialogue Socrates is saying that virtue cannot be taught, it would seem that in another he is actually trying to teach it! An interesting aspect of Gorgias is that, when Socrates dismisses Gorgias and his art, he is saying that the ability to address a crowd is not really important. ‘The need to act when opportunity arises not so important, the need to explain succinctly and express using lay language, no that's not important.’ Socrates is actually dismissing all the things that are really rather important if you are in the business of politics. The trouble with this is that technology developers can be adventurous, but to be successful they must identify themselves with the constituency in which they hope their product will become the popular choice. They will have to take lessons from Gorgias rather than Socrates and tell their stories in the most compelling way they can. They need to inject their proposals for a project into people's self-image and will need the public arts to portray their vision and gauge the public reaction.

Socrates dismissed the public arts as being on a par with pandering to people's want of immediate gratification rather than accepting a degree of pain for the long-term ‘good’. Putting this within the context of technology, Socrates’ view requires you to have the knowledge to help you see the longer term; for instance, that a product may in the long term give you a waste disposal problem. Socrates seems to want decisions and the conclusions of arguments postponed until every scrap of knowledge essential to the argument has been found. This approach poses difficulties for the technology developer who is part of a technological enterprise who needs to persuade colleagues (other technologists, managers, accountants, etc.) and, perhaps, investors, and who is given limited time and limited opportunities to do so and, hence, has to focus on being persuasive and succinct while using the limited knowledge available. Socrates seems to be seeking an unachievable ideal that does act as a reminder that in practice our arguments are restricted and insecure and thus always vulnerable and potential ojects for critics.

However, we would expect the developer who does present a proposal to have thoroughly investigated their proposition and be conscious of their competence to do so. In Gorgias Socrates refers to the doctors as experts and, interestingly, presumes that a skill they have is to convince people. The technologists that Socrates hints at are worthy people, but they do not make a fuss about it. Socrates’ reasoning is that the engineers can provide, for example, city defences for people but that does not change the people and the defences will equally defend the good and the villains. So because engineers cannot boast about improving the people they serve, they go modestly about their business (see Gorgias 512b).

So we might try to connect up the threads gathered so far from the three dialogues by saying that Socrates might expect the technologist, like all people, to strive to be ‘virtuous’, and this is a lifetime's quest. In the meantime, in their professional setting they should be knowledgeable, able to justify their proposals at least to their fellow professionals and be able to convince others.

The question of who represents your audience is crucial in presenting any argument or case, as you will know from your own experience (for example, in writing an email to a friend, writing a job application or completing a university assignment). When you look at Socrates’ arguments about what he is trying to do when talking to Callicles, he does actually sound quite like a parent in that he's actually trying to get Callicles to think about the ‘right’ ways to do things. He is talking directly to Callicles and he does not want to talk to a crowd. This is a bit misleading because at various points in the dialogue there are references to an audience who, at some stage, applaud what Socrates is saying. So, whilst he is implying that he only wants to deal with individuals, he's actually got a big audience. If you are a technology developer or designer in a big organisation, I think you need to be a little bit careful about Socrates’ approach.

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