Kant and Socrates

Morality is generally defined as the rightness or wrongness of an action or conduct based on an agreed standard or measure of ethical norms. This argues a society where there is no dissenting voice, which in reality is not true. Cultural subjectivism promotes tolerance, but not for all, as fundamentalist thought excludes any deviation from their prescribed moral values (Jowett, 2000). Society, on the other hand, is a group of individuals that share a common system of beliefs, intent and thought. Moral standards are required so that a stable society may exist; however, the dilemma in ethics theory is how the morality within a society is formed (Vlastos, 1991). Morality and society, apparently, is in a state of flux while ethics theorists attempt to come up with an adequate ethical formula to qualify what is right and wrong based on all cultural, social, political and religious realities.

The notion of morality is often taken from a cultural context yet this presumes that societies are likewise always right in their judgments, so to disagree with society is morally wrong (Nikolaos, 2005). Among the most noted for their philosophical studies regarding morality and ethics are Socrates and Immanuel Kant. Both point out that the definition of what is evil depends on culture and experience and motivations of the individual and society. Their definition of morality discusses not only the concept itself but also its implications to man’s existence (“Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, 2007). Thus, understanding what is moral is not to be considered as an intellectual discourse alone but is an endeavor to understand better the world.


Socrates has provided great food of thought in his studies for what he knew but more importantly because of his treatise and understanding of what he does not know. Socrates did not believe in the need to explain his actions or thoughts and instead questioned others’ exhaustively. Socrates’ regard for Sparta, his association with the Thirty Tyrants and his own personal philosophical stance was used by his enemies for the accusation of treason against the state (Vlastos, 1991). At the time of the trial, which led to his subsequent death by hemlock, there was not any element in Greek society that would represent modern day district attorney offices.

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At the same time jury selection also did not have the criteria that is implemented today and often represents the political dominants of the time. Civil cases were brought to trial by private individuals who often also acted as the prosecution. Thus, there was no way to determine whether there was probable cause as to accusations. There is also a presumption of guilt rather than that of innocence. In Plato’s recollections of the trial, he points out that the prosecution, the restored democrats, deliberately made assumptions contextually of Socrates’ teachings and philosophies (Jowett, 2000).

Plato also recognizes that Socrates defense was one that seemed to have ultimately given the jury the behest to find him guilty. His defense did not actually defend his actions but rather questioned the institution by which he was being tried in. Though in hindsight it is obvious that he held Athens in high regard, his philosophical speeches during his lifetime were sufficiently vague that his detractors easily could manipulate to appear the opposite (Nikolaos, 2005).

Socrates on Morality

Unlike traditional Sophistic views on the purpose of life which focused on public life or works, Socrates viewed the moral excellence of the soul or virtue as paramount. He considered morality as not just limited to internal aspects or characteristics of an individual but extended its definition into the public life of the individual. One of the key virtues according to Socrates is knowledge. Socrates proposed that rhetorical studies should consider morality practically rather than for the purpose of public service alone.

According to Socrates, the lack of knowledge leads to the absence of virtue. Following this viewpoint, understanding what is moral is critical in understanding virtue which in turn is important to be able to lead a moral life. Socrates describes these efforts at gaingin knowledge and thus leaving morally as the means to create value out of life: “a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad” (Jowett, 2000, para. 55)

The first step for this process is to understand what virtue is and what it is not. What is not moral is considered as evil: an act of evil can then be done by actions against another property causing him loss, against the person by physical harm or by treating him unjustly such as the denial of rights or freedoms.  In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates states that “good and evil are not simultaneous, and do not cease simultaneously”, implying that though good and bad contradict each other, they can not exist without the other (Jowett, 1999, lines 361-362).

Many of Socrates’ actions may be interpreted as satire on the Athenian society and even his statements during his trial can not be considered as defense was rather a philosophical treatise. When Socrates was asked why he did choose to flee before the trial or after it when his friends tried to liberate him from prison despite what they believed was a mockery of a trial, Socrates replied that since he chose to live in Athens, he must bow to its laws regardless of the trial (Nikolaos, 2005). However, if one already considers the ethical or moral components into the equation, it is then that the question of justice becomes more difficult to evaluate. Thus, Socrates may in fact be making a statement as to the justice of the trial if not to its legality. Considering the components of prosecution, defense, jury and judge alone, one can consider that the trial prescribe to all requirements for the delivery of justice.

Kant on Socrates

Kant’s Moral philosophy is one of the main alternatives to utilitarianism which marginalizes moral humanistic virtues. Kant’s view on morality is essentially deontological which implies a focus on the action to be done regardless of the consequences (“Kant: The Moral”, 2001). This implies that if a person is doing something that is right, then even if the results of his actions create a negative outcome, then he still did the right thing. There is also a prescriptive quality to Kant’s view: the assumption is that everyone should do what is right and that it should be universally right (Wood, 2004).

Thus, for an action to be considered moral, it should be within the capacity of everyone and viewed as a correct action universally (“Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, 2007). Viewing Socrates’ action through Kant’s Moral Philosophy, there are arguments both to support the morality of Socrates actions. The challenge is in deciphering Socrates’ intentions and purpose which can sometime prove difficult since it is basic in and Socratic Method to question something.

From Kant’s definition of morals in terms of the action rather than the outcome, Socrates can be considered as moral since his purpose for questioning the state and its leaders is to emphasize the need for the knowledge virtue (“Kant: The Moral”, 2001). According to Plato, Socrates did not question the institutions of the states but rather the ignorance behind it. Thus, Kant will consider Socrates moral because he in facts teaches other virtue by his philosophical studies. As stated by Socrates in Apology, “I can give you as proofs of this, not words only, but deeds, which you value more than words,” (Jowett, 2000, para. 59)

Another example is Socrates’ lack of defense for himself during his trial. According to Plato’s Apology, the accusations against Socrates were an intimidation scheme gone badly. Rather than acceding to his detractors, Socrates chose not to give up his stands as a testament to his view of the mockery of justice that has become of the Athenian society. Supporting the Kant’s view of universality in the form of the law implemented in Athens,

Socrates believed that he should be executed because of the fact that he has been found guilty according to Athenian law as attested by Socrates himself in his statement that to live in Athens, one must bow to its laws regardless. Even his efforts at defensce according to him are not for his sake but rather for the sake of the citizenry: “I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God, or lightly reject his boon by condemning me” (para. 57)

Just the same time, it can be argued that Socrates’ actions are immoral based on Kant’s views (“Kant: The Moral”, 2001). Socrates questioning the state is indeed against the Athenian law and therefore regardless his intentions for enlightenment, it is considered as sedition. The absolute nature of Kantian moral philosophies leaves no exceptions: commands are imperatives without categories. Though Socrates argued that virtuous characteristics represent absence of virtue is evil, he also stated that “good and evil are not simultaneous, and do not cease simultaneously” (Jowett, 1999, lines 342-344).

Socrates, Kant and Morality

The main source of conflict between the two philosophies on morality is that Kant’s definition is so absolute and leaves very little space more the resolution of moral dilemmas which in contrast was the focus of Socrates work if not his own life (Wood, 2004). Consider Socrates’ closing statement during his trial:

“For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living – that you are still less likely to believe” (Jowett, 2000, para. 63).

The strict requirements for rationality then precludes morality for those who are fully rational such as those who are mentally incapacitated or limited because of retardation or any other psychological condition (“Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, 2007). Though moral autonomy does exist in both perspectives, Kant’s moral philosophy leaves less flexibility towards its definition because of its requirement of universality.

It should be kept in mind that the setting of the two works is distinctly different. In the case of Socrates, the motivation and the consequences are given as much importance as the act itself. When he was accused that he did spoke falsely of the gods, he used as evidence his belief in the spiritual, such as the existence of the soul, and divinities by stating that, “Can a man believe in spiritual and divine agencies, and not in spirits or demigods?” (Jowett, 2000, para. 49). In the case of Kant, this will not be a valid argument since

In Socrates’ discourse, punishment of the act contravenes evil and while in Kant, contravention is from the doing what is right alone. In both instances, what is not moral is considered a reality on man’s life and both definitions require affirmative action against what is not moral. To be able to do so, one’s character and virtue must juxtapose what is considered what is not moral. Therefore restoration of evil done is equated with the punishment that one receives for the act.

The fundamental difference in the definition between the two is that Kant’s moral failure is an independent act to a moral right by virtue of the lack of impact of consequences while Socrates’ main model of immorality is based on injustice resulting form the action. Thus the dilemma of immorality in the former is an ethical one and immorality in the latter is presented as a social dilemma. Reflecting on both works, there is a realization that definitions of what is not moral may differ in many ways but all studies that focus on it have a common purpose. In understanding the nature and manner of what is not moral, a person is able to better not according it to it.


Jowett, Benjamin (1999).Gorgias by Plato. Project Guttenberg. Retrieved on April 2, 2007 http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1672?msg=welcome_stranger

Jowett, Benjamin (2000). Plato’s Apology. Retrieved on April 2, 2007 http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html


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