An Olympiad of the least plausible claims ever made by philosophers would be a very busy competition indeed. One of the favourites for a podium place, however, would have to be Plato’s argument that no one knowingly chooses to do wrong. To do wrong is to err, and no one errs willingly. We are all only doing our best.
Certainly it’s not hard to find counter-examples. A Google search for the phrase “I knew it was wrong but” returned five-and-half-million pages. I even know a philosopher who is a carnivore despite claiming that she sincerely believes it is morally wrong to eat meat.
Plato, of course, was no idiot. He believed it is never in our self-interest to do wrong, so if we knew what was wrong and what wasn’t, then obviously we would always choose what was best for us. The problem with this for me is that the idea that altruism and enlightened self-interest always coincide sounds a little too optimistic.
There is nonetheless a truth lurking in Plato’s argument: when people are clearer about what roots their moral principles, they are more likely to stick to them. Unfortunately, apart from a minority who trust their religion to convey God’s will, very few of us are clear on why we should be moral, which is not surprising, since not even moral philosophers can give a definite answer to that. Worse, there is a lurking suspicion in the culture that morality is just a veneer anyway, and self-interest of the rawest, most unenlightened kind always lurks behind it.
So when people say: “I knew it was wrong, but ... ”, what they often mean is simply “I know people think it is wrong” or “I feel it’s wrong but I’m not sure why.” There is no easy remedy for this, since moral uncertainty is a part of the human condition. To do our best might, therefore, simply mean taking morality seriously and really thinking about what we ought to do rather than readily succumbing to our self-serving instincts when dilemmas get too tricky. On this account, we do wrong willingly because we refuse to think too hard about whether what we’re doing is right.
Think of a time you acted in a way that, let’s say, you are not proud of. It happens to the best of us. We are, after all, imperfect and driven by hopelessly mixed motives, only some of which we would endorse in our more lucid moments.
It’s not a comfortable experience to realise we’ve acted unwisely or let ourselves down, and at first people are often inclined to beat themselves up about it. “How could I do it?” we might lament after an inappropriate one-night stand, “I should have known better!” In the grip of remorse, we may start to feel strongly that we should have been able to see what was happening and act differently.
Yet that place of self-condemnation is not one we enjoy inhabiting for long. As we seek a way of looking at things that will make us feel better, we console ourselves with the thought that we were only doing our best. Friends may corroborate this, advising us not to be too hard on ourselves.
Both perspectives can be true if we nuance our understanding of them. On the one hand, we’re always trying to make as much sense of situations as we can, looking for the best way forward in perhaps challenging contexts. On the other, it is often only by looking back that we’re able to see that while we may have the knowledge and skills to enable us to do better, they were effectively made “inoperative” by something else: a strong desire, a blind spot, a rationalisation.
It could be useful to try to identify the something that has intruded on our ability to deal well with a situation. Next time we may then be able to take it into consideration and behave more in line with our values. We should recognise that we have to act in the midst of being pushed one way and another by our environment. But just as important is to listen to the voice that tells us we can be better and wiser than some of our past actions suggest.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England