The Principles of Right and Wrong – Socrates, Hume and Aristotle

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I was born without understanding the difference between moral right and wrong, but now I have gained that knowledge. Philosophy is the worship of wisdom.

In this paper, I will present how Socrates, Hume, and Aristotle, three renowned philosophers, would elucidate the acquisition of propter quid knowledge, which pertains to understanding the why or how. First, I will delve into Socrates’ perspective. As Socrates did not document his ideas, his thinking is conveyed through Plato, his student who recorded his teacher’s thoughts.

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Socrates, an idealist, believes in the concept of innate knowledge. According to him, our soul possesses all knowledge before we are born, while our mind starts off as a blank slate. As we develop, we retrieve the knowledge from our soul. The soul, a.k.a. the human mind, is familiar with the intelligible world or the world of Forms before being joined with the body. In this preexisting state, resides true knowledge.

After a person’s mind merges with a human body, the knowledge it possesses is stored deep within its memory. In this world, true knowledge is characterized by the act of remembering, whether through reminiscing or recollection. Through the technique of dialect or the Socratic method, the mind or soul is able to bring forth what it once knew and make it present in one’s consciousness. This process of recollection, as described by Stumpf (260), is referred to as the theory of recollection. Plato presents this theory in his works Phaedo and Meno. According to the theory of recollection, Socrates argues that knowledge is essentially a result of remembering.

According to Sternfeld (35), this thesis posits that individuals can have ideas that they later become conscious of through recollection, thus bridging the gap between not-knowing and knowing and justifying the act of inquiry. In the Meno, Socrates argues (Plato 80E) that one cannot inquire about what they already know because there is no need for inquiry in such cases. Similarly, they cannot inquire about what they do not know because they are unaware of what they need to inquire about. This theory of recollection may elucidate why we often assert possession of knowledge before acquiring or hearing it for the first time. It is commonly believed that certain concepts shape our thoughts, beliefs, and actions from birth. Stumpf (260) employs Plato’s dialogue in the Meno to illustrate how Socrates demonstrated that an uneducated slave boy possessed knowledge of geometry not due to instruction but by naturally comprehending connections between different ideas. This quote exemplifies Socrates’ belief that the uneducated boy recollected this knowledge from his own soul.

According to Socrates in Plato’s Meno, the boy is said to “recover by oneself knowledge within oneself.” (Plato 85D) In the same work, knowledge is portrayed as being familiar with the object, but lacking understanding of its operation. Socrates contends that true knowledge is acquired through learning and once acquired, it remains with us for future use. This can be accomplished through recollection or remembrance.

When faced with a situation that demands the utilization of knowledge, we have the capacity to remember and apply our mental abilities to that particular circumstance. Socrates proposes that we possess an innate comprehension of what is morally correct and incorrect, but it is through situations that we are reminded of this knowledge. Socrates refers to this essential knowledge as being deeply embedded within the soul. Conversely, Hume holds contrasting beliefs in comparison to Socrates.

Hume contends that humans do not possess any innate knowledge before birth and suggests that all knowledge is gained through learning. He asserts that our understanding of morality is influenced by our individual experiences as we grow older. Our perception of the present is rooted in our senses, while our memory holds our recollection of the past. Hume establishes a link between knowledge and our interactions with the external world using our five senses.

Hume is known for his use of the principle of the association of ideas in his philosophy. This principle helped the empiricists explain how our thinking abilities align with their belief that our ideas come from experience and are not innate (Sorabji 42). Unlike Socrates, Hume does not believe that certain knowledge resides within our soul. Instead, Hume utilizes the concepts of impressions and ideas. According to him, the mind is comprised of impressions and ideas, with impressions being the original substance of thought and ideas being copies of impressions (Stumpf 288). In Hume’s perspective, your initial decision, regardless of its correctness, is considered an impression.

It would be helpful to remember this decision in the future. Hume discusses knowledge being categorized into two types: Relations of Ideas and Matters of Fact. Relations of ideas are empirical facts that cannot be disputed.

The text explains that there are various forms of knowledge, such as mathematical equations and scientific facts. It points out that matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, require a different approach for verification compared to other types of knowledge. The evidence supporting the truth of matters of fact is not the same in nature. Stumpf (294) asserts that all reasoning about matters of fact relies on the cause and effect relationship. According to this principle, one must actually experience a situation before being able to determine its correctness or incorrectness. This theory does not consider reasoning as a foundation for decision-making.

Hume argues that our understanding of morality is rooted in personal experience. He contends that we recognize something as hot, like a stove, because we have felt its heat. This viewpoint challenges the notion that certain life decisions are influenced by acquired knowledge rather than direct encounters. For example, I am aware that if I dash in front of a vehicle, I will likely sustain injuries, despite not having directly experienced this exact scenario. Now, let’s proceed to Aristotle – the third philosopher in my discourse.

Aristotle was a prominent Platonist, having studied under Plato for more than twenty years. He greatly influenced many Western philosophers who did not draw inspiration from Plato (Cantor 12). Furthermore, Aristotle’s background in medicine played a significant role in his later life, providing him with early training in empirical investigation and biological science (Cantor 11). This unique background brought a fresh perspective to philosophical ideas of that time. Aristotle wrote as someone who had extensively studied and mastered worldly knowledge, aiming to provide the necessary principles and organization for its systematic study (Cantor 13).

One of his notable works, “Metaphysics,” delves into a form of knowledge that he believed should be considered wisdom. In this work, Aristotle asserts that every individual has an inherent desire for knowledge. According to him, this innate curiosity is not solely driven by practical needs or the urge to create something (Stumpf 405). Instead, Aristotle highlights the importance of comprehending the underlying reasons behind our decisions.

According to many, metaphysics is seen as a study of abstraction that is challenging to apply in everyday life. Stumpf (406) states that wisdom encompasses more than sensory knowledge of objects and their qualities. Instead, wisdom is rooted in first principles and causes, enabling us to understand the true nature of reality. Stumpf (407) compares wisdom to the knowledge possessed by a scientist who observes something, repeats sensory experiences, and then delves into thinking about the causes behind those experiences. Aristotle draws on his background in biological sciences to support this idea. Additionally, Aristotle believes that knowledge can be expanded upon once a foundation is established. Thus, he would argue that moral judgments are derived from experiencing various situations and employing the wisdom gained from these experiences to make future decisions.

Aristotle incorporates memory into his philosophical principles. According to Sorabji, Aristotle’s understanding of memory surpasses that of well-known British empiricists. Aristotle connects memory to a wide range of recollectable things, but emphasizes the necessity of memory itself. These things include facts, acquired knowledge, contemplations, auditory or visual experiences, past actions, and personal encounters. To illustrate his point, Aristotle utilizes mental images. He posits that the content of our mind consists of these mental images. However, Aristotle clarifies that his theory of remembering requires not just any image, but an image that accurately resembles or reproduces the remembered object. This likeness or copy is stored within the memory.

Overall, I believe that Aristotle’s theory of discerning right and wrong incorporates both wisdom and memory. The acquisition of wisdom from specific experiences relies on our ability to recall such experiences through memory. This theory aligns with my personal comprehension of morality, as it indicates that in order to make sound decisions, one must grasp the fundamental principles underlying their reasoning.

By having this understanding, you can accept your decision and not doubt yourself. Both wisdom and memory are necessary for making sound decisions. Personally, I find Socrates’ theory of knowledge originating from the soul to be impractical. In my opinion, one must have firsthand experience or knowledge of similar situations in order to determine their righteousness or wrongness.

Hume’s principles of cause and effect support the idea that immediate learning necessitates personal experience, as one cannot rely on reasoning to make decisions.

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The Principles of Right and Wrong – Socrates, Hume and Aristotle. (2018, Nov 08). Retrieved from

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