If you think you are tell me what would you say goodness is? This is a really hard question isn’t it, it seems like it’s a very easy question one that we should all be able to answer and yet we have an extraordinarily difficult time coming up with a very sensible answer to it, why is that? The fact that we can’t answer the question, I think maybe a sign that we really don’t know the answer at all, fact that anybody can’t answer this question, might be a sign that no one really knows the answer. I mean after all how can anyone claim to know what something is if they don’t know the answer, if they can’t explain. But this has a very disturbing possibility.
If we can’t answer the question, if we don’t know what goodness is, then we can’t really be sure that we’re good people or that we do good things, it may turn out that our whole lives we’ve been doing exactly the opposite, yet we want to believe so badly that we’re good and that we do good things, that we might be very tempted to just ignore the fact that we can’t answer the question. But it should bother us, it ought to bother us that we can’t answer the question because it exposes the very real possibility that we may be deceiving ourselves in thinking that we’re better that we really are.
Socrates, the father of philosophy called this sort of deception ignorance because he thought it prevents us from being good people from the coming good people and sometimes even causes us to mistreat good people. He would have us imagine what it might be like for a genuinely good person living among such ignorant people.
According to Socrates a good person would be a reminder to this sort of ignorant person that they’re not nearly as good as they think they are but they don’t know what goodness is and because of this ignorant people will mistreat this good one, but in fact Socrates goes further according to him ignorant people will torture and eventually kill good ones simply because they remind them of their ignorance. Now, if we’re in this position, if we think we’re good when maybe we’re really not then it looks like we are capable of doing just this, mistreating people in just this way and I don’t believe that I am capable of and I doubt you do either, but Socrates would very quickly remind us that our history is full of examples of good people mistreated abused and killed because they reminded us of our ignorance.
Socrates himself was a reminder to the people of Athens that they’re not nearly as good as they think they are and they killed him for it. The problem is that people don’t admit they’re ignorant, they don’t make a clear distinction between what they know and what they don’t know and respect the difference, instead of just admitting they don’t know what goodness is and confronting the disturbing possibility that they themselves may not be so good, people deceive themselves into thinking that they are better than they really are because it’s unbearable to think that they’re not good.
Socrates saw this in all walks of life, among all kinds of people. Politicians but soldiers as soldiers as well, artist’s trade’s people. All of these people claimed to know what goodness is, they all thought they knew what good for themselves and for their community and yet when Socrates put to them this very simple question, what is good?
None of them could answer which to him suggested that they really didn’t know what it is in the first place. I think we’re really in the same position, we don’t like to listen to people who know to experts because we often think we know a lot better than they do.
We don’t listen to biologists all the time, when they tell us just how important it is to teach evolution in schools, we don’t always like to listen to economists when they warn us about the consequences of our behavior in the economy and we don’t like to listen to climate scientists when they urge us to do something about climate change. Now I realize that there may be very good reasons for doubting what these people have to say, after all everybody is capable of being biased. My point is that if these people are experts, if they know what they are talking about, then they have a right to our attention. We ought to listen to them simply because they know and we don’t. So what do we do? What can we do about our ignorance? How do we avoid mistreating good people who actually trying to help us and listen to them?
The answer is really quite simple admit your ignorance. If we admit our ignorance we can improve ourselves and won’t be so quick to condemn people, people who may be trying to help us. If we admit our ignorance, we open ourselves up to the possibility of doing good and of becoming good, we will strive to do good and become good for the simple reason that at that moment we are now keenly and painfully aware of the possibility that we ourselves may not be so good.
On the other hand we are not sure, if we’re not confident that we’re good then according to Socrates we will admit, we will open up to the possibility of listening to people, who may actually be good and by doing so possibly become good. So in the end really all that it takes is admitting your ignorance.