The Ethicist: This Looks Like a Job for Socrates!

I still remember my first encounter with the marvelous thing known as “the internet.” In the dark and murky past, when few of us owned computers and aImost no one could go on-line at home, we could go to the local mall, and find a store that allowed customers to pay to spend an hour surfing the web.

By Ibrahim.ID [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Once promising social media (Graphic by Ibrahim.ID, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons )

In the days before Google, we had to know the addresses of the websites we wanted to explore, which was difficult and tedious. However, I still remember how astonished I was to discover what was available, and thinking that, as long as one had access to the internet, one could live anywhere and never be bored; that education would be transformed if the internet was used as an educational tool; and that it could be a powerful mechanism for advancing democratic ideals and facilitating democratic conversations.

Thirty-five years later, it is clear that, while the internet has transformed our lives in many ways, much of this promise has remained unfulfilled: we no longer know how to entertain ourselves when we are not online; university administrators and boards of education have, indeed, seen the internet as an educational tool, but require it to be used in ways that are arguably damaging to students; and, far from the internet being helpful to our democratic processes, it actually seems to have allowed us to avoid talking to those with whom we disagree.


Thinking About How We Think

Since democracies only function well when we are willing to converse with one another, this is not a good thing. I have been increasingly disconcerted lately, as I read online news sources and look at my Facebook news feed to see how irrational our public discourse has become, and how polarized our perspectives are: those who supported Donald Trump and those who supported Hilary Clinton seem not only to have different political ideals, but also to see the world in radically different ways – and members of each group seem to be talking only to like-minded people, rather than to each other.

The fact that false “news stories” spread on the internet may have affected not only how people voted in the recent American election but, also, what they believed to be true, demonstrates that something has gone badly wrong with the promise the internet seemed to offer as a powerful tool to advance democratic values, including the value of civil discourse among people who disagree with one another. I believe that philosophy can be helpful here.

Philosophy is a difficult subject to learn and to teach, because it asks us to do something both paradoxical and difficult, namely, to think about how we think. This raises an interesting question: how can we use our minds, the things which do our thinking, to think about what and how we think? I wrote last time about my love of the philosopher Socrates, and one of the things I appreciate most about his philosophical approach is that he proposes and demonstrates a very helpful way to perform this difficult task. Moreover, even though he lived more than 2,000 years ago, what he has to say on this matter is relevant to us today; indeed, somewhat ironically, much of what he has to say is more timely than many contemporary approaches.

What we need to do, he says, to determine what we ought to believe is to (metaphorically, of course) take our ideas out of our heads and put them out into the world by describing them to other people, so that we can see them more clearly, and can examine them together. To reach the truth – or, at least, to discover the beliefs which, given our present degree of knowledge, we have good reason to believe – two things need to hold.

François-André Vincent [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alcibades being taught by Socrates François-André Vincent (CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Right Kind of Conversation

First, we must be willing to accept the possibility that, when we do this, some of our strongest and most deeply held beliefs may turn out to be false. Second, we must find other people to talk with, people who are also willing to engage in this process with us, to help us examine our beliefs, and to allow us to help them examine theirs. We cannot, that is to say, according to Socrates at least, discover the truth on our own; nor can we discover what the truth is if we think we already possess it, because we will fail to examine the beliefs we ought to examine. Paradoxically, he tells us that truth is discovered through disagreement, rather than consensus: it is only the beliefs that hold up under sustained questioning that we ought to hold.

What Socrates asks us to do is hard emotionally, because most of us feel very attached to our beliefs, and understand reality in the way that we do because of them; consequently, they are hard to see because, like a pair of glasses, they provide the lenses through which the world becomes clear to us. And it is hard socially, because we need to find people who are like-minded enough that they are willing to engage in the right kind of conversation with us, one that allows the participants to see their beliefs clearly, but not so like-minded that they already believe everything that we do, and so cannot even identify which of our beliefs need to be questioned (and vice-versa). For Socrates, we demonstrate respect to one another, not when we choose to let false beliefs go unchallenged, but when we mutually help one another get rid of them.

I have been thinking a lot about Socrates, and the way in which he asks us to converse with one another, since the American election, and its unexpected (to many) and even stunning (to many) result. What is timely about the Socratic ideal of a conversation of a certain kind which leads its participants to the truth is that it carries profoundly important implications for democratic discourse, implications that I believe it is important for us to think about, if the polarization of views that appear in the news media and on my Facebook news feed are any indication.

How do we talk to one another in productive ways, when people get their “news” from very different sources, communicate only with those whose views they already agree with, and insult and even demonize those who have different opinions? How can we talk when we not only have different political ideals and commitments, but actually see and understand the world in ways that are fundamentally opposed to one another? The internet, and particularly social media, have contributed to this polarization: can it help us move beyond it? I think it can, if we apply Socrates’s advice.


Don’t Demonize

The first thing to notice is that we should not be scared of disagreement, and we should not be offended when others disagree with us, even about things which matter very deeply to us. Socrates’s model about how we reach the truth – about what is important, about what we should believe, about whom we should vote for — is precisely through disagreement. If we all thought the same way, we would not even notice that there was anything for us to examine, and all of us will persist in holding false beliefs.

Devil laughing By Jäinenbanaani (Tietokone) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone who disagrees with me (Drawing by Jäinenbanaani – Tietokone – Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Second, while disagreement is not something we should fear, we need to express the nature of our disagreement carefully, through rational and reasonable conversation, conversation that is responsive to evidence and in which we are willing to listen to what other people have to say. We need to avoid dismissing or even demonizing those who disagree with us, seeing them not merely as people who have different views than we do, but as people who are not only wrong, but also evil and dangerous. Both sides in the American election engaged in this kind of personal attack on their political opponents, and what this does is preclude not only the possibility of finding things both sides might agree on, but the possibility of conversation, period. This is at least as dangerous, perhaps even more so, than the content of people’s beliefs. Indeed, the most problematic beliefs (those that are, for example, racist, classist, or sexist) can only be held when we fail to examine them rationally and reasonably, since this examination will show them to be false and unsustainable.


Go Ahead, Disagree

Third, and following from this, we have a tendency, as human beings, to do exactly the opposite of what Socrates tells us we should do: far from respecting those who disagree with us, and believing that they are doing us a service when they challenge our beliefs so that we are able to separate true beliefs from false ones, we actively avoid speaking to, or listening to, those who hold different political views than we do. This tendency can be seen on the macro level, as when journalists and politicians only talk to those who hold the same views they do, and on the micro levels, in our own social circles.

In the previous American election, Obama supporters laughed at those who had supported Romney, and believed that he would win, because they never talked to anyone with opposing political views, or followed any news organizations that presented conflicting evidence. This time around, the shoe was on the other foot: most of the media I was reading seemed to find the possibility that Clinton could lose literally unthinkable – and were completely stunned when the results came in.

I, however, was not surprised: on my Facebook newsfeed, I saw people posting things from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and linking to news sources that presented reality in radically different ways, so as I read so-called conservative sources and compared what I was reading there to what I was reading in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Salon, I could see very clearly that political discourse in the United States had failed utterly to do what Socrates tells us it is necessary for us to do, namely, converse with those who disagree with us, and be willing to change our beliefs if they cannot withstand questioning.

Spectrum By Wars (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, CC BY-SA 2.0 de ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Try to view the whole spectrum (Image by Wars, Own work, GFDL via Wikimedia Commons)

In a well-functioning democracy, this is something that everyone, regardless of which side of political issues they fall on, needs to be able to do. But if we only talk to those who already agree with us and read things that support our existing positions, and ridicule or get angry with those who disagree with us, we will never discover the truth (whatever it happens to be) together – which means that we will never discover it on our own, either.


Hard but Worthwhile

Finally, we need to recognize that even those politicians we support can do things that are morally unjustifiable. One of the things that fascinates me is the way in which we are ready to criticize the politicians we don’t like for their clearly unethical behavior, while we will make excuses for politicians we do like who do similar things. If it was wrong for Conservative politicians to attend partisan fundraisers and have padded expense accounts, it is just as wrong for Liberal cabinet ministers. If Donald Trump’s wealth is a problem because it means that he won’t be able to understand what it is like to be unemployed and broke, Hilary Clinton’s wealth is equally problematic for the same reasons. If the women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual improprieties should be believed, then the women who accused Donald Trump of similar behavior ought to be believed as well.

What is important are the ethical and political principles we endorse, not who fails to live up to them. If we can detach these principles from our commitments to particular partisan political perspectives, we have a better chance of discussing them rationally and reasonably with one another. The Socratic model transcends particular political perspectives, and applies to all of us, wherever we locate ourselves on the political spectrum.

What he asks us to do is hard, but also profoundly worthwhile – and if we, as individuals and as members of groups, refuse to do this, our political and social institutions will fall apart, to the detriment of all. Just as the internet can allow us to find communities of like-minded people, it can easily, and with very little effort, expand our circles. It can, indeed, be a powerful tool for political and social progress – and even a place in which philosophical ideas can escape from the university classroom and run free in cyberspace.

Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.




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