Carmel: Is it ever right then to harm another person? Say that there is a situation where a person has given his promise to protect a child from harm. And say as the child walks upon a road, lo, a robber comes and puts the child in harm’s way? Would the ethical, correct moral thing to do be to protect the child from harm even if it means inflicting harm upon the robber.
Socrates: Seen from that angle Carmel, this issue is only seen in the half-light. You identify correctly that the man’s promise to protect the child is a binding promise. Indeed, it serves a man to keep his word. A man has a duty to keep his word. But this represents only one duty. Does a man not have the duty also to his parents? Does a man not also have the duty to his government?
Can a man on a mountain, Carmel, see higher than a man on the plain?
Carmel: Yes, of course, a man on a mountain will have a greater vantage point and he will have the benefit of seeing the earth from all angles.
Socrates: Why then Carmel is it so that the man on the mountain has this advantage?
Carmel: Because this man is of higher altitude.
Socrates: If a man on the mountain said that he saw a distant army marching in but the man on a plane saw no such army, whose judgment would you obey.
Carmel: Socrates, I would obey the judgment of a man on the mountain. For he having the higher vantage point would be more apt to see an oncoming army.
Socrates: So then, is it not so with our duties? Is it not so that we should obey the higher duty when it is set against, the lesser duty? I only wish that ordinary people had an unlimited capacity for doing harm; then they might have an unlimited power for doing good, which would be a splendid thing, if it were so. They have neither. They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random. (Crito, II).
Carmel: Yes, I see that a society that prohibits harming another is of a higher authority than a man’s promise to a child.
Socrates: Yes, but is there not an even higher authority? Is an eagle flying high in the sky, not of a higher vantage point than a man on a mountain? Can not an eagle see but the smallest mouse in the grass? So too it is the natural authority that governs our morality is the most binding law which we must obey, and it dictates that we do not do our fellow man harm. A man must not even do wrong when one is wronged, which most people regard as a natural course. (Plato, IV).
Carmel: Yes, Socrates, I can see it clearly now. You are so wise! Your wisdom has illuminated a thousand nights in my mind.
Socrates: But Carmel? How could I, least wise among men, having anything to teach anyone. Nay, you have come to this conclusion on your own, and it is I who have learned from your wisdom! It is I who should be thanking you for illuminating a million darknesses in my mind! People say I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing! (Plato, IV).
Plato The Republic Chaffee, John. The Philosopher's Way: Thinking Critically about Profound Ideas. Teaching & Learning Classroom ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.
Plato Crito Chaffee, John. The Philosopher's Way: Thinking Critically about Profound Ideas. Teaching & Learning Classroom ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.