Can Socrates Defend his Claim That No-One Does Wrong Willingly?

fslj3rI address the criticism that Socrates in the Protagoras unjustly makes an inference from his argument that ‘no-one does wrong knowingly’ to his conclusion that ‘no-one does wrong willingly’ in the Protagoras. I will start by briefly examining Socrates argument for why no-one does wrong knowingly, examine the link between knowledge and motivation, use Aristotelian voluntariness as counterexample to Socrates argument and conclude that these critiques fail because of a misunderstanding of how the term willingly is used by Socrates. Since it can be argued that among the works of Plato, the Protagoras most reflects Socrates position in this matter.

According to Socrates, any action that is morally bad comes about because of a misunderstanding of what is right by the agent. Moral wrongdoing is intellectual wrongdoing, as all instances of wrongdoing can be explained as falsely believing that some action is best (Protagoras 358c). This suggests that people only need to be educated, since knowledge of the good would increase people’s tendencies towards also doing the good. One may argue against this thesis that even with knowledge of what is good, an agent may not choose it. This could be explained for instance by appealing to conflicting incentives and motives for agents, or alternatively akrasia, which even though knowledge of the good exists, makes one succumb to lower-order desires or emotions, for instance fear. This essay will not focus on these critiques and assume that Socrates is justified in believing that if knowledge of the good exists, people will act on it. In essence, the premise is: If an agent knows what is best, she will choose it. Therefore, if she does what is not best, she cannot have known that was so; or, an agent who does wrong, does not knowingly.

The next step would now be to move from knowingly to willingly. Let me attempt to start that journey by pointing out a hidden premise to Socrates’ argument: There needs to be the possibility to achieve what is best iff one knows it. This is unlike a profession where achieving the best result depends on some sort of ability. The difference would be that in professional work the best outcome is an apparent factor. If a carpenter makes a table, there are certain attributes a good table must have, which are universally accepted. The only limitation to achieving that outcome are internal properties of an agent, i.e. bad eyesight or insufficient training (Gulley, 1965: 92). the best moral behaviour on the other side is not universally agreed upon, therefore an agent will do what she believes is the best course of action, or, what is right in relation to her notion of the concept. Therefore, her ability to reach the best outcome is limited by external factors, i.e. the courses of action available to her according to that concept.

In essence, an agent must be able to choose from “possible courses of action” (Protagoras 358b7-c1 & X. Mem. III, ix, 4). This means that in voluntary actions, or where there is a choice, an agent always does what she beliefs to be the best outcome (Protagoras 358b-d). However, Socrates argues that no-one involuntarily pursues what he judges to be wrong. (Protagoras 351b ff.). If false believes give a sufficient account for wrongdoing, why move to involuntary actions? In fact, one may argue that there exists a strong dichotomy between out of a false belief voluntarily choosing badly and involuntarily doing wrong.

Let me argue that this dichotomy is weak by appealing to Economics: That agents are always motivated in some way is a postulate of modern Economics. In fact it is difficult to find any example of human behaviour that is entirely without motivation (Maxwell, 2008). In Economics people that do not act upon their motivations do not exists. Those who do not benefit themselves (in a special sense, not to be understood in terms of unjust enrichment) are irrational, which is often because of incomplete information of the situation. Let me give an example: In a market place many retailers sell equally beautiful flowers at different prices. With complete information an agent will buy at the lowest price, ceteris paribus. Unless there are some other hidden motives, for example knowing one of the sellers personally, economics cannot account for any other behaviour. One may argue that within a certain framework of motivations, an agent will choose what she believes to be best with the information she has. Therefore one may almost say that her actions are involuntary since there is only one thing she could have done.

This seems to be a modern version of what Socrates pursues: He argues that since no-one acts contrary to what she believes to be best in her power it follows that no-one voluntarily pursues what is bad (Protagoras 358b-e). Involuntary meaning “not in accordance with the agent’s desire to do what he believes to be right” (Gulley, 1965: 93). This seems like bad reasoning and I would suggest not to make the jump to involuntary on the basis of such a sloppy argument. This is because it avoids issues of free will, determinism and any deeper meaning of the word involuntary. Hence, perhaps Socrates was just a little careless when making this inference and based it on a not completely developed understanding of involuntary actions.

Firstly, this seems to be in contrast with the way Plato usually uses the term voluntary, which is in terms of constraint from external circumstances. (Gulley, 1965: 93) Secondly, if we look for a definition of the term involuntary in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 3.1, then Socrates must be mistaken in implying that no-one does wrong willingly from knowingly. Here the link between ignorance and involuntariness of actions is more subtle. Aristotle argues that not every kind of ignorance leads to the actions of an agent to be involuntary. This however seems to be an assumption that Socrates makes.

One may still argue though that Socrates just did not have such a subtle definition. After all Aristotle was the first Greek philosopher who tried to precisely define the concept to the best of our knowledge (Segvic, 2007: 4). Maybe however he had an entirely different conception of what willingly meant. It would seem unjust to end the discussion here accusing Socrates of not getting his definitions right. To explore that possibility let me briefly stray into the Gorgias.

Here Socrates offers Polus two ideas of power: both entail the ability to do what one wants. One though is powerful because one can do what she wants in terms of desires, while the other conception of power comes as a result of virtue: A person is virtuous and therefore can do as she wants. This wanting – Segvic calls it Socratic wanting – is the striving of our souls for the good that is innate and cannot be averted.

Since Virtue entails Knowledge of the good, the soul will strive for that good, and one has power to do as one wants because one sees what one is actually striving for. This strive for good is a basic concept and demand of all humans. Therefore Socratic wanting is the wanting after we have understood “what we were after all along” (Segvic, 2007: 22). In other words, what Socrates is on about when talking about involuntary actions, is a concept of innate wanting. Therefore any choice involving an option that corresponds to our innate strive for the good will involve this Socratic wanting. Therefore no-one would do wrong willingly, for if an agent had knowledge of what is wrong and naturally wants to obtain the good, then it follows that what one would not knowingly do, one would also not willingly do. Let us search for evidence in the text: Socrates argues that the appearance of things deceives us and lead us astray. There are good things that appear to be bad and vice versa. Knowledge would hence mean that appearances no longer deceives us and we strive for what is actually good (Protagoras, 356d).

I find this argument for Socratic wanting convincing. It seems more conceivable that Socrates had his own concept of willingly in mind when concluding that ‘no-one does wrong willingly’, then that he had no plausible concept at all, hence both appealing to modern economics as well as to Aristotelian voluntariness to show that Socrates must have been mistaken in making the inference seems unfair to a man that lived long before these concepts were developed. This means of course not that an old argument is immune to modern criticism, but rather that one ought to look for the meaning of the original text within Socrates own vocabulary, where I believe that Socrates is justified to make his inference from ‘no-one does wrong knowingly’ to ‘no-one does wrong willingly’.


Gulley, N: The Interpretation of ‘No one Does Wrong Willingly’ In Plato’s Dialogues, Phronesis, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 82-96, 1965

Lamb, W R M: The Gorgias, in Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol 3. Harvard University Press, London, 1967

Lamb, W R M: The Protagoras, in Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol 3. Harvard University Press, London, 1967

Marchant, E C: Memorabilia, in Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Harvard University Press, London, 1923

Maxwell, K J Jr: A Socratic Perspective on The Nature of Human Evil, The Socratic Method, URL: [http:// socratic_essay_nature_of_human_evil.htm], [Accessed 10.10.2011], 2008

Ross, D: tr. Aristotle: The Nichomachean Ethics, Oxford World Classics, Oxford, 1980

Segvic, H: No One Errs Willingly: The Meaning of Socratic Intellectualism, in Ahbel-Rappe S. & Kamtekar R. (eds): A Companion to Socrates, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2007

Weiss, R: The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2006

No one errs willingly (pdf)