By David Pfeifer
Throughout the recorded history of man, there has been a series of questions continually asked by each generation. |Who are we? Where are we going? Why? Is there a God?X Are just a few of the questions that continue to engage the minds of so many today. But perhaps the most difficult one to really grasp has to do with the theories of ethics and morality, or in layman+s terms, |What is good and bad, and how do we live our lives to uphold the good while shunning the bad?X As time has gone on there have been many theories and ideas proposed, ranging from the divine hand theory (dealing with how organized religion handles the matter of ethics), from utilitarianism (short version maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain, ethical egoism on a grander scale really), to the vague theories of Immanual Kant, (who stressed the theory of universal law, categorical imperatives, and what would happen if we applied it, supposedly). With all these great philosophical minds over the course of eons working on the problem with ethics, I find it rather ironic that no one pays heed to what one of the greatest minds in history, Socrates ( circa 470 B.C. to 399 B.C.) had to say concerning this question of morality. Socrates, seemingly was able to create a whole ethical theory based on a single statement, |One must never do wrong, even for wrong received.X Words he uttered literally on his death bed just days before his execution took place in Athens. Simple words, yet with such magnitude and underlying meaning that we must examine this further in order to fully understand it.
The statement, |One must never do wrong, even for wrong receivedX seems to be a predecessor to the Judo-Christian philosophy |treat others as you would have them treat youX or more commonly referred to as the golden rule. A first glance we seem to have all we need laid out for us right there. This statement calls for us to be honest, not to kill or maim anyone, and creates a world where life is more simple. Or does it? What about situations where some one is violating you, trying to harm you? May you defend yourself, and in fact is self defense a legitimate moral justification in this case?
Looking at the literal text in |One must never do wrong, even for wrong receivedX seems to imply that you may not. Even if our life is at stake, since attacking them would be doing wrong, we must not do so.X So in other words, Socrates must hold that self defense cannot be a legitimate moral justification for your actions.
Ah but does he really ? Is it wrong to defend your life? I think not, in fact it is one of the highest goods possible. Not only are you saving a life by doing so (your own) you are also reaffirming to the public that human life is indeed sacred, and more so should be defended against all evils. In fact your self-defense appeals to the Athenian virtues of justice. One must recall that Athenians hold six virtues up above all others, and that these should not only be followed, but are indeed the highest qualities one could have. In this example, by defending your life your showing giving a shining example of justice (namely its wrong to kill). Since you are showing justice (knowing what is right and what is wrong) your making an example of our initial maxim |One must never do wrong, even for wrong received.X
You can also defend yourself in a nonlethal way, which by then doing so you are appealing to the Athenian virtue of piety (knowing what is sacred, or holy if you will). By saving your life and sparing your attackers, you are showing that life is a sacred thing, which further promotes your own piousness. For the vast majority of us, it hold true that we value life above all else, that defending it is a good in of itself, and based on Athenian virtue it seems the same here. Also by knowing what is pious you again become one who is a |expertX so to speak on morality, and are showing that defending yourself is not a wrong being committed, thereby letting yourself still adhere to the initial maxim |One must never do wrong, even for wrong receivedX.
Defending against an attack also constitutes courage.(which once again is appealing to one of the six Athenian virtues) Socrates shows that himself in Laches, when it is brought up in the definition of courage as a man defending his post. By using the war examples, Socrates shows that while he may be against outright invading other territories, he shows that defending your life and land is in fact a courageous thing to do.
It is with theses thoughts in mind that we come back to our original problem, is defending yourself against a attack legitimate moral justification? We now have the following arguments for showing it is. First is that in defending yourself from a life threatening attack you are being courageous, which is considered a virtue. Secondly you are saving a life, which is both shows piety (remember showing life should be revered) and justice (it is wrong to kill). With these three virtues behind our initial maxim, it seems that self-defense indeed is justifiable, and in fact by doing so you are demonstrating the same virtues that are inherently shown in the maxim itself.