Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Discussion Question:

The Moral Demands of
Good Dialogue

You've probably been in philosophical discussions with people that literally didn't go anywhere at all, or that ended with some of the participants having very bad feelings about the discussion. Or maybe you've been in discussions in which one or more of the participants (maybe even you?) seemed to have some other agenda in the discussion than a simple desire to discover together what was actually true. Maybe one or more of the participants had some special axe to grind, or maybe someone was being self-centered or fearful, or maybe someone was not being a good listener, or maybe someone just had a hard time putting aside their own personal agendas enough to dispassionately look together for the simple truth about what you were discussing. I think most of us have probably been in discussions like that which just went absolutely nowhere.

But most of us have probably also been in discussions that went superbly well, in which the participants were somehow able to genuinely work together toward understanding the matter under discussion. When that kind of discussion happens, it can be truly fruitful and meaningful.

The following passage (from a book about Socratic dialog) refers to some of the personal moral qualities you'd like to see in those who participate in philosophical discussions, if the discussions are to be truly fruitful. Please read through this short selection, and then there will be a couple of questions I'd like you to respond to and discuss in the classroom.

... It follows that elenchus [philosophical discussion] is more than an exercise in philosophical analysis. In asking people to state and defend the moral intuitions which underlie their way of life, Socrates inevitably reveals something about their characters. Elenchus, then, has as much to do with honesty, reasonableness, and courage as it does with logical acumen - the honesty to say what one really thinks, the reasonableness to admit what one does not know, and the courage to continue the investigation. Most of Socrates' respondents are lacking in all three. Protagoras becomes angry, Polus resorts to cheap rhetorical tricks, Callicles begins to sulk, Critias loses his self-control, Meno wants to quit. [These examples are all from dialogues we're not reading this quarter.] While their reactions leave much to be desired, Socrates' respondents do emerge from the pages of the dialogues as real people. Not only is there a clash of ideas but a clash of the personalities who have adopted them. So while the Socratic dialogues deal with virtue, they are never simple morality plays.
This book argues that elenchus is central to Socratic philosophy and that only if we understand how elenchus places moral demands on questioner and respondent will that philosophy make sense. The purpose of elenchus is to facilitate discovery, but in a Socratic context, discovery is not a sudden flash of illumination; it is something which must be prepared for, something which the soul must earn. The subject of Socratic epistemology, then, is, in Tarrant's words, a moral agent. To acquire knowledge, the soul must free itself of the anger, arrogance, and laziness present in so many of Socrates' companions...." (- Kenneth Seeskin, Dialogue and Discovery: A Study in Socratic Method, SUNY Press, 1987)


Please respond to the following questions, and then discuss them, in the classroom forum.

1. In a very brief summary, what do you think (in your own words) the author of this passage is saying?

2. We all have weaknesses, of course, but what would be some personal (or moral) weaknesses that participants in a conversation could have which would truly get in the way of a healthy and fruitful philosophical dialog? That is, what characteristics would you like to not see in people with whom you are having a discussion?

3. What would be some personal (or moral) strengths that participants in a conversation might have which could help make for a healthy and fruitful philosophical dialog? Or stated another way, what would be some of the strengths and virtues that you would like to see, both in yourself and in your fellow participants, in a good late-night philosophical conversation?