The Moral Responsibility In Plato Philosophy Essay

The aim of this paper is to reconcile Plato’s doctrine that “no one does wrong willingly” presented throughout his works with the story of Leontius which suggests wrong can be done willingly. I will do this by attempting to explain how Leontius is still congruent with Plato’s doctrine, followed up by an examination of the arguments using Galen Strawson’s ideas on moral responsibility. From here, I will then consider the implication that incongruency may be inevitable, and I will finish with my own solution to the problem.

Firstly I will reacquaint us with the story of Leontius. [3] One day Leontius was walking along when he spotted the executioner’s block. Beside the block he came across the sight of some corpses which led to him having an internal conflict between the rational part of his soul, and the appetitive part of his soul. His appetites won the day and he ran towards the corpses telling his wretched eyes to look at the beautiful sight. Despite this, the spirited part of his soul caused Leontius to become very angry at succumbing to his appetites. This story is in fact told as a means to make an argument for the spirited part of the soul.

This story would be another tale demonstrating a Socratic principle if not for the fact that

it seemingly goes against another principle – that no one does wrong willingly. [4] It can be argued

that Leontius did wrong in succumbing to his appetites and was willing in the end to give in to his desires. Here I will question the idea that Leontius did wrong willingly.

In light of this personal objective, I surmise that I have two possible conclusions. The first that I am wrong, and Leontius did a wrong act willingly, or second, I am correct and Leontius did not do an action wrong willingly. In order to complete my objective I will need to show one of two possible outcomes:

Leontius did not do anything wrong in his actions.


Leontius was not willing in his action.

Here I will begin with the assertion that Leontius did not commit a wrong action. At first glance this appears as if an absurd thing to say but consider the actions that Leontius underwent. One thing he did was succumb to the desires of his appetites. After succumbing, Leontius proceeded to stare at the corpses while cursing himself. Is either of these actions wrong?

First of all consider succumbing to our appetites. The appetites are a part of the human soul according to Plato [5] and do in my opinion therefore seem more natural than inherently bad. However, I do agree there are some desires that the appetite produces that should never be acted on such as murder, while at the same time there are appetites that generally should be acted upon such as love, and compassion. Succumbing to the appetites is right or wrong depending upon the desire to be fulfilled.

I turn my attention to the other action of Leontius, the action of staring at the corpses. The

question remains, is staring at corpses wrong? I know that there are many times when staring

at a corpse is permissible, and arguably even righteous. Surely medical students could not learn proper medicine without the use of cadavers to practice on. At the same time, staring at a corpse at a wake allows the living one last chance to say good bye to the deceased. That in itself seems like a good thing.

In fairness, there are also times when staring at corpses is frowned upon, and arguably wrong. Grave robbers for example, are doing wrong in staring at corpses looking for items of the deceased to steal. This generally follows in western societies from the right given to the dead to have their grave site respected. From this same respect it is obviously wrong to steal from the dead as well, but that is not the issue at play in staring at corpses, which was the action of Leontius.

In light of this understanding can we distinguish whether or not it was wrong for Leontius to stare at the corpses by the executioner’s block? To answer this question we need to know the motivation behind Leontius’ appetite in wanting to look at the corpses. Was it curiosity? If it was then Leontius may not be so different from the medical student wanting to examine a cadaver. If this is true then Leontius may have done no wrong. Conversely, was the motivation a fetish surrounding the enjoyment of viewing dead beings? If this is true then Leontius may be more similar to the actions of the grave robber and he likely committed wrongdoing. Perhaps the corpses were his enemies and he wanted to see them dead, or alternatively, they were his friends and he wanted to say good bye. More likely, Leontius did not know who they were. There are many different possibilities that could have been the intended desire to see the corpses for Leontius’ appetite. The wrongness or rightness of each particular motivation is blurry at best.

Without any more information than what was given in the story of Leontius, it would be difficult to prove Leontius’ actions were permissible or even outright good. As such, I will now consider the alternative hypothesis, that Leontius was not willing in his action of staring at the corpses. The first possibility I will consider here is that of Akrasia, or weakness of will, as

a means for taking over a human’s choice in an action. [6]

Akrasia is a simple concept to relate to as a human. I can think of times where my will has been weakened by a strong desire for something. The something can vary, whether for gluttonous reasons related to food and drink, or for physical pleasure, or anything in between. Clearly akrasia is intuitively related to the human experience.

There is just one problem – Socrates argues in the Protagoras that akrasia must be impossible. [7] Giving in to one’s bad desires is akin to ignorance. Conversely, being able to control oneself is wisdom. No one does wrong willingly, even with the potential for a weakness of will for no one strives towards anything but what is good. This is true even when someone is overcome by desire.

With no weakness of will it seems again that our nice excuse showing that Leontius did not do wrong willingly is now gone. It is still possible however, that Leontius was not willing if instead of a weakness of will there was some sort of biological lack of choice at play.

This is where Strawson’s argument that humans cannot be morally responsible comes into play [8] The argument runs that nothing can be the cause of itself, or causa sui, and only things that are the cause of themself can choose their own actions morally. As human beings are not causa sui, they therefore cannot be held morally responsible for their actions. In other terms, as human beings are the sum result of our genetic endowment, and our environmental upbringing, both of which are the source of all of our actions, we cannot be held morally responsible as humans have no choice in the formation of either their own genetic endowment or environmental upbringing.

As Leontius is a human, he too is the result of his genetic endowment and environmental upbringing. It can be argued that his wanting to stare at the corpses was merely a genetic predisposition, or his upbringing told him it was okay to look at corpses. Given his anger at staring at the corpses, it would be safer to assume the former than the latter. Leontius could not have willed his final choice of action because he was already predisposed to ultimately pick a

certain action. The only way to show Leontius was willing to make his own action would be to either reject Strawson’s argument, or accept Strawson’s position on the condition that humans are in control of either their genetic endowment, or environmental upbringing, and have free will.

The problem is that Strawson’s view is well-rooted in general principles of biology. I will thus have to keep Strawson’s argument in mind as I move towards my own solution to the Plato-Leontius dilemma. Moving on in this case is necessary as it would otherwise draw us away from the dilemma at hand, and onto the tangent of an approval or refutation of Strawson’s argument. [9]

Thus showing that Leontius did no wrong, or he was not willing in his actions is not a simple task to accomplish. As such, I will now move towards the possibility that the case of Leontius is fundamentally incompatible with “no one does wrong willingly”. [10] I will preface this part of the discussion by stating I do not believe this option probable, but rather consider it as a mere possibility.

If Leontius did however show a wrong action being done willingly then there is a hole in Plato’s general ethics. This hole is created by the contradiction that one can seemingly do wrong willingly while theorizing at the same time that no one can do wrong willingly. This is a compromising action.

Before I get into my own theory, there is another potential solution. In Laws X, the mysterious Athenian argues that humans facilitate individual acts of free will to determine directions of change of character in the soul that allow virtue to triumph vice. [11] Further, many actions are invariably determined by desires or other psychological states. [12] It is possible that Leontius was determining his own action which caused his spirit to get mad and lead him further on to the path of virtue. Alternatively perhaps Leontius was overcome by his own desire to stare at the fresh corpses by the executioner’s block. That Leontius felt strongly his desires is true to the original story as long as it is noted that this is not akrasia, but rather a reaction to a particular circumstance. [13] This does reignite the compatibility between the actions that Leontius took, and Plato’s ethics in general.

With this in mind there is now compelling evidence to believe that the Leontius-Plato dilemma is resolved. Further, it seems that Plato has tied up his own loose ends rather than requiring outside help to make his works compatible. There is however still the nagging sensation that this dilemma could have been avoided all together without appealing to multiple works.

While I have looked at many possible answers I will now lastly propose my own theory which would avoid the Leontius/no one does wrong willingly dilemma in the first place. With the use of the word “willing”, the semantic context relates to the concept of voluntariness. Was Leontius’ choice to look at the corpse voluntary or not? However, with a slight amendment to the definition of willing used, I can replace voluntariness with the concept of readiness. This changes the issue of Leontius from a concept of voluntariness to an understanding of readiness to complete an action. As I stated earlier [14] , Leontius was hesitant to look at the corpses, being struck by an internal debate between his reason and his appetites. Therefore, Leontius was not willing to do wrong in my view as he showed no readiness to complete the action.

Another example that uses my definitional context of the word willing would be the case

of a murderer hesitating while pointing a gun at his potential victim. As I stated earlier, murder is one of those desires for which I would consider the appetite relating to it to be wholly bad. Related to readiness, if the potential victim has a chance to talk to the killer, and convince them to not kill them, then it is more likely that the murderer will think before actually hurting anyone. This hesitation means the criminal would not be willing to do wrong, i.e. to kill another human being through murder.

By a definitional context of willing related to voluntariness on the other hand, the person holding the gun may be willing to kill their victim. Regardless of their hesitation, the actual pulling of the trigger would imply before analysis that the criminal willingly shot their victim, and completed a wrong action. This contextual understanding of wrongness and willingness operates in this example outside the scope of Plato’s views. [15]

Therefore we have two contexts of the word willing operating on the same subject, the killer. In my context, the killer’s hesitation proves that they are not willing in their action to shoot and kill their victim. On the other hand, the killer’s eventual choice to pull the trigger, regardless of how they felt about their choice, proved intuitively that they did wrong willingly. It would be logical to conclude here that a voluntariness definition of willing acts on the actions humans make outright, while my definition of willingness, involving readiness to complete an action, operates on the level of psychology and the emotions. If someone hesitates, feels forced, does not think the action would be a good idea, but feels compelled towards the action, then they are not willing in my view.

Let me be clear that my view is not identical to Plato’s views, but it does provide another possible solution to the Leontius dilemma. It is important to remember that the story of Leontius fits into the larger framework of Plato’s views on moral responsibility and ethics. As such, the possibility that Plato has a solution, whether the one in Laws X [16] , or another perhaps unknown answer, is highly probable.

I have now considered the Leontius problem from the views that his staring at the corpses was not wrong, or alternatively, the same action was not completed willingly. From this, I brought in the issue of akrasia, and briefly touched on Strawson’s theory of the impossibility of moral responsibility. Lastly, I offered Plato’s potential answer, and introduced my own semantic theory. Discussing Leontius has shown me that to understand positions on moral responsibility

by any given philosopher, a holistic, rather than acute analysis is necessary. This style of analysis is important to


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