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Center for Law and Philosophy


Many years ago John Finnis and I became interested in the Socratic view that it is better to suffer wrong than to do it. My interest was triggered by Anselm Müller's lecture on the subject given at Balliol at that time. Finnis discussed the issue in his Fundamentals of Ethics, where Müller's influence on him is acknowledged. At the time John Finnis and I debated the maxim and had a lengthy correspondence about it, but we did not convince each other. Now when I return to the issue, I can no longer remember the position I then took, except that I was the skeptic and Finnis the believer in the maxim. It is beyond doubt a dramatic and high-minded maxim. I remained intrigued by it and am glad of the opportunity to make this brief return visit. I should, however, declare at the outset that my interest is not historical. The different readings of the maxim and the different ideas associated with it in the discussion below are not brought forward as so many attempts to understand the historic Socrates or Plato. Rather, they are explorations of what role, if any, a maxim like this can have within a sound ethical outlook.

As before, I find the maxim's beguiling appeal in its ambiguities. It can be understood in a sense which makes it trivially true and in a way which makes it fairly clearly false. It can also be understood to be interestingly true, but not in a sense we can sensibly attribute to Socrates, nor one which expresses the high drama of Socrates's own choice when he refused to obey the Thirty Commissioners when they ordered him, on pain of death, to fetch Leon of Salamis to be executed. In what follows I will briefly explain a few different readings and the defects associated with them. I will explain why I remain a skeptic, why I feel that the rhetorical power of the maxim outstrips the insight it affords into the nature of morality.