Socratic Discourse 1
In which the rights and privileges of individuals acting within a group are considered. The location is a suburban street, its appearance prompting the opening remarks.
S. What a pity to see this area in the present state! I can remember the time when the facades looked new, the kerbs were clean, and all the shops were still open.
-- I recall that period too. It is obvious the present residents do not care much about the image their environment projects. On the other hand, it is their decision how the place looks; unless of course they have to suffer from a particular detriment, in which case the fault would not be their own and someone else should be blamed.
S. I know, one has to be fair. But in this case, I can assure you, the exact opposite happened to be the case. The houses had been renovated, facilities provided, the area been given a general clean-up - seemingly all to no avail.
-- I am surprised to hear you complaining in this way. I don't argue from an aesthetic point; the bleakness here is self-evident. But have you not said all the time that we all should have the freedom to develop according to our wishes, provided that these wishes do not constitute a threat to somebody else's well-being?
S. Yes, I certainly maintain this position.
-- Are you saying then the dirt and disrepair in this street would pose a threat to others? After all, if you do not like it you don't have to live here.
S. That is true. While I can't see the merit of keeping one's surroundings in such a pitiful state myself I do agree that one only has to move away and the problem is solved.
-- Does that mean there is more to the situation than living according to one's chosen standard?
S. I would answer this by saying that the inherent potential of a given environment imposes such a measure of obligation upon the participants in this environment as the average capability of society warrants. There lies the responsibility.
-- I am afraid I do not follow you.
S. Let us start with the individual. Is it not true that each and every person has a certain character, a certain personality, and above all, a certain ability?
-- Of course.
S. And is it not true that given a particular task each individual would approach this task according to those traits just mentioned?
-- Yes, no doubt.
S. But it also has to be said that amongst all these characters, all these abilities, there are some which are more suitable for solving a certain problem than others.
-- No two people are exactly alike.
S. Then considering a group of human beings now, any time this group is faced with a situation that demands a response, the versions offered will be covering a considerable span of quality?
-- Yes; and provided there exists harmony within that group and reason prevails the best solution will be put to practice.
S. This would be the ideal, you are right. In any case, we already see that depending on the general standard existing within a group of people the response would be a certain way, would bring a certain solution. The higher
the standard, the better and farther reaching the solution. You can agree with this, can't you?
-- I don't see any fault so far.
S. Nor should you later. To continue then: if we let the solution depend on the common standard of our group, and we allow that this standard is determined by the distribution and occurrence of high and low ability, of appropriate
personalities and inappropriate personalities (always measured against that particular problem) then we can turn the wording around and say that for any given situation there is a certain possible response.
-- Considering who is dealing with the situation, yes.
S. Sure - we have established that. But we can also say that no matter what the level of competency may be, there is always a better way, a more advanced solution than the present one.
-- I have to disagree there. Surely there are examples of things that cannot be improved further, simply because the present manner has been perfected to such an extent that no improvement is possible!
S. First of all, the description "perfect" implies the impossibility of becoming any better, otherwise a thing would not be "perfect" at any stage. But such semantics aside, yes, the possibility of something called "perfection" is
tempting. But consider: if you were to design a tool for instance, and provided you were serious about your own personal commitment to such a task, would you not try and make it as good as possible?
-- Naturally I would.
S. Then if you knew about an improved version of the tool, would you not go about it presently and construct one?
-- Without doubt.
S. Therefore, having arrived at one model it is fair to say that it represents your total knowledge and ability on this subject, for surely if you had something better in your mind you would have made it so and not be satisfied with anything less?
-- Yes, I see your point. While we can admit the possibility of ongoing improvement theoretically and based on experience, we cannot know about a better version factually unless we have developed the concept.
S. Yes, but it also means while we can toy with the general idea of perfection, we can never be sure something really is perfect, for how do we know it is perfect unless we cannot come up with something better; but how can our inability to
improve something be equated with perfection in a product of ours, based as it is on a shortcoming?
-- Truly a dilemma! How do we get out of this?
S. By simply disregarding the concept of perfection when it comes to realistic applications, since it is absolutely useless in providing a proper answer. Anything which is leading to a contradiction has to be discarded. However, let us go back
to our original argument, claiming no matter what level we have achieved in our solution to a particular problem we always have to entertain the possibility of a better one. Thinking about our momentary diversion into this matter, would you now say that
such a position is valid?
-- No solution must be assumed to be the final, perfect one? Yes, this is clear.
S. Then it follows that just as within a group of people some are better at solving certain problems than others, given a set of problems the optimum response to each single one will come from varying members of the community. Considering what
we have said before we could infer such a thing, couldn't we?
-- We certainly could.
S. Now comes the next step. Think about a recent difficulty you experienced, in your home for example.
-- I had to re-arrange the furniture to make way for a new table.
S. Good. Then the fact that you had to grapple with this question was dependent upon two things: one is the table, naturally; the other is the house itself.
-- What do you mean?
S. If you did not have a home, the need for any re-arrangement would not have arisen. This is rather obvious, don't you think?
-- Yes, but the fact that I have a home does not imply any difficulty with my furniture.
S. No, this it does not. However, it facilitates it. In other words, if we consider the acquisition of a home to be a problem (and in principle of course it is) then we can see that without its solution - and a successful one at that! - any
further questions would not eventuate. We could extend that thought of course and go back to the construction of the house itself, and that would be just another example. So you would not encounter a certain kind of task, at a particular level, unless a
different, but related set of circumstances had not been dealt with before.
-- I see! And now that I have the table I could agonise about the chairs, which I would not have to do unless I bought the table, which in turn I would not have bought if I had not moved into this home, and so on and so on! This is quite evident to me, but I still don't see the connection between this causality and what should be done about that street for instance.
S. It will become clear in a moment. We agreed that a given condition elicits a certain response. We can extend the word "condition" to mean the general situation prevailing at any given time; and by "response" we mean the overall endeavour which
is manifest amidst the community in general, dealing with such a condition. Now, we also said that the type of problem we may be facing depends on a previous result of a similar action, and so on. Therefore, the questions we have to deal with now are of a
certain nature simply because we, as a society, had come up with certain answers in the past. You follow the logic here?
-- Yes; what you are saying is that we would not have to grapple with the problem of traffic congestion unless we had been able to invent the motor car for instance.
S. Exactly. And now do you see the relevance? Each moment in our history we are faced with a specific set of difficulties. They are specific inasmuch as they pertain to our current level of achievement. Going back to the beginning of our
deliberation we noted that the responses to a situation will not be uniform; some will be above, some below the acquired standard. What happens to the responses which find themselves below that standard? Provided they are put into practice they give rise to
a condition clearly not commensurate with the overall quality of life. Which means they are generating an input into society that clashes with the other activities, since those would address the general condition in a different manner. And this is why I
mentioned responsibility before: it is this responsibility that accepts the connection we have just outlined and acts upon it. In this case it would mean raising the overall standard of their street, but of course it goes much further than that. It means
appreciating the complexity and quality of life as it is manifest through our environment, generated by the society we belong to, and then acting accordingly so that the individual will not hinder the harmony and the progress that flows from our achievements.
-- What should be done then about those who do not show such an appreciation? It seems just as every person ought to strive towards the common standard and if possible beyond, society also has a responsibility to ensure its own existence is not being jeopardised.
S. There is indeed a duty that befalls all of us as well. We as a community have to ensure the dissemination of sufficient knowledge especially amongst those who lack the insight to fully appreciate the importance of education.
-- And the individual themselves?
S. As far as each single person is concerned, there is also a duty; and this is the obligation towards the facilities that we have and need in order to sustain our present level of existence, and even surpass it.
-- Clearly you are not simply talking about appearances here.
S. No, I am not. You could go so far as to include the usage of things in this argument.
-- You mean a proper, responsible usage.
S. Well, "proper" in the sense that it has to meet the requirements our standard places upon whatever commodity one considers. I could for instance practise an ancient way to dispose of the dead. This would run into difficulties because our
present system is adjusted to modern burials based on a knowledge of medical hygiene. To insist on my own peculiar manner would pose difficulties for all concerned, and I daresay indirectly for many more.
-- The point you are making is obvious. But who is to decide what is appropriate and what is not? Would not some of those customs be purely arbitrary and be defensible depending upon which side you happen to be on?
S. Some "customs" as you call them are of course arbitrary. However, I did not have purely cultural traits in mind when I talked about the standards of a society. As long as we elevate those concepts which are solely based on belief and cultural tradition to what we would term the social norm, we naturally would continuously find ourselves embroiled in controversy, since one belief is as good as any other, looked at objectively. But as soon as we base our measure upon logic and facts, that is on those facets which rationally and effectively contribute to our existence, then we cannot fail, since these principles are understandable to anyone. After all, they are the basis of nature.