What do Plato and Socrates believe is the reason for humans to do the right thing?

According to Socrates, a commitment to moral reasoning is an essential condition of a well-lived life.  An individual should base his actions upon the outcomes of such internal dialogues.  The exercise of self-examination and introspection as a way of arriving at moral truths is of paramount importance to Socrates.  So much so that he unequivocally declared that “an unexamined life is not worth living” (Vlastos, p.121).  This commitment to truth by way of rational, critical enquiry would eventually cost Socrates his life.  But, even when in sight of his impending death, Socrates calmly reasoned with his friends and supporters that accepting the judgment of the state is to follow the moral course of action and he refused to escape into exile. Socrates’ view of morality was espoused by his chief disciple Plato as well, who documented most of his master’s orations.

We can deduce Socrates and Plato’s views on proper human conduct from the reasons the former gives in the face of impending death.  For example in the Apology, at section 49c-d,

“Socrates elaborates his leading premise to ‘one should not wrong any person’, adding to this ‘not even if one has been wronged by him’. At 49e5-7 he states a further premise ‘one should do what one has agreed to do, provided that it is not wrong’. He then proposes that it follows from these premises that it would be wrong for him to escape (49e9-50a3)”. (Bostock, 1990, p.2)

By reasoning in this fashion, Socrates puts principles ahead of self-interest.  Moreover, his concern for law and order among Athenian civilians made him put public interest ahead of his own.  For example, “if Socrates tries to escape, he will be attempting, for his part, to destroy the Laws, and (thereby) the whole city; for a city could not survive if the verdicts reached by the courts were set aside and rendered powerless by individuals. (50a8-b8).”  (Bostock, 1990, p.2)

Socrates reasons that one should do nothing wrong, further adding that his own life till that point was lived in accord with this premise.  Since disobeying Athenian laws would amount to doing wrong, he argues against his own bodily interest and surrenders to the court.  He thus accepts the death penalty imposed on him as a matter of righteous conduct and lawful behavior.  It is easy to extend this logic and come to the conclusion that Socrates thought that it would always be wrong for any citizen of Athens to disobey any law of the city.  But a detailed analysis of all of Socrates’ sayings shows that this is not the case. (Vlastos, p.128)

Hence, Socrates sacrificed his life as a way of standing by the principles he endorsed to others.  Despite his tragic death in this fashion, the event has acquired him a martyr status among subsequent generation of intellectuals and philosophers. And despite the official ‘guilty’ verdict, he stands acquitted of moral wrongdoing in its true spirit.  Starting with Plato – his most illustrious pupil – intellectuals have taken inspiration and strength from Socrates’ choice and have contributed to positive social change.

Works Cited:

David Bostock, The Interpretation of Plato’s “Crito”, Phronesis, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1990), pp. 1-20, Published by: BRILL, Stable URL: <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182345>, Accessed: 06/01/2010 19:31

Vlastos, Gregory (1991). Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.