Robbie Maltby

March 31, 2021


I never fully understood what ethics were until I started reading philosophy.

I knew they were rules to live by; commandments, constitutions, laws etc. but these were open to interpretation, and not easy to summarise or explain to others.

For example we're told not to steal but if you're going to die of hunger it's widely understood to be okay. We're told not to commit acts of violence, but if your family is threatened or you're in mortal danger then it's understood (albeit slightly less widely) that it's okay.

I knew that ethics showed people how to be 'Good' but I'd never found a simplified version of Why they were good - enough to explain or teach someone else.

There are quite a few texts I could point to but one stands out as providing one of the most succinct explanations of what it means to be Good or Bad and how to choose between them.

Protagoras by Plato is a dialogue between Socrates (the philosopher and creator of the ‘Socratic method’) and Protagoras, a popular Sophist or 'Sage' at the time.

Reading the text itself will do you far more justice than what I'm about to write here, but this will hopefully be as eye opening for you as it was for me.


Socrates asks Protagoras many questions about the relationships between the Stoic virtues, and Protagoras states that he believes 'Courage' to be the most important. Socrates disagrees and shows him by questioning that Wisdom is actually the most important.

Socrates explains that Goodness is simply the pursuit of pleasantness, which he believes to be the highest attainable state of being that lasts long term.

He explains that people who do Bad things experience pain, and those who continue to make bad choices are simply lacking in knowledge of how to attain their highest state.

He believes that people who make Bad choices do so in 'Error' because they confuse short term pleasantness (or pleasure) for the longer version.

This may all sound a bit elementary but he ends with this. I am going to paraphrase.

When people come to the end of their life, the accumulation of their long-term state of pleasantness will become the majority of that person's life, and they will have therefore lived a Good life and know it.

On the other hand, those who pursued short term pleasure over long term pleasantness will have experienced a majority of pain in their lives and will therefore have lived a Bad life and know it.

He explains it as a problem of perception. That we value too much the experience we have in the moment, and not enough the experience we have over the longer term.

Like a person who avoids diabetes by limiting their sugar intake, or cirrhosis of the liver by drinking less alcohol.

Ethics help us plan our route forward, leading us away from pain and towards pleasantness.

About Robbie Maltby

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