Plato’s views on morality and the idea of conventional morality are both compelling ideas. Plato argues that if an individual knows what is morally correct, they will do it without question. Conventional morality suggests there are times we are aware of the difference between right and wrong, but we still choose to act wrongly. Essentially, Plato states there is no room for moral ambiguity if we are aware of the immoral action, while conventional morality is more flexible, almost seeing the flaws within people. While some consider Plato’s ideals naïve, it is arguable that the morally correct response for each situation is subjective. This makes each response a morally correct one based on the individual’s thought process, philosophy, and ethical background. Conventional morality has its place, but Plato saw a larger picture concerning morality that allows us to see how more individuals make decisions, even if from the outside we do not consider their actions to be moral ourselves.
It is easy, of course, for us to argue that conventional morality is the universal truth. Most of us believe that if an individual cheats on their significant other, they understand the action is wrong, but they do it anyway and, therefore, are partaking in conventional morality. Similarly, if somebody murders another person, they are likely aware murder is wrong and are participating in conventional morality . Plato, however, argued that there are many instances where we do not consider the immoral action. He also argued the instances in which the immoral action appears moral to the individual. If an individual cheats, for example, because they were cheated on first, it could be viewed as moral by the individual because they are treating somebody the way they were treated. The rules of the relationship have changed; it would no longer be viewed as immoral to cheat by that person because they were not the first individual to step out of the bounds of the relationship. Traditionally, cheating on a significant other would always be seen as an immoral action unless otherwise discussed by the two parties. In fact, if one individual cheats, and the other decides to engage in infidelity as well because the moral grounds of the relationship have changed, but they do so without discussing it first, it could also be deemed immoral. However, the point is the individual’s state of mind has changed, and therefore their moral compass has also changed. Normally they would not engage in intimate or sexual misconduct with a person outside of the relationship but, because they were wronged, they believe in engaging in a type of amorality. It is now permissible to engage in these actions because somebody else did first. Primarily, the change of heart comes from pain, but there is also a sense of moral logic to it. If one person is doing it without all parties agreeing, both people should be able to without it being considered immoral.
Where conventional morality falls short is in its suggestion that we may know better, but act immorally anyway. Plato’s assumption that once we understand what is morally correct, we act on it is more justified because it allows for growth of the human conscience . Plato suggested when an individual knows what is morally correct, that is how they will act. In circumstances involving emotional responses, however, we cannot always control how we act. For example, sometimes we use morality as a justification for revenge, or we stop caring about morality completely. We live in a society where we are taught once we enter into a monogamous relationship, intimacy of the emotional and physical variety will be confined to the two individuals in the relationship. When one person steps outside of this construct, it can leave the other feeling damaged, angry, confused, apathetic, or a mixture of several emotions. Though people around them may attempt to help them see reason, or show them their retaliation is not morally correct, it may not work. Because there is no guaranteed way to ensure one can prevent an individual from committing adultery, it only enforces the idea Plato’s ideas were correct: once an individual understands what is morally just, they will make that choice.
Many will argue Plato’s ideas have no place in this world. Conventional morality appears to rule supreme, especially when it seems there is so much known immorality happening every day. However, it is important to remember perspective is often a part of these immoral actions. The individuals who choose to commit adultery with few repercussions begin to understand adultery is okay on some level. They may lose somebody they care about, but they will find another. Without an understanding that they hurt somebody they cared about, the morality will be lost on them. Likewise, those who commit adultery as a form of retaliation will never understand the morality of the situation without understanding the adultery was not about them, but something fundamentally wrong with the adulterer . To the adulterer, everything is a game. They know adultery is fundamentally wrong, but may not know why. They understand it is immoral, but without understanding who they are hurting, or why another party is hurt, it is an inherent act of selfishness the individual will repeat and never truly understand. Similarly, those who experience adultery will never understand the lack of morality behind the action because they often are too obsessed with wondering what they did wrong, rather than recognizing the adulterer knew the adultery itself was wrong, and simply did not care.
In sum, while conventional morality and Plato’s views on morality are both compelling, it appears Plato’s views are more valid in today’s world. Conventional morality suggests an individual knowing the difference between the moral and immoral choice may still choose to act immorally. This does not allow the individual to grow as a person. Plato’s views on morality, state once the individual understands the moral choice, which is how they will act. It encompasses moral subjectivity, allowing the world to operate under their own perspective while also allowing individuals to grow. Some may act immorally now, but Plato’s views also state an individual has the capacity to learn what the morally just action is, enabling them to change their actions later. While there will always be circumstances in which individuals still choose to act immorally while they know what the most moral decision is, Plato’s views are the most astute because they encompass the entirety of human morality while acknowledging the capacity for human growth and the capacity for change.
Williams, B. (2011). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Boston: Taylor & Francis.