Peter Jones

Ancient and modern | 20 August 2011

Moral mechanics

Prime Minister Cameron wants to fix the ‘moral collapse’ that caused the recent riots. So do we all, but how?

In a dialogue by Plato, Protagoras told the following mûthos about how man developed respect for others (aidôs) and a sense of justice (dikê). When men were first created, Prometheus gave them the knowledge of skills, so that they could develop language, agriculture, houses and so on. But living in small groups, they were vulnerable to attack from wild animals. So they began to group themselves together into cities. But lacking any of the required social skills, they at once turned to crime and fighting each other. Zeus therefore sent Hermes to instil in every one of them aidôs and dikê. As a result, genuine communities could at last be built.

The point was that aidôs allowed humans to live successfully together because it was an impulse to respect mutually agreed social norms, while dikê, in the name of those norms, enforced that respect among those who decided to ignore them. Personal values and public sanctions, in other words, were integrally connected. But how were they then transferred down the generations? They were just picked up, says Protagoras, from the home, from school, from society as a whole. And here comes the crunch: to ask who taught you them, he said, was as pointless as asking who taught you your native tongue.

Protagoras was right. He thought lecturing people about values was almost a complete waste of time. Socrates too was baffled by the problem, arguing that there were many good people whose children turned out to be wastes of space.

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