Inequality, Intention, and Ignorance: Socrates on Punishment and the Human Good

  • Terry PennerEmail author
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 132)


I examine here a wide array of interlocking Socratic doctrines, especially as they show up in the ideas of Socratic Ignorance and the Examined Life (asking questions every day of others and of oneself)—along with such other Socratic claims as the following. First, that No one errs willingly. Second, that, in acting intentionally, everyone is always seeking their own greatest available good, given their present circumstances, where that greatest good is taken over the rest of their lives. Third, that those who don’t see that harming others will not, over the rest of their lives, serve their own greatest good, deserve not punishment but instruction. I conduct this examination with my eye on two blatant contemporary inequalities across race and class. The first is that involved in differentially funding different schools and thereby shortchanging the ability of those of our children who need it most to work out better means to their own greatest good over the rest of their lives; the second is that across race, class, and educational background in our extensive incarceration practices. In the longest part of this essay, I argue that a principal philosophical presupposition of punishment practices can be shown to be well wide of the mark by the Socratic theory I explore here. This is the presupposition that there is some kind of philosophical justification—for example, in modern “under the description” theories—for the decidedly questionable view that we can almost always determine quite sufficiently what a person’s intentions are for purposes of justifiably and usefully punishing supposed malefactors.


Action Good Harm Ignorance Intention Punishment 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

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