February 1, 2015
When I was a sophomore in college there was a good-looking fellow among my circle of friends who must have had some deep insecurity buried in his persona. He was constantly embellishing accounts of his various comings and goings with feats of amazing ability and encounters with celebrities that we all knew were very unlikely to be frequenting our Northern Colorado environs. He acquired a nickname based on what people often found themselves saying after he had regaled us with one of these concoctions: “Sure, John.”
There was another fellow named John, sweet of disposition but unkempt even by the shaggy standards of 1970. He always seemed dazed and confused, to quote a popular song of the era. Though generally reliable, he would almost always begin his reply to a question by saying, “Well, I’m not so sure myself…” So you can see where this is going. A casual mention of ‘John’ would always be met by the question, “Do mean Sure John or Not So Sure John?” It was a moment of sophomoric hilarity that I still recall with some fondness even in my dotage.
Now I’m not so sure what this little memento of my late teens and early twenties has to do with food, but it does have something to do with ethics. It recalls the figure of Socrates, patron of all Western philosophy, who is frequently portrayed in Plato’s dialogs as professing almost total ignorance about all the important questions of philosophy. And for the Greeks in general, all the really important questions of philosophy were questions about how to live as one should. They were questions of ethics.
I’d like to think that all of my readers have some direct and personal familiarity with Plato and his teacher Socrates, but as a teacher of undergraduates I understand the vanishingly small probability that this is the case. I could put this into a more accessible frame of reference by pointing out the connection between Socrates and the television character Lt. Columbo, played by the actor Peter Faulk. Unfortunately, this probably won’t help the college sophomores of today, because Columbo was itself a product of the 1970s, and it is quite improbable that very many of them have ever seen it. And so I press on without further elaboration and explanation, leaving it up to those inquiring minds who want to know to use their Internet connection for finding more background on these curious figures, if that is their inclination.
Lt. Columbo was quite like Not So Sure John in his demeanor and approach, but his protestations of confusion and ignorance were covering up a keen mind that was always on the trail of the perpetrator (who was usually the person being interviewed in this characteristically Socratic style). What Lt. Columbo shared with Socrates was the elenctic method: exploring the implications of someone’s statements through questions that lead them inexorably to a contradiction. In Lt. Columbo’s case, it was a way of dislodging the perpetrator’s alibi or subterfuge. For Socrates, it was a way of showing that his interlocutors (who claimed know what was right) were actually just as confused as he professed to be.
Although today we are generally agreed that Socrates professed a keen mind, there is some dispute as to whether his protestations of ignorance were genuine. Perhaps like Lt. Columbo he was onto the truth right from the start. At least for today I’m taking the opposite view. One of the reasons that Socrates “caught on” as the hero for many Greek and Roman philosophers who never met him was the way that he modeled ethics as a dedicated and persistent search for the right thing to do, rather than as the possession of a standard or criterion that could be called upon to produce “the right answer” in every instance. This is not to say that Socrates knew nothing. He certainly knew how to probe for the truth, but as present day analytic philosophers note, there is a big difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that”. That skill along with Socrates unrelenting willingness to apply it was what made him the closest approximation of a true sage for several centuries in the ancient world.
Now that the holidays are past and we are done with food ethics icons for 2015, it’s time for me to settle down and start thinking about some straight ahead blogs on food ethics. But what should I say? I’m not so sure myself.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University