MADISON – In the Euthyphro, one of Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates travels to the Athenian court to defend himself against trumped-up charges that he has corrupted the city’s youth and does not believe in the gods. Just before he gets there, he has an encounter that sheds powerful light on what may be US President Donald Trump’s most important shortcoming.
As Socrates approaches the court, he runs into his friend Euthyphro, a young man who is on his way to the same place to prosecute his own father for the slaying of another man. Euthyphro tells Socrates that he believes he is doing the right thing, because, regardless of whether a killer belongs to one’s own family, or whether a victim is a relative or a stranger, wrongdoers who are guilty of a crime must be punished. Euthyphro insists that the gods will approve of his action, because he is doing what piety demands.
But Socrates, being Socrates, turns Euthyphro’s explanation into a larger discussion about the nature of piety itself. Socrates is convinced that Euthyphro would not prosecute his own father without being absolutely certain that it is the pious thing to do. And yet, to Socrates’s mind, Euthyphro can have no such certainty unless he knows for sure what piety is.
Euthyphro’s efforts to define piety ultimately fail to withstand the scrutiny of Socrates’s probing questions; he does not really know what piety is after all. The Euthyphro ends with its title character beating a hasty, cowardly retreat after abruptly claiming that he has more pressing matters to attend to.
Of course, Plato’s purpose in the dialogue is not to define piety: if Socrates knows of a better definition than the unacceptable ones offered by Euthyphro, he does not reveal it. Rather, Plato’s point is to show that Euthyphro is ignorant of his own ignorance about piety, and that Euthyphro thus cannot really know that prosecuting his father is in fact the right thing to do.
The knowledge that comes from this kind of self-examination is crucial in all decision-making. One ought to know the moral character of any action one is contemplating. And to know that, one must be as well aware of what one does not know as of what one does. Otherwise, no confident judgment about the rightness or wrongness of one’s own action is possible.
Thus, a central lesson from the Euthyphro is that there are two types of ignorance: ignorance of whether an action is right or wrong; and ignorance of what one does and does not know about right and wrong.
This latter form of unawareness – ignorance of one’s own ignorance – is Trump’s most troubling characteristic. Many of Trump’s specific policy proposals are worrisome enough in themselves; but they are even more worrisome in light of what he has said (viva voce and via Twitter) about a host of domestic and international issues.
Trump has revealed a profound lack of understanding of complex policy matters: national security, foreign affairs, immigration, taxation, economic inequality, health care, education, the environment, trade, abortion, religious rights, free expression, and much else. Not surprisingly, his administration’s approach to most of these issues so far has been just plain wrong – even impious.
Like Euthyphro, Trump does not just think that he knows what he knows, and that what he knows is sufficient for sound decision-making; he is absolutely sure of it. This self-assuredness suggests that he has rarely, if ever, stopped to consider what he does not know. He seems to be incapable of engaging in the kind of introspective reflection that would reveal gaps in his own understanding – the first step toward expanding one’s knowledge of an issue.
Trump’s epistemological arrogance is something that we tolerate, and strive to correct, in children. It is not a trait one expects to find in educated, mature adults – and certainly not in the person who holds the highest office in the most powerful country in the world.
As Trump’s chaotic presidency continues to unfold, one thing that we can know for sure is that any policy he introduces, and any action he takes, will occur against a backdrop of deep ignorance, and even meta-ignorance. Sadly, nothing could be more dangerous for the United States, other countries, or the planet.