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A Philosophy Startup Kit for Schoolkids

Microsoft Word version of this document
Deutsche Uebersetzung dieses Dokuments

Based on Texts of Plato

By Gareth B. Matthews


            I have written the stories in this collection to introduce schoolchildren to the fun and challenge of doing philosophy – not just learning about the lives of famous philosophers, or even learning about their views, but actually doing philosophy for themselves. The method I suggest for using these stories in the classroom is a modified form of something called “the Community of Inquiry.” It is a method developed by Matthew Lipman at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. Here’s how it can work.

            Suppose a teacher wants to use the first story, “The Ring of Gyges,”  in her class. I suggest making enough copies of the story so that each student can have a copy to hold, to read, and to study. The class session can begin by asking the children to read “The Ring of Gyges” silently for themselves. After they have all had time to do that, the teacher can ask them to read the story aloud. Depending on how many students there are in the class, they might each read a paragraph, or even a single sentence. Reading the story aloud, even after students have read the story silently, helps the class find a common focus for discussion.

The next step would be for the teacher to ask the children for comments or questions on the story. “What do you think about the story?” “Is there something that puzzles you about it?” “Does the story make you think of something you would like to ask about, or comment on?” Each comment or question should be put on the board with the name of the child who had made the comment or asked the question written on the board after the comment or question. (Putting the child’s name after the comment or question encourages the thought that, in a philosophical discussion, we have some responsibility for what we say.)

            After the teacher gets a board full of comments and questions, she may want to stand back and read them all out. She may want to ask whether some of the comments and questions fit together with others. After this preliminary talk about what is on the board, the next step is for the children themselves to select one of the comments or questions for discussion.

Suppose one says this: “I wonder what kind of person Gyges was before he found the magic ring.” That comment, which I received from a student in Australia, is a very good one to think about. If Gyges had been a really good person before he got the ring, one might well expect him to use the ring as an aid in doing good things, not bad things. If we assume, from the very start, that there aren’t really any good people, only people who avoid doing bad things for fear that they will be punished, then we won’t be surprised at what Gyges does, once he has the ring. But if we don’t make that assumption, why shouldn’t we conclude that having the ring is simply a good test of what kind of person one really is. 

Someone else in the class might say this: “I wonder what I would do if I had the ring?” If we are honest, we may admit that, if we had the ring, we would do some bad things. But is there any way to rule out the possibility that even a bad person might use the ring to, for example, give someone an unexpected present? I once got this response from a student in Minnesota.

Another student in that Minnesota class wanted to know exactly what is made invisible by the ring. If one’s clothes are not made invisible, the ring will not be of much use. But if everything one touches is made invisible, then one will not be able to see the ground one is walking on; one might then fall into a hole, or run into a stone.

After one comment or question on the board has been discussed, it is well to move on to another. In fact, it may be a good idea to discuss, even if only briefly, everything on the board, so that no child feels left out. Sometimes, of course, what we say about one comment or question will naturally lead to a response to another comment or question.

After a while it may be good to see if there is something about the story of the Ring of Gyges that everybody can agree on. There may be several things. There may also be some basic disagreement. If there is a disagreement, it may be good to ask students on one side to see if they can win over to their position students on the other side, and vice versa. Questions in philosophy are so basic that we should not be surprised if there are lingering disagreements, even after lengthy discussion. Still, the effort to reach some agreement is almost always worthwhile.  

            After a full discussion of the comments and questions on the board, it might be a good idea to ask each child to write a paragraph on the Ring of Gyges, or perhaps on some basic question that the story raises. In the case of this story, students could be asked to respond to Adam’s assignment, or perhaps a simplified version of it.    

            The stories in this collection can be used successfully with children of very different grade levels. The last story is the most difficult to follow. But teachers and parents who want to discuss what it is to tell a lie with children who find it difficult to follow should feel free to simplify the story for their own purposes.   


1. The Ring of Gyges


Adam  sat down at the table in his room to do his homework. His teacher, Ms. Cohen had given her class a very hard homework assignment. First they were supposed to read a story about a shepherd in ancient Greece who had discovered a magic ring, a ring that made him invisible. This was the story:

Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the ruler of Lydia. One day there was a violent thunderstorm, and an earthquake broke open the ground and created a crater at the place where Gyges was tending his sheep. Seeing the big hole, Gyges was filled with amazement and went down into it. And there, in addition to many other wonders of which we are not told, he saw a hollow bronze horse. There were window-like openings in it, and peeping in, he saw a corpse, which seemed to be of more than human size, wearing nothing but a gold ring on its finger. He took the ring and came out of the crater. He wore the ring at the usual monthly meeting that reported to the king on the state of the flocks of sheep. As he was sitting among the others, he happened to turn the setting of the ring towards himself to the inside of his hand. When he did this, he became invisible to those sitting near him, and they went on talking as if he had gone. He wondered at this, and, fingering the ring, he turned the setting outwards again and became visible. So he experimented with the ring to test whether it indeed has this power – and it did. If he turned the setting inward, he became invisible; if he turned it outward, he became visible again. When he realized this, he at once arranged to become one of the messengers sent to report to the king. And when he arrived there, he quickly became the queen’s lover. With her help he attacked the king, killed him, and took over the kingdom.

            Adam liked the idea of having a magic ring. He pretended he had one, too. He imagined himself putting on the ring and turning the setting inward. He would be invisible! His parents wouldn’t be able to see him. He could leave the house without their knowing it and go into town to the game arcade without anyone knowing it. Just think of the fun he could have!

            Then Adam came back to reality. He was going to have to have some homework to turn in tomorrow. So he might as well get it over with. This was the assignment:

Assignment: Imagine that there are twin girls in your class, Molly and Polly.  Imagine that they were basically good kids. Oh, they sometimes do something that is a little naughty; but mostly they do good things. They brush their teeth every morning. They help with the dishes. They make their beds without having to be told. If they find a quarter on a lunch room table, they turn it in to the principal’s office.

But suppose now that Molly gets the Ring of Gyges. Would her behavior change right away? Wouldn’t she suddenly be very different from Polly?? Would she do mean and naughty things that Polly would not do? Would she trip other kids just for the fun of it? Would she steal money that was lying on the teacher’s table? Give your answer and then say why you think the way you do about this question.

What should Adam write? What would you write? Why would you write that?

2. Perfect Happiness


“What happened in school today, Tony?” asked Tony’s mother as she served him his helping of spaghetti and meatballs. The Allen family was seated around the dinner table for their evening meal.


            “Actually, there was something kind of cool,” replied Tony. “This new kid in the class, I think his name is Roy, he cracked everybody up by something he said.”


“What did he say?” asked Tony’s sister, Heather..


“Well, you see,” explained Tony, “our teacher, Ms. Hernandez, was talking about this story in which some kid said that she wanted to be totally happy. Ms. Hernandez asked us if we could think of a time when we were perfectly happy.”


“That’s an interesting question,” put in Tony’s father.


“Yeah, well, what this kid, Roy, said was that if he had an  insect bite on his seat, you know, on his rear end, and it itched like crazy and he could scratch it as hard as he wanted to, he would be perfectly happy.”


“That’s pretty gross,” said Heather, making an ugly face.


“Yeah, it was pretty gross all right,” Tony agreed, “but it cracked everybody up. Kids laughed so loud you couldn’t hear Ms. Hernandez trying to get us to shut up.”


“That was a disgusting thing to say,” said Tony’s mother disapprovingly.

            “Yeah,” agreed Heather, “it was a yucky thing to say, but, you know, it’s right! If scratching a very itchy insect bite gives you so much pleasure that , at that moment, you don’t want anything else, then you’re perfectly happy.”


            “I wouldn’t call that perfect happiness,” protested Tony.


            “Why not?” insisted Heather; “perfect happiness is just enjoying something, it doesn’t matter what it is – scratching an insect bite, stuffing yourself with chocolate cake, whatever – enjoying it so much that you don’t at that time want anything else. Do you have some other explanation of what perfect happiness is?”

            Tony decided to change the subject. He wished he hadn’t told his family about what Roy had said in school. He didn’t think Heather was right about what total happiness is, but he didn’t know how to prove she was wrong. She was always winning arguments. He hated that.

Still, Tony was puzzled about what happiness is, and especially about what perfect happiness is. Is it just enjoying something so much that the thought of everything else is blanked out? Somehow that didn’t seem right to him. But what could he say about total happiness that he could defend against Heather?

3. Parts of Yourself


Anna: “Dad, do you think that you’ve got parts?”


Father: “Well, of course, Anna. I have two legs, two arms, a body and a head. Those are all parts of me.” Anna’s father was just settling into his recliner in front to the TV to watch a football game.


Anna: “No, that’s not what I mean. Like when we were just eating Thanksgiving dinner earlier today, I had already eaten so much that I was about to pop. But Mom had made brownies to go with the ice cream for dessert and she said that, since it was Thanksgiving and all, I could eat as many as brownies I wanted. So I ate two of them. Then, you could say, part of me wanted another brownie, but part of me said I had better stop, so I wouldn’t get sick. Do you think I really have different parts like that, one that wants to eat more and more brownies, and one that is sensible and says that I had better stop?”


Father: “Well, why not say that? Why not say you have a greedy part of you that always wants to eat more brownies, and a reasonable part that tells you when to stop?”


Anna: “That’s what my friend, Tony, says. He says you have different parts, and one part wants to do one thing and the other wants to do something else instead. We were having an argument about that at lunch yesterday in the school cafeteria. I said that saying things like that was, you know, just a way of talking. We don’t really have any parts like that, I said. It’s just that we have different wants, you know, different desires. And sometimes we realize that we can’t satisfy all our desires. We can’t, for example, satisfy the desire to eat more and more brownies and also satisfy the desire not to get sick. So the desire to have another brownie fights with the desire not to get sick ”


Father: “That sounds pretty sensible to me.”


Anna: “But get this! What Tony said was that desires don’t just float around in your mind, like leaves on a pond. You don’t have a desire unless it’s you that wants something. But it can’t be both you that wants another brownie and also you that wants to stop eating them., to avoid getting sick.”


Father: “Why not?”





Anna: “Well, Tony said that that would be like saying that you are sitting still and you are also moving. Part of you could be moving, say, your hand, and part sitting still. But you, as a whole, can’t be doing both. Do you want to know what I  said to that?”


Father: “Sure, tell me, Anna.”


Anna: “I said, and I’m really proud of myself for thinking of this, I said you can be sitting in the school bus and all of you be sitting still in your seat, but yet all of you could be moving because the school bus is moving.”


Father: “That’s pretty clever, I have to admit.”


Anna: “Yeah, but Tony had an answer to that, too. He’s so smart. He said that you can’t, all of you, be both moving and sitting still with respect to the same thing.  So you can’t, all of you, be both moving and also sitting still with respect to the ground, say. Similarly, with respect to the last brownie sitting on the plate in front of you, you can’t, all of you, both want it and not want it. But part of you can want it and another part not want it. Do you think he’s right about that?”


Father: “I don’t know, Anna. But I want to watch the football game now.”


Anna: “Oh Dad, I wish you’d help me. . . I guess I’ll just have to figure this out for myself. Do I really have different parts like that or not? That’s what I want to know.”

4.   Friendship


Alissa: “And I thought she was my friend.”


Joy: “Do you mean Norma?”


Alissa: “Yes, I mean Norma. Do you know what she did?”


Joy: “Well, I’m just guessing. Did it have something to do with Jonathan?”


Alissa: “You guessed it. She went to the movies with my boyfriend, Jonathan,

without even telling me.”


Joy: “And so she is not your friend anymore?”


Alissa: “Of course not. How could she be?”


Joy: “What do you think a friend is, anyway?”


Alissa: “Well, I guess it’s someone who likes you and . . . “


Joy: “And what else?”


Alissa: “And likes to hang out with you.”


Joy: “And don’t you think Norma still likes you and likes to hang out with you.”


Alissa: “She won’t get a chance to hang out with me. anymore. Those days are over. I’m through with her.”


Joy: “Yeah, but you didn’t answer my question. You said Joy is not your friend. And you said that a friend is someone who likes you and likes to hang out with you. That means that you think Norma either doesn’t like you anymore or else doesn’t like hanging out with you anymore. But I bet that’s wrong. I bet she likes you just as much as she ever did. And I bet she would still like to hang out with you.”


Alissa: “I said she won’t get a chance to hang out with me anymore, not after what she did.”


Joy: “But you’re still missing the point. You said Norma was not your friend anymore. But you haven’t said that she doesn’t like you anymore, or be glad to hang out with you, if you gave her a chance.”


Alissa: “I see what you mean. Well then, there must be something more to friendship than I said. I think maybe caring about you is part of being your friend, caring about you for your own sake. Norma can’t have cared about me for my own sake if she was willing to go out with my boyfriend without even mentioning to me that she was gong to do it.”


Joy: “Well, you’d better let her tell her side of the story. Maybe you’re reading too much into this movie thing. Maybe she had some good reason to go with Jonathan to the movies without telling you. By the way, are you still her friend?”


Alissa: “Are you crazy? Of course not. How can I be her friend, when she treats me like that?”


Joy: “Just asking.’


Alissa: “In fact, being friends is a two-way street. I can’t be her friend unless she is mine. And she can’t be mine unless I am hers.”


Joy: “I don’t think that follows from what you said a friend is. I could like you, and like hanging out with you, and even care about you for your own sake, even though you might not like me at all. As long as you didn’t show that you don’t like me, or show that you don’t like hanging out with me or care about me for my own sake, I could be your friend even though you are not mine.”


Alissa: “Hey, wait a minute. That can’t be right. As I said, friendship has to be a two-way street.”


Joy: “What about being a friend of a dog or cat? Can you be a friend of your dog, Ruggles?”


Alissa: “Of course, silly. But then Ruggles likes me, too. He even likes to hang out with me. In fact, Ruggles cares about me for my own sake. So he’s a friend, true blue.”


Joy: “But suppose Ruggles was constantly farting, so that you couldn’t bear to be around him. I suppose you might still like him. But you wouldn’t like hanging out with him. That’s for sure. So, even if he were your friend, you wouldn’t be his friend – at least if friendship is what you said it is. So friendship doesn’t have to be a two-way street.”


Alissa: “Oh Joy, I don’t know what to say about all that. Maybe it’s just that I’m too upset to talk about what friendship is. But I do know that the friendship between me and Norma is over. It’s a closed book.”


Joy: “Well, when you get over being upset, maybe we can talk about this again. I’d like to know for sure what a friend is, and whether you can be somebody’s friend without that person’s being your friend.”

5. Telling a Lie

            Laura: “Hi, Beth, did your big brother get back from college last night?”

            Beth: “Yeah, he turned up just after midnight and woke everyone up. I had forgotten how much noisier this house is when Brad is around. Wait! I think I can hear him getting up now. He’ll be down in a minute.”

            Brad, stumbling down the stairs in his bathrobe, “Is there some coffee made? I need to wake up.”

            Beth: “Yeah, Mom made a pot a while ago. But I think there is still some left.”

            Brad, pouring himself some coffee and noticing Laura: “Hey, Laura, what’s cooking with you? Still trying to get the squeaks out of your clarinet, I bet.”

            Laura, frostily: “I’ve given up the clarinet.”

            Brad: “Well, everybody is probably relieved at that. Let’s face it. Some of us are just not musical.”

            Laura, becoming furious at Brad’s bad manners, “In fact, I lied. I haven’t given up on the clarinet at all. You may be pleased to learn that I’m now the first-chair clarinet in the school band.”

            Brad: “Well, practice does pay off, even for the ungifted. But, speaking of lying, you must know what it is to tell a lie, since you said you just told one. Maybe you could explain to me what it is to tell a lie.”

            Beth: “Brad, will you please leave Laura alone. You aren’t home a day before you start badgering my best friend.”

            Brad: “Actually it’s quite interesting what makes something a lie. We talked about it in my college philosophy class. I’m sure Laura would like to give it a go.”

            Laura, rising to the challenge: “A lie is just a falsehood, Mr. College Boy. What I first told you was a falsehood.”

            Brad: “Good start, Laura. To tell a lie is to say something false. You’re right about that. But there is more for telling a lie than just saying something false. Suppose I really think that you have turned in your clarinet. I report to Beth, what I believe to be true, that you’ve given up your clarinet. Would I be telling a lie?

            Laura, hesitantly: “No, I guess not. It isn’t a lie, I guess, unless you mean to be saying something false.”

            Brad: “Atta girl, Laura. Now you’re cookin’. For what you say to be a lie it needs not only to be false, but you have to believe it is false. Is that enough?”

            Laura: “Well, why not, Mr. Philosopher?”

            Brad: “Think of this. You could be trying out for a play. The director could say, “Laura, please say this line with an Australian accent; ‘I have given up the clarinet.’ You say the line. It’s false. You believe it is false. But have you told a lie.”

            Laura: “No, of course not.”

            Brad: “Why not?”

            Laura: “Well, I wouldn’t be trying to convince the play director, or anyone else, that I had given up the clarinet. I was only trying to convince the director that I should get a part in the play.”

            Brad: “Super. Laura, you will do well in life. Take it from me. You can think things through. To tell a lie you must say something of which three things are true. First, what you say must be false. Second, you must believe it is false. And third, by saying what you have said you must be trying to get someone to believe what is really false.”

            Laura: “Well, Professor Brad, I’m glad I have satisfied you.”

            Brad: “Okay, Laura, but don’t forget what you have figured out today. There may be a quiz tomorrow.”

            As Laura and Beth leave the house, Beth apologizes for having such an obnoxious brother. “I’m sorry Brad is so beastly to you, Laura. I’ll try not to let him sound off like that again.”

            Laura: “I’d just like to get back at him. I’d just like to show him that he isn’t as all-knowing as he thinks he is.”

            Beth: “Good luck. I’ve tried to do that for years.”

            Laura: “But is it really right, what he said? Do you have to be trying to deceive someone by saying something false to be telling a lie? Let’s think”

            Beth: “He’s probably right. He usually is.”

            Laura: “But Beth, think of this. Suppose you and I get a job at Hardy’s Restaurant. Suppose business is very slow one morning and Mr. Hardy decides to leave us alone in the restaurant for a few minutes while he goes to the bank. Since there are no customers at the moment he tells you to put the dishes in the dishwasher while he is gone and me to wipe off all the tables and the countertop. But he warns me to be careful of the vase on the countertop, since it belonged to his grandmother. He says he’ll fire me if I damage that vase. As I am wiping the counter top, sure enough, I knock the vase off and it shatters into a thousand pieces.  

            When Mr. Hardy gets back, he is furious. “How did that happen?” he asks.

“I’m very, very sorry,” I say, “a customer knocked it off onto the floor.” 

            “It was just a kid,” I say; “I didn’t know him. He came in for a candy bar. After he knocked over the vase, he ran away.”

            “Is that right, Beth?” he asks you, and You go along with my story.

            We both lied. Mr. Hardy is totally convinced that we lied. My story was not very convincing, especially since Mr. Hardy was gone such a short time. But was I trying to actually convince him that what I said was true? No. My only hope was that Mr. Hardy would not fire me unless he had an eye-witness to say that I had broken the vase.”

            Beth: “I guess that’s pretty plausible.”

            Laura, triumphantly: “Then your smarty-pants brother is wrong. I can tell a lie without having the intention to deceive Mr. Hardy. So can you. I simply hope that he will not fire me if I don’t confess that I broke his vase and he doesn’t have some other direct evidence, such as a statement from you that you saw me do it. There are tons of cases like that. Nobody believes the liar. The liar doesn’t even expect to be believed. But without a confession or some other very strong evidence, the liar hopes not to be punished.”

            Beth: “That’s pretty good, Laura. You certainly have a good way to put down my impossible brother. But, if his three conditions are not right, what is it to tell a lie?”

            Laura: “I don’t have a clue. I think we just instinctively understand what it is to tell a lie.”

            Beth: “That’s not good enough, Laura. If we can’t say what has to be true of a statement to make it a lie, we don’t really know what it is to tell a lie. And that seems pretty ridiculous.”


Remarks for Teachers and Parents

            In adding these comments on the four stories in this Philosophy Startup Kit I do not meant to suggest how the discussion of them ought to go, let alone, what conclusion you and your kids ought to reach. The discussions you have with your kids may turn up interesting ideas and suggestions that are quite different from anything I say here. Philosophy is a wonderfully rich territory. I cannot possibly anticipate all, or even most, of the interesting things you may discover when you discuss one or more of these topics with your children.

            Even more basically, the point of a genuinely philosophical discussion cannot be to reach some pre-ordained conclusion. The point is to see what ideas the participants in that discussion can come up with and what conclusion, or conclusions, they find most compelling and why.

            It is important, however, to try to draw conclusions. It may be that all participants will be able to agree on an overall conclusion, or on some more limited conclusion, or conclusions. Conclusions in philosophy are provisional. We should always be open to re-considering a conclusion we reached last time, even though we may come to the same conclusion again.

1.   The Ring of Gyges

            The story of the Ring of Gyges is to be found in Plato’s Republic, Book 2, at 359C-360C. At this point in the dialogue Glaucon, the conversation partner of Socrates, is offering a defense of psychological egoism. Psychological egoism is the view that we always act in ways that we at least think will further our interests and gratify our desires.

According to Glaucon, to be a moral person stands halfway between the best thing of all, namely, to be able to go after what we want without restriction, and the worst thing of all, to suffer the unrestrained attempts of others to satisfy their own desires. Morality, on this view, requires that we give up some of our freedom so that we can gain the restricted, but real, freedom to pursue at least some of those things we want. Morality is thus a sort of social compact, or social contract.

            Psychological egoism, as a perfectly general thesis about human motivation, seems to be refuted by evidence that even toddlers are able to act altruistically, out of empathy for others. Nevertheless, the idea that, “way down deep,” we always pursue what we consider to be our own interest seems overwhelmingly plausible to many people. This idea needs to be examined and criticized. One good way to examine and criticize it is to discuss the Ring of Gyges.

2.   Perfect Happiness

            This story was inspired by a passage in Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, at 494C. On first thought, the idea that we would be perfectly happy if, at that moment, we were enjoying something so much that we did not then want anything else, is highly plausible.  It is an idea that motivates some people to get high on drugs, or to get drunk on alcohol.

            Yet the idea that there can be perfect happiness at a moment in time ignores questions about what the longer-term consequences of that momentary bliss might be. In a discussion of this story with a fifth-grade class in Osaka, Japan, one student said this: “Enjoying scratching an insect bite so much that, at the moment, you don’t want to do anything else, is only one petal of the flower of happiness.” I would not myself have been able to put the point as poetically as this Japanese child did. But I think the is right. It would be good to have it defended and developed further.

3. Parts of Yourself

            In Book 4 of the dialogue, The Republic, Plato has Socrates divide the self into three parts: the rational part, the spirited part (what moves us to perform brave actions), and the appetitive part. Freud divides the self into ego, super-ego, and id. Other philosophers and psychologists have proposed other divisions.

            Dividing the self in one of these ways does seem to help us understand what is going on when we both want to have another drink and also want not to have another drink (perhaps because of being the “designated driver”). But the promised help may be only illusory. After all, we might also want to do two different bad things, even when we realize that we cannot do both. Or we may want to do two different good things, when we realize that we cannot do them both. Thus no simple division of the self into two or three parts can possibly explain all cases of conflict in desire we may come up with.

            There is another important issue here. When we rely too heavily on the idea that “part of me wanted to do that and part of me wanted to do something else,” we face the possibility that nobody is “in charge,” that is, the risk of supposing that no one is really responsible for what one does. After all, it was only part of one that wanted to do it.

4.   Friendship

            This story is inspired by Plato’s dialogue, Lysis, which is about trying to understand what it is to be a friend. The Greek word for ‘friend’ is philos. It comes from the Greek verb for ‘to love.’ Thus philanthropy is the love of anthropoi, that is, the loving care of other human beings. And thus friends, philoi, should be ‘lovers,’ or at least “likers,” that is, people who like each other.

            The question then becomes urgent, even more obviously in Greek than in English, whether there can be non-reciprocal friendship. Can A be a friend of B without B being a friend of A? In Plato’s dialogue Socrates points out that love is often not reciprocated. So, it seems, A can be a friend of B without B being a friend of A. But is this right? 

            One question for Socrates is whether, if friendship really has to be reciprocal, what there is about the nature of friendship that forces reciprocity. In my story, Joy pushes this point. But perhaps we should drop the reciprocity requirement anyway, especially if we are willing to allow that that one can be a friend of animals, or even a friend of nature, or a friend of the environment. 

            Friendship is a good topic to philosophize about with children. They are often occupied, if not preoccupied, with making friends, and with having their friendships threatened, or dissolved. Their insights about what preoccupies them may be enlightening to a parent or teacher, just as an adult’s perspective on friendship may be helpful to a child.  

5. Telling a Lie

            This last story is probably the most difficult selection of the five. Understanding it requires that we keep in mind the three distinct conditions that are standardly thought to be both necessary and sufficient for telling a lie. A contemporary philosopher might express them in this schematic formula:

(L) In saying to A that p B tells a lie if, and only if,

(i)  it is false that p;

(ii) B thinks it is false that p; and

(iii) in saying to A that p B intends to deceive B about whether p.

The story about Laura, Beth, and Brad makes trouble for condition (iii). According to the story, and I think this is correct, one can actually tell a lie without having an intention to deceive the person one is talking to. But the other two conditions can be challenged as well. For example, some people think that I tell a lie if, thinking that Beth is in the next room, I say she is not in the next room – even though, in fact, she is in the next room. That doesn’t seem right to me, but it may seem right to you, or to some of your students.

            When we discuss the question of what it is to tell a lie, it is always good to have concrete examples before us. Otherwise, we may easily loose track of what position we are taking or what position we are criticizing.

            This selection is not based on any discussion of lying in Plato. In fact, honesty does not even count, for Plato, as one of the cardinal virtues, nor does lying count, just by itself, as a vice. But most of the early dialogues of Plato are taken up with questions about how to understand various virtues and vices. Since most of us think, I believe correctly, that dishonesty is a vice, this story is still Socratic in spirit.

Remarkably, almost all the early dialogues of Plato end in perplexity. The dialogue, Laches, for example, is devoted to saying what it is to be brave. Yet, after a long and quite fascinating discussion, that dialogue, too, ends in perplexity.

            One overarching question that these dialogues of Plato pose is this: how can we identify cases of bravery, or cases of cowardice, truth-telling, or lying, if we cannot explain exactly what is both necessary and sufficient for something to count as an act of bravery, a case of cowardice, truth-telling, or lying. In some of his “middle” dialogues Plato has Socrates suggest that we are somehow born with a latent knowledge of these virtues and vices, a knowledge that we have “forgotten” and need to recover. On this view our philosophical inquiry is an attempt to recover through “recollection” what we know already from the soul’s previous experience.

            A “stripped-down version” of Plato’s Theory of Learning as Recollection might say that we have access to some innate conception of, for example, what it is to tell a lie. We can perhaps use that innate knowledge to identify cases of lying, even though we cannot specify necessary and sufficient conditions for what it is to tell a lie. Our situation may be like that of going to the airport to meet a friend one has not seen in many years. One can no longer describe what the old friend will look like, any more than one can specify fully necessary and sufficient conditions for what it is to tell a lie. But one may be able to recognize the old friend, just as one can identify the case of lying, even without a satisfactory “definition.” Still, it would be more satisfactory if one could, through philosophical discussion, come up with a satisfactory definition of lying, or bravery, or friendship.