Traditional communities, even the most “primitive” known to modern anthropology, have well-defined, generally accepted ways of distinguishing good and bad actions. Hegel called this “ethical substance”.
What I call “ethics” involves a second level, in which the criteria for good and bad are subject to discussion. Here we are not simply laying down the law, but inquiring into the principles that ought to govern distinctions between good and bad. The oldest documented example of this kind of inquiry in our planetary family of cultures is the writings of Plato. How much of the literary character of Socrates in Plato is attributable to the historic Socrates is debated by scholars, but need not concern us here. It is in Plato that we find an actual record of Socratic inquiry. Other so-called “minor Socratic” schools also claimed to be inspired by Socrates, but left no record of critical give and take comparable to what we find in the dialogues of Plato.
Plato clearly recognized the weakness of argument from authority, and put the reasoned examination of principles before the mere fact of anyone’s say-so. He further pointed out that assertions about God’s will and its applicability to real-world cases need to be evaluated as human assertions, on the same footing as others. In discussions about truth, there are no specially privileged assertions or asserters. He set a strong ideal of sincerely seeking knowledge rather than assuming we have it, and by example promoted the modest attitude that humans should avoid making strong claims that human knowledge cannot validate. Many of his most important ideas are only presented as what I call “suggestions”.
Provocatively, Plato suggested that all beings desire the good, and that the Good is the most ultimate formative principle of all things. This reduces evil to ignorance of the true Good. The tendentious claim here is that evil is a kind of lack or defect, and that no one who aims at what is really evil properly understands what they are doing. This gives fundamental ethical significance to knowledge and the quest for better understanding. Treating evil as due to some lack of understanding also suggests a way of forgiving the evil-doer.
For Plato, wisdom and goodness are correlative. Wisdom especially includes the recognition of what we do not know. It is superior to any law. The most wise are the best qualified to govern, but do not want the job and must be coaxed into doing it.
Plato was unconcerned with questions like who decides who is wise, preferring to focus instead on how such judgments should be made. For the latter, he suggested the same kind of free and open dialogue and examination of reasons as for any other questions about truth.