A small child can get cookies from the cookie jar, even if she should not, without being able to define “cookie” or “cookie jar.” She can know that she should not eat the cookie without a full ethical philosophy. You do not have to define a thing to be able to talk about it meaningfully.
I once debated an atheist stuck on finding a definition for God as if the definition was the essence of knowing God existed. We can experience an object without being able to define the object: cookies, cookie jars, justice, and God.
You can do justice and know God without being able to define either term rigorously. What good is a definition then? A definition can help clarify more complicated issues. In the case of the debate, I was arguing for God as the greatest possible being. This is consistent with the God of the Bible, but need not be the God of the Bible. We could experience God without this definition and even rationally believe God exists, but when asked questions, the definition helped limit the discussion in positive ways. We could discuss the existence of God (in general) and not other aspects of God’s existence (if God is identical to the Christian God).
To take our simple example: a chef might toy with our idea of “cookie” to broaden the food group! By refining her understanding of what she meant by “cookie,” she could try new things or improve old ones. Ethics make definitions even more important. Life gets tricky as we grow up. A general sense of “cookie” or ethics might carry a five year old forward, but cause problems to a fifty year old.
Socrates often asked questions about what his friends meant by the words they used. This was fair in most cases, because the men were teachers who claimed to know the definitions. Second, Socrates was not asking for a definition of justice as if without one nobody could know justice, but to get a firmer grasp on justice.
Talking to a friend nearing death, a man named Cephalus, Socrates was pleased to learn that his friend was using his money to pay off his debt. Cephalus also was happy that having money made it easier for him to tell the truth. A good person will know that he should pay his debts and tell the truth . . .generally. What if a friend loans his axe to us and then goes crazy? If he comes and asks for his axe, should we give it back? Should we tell him the truth about where the axe is? If we love our friend, we will not!Socrates points out to Cephalus;
Then we must say that telling the truth and repaying one’s debts cannot serve as an adequate definition of justice.
Socrates is hoping for a more general idea of what justice is that will help Socrates and the young men in the room not to make mistakes. Can Cephalus help him find it? Cephalus has no interest in helping. Like many people, such discussions bore him, though at least he is not irritated! Many people get so frustrated with a request for clarification that they kill the philosopher who asks.
Socrates was one of the most famous to discover this fact.
Clarification can reveal that we know justice, but are not being just. We are hiding our injustice behind vagueness. We can separate the immigrant mother from her child, because “after all shouldn’t we obey the law?” Is this just? Generally, this is just unless the law itself is unjust! Imagine a law that said you must not pray: Christians would pray. Ask Daniel.
So what is justice? How should we treat the mother and child? Most people have the (proper) moral intuition that something is wrong with separating a mother and child without very, very powerful reasons, but our intuitions can be wrong. How can we know?
We need to discuss justice. This the rich old man Cephalus is unwilling to do. He retreats to sayings and then leaves. He does not love justice enough to clarify what he loves, but nobody in love is unwilling to discuss the object of his affections.
Let’s not get bogged down on definitions when we do not need them, but not be hasty or impatient if we do!