Against absolute goodness
3:AM: You argue that most parents would agree with your ideas. Why do you find that this is a far better system for understanding ethics than the alternatives?
RK: What you have in mind here is my point that when parents reflect on the well-being of their young children, they often think in terms of the unfolding and training of natural capacities. This indicates that the conception of well-being that I favour is not a philosophical invention alien to common ways of thought – something that a philosopher dreamt up out of the blue. It is part of our conceptual framework that infants and children are beings that need to grow, and that this process is good for them. There are wonderful things that we experience in childhood, but Peter Pan to the contrary, refusing to grow up is not healthy.
Other theories of well-being simply overlook this aspect of our common normative framework. Rawls, for example, as I’ve noted, focuses on rational planning: what is good for us is to achieve the plan that we would adopt with full deliberative rationality. But infants and small children are not yet able to engage in the sophisticated intellectual activity we call planning. They can’t look for reasons to pursue this end rather than that. Yet it is undeniable that much that they do is good for them, much that they do is bad for them, and much that willy-nilly happens to them is good or bad for them. It can’t be the case that we have two different concepts of what is good for a human being – one of which is applicable to infants and small children, and the other of which is applicable to later stages of life.
Of course, the things that are good for small children are different from the things that are good for adults. But there is only one relation here: the relation of being good for someone. I think that one point in favor of the developmental conception of well-being that I derive from Aristotle is that it recognises this unity.
3:AM: Your approach endorses the idea that there is a single best way of arriving at the good. This is a key distinction isn’t it between contemporary ideas and the Ancients. Bernard Williams criticised the arrogance of moderns who sneer at the Ancients for holding such an unsophisticated view, but isn’t there a little bit of truth in the claim that its unlikely that there is just a single best way to decide on the good?
RK: Bernard Williams was a formidable philosopher. The questions he raised about the over-ridingness of morality and about what he called “internal” and “external” reasons were extremely fruitful. I also admire him for the breadth of his learning and interests. His familiarity with Greek antiquity – he especially loved Sophocles and Thucydides – allowed him to make important contributions to the study of both Plato and Aristotle. But I also think he underestimated them.
In Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, he gives them credit because they, unlike many modern philosophers, ask the very broad question, “how should one live?” rather than the narrow question, “what does morality demand of us?” But he didn’t think their answers to that broad question were very plausible, and he also thought that “how should one live?” is actually too broad and abstract a question.
You are right that he criticised the arrogance of the “moderns who sneer at the ancients” – that is one of the main themes of Shame and Necessity. But although I don’t think he sneered at the ancients, I think he was not a great fan of the philosophers of Greek and Roman antiquity. A large part of the reason for that is that Williams was not sympathetic to their realism. This emerges in his denial that there are such things as what he called “external” reasons. When he says that all reasons are “internal,” he means that whatever you have reason to do must be based ultimately on preferences, desires, dispositions that you already have.
On this basis, I think he would agree with what you are suggesting: there isn’t, as you put it, “just a single best way to decide on the good.” That’s because there are lots of differences between people, and what is good for someone must arise out of what is peculiar to that person.
A theory of well-being can easily say “here is the one best way for a human being to live” and then add “but there are as many different ways of instantiating that general formula as there are human beings.” For example, Rawls’s theory of well-being says that the best way to live is to achieve the ends that you would adopt with full deliberative rationality. But that allows for the possibility that no two people will achieve a good life in exactly the same way, because no two people will have exactly the same ends. In the same way, the approach I favour holds that there is something that all good lives have in common: in each case, certain natural powers have been developed and are being exercised.
But that leaves the door open to the possibility that no two individuals are exactly alike in the way they should develop. People differ in their talents, temperaments, and tastes. A child who has one kind of personality and set of skills should develop in way that brings out the best in these; another child’s developmental path will be at least somewhat different, perhaps radically different. So, I want to say that there is a great variety in the species of human well-being, but that all of these species belong to a single genus.
3:AM: Implicit in all ethical enquiry is the question of method. You argue that Aristotle’s ethical method was ‘endoxic’ which I think means something roughly like dialectic, doesn’t it? And I think you endorse the idea that this approach is something that Aristotle proposed as a general method and not just for ethics. Is that right and, if so, does this mean that Aristotle put the philosopher in a neutral stance – someone presenting the position that reconciles a dispute rather than being an active player? And I guess one has to wonder if this is the right way to find out the truth?
RK: Aristotle had a crucial insight about philosophical methodology: it thrives on disagreement. Typically, when he wants to work out a theory about something – about the soul, or the nature of change, or the good – he starts by taking a look at what other people have said about that subject, and he acknowledges that although they contradict each other, much of what they say has some initial appeal. That’s still a common way to teach philosophy. It’s not the way science is taught, and some people regard this as an indication that philosophy is intellectually inferior to science. But the fact that they have different methods doesn’t show that there is something suspect about philosophy.
One of the most attractive features of Aristotle’s way of proceeding is that it forces each of us to look beyond ourselves and to see what can be learned from others. (It is part of the method to look not only at other philosophers, but to look at what non-philosophers think – as Aristotle would put it, what “the many” think. Sometimes philosophers go off the rails and the views of “the many” are superior.)
It’s quite different from the methodology that Descartes made famous in the Meditations. Of course, Descartes proposes that methodology because he thinks it serves his agenda: he wants to propose a way of thinking about matter and mind that will replace the grip of the Scholastic framework. As a general strategy for arriving at philosophical understanding, it is not a good idea to doubt everything you think you know, in an effort to find a starting point that cannot be put beyond doubt.
I agree with you that Aristotle’s methodology would have a serious defect if it required anyone who is engaged in a philosophical inquiry to look only at what others have said about the matter. In fact, you have put your finger on something that Aristotle failed to make explicit in his various remarks about methodology. He ought to have emphasized that a philosophical inquirer is “an active player,” as you put it – someone who is not merely adjudicating the disagreements of others, but is also creatively proposing new possibilities that others have overlooked. I don’t think he says anything to rule out that creative factor as one component of a good philosophical method. So, I’m inclined to say that he provides an excellent starting point for finding a good method, but that his views need supplementation.
3:AM: You say: ‘Although ethics must be judged by the same endoxic method used to prove truths in every other field, we should recognise that it is a field in which some of what is shown to be true holds only for the most part.’ So you argue that ethics always has to be open to exceptions and that this is what Aristotle thought too. But was this supposed to distinguish ethics from, say natural science and if so, do you think it did, given that many argue that natural sciences are also open to exceptions? Perhaps there’s a difference between how Aristotle conceived of the natural sciences and how contemporary philosophers do so that explains this?
RK: Aristotle thinks that in both the study of nature and the study of ethics we encounter many truths that hold only for the most part. But it’s important to be careful here: he doesn’t mean that we encounter only truths of this sort. He gives a few examples of universally true statements in ethics, though they are not accepted by everyone. He says that adultery, theft, and murder are always wrong; to call an act adulterous, for example, is already to say that there is no occasion in which it is right.
Obviously, not everyone agrees. But most people would accept his point, using different examples. A common example used by philosophers these days is that torturing people just for the fun of it is always wrong. This is hard to reject because the description of the act builds in a reference to the motive, and obviously if that goal is the only proposed grounds for an act of torture, it fails to justify it.
How common is it for the sciences to affirm generalisations that are recognised as holding only for the most part? That is a very complicated question, and I don’t know the answer. On my understanding of thermodynamics, when you put a cold object into a warm glass of water, there is some possibility that the cold object will get colder and the water will get warmer. If it happens, that calls for no revision in our understanding of the laws of physics. So, in a certain sense, you might say that it is only for the most part true that the cold object will warm up the water to some extent. I think of the social sciences, the life sciences, and our common sense framework as resting much more heavily than do physics and chemistry on generalisations that are true only for the most part. Smoking cigarettes tends to lower longevity and health, but there are exceptions.
But in any case Aristotle deserves a lot of credit for his attempt to show that the natural world is something about which we can, with the right methods and the right experiences, have a systematic understanding. I don’t think it can be shown, as he believed, that the very best human activity is one in which we contemplate the orderly nature of the universe. In that respect, his theory of well-being fails to accept, as it should have, the variety of human flourishing. It is too ambitious in its attempt to single out one kind of human career as best.
3:AM: Although you doubt if there’s anything positive in Plato about ideas of human equality, freedom of conscience, rights to political participation, limited government, constitutional rule, democracy, you think there are valuable lessons that can be drawn from Plato for political theory even in our contemporary modern nation state context. Popper infamously called Plato a totalitarian, but Alan Gilbert reads him as arguing against tyranny. How do you assess his political theory? Is the Republic its centre, or did he develop between the Republic and his Statesman and Laws?
RK: I think that it’s pretty clear in the Republic that Plato thinks that the kind of democracy that Athens had was an extremely bad regime. It’s not the worst kind – it is not as bad as a tyranny; but it gets very bad marks. His way of criticising Athenian democracy is to imagine a city that takes its guiding principles – equality and freedom – to an extreme. There is so much equality in his imagined democracy that children and adults are on an equal footing (so that children have no respect for adults, and adults act like children). There is so much freedom that whether or not you have to submit to the laws is up to you.
A natural reaction to his critique is to say that this is unfair – it is just a caricature of a democracy. But even so I think Plato has a point: if freedom and equality have to interpreted in a way that allows for other sorts of principles and values, then they cannot be the only considerations that are relevant to the assessment of a constitutional design. To put the point differently: it is not every kind of equality that we should have and not every kind of freedom that we should enjoy. If democracy rests on a refusal to make distinctions of this sort, and if these are the only two values it recognises, then it is in trouble.
Aristotle is also a critic of democracy, but his way of criticising it takes a different form. He is not against the rule of the many – which is one way of thinking about what a democracy is. What he opposes is the use of power to secure the interests of one’s own economic class – whether rich or poor. He is just as opposed to rule by the few who are rich as he is to rule by the many who are poor. Today we tend to be suspicious of the idea that those who have fewer economic resources will use the power of their great number to mistreat the wealthy.
In our society, the political power that comes with great wealth can be enormous, and wealthy elites have devised very successful methods of insuring that their wealth will remain available to them even in democratic constitutions. But the power of wealth was far smaller in fifth and fourth century Athens, and Aristotle may have been right that the poor were just as prone to mistreat the rich as the other way around.
To get back to Plato: It’s clearly his view that if a community could find an small group of human beings (men and women) whose ethical and intellectual skills were of the highest order, then there would be no point in giving them decision-making authority for only a limited period of time. Making political decisions is not something that everyone does well – so why not leave it to people who are moral exemplars and have a deep understanding of justice and human well-being? That’s one of the basic ideas of the Republic.
It’s not a silly idea. (He is not saying that we should give absolute power to anyone who has a Ph.D. in philosophy.) I think it has important implications for the way we think about voting. To vote is to undertake a serious responsibility, and it should be discharged only if one measures up to certain standards of fairness, objectivity, and understanding. Many voters are pretty bad voters, in that they don’t make enough of an effort to vote well. It’s hard to be in love with a democracy in which that is the case.
After Plato wrote the Republic, or perhaps even while he was writing it, he must have realised that it does not serve as a guideline or blueprint for how actual regimes should be governed. He thinks it is important to see what the best realisable regime would look like, but that is compatible with acknowledging that it would be a disaster for a political community to turn absolute power over to just any group of elite politicians. So, that leaves a huge gap in his political thinking: how should existing political communities be reformed? What model should they look to, if not the model provided by the Republic?
The answer to that question is the (very long-winded) one he gives in the Laws. And one of the fascinating things about this dialogue is that Plato relies to some extent on some of the mechanisms of democracies. The most important offices are filled by means of a complicated series of elections. Safeguards are put into place to insure that magistrates do not misuse their power. There are fixed terms to most positions of power. There is an assembly in which all citizens meet. Women are to be educated in many of the same ways as men.
Of course, this is not a regime that would we or Plato’s contemporaries would classify as a democracy. Citizenship is restricted to those who have at least a modest amount of land. Even so, it has some democratic features. And I don’t think there is anything in the Laws that requires him to retract his picture of an ideal society in the Republic.
3:AM: You think that valuable intellectual activity need not take the form of knowing that something is so, don’t you? So, devoting your life to something even when nothing known is gained is a desirable form of cognitive growth even when it falls short of a goal of knowing. This is something that seems hard to land with people greedy only for results and certainty. Do you think that deeper consideration of this point would help contemporary debates about the purpose of universities, education, philosophy and life, especially in the context of a culture that seems rather anti-intellectual and somewhat philistine?
RK: I like the words you use in framing your question – “greedy only for results and certainty” – because of the analogy they draw between an obsession with money and acquisitions and an obsession with the accumulation of known facts. Of course, in certain contexts, knowledge is exactly what we are and should be looking for. We don’t want to punish someone who is accused of a crime unless we know that he has committed it. In the sciences, we want knowledge not only of what is the case, but also of why it is so; the most valuable scientific theories are the ones that do the most work in answering these why-questions. But it is form of intellectual narrowness to think that the best or only worthwhile use of the mind is to acquire knowledge.
Listening carefully to a complex piece of music, studying a poem, being aware of the complex relations between the characters in a novel or play – all of these are forms of intellectual exercise, but it would be a distortion of why they are valuable to view them as ways of acquiring knowledge. Someone can be quite knowledgeable in a certain area without having much in the way of understanding or insight. (Think of someone who has memorised a lot of historical facts, but does not have a larger picture in which they take on deeper meaning.) Works of art need to be understood in order to be appreciated – but here too understanding is not the same thing as knowledge. And it would be silly to set oneself the goal of understanding as many works of art as possible.
As Socrates saw, it is already a worthwhile accomplishment to rid oneself of the assumption that one knows something, if in fact one only thinks one knows. One is in a better condition, intellectually, if one is aware of one’s cognitive limitation than if one is not. That is partly because one will never improve if one does not recognise any need for improvement. But someone who has become aware of how much more difficult a problem is than he had realised has already done something worthwhile and admirable – even if he does not solve the problem.
That’s one of the reasons why philosophy is such a valuable activity. There are deep, difficult problems in our intellectual framework, and they should not be evaded; it is already an accomplishment to become aware of them, even if we cannot settle on one right solution to them. One of the dangers of seeing scientific theories as a model of intellectual accomplishment is that one loses sight of these other forms of mental growth.
3:AM: You ask the deep question in your book Against Absolute Goodness which is this: ‘Are there things we should value because they are, quite simply, good?’ What seems an easy question gets trickier once we start to consider that often we relativise the term good to ‘good for such and such a purpose’ or person. But that’s not what you are after is it? G.E. Moore in his ‘Principia Ethica’ wrote, ‘The only possible reason that can justify any action is that by it the greatest possible amount of what is good absolutely should be realised.’ Moore seems to be answering your question with a ‘yes.’ You think he is wrong because absolute goodness isn’t a reason-giving property? Is that right?
RK: I’m fascinated by the large role that goodness plays in our everyday thinking, and the philosophical tradition that goes back to Plato has also placed “the good” at the center of moral philosophy. My project in Against Absolute Goodness was to show that a certain way of thinking about goodness – the way that G. E. Moore advocated (and perhaps Plato as well) – is a mistake. Moore thought that he was simply making explicit and clarifying something that common sense already presupposes. He called the property that is taken for granted in our common ways of talking “absolute goodness” – meaning that it is not what is good for someone or good for some purpose, but simply good.
“Because it is a good thing” seems, at first sight, to be a way of answering the question, “why should I value that?” Similarly for badness: it seems obvious, for example, that if you should take aspirin to avoid a headache, that is partly because pain is not in itself neutral in value; it is by itself a bad thing. I wrote Against Absolute Goodness because I think that these seemingly obvious points are not at all obvious, on second thought. There is, in fact, nothing to be said in favour of the idea that goodness is a property that some things have, and others lack; and that it’s because certain things have the property of being good that we should value them.
I think that pain is not bad absolutely. It’s not something whose presence in the world makes the world a worse place, as Moore supposed. Rather, the sensible thing to say about pain is that (in many circumstances) it is in itself bad for the person who feels it. Even if the pain you feel does not interfere with your ability to accomplish your goals, it is often a bad experience. (There may be exceptions: there are pains so mild we don’t mind them; and sometimes even severe pain forms a part of a larger whole that needs the pain in order to be good on balance). But a bad experience is not bad full stop; it is bad for the one who has that experience.
This may sound like an issue so abstract that it could have no practical implications, but it does. Some people say that knowledge should be advanced because knowledge is by itself a good thing. According to this view, knowledge need not be good for anyone to have – its pursuit is justified whether or not it benefits anyone. I have no objection to the thesis that knowledge need not be useful – a means to a further end – in order to be worth pursuing. Philosophy, for example, is often valuable without being instrumentally valuable.
But I would never say that philosophy’s value consists in its being good full stop. The more plausible thing to say about philosophy is that it is a mind-expanding subject: your mind is deeper, broader, enriched, through its exposure to philosophical questions. If you are interested in philosophy and study it in the right way, you are better off than you were before, simply because your mind has been transformed for the better. That is to say: it is good for you. We don’t have to say “it’s a good thing (period)” because it is more plausible to say that the reason why you should learn this subject it is good for you.
It’s sometimes said that people should be kept alive, however much they are suffering, because human life is in itself a good thing – even when it is not good for someone to be alive (or good for other people that he is alive). But this view can’t be right, if being good (period) is not a reason-giving property. So, this issue, seemingly so abstract and inconsequential, has an important political dimension.
3:AM: How does this approach square with the idea that there is one way of achieving goodness? As we noted earlier, you have written that ‘there is just one legitimate route – the route of goodness – for arriving at practical conclusions’, so why doesn’t that thought endorse a kind of absolute goodness, understood in terms of this one legitimate route?
RK: The word “absolute” is used in many ways, and this can easily create confusion and misunderstanding. Sometimes it is used interchangeably with “objective.” To be committed to the existence of “absolute values” is to be committed to “objective values,” that is, values that are “out there” in the world, values that exist whether we recognise their existence or not. Hamlet is denying that there are “absolute” or “objective” values when he says: “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
I think he is wrong about that. None of us really believes that we can make something valuable or good or worthwhile just by thinking that it is. My thinking that I am a good tennis player does not make me a good tennis player. My thinking that I am a good person does not make me a good person. I may be wrong in thinking that I have chosen the option that is best for me. And so on. When we struggle to make good decisions, we assume that it is all too easy to decide badly; we presuppose that there are objectively better and worse ways of handling our practical problems. In that sense, we all believe that there are objective values, and since “absolute” is sometimes used to mean “objective,” we all believe that there are absolute values.
The word “absolute” is used differently when Moore and other philosophers talk about something being good absolutely – good full stop, or good simpliciter, or quite simply good (period). These philosophers are not saying, with Hamlet, that nothing is good but thinking makes it so. Rather, they are saying that some things are good without being good for anyone. That is what I am skeptical about. In Against Absolute Goodness, I express my doubts about whether something’s being good (period) is a reason for valuing it.
But I don’t have any doubt at all about the importance of the concept of what is in a person’s interest – what is advantageous, or beneficial, or good for someone. It would be crazy to deny that sometimes (in fact quite often), the fact that an action would be good for someone is a good reason to undertake it. Doctors ought to devote themselves to what is good for their patients. Teachers ought to devote themselves to what is good for their students. It’s part of normal social life that we pay attention to what is good for the people we encounter and the people with whom we are affiliated.
One of the most controversial claims I make in What is Good and Why is the one you cite in your question. My thesis is that whenever we have reason to do something, one part of the reason is that the action chosen will be good for someone (or not as bad for someone as the alternatives). For example, if you have reason to do something that you have promised to do, then keeping your promise will be good for someone (yourself, or the promisee, or some third party). A promise that will do no good for anyone is a promise that one has no reason to keep.
Putting these reflections together, I can now answer your question: my thesis that what is good for someone is a ubiquitous component of good practical reasoning allows me to accept “absolute” goodness in one sense, but it does not commit me to “absolute” goodness in another sense. It allows me to reject Hamlet’s thesis. That is, it allows me to say that what is good for me is something that I could be wrong about. But it does not commit me to saying that something’s being good absolutely – good (period) – is a reason for valuing it.
3:AM: We’ve already talked about Plato’s politics. But superficially at least, Aristotle’s politics seems pretty repulsive. You say that Aristotle’s politics were full of doctrines that are not now and probably never were credible. He thought slavery was justified, that women should stay at home and that manual labour is degrading and those engaged in it should be barred from full citizenship. He thinks democracy corrupt, and so on. And its linked to an ethical theory that is embedded in a metaphysical theory that probably can’t accommodate modern science. But despite all this, you think there are riches that have been either missed or undervalued don’t you? So why should we take Aristotle’s politics seriously and what are these riches?
RK: Aristotle takes over from Plato the extremely plausible thesis that the design of all political and social institutions should be governed by a conception of the good. It is with these two figures that the notion of a “common good” enters political thought. By calling it a “common good,” they mean to convey the idea that the good of each member and segment of the political community is equally important. If any portion of the political community lacks the resources to live a good life, then political institutions are failing to achieve their proper function.
A contrasting idea, which guides utilitarianism, is that although everyone’s good counts for something, institutions should aim at the greatest total good, even if that requires sacrificing the good of some for the sake of the larger good. But Plato and Aristotle hold that something is deeply wrong with a political regime if it allows some citizens to achieve their good at the cost of the good of others. No just society would tolerate that. (Even in Aristotle’s defense of slavery, the idea is not that the institution is justified because the good of the master outweighs the good of the slave. He thinks that the slave is better off being guided by the rational foresight of the master.)
Many contemporary liberal theorists find it very attractive to say, with John Rawls, that political institutions must be designed so that no conception of what is good for people is favored over any other. The state must be neutral between competing conceptions of the good – that is their way of explaining why the state must be secular. This means that for Rawls and other like-minded liberals, a state cannot support cultural institutions. It cannot, for example, give tax exemptions to museums on the grounds that enjoying great works of art is part of a good life. I think it would be hard for Rawls to justify the teaching of music, arts, and literature in public schools. That would be akin to teaching Catholic dogma: it would presuppose a conception of what is good that cooperative citizens need not share.
I find Aristotle’s approach to the design of public institutions far more plausible. It is very hard for a society to be a good society – one that is not only just but is good for people to live in – unless the resources needed for human flourishing are transmitted from one generation to another through education and cultural institutions. Aristotle’s political philosophy rests on a conception of human flourishing that is extremely attractive, and it can be employed by modern democracies. We can say that he was badly mistaken in his assumption that certain people are naturally inferior in their cognitive skills; we have thousands of years of historical experience that he lacked, and we can more easily see that assumptions about the natural inferiority of whole peoples or groups lack empirical support. When we throw out that part of Aristotle, much is left standing.
I even think we can learn something from Aristotle’s antipathy towards democracy (which he shares with Plato). Neither of them was opposed to giving significant political responsibilities and powers to the general citizenry – provided that the citizens are fair-minded, impartial, and have some understanding of what is worthwhile. For Aristotle, the Greek word, demokratia, means rule by a large group of people whose outlook on politics is biased by the fact that they have less wealth than those few who are able to avoid the necessity of working for a living.
He uses a different word – politeia, which can be translated “republic” – to name the kind of political system in which power is widely distributed among citizens and these citizens are not biased in their own favor or in favor of their own economic class. His view is that this is one of the good ways of organizing politics, and that democracy (in his sense) is not.
Aristotle is as deeply opposed to oligarchy (the rule of the rich) as he is to democracy (in his sense of that word). When he studies a political society, he looks not only at the legal system, but at the norms and practices that hold sway, and this leads him to recognise that the rich can dominate the poor even when the laws formally grant equal power to both classes. He would have no trouble, then, with the idea that many of the states that we call “democracies” are really oligarchies.
3:AM: Do you think understanding the context of his work and life mitigates his class and gender biases or is he just an apologist for inegalitarian views we find morally repulsive these days?
RK: Aristotle’s attempt to justify slavery is a great moral defect. So too is his failure to follow Plato’s lead in challenging contemporary attitudes towards women. Plato is completely serious about giving women a much larger role to play in political life. In the Laws, he does not give them complete equality, but even so, his proposals that they should receive an equal education, serve in the military, and hold some political offices are obviously meant to be taken at face value. But Aristotle simply follows traditional Greek biases and allows women no important roles outside the household. The one thing we might give Aristotle some credit for, in this area, is that he (unlike Plato) saw the importance of addressing the question whether slavery can be justified.
I don’t think we can let either Plato or Aristotle off the hook by saying that their biases regarding slavery or women or both were quite common in fourth century Greece. They themselves realised that philosophy must look beyond social conventions and must ask whether prevailing norms have a deeper justification. So, they were not living up to their own intellectual standards.
But it would be a failure of our own if we refused to take Aristotle seriously as a political thinker because he tried to justify slavery. Here was a blind spot in his thinking. That does not show that he had no insights, or that we have nothing to learn from him.
3:AM: Are there political theorists that you find have been able to develop ideas from Plato or Aristotle into the modern setting. Rawls, for example, is the most profound political philosopher of the modern era, but he springs from Kant rather than the Ancient sources doesn’t he? So is there anyone, or any current political tradition, that is rooted in either of these two giants?
RK: Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum deserve a lot of credit for making use of certain concepts that play a large role in Aristotle’s political philosophy. Rawls himself borrows little from Aristotle, even though he makes some very perceptive remarks about him. (He takes nothing from Plato, so far as I can see.) But I entirely agree with you about the profundity of Rawls, and his place in the Kantian tradition. There is something profoundly wrong in both Kant and Rawls – they underestimate or ignore the strength of an Aristotelian approach to well-being, and the role it can play in political philosophy. But philosophy makes progress when it throws up competing theories for our consideration. It would be a mistake for someone with Aristotelian sympathies not to take Kant or Rawls seriously.
3:AM: Scott Berman has recently argued that Platonist metaphysics is consistent with modern epistemology and science. He calls himself a Platonist! Do you agree with his assessment of Platonic metaphysics and are you a Platonist too? Or an Aristotelian?
RK: I think that the most important part of Plato’s metaphysics is still extremely attractive and plausible. What I have in mind is his notion of “carving nature at the joints” and his insistence that what we call “the world” does not merely contain physical objects. What he saw was that human conventions (linguistic, social, etc) cannot be the sole basis for our classificatory schemes. The distinction between oxygen and hydrogen is not just a human construction – there really are different sorts of things out there, and we had better pay attention to them. And we should agree with Plato that things made of physical parts are not the only real things. Justice, for example, is a property that some social institutions or people or laws have and others lack; but justice is not made out of stuff in the way trees are.
All of this is completely acceptable to Aristotle. I think of him as enhancing the Platonic tradition rather than rebelling against it, by showing the importance of concepts that Plato had neglected – notions like potentiality and actuality, capacity and realisation, matter and form. So, I think of myself as both a Platonist and an Aristotelian, and I think large portions of their metaphysics are still viable.
3:AM: And finally, for the readers here at 3:AM wanting to delve further into the world of Plato and Aristotle are there five books (other than your own, which we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this) that you could recommend for us?
RK: Some of my recommendations (those of Cooper, Hadot, and Frede) are works that move beyond Plato and Aristotle, so I hope you don’t mind my including them.
John M. Cooper: Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus
Pierre Hadot: Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault
Melissa Lane: Plato’s Progeny: How Socrates and Plato Still Captivate the Modern Mind
Danielle Allen: Why Plato Wrote
Michael Frede: A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 2nd, 2012.