Plato aims at virtue
By Richard Marshall.
Iakovos Vasiliou is a Glenfiddich of Plato studies, brooding continuously on what Plato really thought about ethics, about Plato focusing on being a certain kind of person, on there being moral rules to Greek ethics contrary to received views, on Socrates’s denial of the priority of definition view, on Socrates and the Supremacy of Virtue position, on Socrates and the eudaimonistic framework, on Bernard Williams, on hard cases, on whether there’s a difference between Socrates and Plato, on incontinence, on hedonism, on the effects of the dialogue form, on Soctratic intellectualism and on what Plato would have thought of the dilemmas posed by The Matrix. As the night’s draw in, this is just the dram to fire you up…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Iakovos Vasiliou: I had early exposure to philosophy because my father was in graduate school in philosophy working on Wittgenstein when I was a young child. In high school I took ancient Greek and read Plato, which had a big effect on me. I found the Apology amazing and inspirational, and still do.
While I enjoyed many different subjects in school, I was drawn primarily to meta-issues and methodological questions, so that in most subjects I gravitated more towards the philosophy of that subject than to the subject itself. Even relative to most professional philosophers now, I think I enjoy unpacking questions and issues, seeing what’s behind them, more than trying to answer them. Whenever I was given problems to solve, for example in mathematics courses, I was irritated that the question had already been solved and someone was just waiting for me to do it again to show that I had achieved a certain facility. I felt somehow mistreated by that (I realize that isn’t very reasonable!).
3:AM: Cleitophon makes a strong point against Socrates when he accuses him of first telling everyone to be virtuous and then not actually saying what virtue actually is. You use this as a starting point to make a distinction between ‘aiming’ and ‘determining’ principles. Could you first explain this distinction and whether it explains why it would be an error to say that Plato rejects moral rules or principles in principle?
IV: In the 1980s many philosophers emphasized that Plato’s and Aristotle’s ethical thinking focuses on making one a certain kind of person rather than on establishing and arguing for some set of moral rules. Universal moral rules, for example, “keep your promises,” have exceptions in certain circumstances and so are of limited value for guiding action. The claim was that Plato and Aristotle eschew moral rules and concentrate instead on ethical character, and that this is an advantage of their approach to ethics. By making oneself a certain sort of person, for example courageous, courageous actions would then “flow,” as it were naturally, without the courageous person needing to consult any universal rules or principles about how to act courageously.
I was (and in certain respects still am) very attracted by this view. But in reading and teaching Plato I found Socrates repeating claims like “it is never right to do wrong” and “doing injustice is worse than suffering it”. These were not judgments about specific situations; they were universal judgments expressed universally, as though they were meant to apply always to everyone. Furthermore, they were clearly moral or ethical in content. So, contrary to the prevailing idea that there were no moral rules in Greek ethics, I wondered, weren’t these obvious counterexamples? And, what’s more, they seemed to be in plain sight: right in the center of the Apology, Crito, Gorgias, and other well-known dialogues.
On further reflection, however, “it is never right to do wrong” is an odd sort of moral principle or rule. First, it might sound as though it were trivial, a mere instance of the Principle of Non-contradiction: it is never red to be blue. But this is clearly not how Socrates understands it; he means it more substantively. For example, in the Apology he claims that his accusers are attempting to have him executed unjustly and, combining that with the principles that it is never right to do injustice and that it is worse to do than to suffer injustice, he concludes that his accusers are acting wrongly and harming themselves more than they are harming him. By contrast, Socrates praises Achilles, who, as far as Achilles was concerned, did the right thing by staying to fight in Troy, even though he knew it would result in his death.
At the same time, a principle such as “it is never right to do wrong” is not like an ordinary moral rule, such as “Don’t lie”. Socrates never offers a rule that forbids or requires an action that is non-evaluatively described. What I mean is that he never says that one should not kill someone or take what doesn’t belong to you or knowingly tell a falsehood. Rather, what he says one must never do is to act contrary to virtue; that is, do what is wrong; that is, do an injustice. I call this sort of principle an “Aiming Principle”. An Aiming Principle is a practical principle that tells one what one’s supreme aim in acting should be. Socrates’ Aiming Principle is that one should above all do the virtuous action (and never do an action that is contrary to virtue). This specific Aiming Principle I dub the “Supremacy of Virtue” (SV).
I then use the phrase “determining principle” to refer to a principle that would sound like a more ordinary rule, such as “Breaking promises is unjust.” A determining principle would tell us what sort of actions are actually right or wrong, virtuous or contrary to virtue. Now I don’t think that Socrates every gives us any determining principles (this is what was right about the initial claim that Plato and Aristotle don’t offer universal moral rules). Socrates is faced, however, with a serious determining question, as Cleitphon recognizes. Given that Socrates adheres to the Supremacy of Virtue, he must figure out some way to determine which actions are virtuous and which are not. Given that he doesn’t have any determining principles, how can he figure out what the virtuous thing to do is?
3:AM: Doesn’t this mean that Socrates denies the priority of definition view?
IV: This is a more technical question about Socratic philosophy, although the position I just laid out certainly invites it. The Priority of Definition is the view, particularly expressed in the Meno, that, for any F, before you can know what F is like, you need to know what F is. So, you need a “definition” of F – an account of what all and only F-objects have in common that makes them F – before you can know what F is like.
Socrates notoriously disavows knowledge, particularly ethical knowledge. My brief discussion on the priority of definition in Aiming at Virtue in Plato occurs in the context of a solution to the problem of how Socrates can consistently both avow and disavow moral knowledge. In the many dialogues where Socrates seeks an answer to determining questions such as “what is courage?” or “what is piety?” he repeatedly claims that he himself does not have the answer. Gregory Vlastos called attention, however, to a few passages, and in particular a couple in the Apology, where Socrates does explicitly claim to know. This generated many attempts to explain this contradiction: how could Socrates consistently disavow and yet avow moral knowledge?
Most scholars, including Vlastos himself, tried to explain this discrepancy in terms of a difference in epistemic state, so that when Socrates disavows knowledge he is employing a very demanding, philosophical standard for knowledge, while the few times he avows knowledge, he is simply speaking more colloquially. I argue, by contrast, that what Socrates avows knowledge of — the Supremacy of Virtue — is quite different from what he disavows knowledge of — the answers to determining questions. Of course if Socrates is avowing knowledge of SV, but disavowing knowledge of what virtue is, then he is not both avowing and disavowing the same moral knowledge and the puzzle dissipates without needing to resort to different conceptions of knowledge.
The specific problem with the priority of definition arises because a universal, exception-less application of the priority of definition is incompatible with any avowal of knowledge on Socrates’ part (other than, of course, an avowal of knowledge of the answer to a “what is F?” question, and it is common ground that there are no such avowals). A fortiori the only reply to such a hard-line application of the priority of definition must be to deny that Socrates is really claiming knowledge, despite what he says.
While some scholars try to take this line, it seems to me particularly implausible for Socrates’ avowals of knowledge in the Apology, where the context is one in which he is in the midst of criticizing people for thinking they know things they don’t know: he has just recalled discussions with politicians, poets, and craftsmen, drawn distinctions between those who know and those who merely think they know, and then gone on to blame people for fearing death as an instance of thinking they know something they don’t (which is a blameworthy type of ignorance). It is immediately after this that he makes his knowledge claim about Supremacy of Virtue by way of an explicit contrast. If all he means by this is that he is really committed to SV, but doesn’t know it, then this is considerably more than a minor literary and philosophical lapse of precision.
Be that as it may, the more significant issue is the philosophical one: why think knowing SV would be independent of knowing what virtue is? Answering determining questions is an ability to do something, which is why knowledge of how to answer them is so readily analogized to technai (skills), such as shoemaking. The technê-knowledge of virtue, which Socrates disavows, would include a capacity to identify correctly what is virtuous. The moral expert is able to do something well and correctly: namely, identify virtuous actions.
By contrast, there are good reasons to think that SV is not part of any such expertise. SV is a label for a practical principle: one ought to have doing the virtuous action (or not acting contrary to virtue) as one’s supreme aim in acting. SV is not a matter of knowing how to do anything; correspondingly, the knowledge that one might have of SV is not plausibly thought to be a kind of technê.
This is a complicated matter but I think that Socrates holds that knowing SV is quite distinct from acquiring the moral expertise that would enable one to answer determining questions. While one would clearly need knowledgeable answers to determining questions in order to put SV into action knowledgably, you do not need knowledge of how to answer to them in order to know SV in the first place.
Here’s a simple example to support the idea that there is little reason to think that one’s epistemic status with respect to SV ought to be closely related to one’s epistemic status with respect to knowing what virtue is. A physicist may be committed in her research to pursuing the truth above all: she wants to know whatever is really the case about the nature of the universe. Why can’t she know this – know that this is what she, as a physicist, ought to pursue and what she does pursue – without of course knowing the substantive truth about how the universe actually is? She may only have beliefs about how it actually is – expressed, for example, in the theory she thinks currently best supported– but she doesn’t therefore have a mere belief that she is searching for what is actually the case. Correspondingly, if her warranted confidence in some particular theory about what the truth is wanes, that does not affect her epistemic relationship to the claim that she is pursuing the truth above all.
3:AM: Does Plato’s approach to the question ‘what sort of life should we live?’ differ fundamentally from, say, Aristotle’s approach which seems to be the one that seems to be accepted as the locus classicus for the ‘eudaimonistic framework’ as you call it?
IV: I am not positive who first used the phrase “eudaimonist framework” but it certainly wasn’t me. Vlastos, for example, uses it in his 1991 volume on Socrates.
It is difficult to answer this question as posed. I would say “yes and no.” Certainly the Nicomachean Ethics is set up with the concept of eudaimonia, the highest good, front and center as the topic of investigation: what is happiness? You can find arguments that are similar to some of those in Book I of the NE in Plato as well, for example in the Euthydemus, the Meno, and the Lysis. In these dialogues Plato, like Aristotle, takes it for granted that everyone wants to live well and do well (i.e. to live happily) and, perhaps, that you ought to aim at a good that is desirable only for its own sake and not for the sake of anything further. But in the “early” and “middle” dialogues Plato does not ask, bald-facedly, “what is happiness?” Rather, he asks questions about virtue and the specific virtues: what are they? Is virtue teachable? Is virtue beneficial? How does being virtuous (and so acting virtuously) benefit a person? What affects do virtuous actions have on one’s soul or character?
A more thorough answer to this question would need, of course, to examine what the eudaimonist framework is. What does it take for an ethical theory to be within the eudaimonist framework? I am working on this sort of question now. Briefly, I think that the eudaimonist framework works most powerfully when there is some conception of eudaimonia that is intelligible and compelling independently of a conception of virtue. For example, near the very end of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle somewhat suddenly says that the conception of eudaimonia he has been outlining up until then, which consists of relatively unimpeded virtuous activity, is really eudaimonia in only a secondary sense. The best sort of eudaimonia consists, apparently entirely and exclusively, in theoretical contemplation. Now these chapters of the NE have led to myriad attempts by scholars to explain how eudaimonia as theoretical contemplation can possibly be reconciled with eudaimonia conceived of as rational activity in accordance with virtue, having virtuous friends, and so on. But the interesting thing about the conception of eudaimonia as theoretical contemplation is that it is entirely distinct from moral virtue (whether or not it requires moral virtue, as some scholars think). Assuming we have some sense of what theoretical contemplation is, then, if that is the good, indeed the highest good, then what is right (or virtuous) is whatever optimizes or maximizes contemplation. Now this is an advantage of the eudaimonist framework, a case where it really does some good philosophical work. By having a clear and distinct conception of the highest good, we then have a way of not needing to worry about the vexing question of what virtuous or right action is: it is whatever needs to be done in order to achieve the highest good.
But when Aristotle, as he does in at least the first nine and a half books of the NE, believes in the Supremacy of Virtue, just as Socrates and Plato do, then what eudaimonia is is (at least largely) virtuous activity. But then we are back to Socrates’ and Plato’s question: what is acting virtuously? If the highest good is acting virtuously we have no independent conception of it to help us answer what it is: to put it in philosophical terms, we have no conception of the good to help us to determine what is right, for now the good is doing the right thing (i.e. acting virtuously).
3:AM: Your study has virtue as its focus, not eudaimonia. Why begin with virtue and not happiness?
IV: This was largely addressed in the previous answer. Most simply, because that is what we find in the Platonic dialogues most concerned with ethics: a focus on virtue not eudaimonia. I think that scholars have tried to squeeze all of Greek ethics into the eudaimonist framework because of an a priori assumption that Greek ethics must be eudaimonistic, and that this has led to people missing certain key aspects of how central arguments in Plato’s dialogues actually work.
3:AM: Bernard Williams thought that to think ‘I ought to do what is virtuous’ every time I contemplated doing something would be ‘one thought too many.’ Why do you feel there’s still use for the Socratic approach?
IV: I certainly agree with Williams’ point as you put it above: Thinking I ought to do what is virtuous every time I am about to act would be many thoughts too many! But Williams’ point, I think, is often taken to mean that one should not, and that a virtuous person does not, explicitly aim at virtue when acting. In fact, I think I recall some people objecting to my calling my book Aiming at Virtue given Williams’s argument that one should never aim at virtue.
Williams’ point seems clear and persuasive for certain virtues: a putatively modest person’s thinking of herself as acting modestly undermines her modesty. Part of being genuinely modest includes not thinking of oneself as modest. (At least most of the time. But wouldn’t a virtuous person, who is also a modest person, have some self-knowledge of the sort of person she is?) I think, however, that such apparently self-undermining virtues are rather rare. Williams’s point is also apposite in certain situation where a very quick action is called for and where, very importantly, it is obvious what the virtuous thing to do is. His own example is of saving one’s wife from drowning after she has fallen in a river.
These considerations notwithstanding, however, I have two reasons for thinking that Williams’ point is not as general as it is often taken to be. First, not all virtuous actions are like the example above; situations are often more complex. As Socrates emphasizes in the Apology, in acting day to day, it can be too easy to think merely about which action makes one the most money or the most popular or yields the most pleasure. A politician may take her highest aim to be getting reelected rather than to do what is best for her constituency – as recently some have explicitly stated, apparently without any shame. Or, in the sort of stressful (to say the least!) situation that Socrates is in in the Crito, in which escape from prison, where he agrees he has been unjustly placed and unjustly sentenced to death, is easily possible, one might need to pause and ask, as he does, what is my ultimate aim? Is it to do the right thing or to save my life? So, in my view, Socrates criticizes many of us for having, we might say, “one thought too few” by not thinking carefully enough about our actions to see whether they are in accordance with (or at least not contrary to) what virtue requires.
Let me finish this answer by returning to a variant on Williams’s example. Suppose your wife, to stay with Williams’s example, has fallen over board on the far end of a crowded ship. In order to get to her yourself, let’s suppose that you would need to start pushing others overboard to clear a path to her. Obviously, even if you might feel like doing this, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. You would need to come up with another way of saving your wife’s life and/or hope that those who were nearby could help her. If you, to make the example extreme, had to sacrifice the lives of many others, just to get to the point where you could aid your wife, that would, I am supposing, be contrary to virtue. So, in such an instance, even if your first instinct is to throw everyone else overboard to save your wife, you should pause and have one additional thought: that that would be contrary to virtue.
3:AM: Doesn’t just assuming that I’m acting virtuously? become a bit easy if there’s no commitment to figuring out what virtue actually is? And if I’ve a dilemma, as in a trolley scenario say, for someone to tell me to ‘do the right thing’ is less than helpful as death comes down the rails. Isn’t this the point of Euthyphro?
IV: “Do the virtuous action” fails as a practical principle in so-called “hard cases”. In hard cases, determining questions become urgent. It is important, however, first to see that the dilemma is not between an action somehow already determined to be the virtuous one and another action already determined to be contrary to virtue (but, say, financially profitable) – that sort of decision is already settled by one’s commitment to SV. Instead, what we have in a hard case is someone committed to doing the (ethically) right thing above all, but not sure what that is. Euthyphro is an example of someone who takes a determining question to be too easily answered, not appreciating the subtleties of the situation at hand and arrogantly assuming he possesses knowledge that Socrates shows he does not.
Hard cases have sometimes played a role as the test of an ethical theory. The point of ethical theory, on this view, is to supply an answer to these sorts of dilemmas. Virtue ethics was supposed to reduce the importance of and emphasis on these sorts of cases, focusing instead on the wide areas of agreement in ethics with ordinary examples of courage, justice, self-control and so on. Hard cases are not, then, seen as the test of an ethical theory – after all, infamous hard cases fail to resolve disputes between consequentialists and deontologists – but as marginal cases that of course sometimes arise in real life, but typically only rarely. Some purported “hard cases”, in my view, are really situations in which the ethical failure has already occurred. If four people are overboard and you only have three life jackets, an initial question is why are there only three life jackets? Because of someone’s negligence? Or because, through no one’s fault, the boat has capsized and the other life jacket is missing? This brings out a feature of our attraction to hard cases, I think, which is that we (especially in the Anglo-American tradition) are keen to hold someone responsible, so that we can then praise or blame accordingly, and this drives our desire for there to be a right and wrong course of action even in hard cases. If there is a right answer to an ethical dilemma, then you can be blamed if you get it wrong.
While many people disagree with me about this, I deny that a situation can force one to behave contrary to virtue. In horrible, tragic situations if one chooses the best (or only) option among deplorable options then one has done the right action relative to those circumstances (this of course does not mean that what the virtuous action is in those circumstances is relative; it means that in determining what the virtuous course of action objectively is, one must take into account the circumstances). If we want to find blame, we should look at how one ended up in those horrible circumstances. If it is at the hand of some dictator or torturer, then that person is to blame; if the circumstances arose through no one’s fault, but because of an “act of God,” then the situation is tragic.
3:AM: Is there a big difference between Plato’s ethics and Socrates’?
IV: On one interpretation, this question hinges on whether someone believes that she can make a clear distinction between the views of the historical Socrates (who wrote nothing down) and the character “Socrates” in the Platonic dialogues. I think that the extent to which the character Socrates corresponds to the historical Socrates is largely unknowable; there just isn’t enough evidence. The only other (roughly) contemporary extant texts on Socrates are from Xenophon and Aristophanes’ Clouds. The latter is a comedy; so, it would be like trying to find out what Gerald Ford was like as a President if the only thing you had to go on was a couple of sketches from Saturday Night Live. Xenophon presents a considerably less philosophically interesting figure. I don’t claim to be able to reconstruct any views of the historical Socrates.
Nevertheless, within the Plato’s dialogues, many scholars identify a bunch of dialogues as “Socratic”, meaning that they were written prior to others and display Plato’s earlier thinking – in particular, his philosophy before he moved on to develop metaphysical theories such as the so-called Theory of Forms and Recollection Theory. (And then some of these scholars take a further step and identify the view of the character Socrates in these Socratic dialogues with the historical Socrates.)
I am more of a “unitarian” at heart (that is, someone who believe that the dialogues express – more or less – the same views throughout). Of course, this is a matter of degree, which I’ll turn to next…
3:AM: One of the issues for them is ‘incontinence’ isn’t it? Can you explain this issue and say how you think we should understand how they handle it?
IV: Incontinence or weakness of will – the apparent phenomenon of knowing (and therefore believing) that you ought to do something and nevertheless not doing it – is thought to be one of the issues that distinguishes (the historical) Socrates from Plato. Aristotle, at least, says that Socrates denies the possibility of incontinence because he identifies virtue with knowledge. Since, on this account, Socrates believes that knowledge is not only necessary but also sufficient for virtue, wrongdoing must be a matter of ignorance. The problem with this, as Aristotle also points out, is that it seems to fly in the face of the obvious facts. Many people know and believe that that they ought to do something (e.g., exercise or stop smoking or keep their promises) but they don’t do it because they lack the willpower; they are tempted, typically by the desire for pleasure or the desire to avoid pain, to act in some other way.
Many (though not all) scholars think that Socrates thinks that all desires are desires for their objects as good – that is, there are no non-rational motivations. Typically, it is then thought that Plato in the Republic, in contrast to Socrates, identifies certain non-rational motivations, which he attributes to different sources in the soul. Plato speaks, in ways absent from dialogues typically labeled “Socratic”, of the soul being divided into three parts or kinds: the rational, the appetitive, and the spirited. The idea, then, is that the appetitive and spirited parts give rise to good-independent motivations, such as hunger or thirst or revenge. Once there are parts of the soul with non-rational motivations, then, many think, a more plausible moral psychological story can be told in which there is conflict between reason and appetite or between reason and spirit, and the apparent phenomenon of weakness of will no longer needs to be denied. So, in this way Plato avoids Socrates’ intellectualism.
3:AM: Hedonism or/and conventionalism might have been ways of settling the question: ‘what is virtue?’ but Plato argues against them doesn’t he. Why?
IV: Hedonism or conventionalism each has the advantage of making determining questions simple to answer. The problem with them, for Plato, is that they are too subjective and relativistic. If pleasure as such is simply the good and the virtuous action is whatever action is (or yields) the most pleasure, then, as Socrates argues in the Gorgias, one is stuck saying that actions which are apparently extremely disgraceful and wrong would be the ones to engage in, provided they were the most pleasurable for that agent. A similar argument is easily run for conventionalism by considering what would be lawful or required under a Nazi regime, etc.
3:AM: And without them, what alternatives does Plato suggest to answer that question – or does he just avoid it? Nick Pappas draws attention to the fact that Socrates likes beauty and truth but hates poetry and thinks the way of understanding his aesthetic theory is via his religion. Is there a similar move to be made regarding his ethical theory do you think?
IV: I wouldn’t say Plato avoids it insofar as I think the dialogues keep raising the determining question, even in cases in which it is not dominant. If there is something that all just actions have in common, which makes them just, what is it, if it is not their causing pleasure or being lawful? Plato’s answer is participation in the transcendent Forms. Knowing the Forms, which he presents as extremely difficult, would enable one to answer these outstanding questions. I think this provides a picture, albeit a rather extravagant one, of how difficult it is to grasp moral reality, to achieve a perspective from which one understands what virtue is. It does seem, in the Republic at least, that Plato thinks that such knowledge is possible, but achieving it and applying it he thinks is extraordinarily difficult. In other places, such as the Phaedo, the account is more pessimistic: it is only in the afterlife that a philosopher can finally achieve the knowledge (including the moral knowledge) he has been seeking.
I certainly would not say that Plato hates poetry; rather, he is amazed by and concerned about its persuasive power. I think it is precisely this power he tries to acquire and control with his own beautiful and poetic writing. It would be a fair summary of Plato’s work to see it obsessed, from the very opening lines of the Apology, with the relationship between persuasion and truth. How and why is it that the truth so often fails to be persuasive? What has to occur to make the truth persuasive? Well, you need to have the truth in the first place, you need to express it in a particular, persuasive way, and, finally, you need an audience that is capable of appreciating and being persuaded by it. I think all of Plato’s dialogues work on one or more aspects of this question.
3:AM: You don’t think questions about why Plato wrote dialogues interesting but you do think there are interesting consequences that follow from the fact that he did. What in particular would you draw our attention to?
IV: Why Plato wrote dialogues could be an interesting question if it were more tractable. Since I don’t think it is, I prefer to focus on what I take to be the effects of the dialogue form.
First and foremost the dialogue form generates the constant possibility of what I have called “play”: the idea that what some character or characters say is not put forward seriously. This is very different from reading Aristotle or Kant. No one can sensibly wonder whether Kant is serious when he offers a formulation of the categorical imperative or describes space as the form of sensuous intuition. But when Socrates says that he has no knowledge of virtue, it is hard not to wonder whether he is being serious or somehow putting us on. Of course he has this effect not only on us readers, but on his fellow interlocutors.
This leads me to a second feature of the dialogue form, the distinction between what I call the “inner” and “outer” frames. The inner frame is the conversation among the interlocutors. A number of dialogues have nested inner frames (I think the Symposium has the most, at four). The outer frame refers to the relationship between the text and the reader (or hearer) of the dialogue. Plato is such a brilliant prose stylist that we sometimes end up so absorbed in the dialogue that we do not remain sufficiently conscious of the fact that the entire dialogue is written by Plato for a reader/hearer. We are not reading a newspaper report or a transcript. So, for example, when Socrates appears to be speaking ironically, for whom is he doing that? For his interlocutor in the inner frame or for Plato’s reader in the outer frame? If an argument contains a mistake or a foolish premise, how does that operate within the inner frame and how does it operate (perhaps differently) in the outer frame? This can make (to be positive about it!) interpreting Plato a fascinating and absorbing activity.
3:AM: What does your approach help us to understand about Socrates’s intellectualism?
IV: The aiming/determining distinction limits the scope of Socrates’ intellectualism and makes his position, I think, less extreme and more plausible. On most interpretations of Socratic intellectualism, Socrates thinks that virtue is knowledge, with the result that knowing what virtue is (answering the “‘what is F?’ question” about virtue) will be sufficient to act virtuously. This has been thought infamously implausible, as I discussed earlier. But on my view, Socrates never says that knowing what virtue is will be sufficient for us to act virtuously (some think he says this in the Protogoras, but I don’t). Rather, Socrates says that he has always been committed to the Supremacy of Virtue. He doesn’t offer any explanation of this commitment, he just provides examples in the Apology from his own life of that commitment. He challenges anyone to suggest a higher aim in action than virtue. Given this commitment, knowledge plays an important and indeed in some ways essential role for Socrates, but it is knowledge of answers to determining questions. On my view of Socratic intellectualism, it is commitment to SV plus knowledge that guarantees correct action.
3:AM: OK – I know this leaps away from our discussion but I have to ask as I’m a fan of the film – what hinges on the backdrop of the Matrix plot line?
IV: The plot of the Matrix, like similar puzzles in contemporary philosophy that ask us to imagine how we would feel and think about radically alternative scenarios, hinges on what is fundamentally a moral or ethical problem. But in the film, as in many presentations of certain philosophical problems, the ethical or moral aspects remain somewhat hidden.
Ostensibly, the film asks the viewer (and Morpheus asks Neo) whether he wants to have the blue or red pill (I forget which is which) – i.e. whether he wishes to have knowledge that the world they are living in is an illusion or not. But I argue in my essay that this is not really the philosophical issue that engages us – willful ignorance or not. What gets us worked up in the film depends on our identification, unsurprisingly, with the humans who have been “enslaved” by our enemies, the machines, and who, against our will, use our bodies as batteries. Now being enslaved and used as instruments are things that we humans reasonably object to and are morally outraged by. These sorts of actions prompt the response (as it does in the film): resist!
I call attention to the fact that it is the moral issues of enslavement and being used against our will that upsets us. To bring out that point I suggest thinking about a benevolently generated matrix, made by humans after the planet was in the miserable shape the movie depicts – not as the result of war between humans and machines but because human beings destroyed the climate and ecosystems of the planet all by themselves. In such a scenario, I supposed, we might all prefer to live in the matrix, sealing our bodies away in pods just like in the film, rather than painfully struggling for survival on the ravaged surface of the planet. In that scenario, we would learn about the matrix as we learn science in school. After all, isn’t that what physics, chemistry and biology do now? Who would suppose that the solid wooden table is mostly empty space and extremely fast moving microscopic particles? It certainly doesn’t feel like that when I bang my knee against it.
3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend for the readers here at 3:AM that will take them further into your philosophical world?
IV: Certainly Plato’s Apology and Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and also Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Among contemporary work, John McDowell’s collection of essays, Mind, Value, and Reality, as well as his Mind and World.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 31st, 2014.