Intro to Ethics: Plato

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 13, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics

intro_to_ethics

Welcome to my course on ethics. Last time, we discussed the ethics of the early Greeks. Today we look at the views of the first major moral philosopher, Plato (428-348 BCE).

In Plato’s Republic we see one of the earliest attempts at a systematic theory of ethics. Plato wants to find a good definition for “justice,” a good criterion for calling something “just.”

Maybe justice is “telling the truth and paying one’s debts.” But no, Plato says, for sometimes it is just to withhold the truth or not return what was borrowed.

How about “Do good to one’s friends and harm to one’s enemies”? But that doesn’t work, says Plato, because any definition of justice in terms of “doing good” doesn’t tell us much. It only repeats the question, “What is good (just)?”

Plato’s suggestion for “justice” is twofold: justice for the state, and justice for the soul.

Justice for the state is achieved when all basic needs are met. Three classes of people are needed: artisans and workers to produce goods, soldiers to defend the state, and rulers to organize everything.

But you cannot have a just state without just men, especially just rulers. And so we must also achieve justice of the soul.

Plato believed the soul had three parts: reason, appetite, and honor. The desires of these three parts conflicted with each other. For example, we might have a thirst (appetite) for water, but resist accepting it from an enemy for fear of poison (reason). Justice of the soul requires that each part does its proper function, and that their balance is correct.

Justice of the soul merges with justice of the state in that men fall into one of the three classes depending on how the three parts of their soul are balanced. One’s class depends on early training, but mostly, persons are born brick-layers, soldiers, and kings – depending on the balance between the three parts of their soul.

marcus_aurelius

Marcus Aurelius, philosopher king

…which brings us to Plato’s ideal of philosopher kings. To bring about the ideal state, Plato says, “philosophers [must] become kings… or those now called kings [must]… genuinely and adequately philosophize.” Among other things, the philosopher king is one who can see The Good, that transcendent entity to which we compare something when we call it “good.” The idea of the philosopher-king still appeals to philosophers today, though it has rarely been achieved.1

It is against this ideal state, ruled by philosopher kings, that Plato can compare other forms of state. The state under martial law (Sparta) is the least disastrous. Oligarchy (Corinth) and democracy (Athens) are worse, and tyranny (Syracuse) is the worst. These problem states come from a lack of justice in the soul. For example, a state of martial law comes from the restriction of appetite by the wrong soul-part: honor instead of reason.

Plato’s ethical theory is this: proper balance in the tripartate soul and proper balance in the tripartate state, ruled by philosopher kings, brings justice and happiness.

Obviously, nobody believes this anymore, but Plato’s was an interesting first attempt at a systematic ethics.

Next time we look at the ethics of Plato’s student Aristotle, whose ethical system – unlike Plato’s – is still very much alive.

  1. Examples include Marcus Aurelius and, perhaps, the Chinese scholar-bureaucrats. []

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Yair June 13, 2009 at 10:02 am

An aspect of Plato that is very important is that his morality is Platonic, a transcendent Good mystically attracts those who take part in it. While his comprehensive ethical system is rejected, these ideas still underlies much of moral realism, as well as some religious theologies. I’m not sure if Plato is the first to pronounce them, but he was certainly the most influential there.

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Derek June 13, 2009 at 11:06 am


Though you aren’t discussing Plato’s meta-ethical views (i.e. that which the “good” is per se), I thought the following would be worth mentioning.
 
Though it appears that Socrates, in the Euthyphro, thinks that good things are good (epistemologically and ontologically) independent of what the Greek Pantheon does or doesn’t love, it’s important to note the absolutely God-like attributes Socrates attributes to the Good per se. Consider what he says to Glaucon (in the Republic):
 
“…the similitude of it still further in this way.” “How?” “The sun, I presume you will say, not only furnishes to visibles the power of visibility but it also provides for their generation and growth and nurture though it is not itself generation.” “Of course not.” “In like manner, then, you are to say that the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it, though the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power.” (Rep., 509b)

Recalling Plato’s ontology, that what is really real is what is most intelligible (cf. the “divided line” discussion in Book VI) and the most intelligible things are the forms, a particular thing f is an f insofar as it participates in the form of F. Thus, for any f, it has some sort of being insofar as it participates in the form F, and a particular f is knowable for the same reason. Thus, the knowability and reality of any f is made possible by its form, F-ness. But what about the Forms themselves? Each and every form, qua form, is supremely good (they’re the “best” instances of themselves). As such, the forms themselves are both knowable and what they are by participating in the Good. Though the Good is what makes all reality be (exist), reality’s precondition cannot merely be another real thing, it must be “beyond” or “transcendental” to the things it makes possible. Hence, on Plato’s ontology, “[...] [we] are to say that the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it, though the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power.”

Given that Plato thinks that the Good itself is what makes reality possible, Plato’s Good sounds a lot like what Christians call “God”, since the Good is what makes everything be. And if this is right, then Plato, pace the Euthyphro, would agree with the Christian- If there was no God (that which is Good per se), then nothing else could be good.”

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lukeprog June 13, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Thanks, Derek! I’m certainly no Plato scholar.

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Hylomorphic June 13, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Derek: Given that Plato thinks that the Good itself is what makes reality possible, Plato’s Good sounds a lot like what Christians call “God”, since the Good is what makes everything be. And if this is right, then Plato, pace the Euthyphro, would agree with the Christian- If there was no God (that which is Good per se), then nothing else could be good.”

It is, however, distinctly different from the Christian conception in fundamental ways. The Good, for Plato, is and must be entirely impersonal. God, for Christians, is not only personal, but divided fundamentally into three Persons.  It is not difficult to see why this must be so. To be a person is to find oneself in the realm of particularity, but the Good is beyond all particularity Identifying the two, as Augustine does, is fundamentally incoherent.
 
The dichotomy between the Good and anything like God is made explicitly clear in the Timaeus.  The Demiurge, the creator of the world, is distinct from the Good, patterning the world on a standard higher than himself.

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Yair June 13, 2009 at 11:06 pm

Derek: “it’s important to note the absolutely God-like attributes Socrates attributes to the Good per se. Consider what he says to Glaucon (in the Republic):

My only quibble is that this is clearly Plato already, not Socrates. I believe the historical Socrates, to the extent his opinion can be determined, had a more down-to-earth virtue ethics.

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Derek June 14, 2009 at 6:05 am


Ad Hylo.,
 
“It is, however, distinctly different from the Christian conception in fundamental ways. The Good, for Plato, is and must be entirely impersonal. God, for Christians, is not only personal, but divided fundamentally into three Persons.  It is not difficult to see why this must be so. To be a person is to find oneself in the realm of particularity, but the Good is beyond all particularity Identifying the two, as Augustine does, is fundamentally incoherent.”

Christians manifestly do not believe that God is fundamentally divided. As Christians all over the world will pronounce this morning that, “We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us.”

The formulation is, “One is essence (ouisa) and three in person (hypostasis).”

Now, of course, you can argue that his is incoherent, but that is a different topic.

Concerning the “personality” (or lack thereof) of the Good. Right, the Good, qua Good, lacks any positive predicate—it’s even misleading to call it “good” in a discursive subject-predicate relata. Nonetheless, since the Good brings about all things, the very origin of “personhood” is brought about by the Good, and as such, it is proper to say that personhood, like anything whatever, is derived from it:

“but their very existence and essence [e.g. personhood] is derived to them from [the Good],”

“The dichotomy between the Good and anything like God is made explicitly clear in the Timaeus.  The Demiurge, the creator of the world, is distinct from the Good, patterning the world on a standard higher than himself.”

Prima facie, this is what the Timaeus seems to be saying. But many a Plato scholar argue that they are merely formally distinct. In the end, even the Demiurge’s being, if distinct from the Good per se, is derived from the Good. Otherwise, contra the passage in question, not everything’s being is derived from the Good.

The reason why I brought all of this up in the first place is to show that for Plato, as for the Christian, the “Euthphro Dilemma”, as it is typically articulated, is a false dichotomy. The Christian and the Platonist both think that anything whatever (including the possibility of human virtue) is only possible by the beyond being that makes all being possible.

Ad Yair,

“My only quibble is that this is clearly Plato already, not Socrates. I believe the historical Socrates, to the extent his opinion can be determined, had a more down-to-earth virtue ethics.”

Even in the Euthyphro, though, you have Socrates saying things like the pious actions are “made pious” by piety per se. If you take the “early dialogues” to be more representative of Socrates’ historical views, you think that Socrates does have a “not so down to earth” theory forms. Not as robust, of course, as Plato’s, but a theory of forms no less.
 

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Hylomorphic June 14, 2009 at 7:15 pm

 
“The formulation is, “One is essence (ouisa) and three in person (hypostasis).”
Now, of course, you can argue that his is incoherent, but that is a different topic.”
 
I can hardly call the phrase incoherent, since it carries so very little meaning. To begin to make sense of it, one must expand on it by some sort of interpretive act. I will only note that, at the end of all such attempts (that I am aware of), the theologians have finally decided that the phrase is in some sense “beyond understanding.” Why the councils decided such a formulation is superior to a coherent system like subordinationism I have no idea. It’s not as if that position is lacking in Biblical support.
 
“Nonetheless, since the Good brings about all things, the very origin of “personhood” is brought about by the Good, and as such, it is proper to say that personhood, like anything whatever, is derived from it”
 
Surely. As is redness and chairs. But one wouldn’t say that the goodness is red or a chair, either. Why should personality have special privilege when the good is even beyond number?
 
“Prima facie, this is what the Timaeus seems to be saying. But many a Plato scholar argue that they are merely formally distinct.”
 
That is about the only way one can see Plato as some sort of prototype of the Christian theologian, as has been constantly attempted since Augustine. I am deeply suspicious of such readings, given their history.
 
 
“The reason why I brought all of this up in the first place is to show that for Plato, as for the Christian, the “Euthphro Dilemma”, as it is typically articulated, is a false dichotomy. The Christian and the Platonist both think that anything whatever (including the possibility of human virtue) is only possible by the beyond being that makes all being possible.”
 
But this reading is only plausible if one interprets the Good as something like a God. Euthyphro’s dilemma, as I read it, suggests that, insofar as a god is seen as a personal entity which commands and enjoins, its commandments and the things enjoined cannot be good only because they are simply commanded, but because they appeal to a standard higher than any personal being.

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Derek June 14, 2009 at 9:43 pm

“But this reading is only plausible if one interprets the Good as something like a God.”
Right, and as Rep. 509b shows, the being and intelligibility of all things is due to the Good, two attributes any classical theist attributes to God, in conjunction with goodness per se.
“Euthyphro’s dilemma, as I read it, suggests that, insofar as a god is seen as a personal entity which commands and enjoins, its commandments and the things enjoined cannot be good only because they are simply commanded, but because they appeal to a standard higher than any personal being.”
Right.  But goodness per se, as any classical theist identifies with God, does need to appeal to any higher standard than itself in the same way that Plato’s Good doesn’t need a higher standard than itself.

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Hylomorphic June 15, 2009 at 1:14 pm

“Right.  But goodness per se, as any classical theist identifies with God, does need to appeal to any higher standard than itself in the same way that Plato’s Good doesn’t need a higher standard than itself.”
 
Fine. I just don’t think that the two should be equated so easily; the similarity in their treatment of the Good should not be used to disguise the way in which they are different. I take it that, for Plato, it is not only relevant but essential that the Good is not a being with will, judgment, action, etc. Thus, a resolution to the dilemma like Luther’s divine command theory is possible for the classical theist, but not for Plato.
 
This is not without practical consequences. Only cultural blindness and ignorance of the cultures of India and China could lead Plato to believe that the Greeks have special insight into the divine. Yet it remains coherent to believe from a Christian perspective that the Jews were given a more perfect revelation than the Greeks themselves or the Egyptians.

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