Socrates on Virtue and Knowledge

I have always been more drawn to Aristotle than Plato, but over the past several months I have been rereading some Platonic dialogues with a few friends and have come to a greater appreciation of his works. One perennial topic of discussion among our group that has brought this greater appreciation out is Socrates’ seemingly perplexing claim that virtue is knowledge, and that it is impossible for one to know the good, and willingly do something bad.

At first blush this position on virtue and knowing the good seems absurd. Most who have committed wrongs would acknowledge that their actions were wrong, and that they knew that they were wrong while they committed them. Socrates’ claim seems to deny the reality of the experience of most of us.

So this leads to the question of what Socrates is getting at? Is Socrates just providing a nonsensical explanation that flies in the face of the obvious existential situation of human beings? Or is he trying to say something that eludes us because what Socrates means by knowledge is something entirely different from what most think of knowledge as? I tend to think that it is the latter rather than the former, and will argue that Socrates and Plato capture an interesting element of knowledge that tends to be missed when we think of knowledge in terms of intellectually being able to recall particular set of facts.

If I know that theft is wrong, but steal something, what is causing me to steal? One explanation is that my desire for the thing overpowered my knowledge that theft is wrong. But this leads to the question of what it means for desire to overpower knowledge. When I stole something did this occur as an automatic reflex that I was not cognitively aware of because my desire had overpowered my knowledge? That seems unlikely, and does not fit with our actual experience of doing something that we know is wrong. Instead the desire speaks and convinces that what we are doing makes sense in some way. When the desire speaks it might say even though theft is wrong I really need this thing and I can’t afford it at the moment. Thus, the opposition that is posed between desire and knowledge is not between a mere noncognitive state of wanting something, and knowledge of particular moral facts. Instead, despite its seeming childishness, a more appropriate image is of the angel and devil on the shoulders. Each of these figures holds different things to be true and desires those different things, but the beliefs and desires of the inherently oppositional figures are not compatible. So, we see that when we are considering what leads us to do something that we “know” is wrong it is not as if we react like automatons to some foreign desire, but rather that aspects of ourselves that say certain things about what is valuable convince us, albeit temporarily, to take action because in some sense that aspect of ourselves sees this as the best course of action possible at the time.

Now, what does the preceding discussion tell us about knowledge? It seems to me that it rejects the idea of knowledge as merely being able to recall certain facts and being convinced abstractly of the truth of particular propositions. Instead it seems to suggest to me that ethical knowledge, at the very least, is always already linked to character and valuation. This seems plausible in that what we believe in the ethical realm cannot be disconnected from the values and goods we are drawn to realize in the world. If I think that the pious life of the mind is and this is real knowledge for me than this is not just something that I believe and has no impact on my life; instead my actions will be linked with these beliefs. It is implausible to say that someone has ethical knowledge of the value of the life of the mind, if they do not find themselves called or drawn to pursue this life. This distinction between naturalistic fact and evaluative claims was not part of the lexicon of Socrates or any other Ancient Greek thinker, but it has significant weight for us, and thus I think we can recognize the truth of Socrates’ thought in the ethical realm, while finding it more implausible in the naturalistc realm.

But if our ethical knowledge is based on our fundamental commitments why do we do things that we know our wrong? In essence, the answer is that our selves, or souls, as Socrates would say are disordered, rather than properly ordered. We have deep commitments to many things that often come into conflict in life. I may really care about being healthy, but I also am drawn to the sensuous enjoyment of pizza. It is not as though I realize eating pizza is unhealthy and thus bad from the perspective of health, but am overpowered by my a noncognitive desire for pizza. Instead, the part of myself that is deeply enamoured with the sensuous momentarily takes the reins, to use a Platonic image, even though another part of myself is speaking against this action. In this sense there is not a single homogeneous self that has commitments, but rather different elements of myself have different commitments, and at times one element of the self will be stronger than another. In the classic Platonic understanding of the soul we have the appetitive part that desires sensuous pleasure, the spirited which desires honour and recognition, and the rational part of the soul which seems to desire knowledge.

At first the Platonic of moral agency may seem to say little about knowledge, as you can easily combine a moral psychology that combines a view of knowledge as naturalistic facts with the idea that in the ethical realm our selves are disordered and our desires come into a conflict with one another. However, while this explanation seems intuitive it really does not hold up. If I think it is bad to steal and this is part of my ethical knowledge, the “I” that knows this cannot disappear when another element of the self, or another “I” within me puts forward the claim that it is okay to steal as long as it from affluent people. If this was the case I would not really have ethical knowledge, instead a part of myself as a whole might have ethical knowledge that stealing is wrong, but taken in my entirety “I” do not have this knowledge, because the constituents of myself do not possess a harmonious ethical vision. But rather each constituent of myself represents a dissonant and oppositional claim of knowledge. If I actually had ethical knowledge than the entirety of myself would be acting and thinking in line with the same, as opposed to divergent ethical notions. Knowledge, on this interpretation of Plato is always already fused with practical activity, for to have ethical knowledge is to be able to act consistently according to a proper understanding of the good while recognizing why one is taking these actions. In this case, it is not that I have knowledge and then choose to apply it because I commit to being ethical, but that right action constitutes right knowledge and right reason.

I am not sure if I completely agree with this Platonic image, but is a powerful image and one that confronts us with a moral psychology that is very different from our own, and consequently something that we can learn from.

Freedom or freedoms?

References to the concept of freedom are ubiquitous throughout contemporary political discourse, and given the way people speak it seems that everyone is in favour of freedom, and yet people disagree deeply about the nature of this concept. Following Isaiah Berlin I think there is more than one concept of freedom, or liberty, but in distinction from Berlin and others who follow him I want to suggest that different concepts of freedom often relate to distinctive subject matters. Such that just as we can speak of freedom of choice, we so too can speak to a free character or freedom as a status of a citizen. These multiple concepts of freedom are not necessarily in competition, but rather represent the way in which a single word can come to have multiple meanings that while related concern different subject matters or areas of life. To further illuminate the proceeding I will examine the concept of freedom as it pertains to choice, character and status.

Arguably the most common way of talking about freedom, especially in North America, is in the context of saying that someone is free if they are able to make choices without coercive interference from another.  For this concept of freedom, the dominant subject matter of freedom is choice, as we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which is in this case is the absence of interference.

Another concept of freedom relates to character. On this account, freedom is part of the character of a person. For example, we might say that a person always strives to excel over others in all competitions, but never finds themselves satisfied is unfree because they are enslaved by their desire to win, when they would be happier and more fulfilled if their character led them to recognize that what truly matters to their happiness is not winning every possible competition, but something else entirely. Consequently what makes this person unfree is not that they make certain choices, but rather that their character is dominated by a desire that should not dominate their character. Thus, this concept of freedom relates to character. Furthermore, unlike the first concept of freedom this concept is positive, as a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree. Furthermore, there does seem to be something about it that resonates with us, because when we think of a free person, we don’t just think of someone who is able to choose freely in absence of external interference, but rather of a person whose psyche is ordered.

An additional concept of freedom and the most overtly political conception relates freedom to a status. To be free, on this account, one must not be subject to arbitrary power by the state or other individuals. Consequently, on this conception of freedom, freedom relates to a status, because one’s status as a citizen of a free state is what provides you with protection from being subject to arbitrary power, and consequently your status as a citizen constitutes your freedom.  Within an academic context this type of approach has been taken up by republican theorists with a particularly Neo – Roman bent such as Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, but it is not merely an academic concept as many people will refer to the way in which groups like gays, women and ethnic minorities are not free, and by this they do not just mean that these individuals are not allowed to make certain choices. Rather, what renders these groups of individuals unfree is that their current formal status as citizens does not adequately protect them from the arbitrary power of others.  Like the first concept of freedom this is a negative concept of freedom as it concerns the absence of something, rather than the presence of something.

These three concepts of freedom show that the distinction between concepts of freedom is perhaps wider than we might think. It is not as if we have multiple concepts of freedom that all have a different interpretation of what constitutes a free choice, instead these concepts of freedom are distinct in that they relate to different areas of life or subject matters. As a result there is no reason to necessarily see these conceptions of freedom as opposed to one another. In fact, I find myself attracted to all three concepts of freedom, and it seems to me we have significant reason to see these concepts as complementary rather than opposed, as they all seem to involve something we deeply esteem.  We deeply admire the person who is not enslaved to certain desires, we value our ability to make choices for ourselves in our own lives, and we value being protected from arbitrary coercion by our equal status as a citizen. It should be noted that none of this suggests that there is no conflict between differing concepts of freedom, but rather that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are not necessarily inherently incompatible with one another.

It could be objected that there is an inherent conflict between these differing concepts of freedom as the person who is free according to the free choice conception need not be the same person who is free on the free character conception. But while this critique is accurate in one sense it misses the point of the argument I am making. Yes, according to the free choice conception a person is free if they are not interfered with in their choices, which is different from the conception of a free person according to the free character conception, but it can be responded that there is no single definitive sense in which we could speak of somebody as a free person, but rather there are different senses in which we can be free that do not necessarily exclude one another, such that we could be free in one sense, while being unfree in another. Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.

In addition, one other thing that we might take away from this subject is the political difficulty that is created by the concept of freedom. Given that there are so many various sense of the term freedom that are used it would seem that in any political discussion when the concept of freedom is invoked we are liable to confusion, misunderstanding and talking past one another. As a result we ought to be careful in invoking a concept of freedom when we engage in dialogue to ensure that our interlocutors understand what we mean by freedom, and that we are not merely talking past them.