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.