Philosophy with The VALiens: The Question and the Strategy by Plato


1.1 The Nature of the Question

In Book One, the Republic‘s question first emerges in the figure of Cephalus. After Socrates asks his host what it is like being old (328d-e) and rich (330d)—rather rude, we might think—Cephalus says that the best thing about wealth is that it can save us from being unjust and thus smooth the way for an agreeable afterlife (330d-331b). This is enough to prompt more questions, for Socrates wants to know what justice is. Predictably, Cephalus and then Polemarchus fail to define justice in a way that survives Socratic examination, but they continue to assume that justice is a valuable part of a good human life. Thrasymachus erupts when he has had his fill of this conversation (336a-b), and he challenges the assumption that it is good to be just. On Thrasymachus’ view (see especially 343c-344c), justice is conventionally established by the strong, in order that the weak will serve the interests of the strong. The strong themselves, on this view, are better off disregarding justice and serving their own interests.

Socrates sees in this “immoralist” challenge the explicit question of whether one should live a just or unjust life (344d-e), and he tries repeatedly to repel Thrasymachus’ onslaught. Eventually, Thrasymachus withdraws sullenly, like Callicles in the Gorgias, but Socrates’ “victory” fails to satisfy Glaucon and Adeimantus. The brothers pick up where Thrasymachus left off, providing reasons why most people think that justice is not intrinsically valuable but worth respecting only if one is not strong enough (or invisible enough) to get away with injustice. They want to be shown that most people are wrong, that justice is worth choosing for its own sake. More than that, Glaucon and Adeimantus want to be shown that justice is worth choosing regardless of the rewards or penalties bestowed on the just by other people and the gods, and they will accept this conclusion only if Socrates can convince them that it is always better to be just. So Socrates must persuade them that the just person who is terrifically unfortunate and scorned lives a better life than the unjust person who is so successful that he is unfairly rewarded as if he were perfectly just (see 360d-361d).

The challenge that Glaucon and Adeimantus present has baffled modern readers who are accustomed to carving up ethics into deontologies that articulate a theory of what is right independent of what is good and consequentialisms that define what is right in terms of what promotes the good. The insistence that justice be praised “itself by itself” has suggested to some that Socrates will be offering a deontological account of justice. But the insistence that justice be shown to be beneficial to the just has suggested to others that Socrates will be justifying justice by reference to its consequences.

In fact, both readings are distortions, predicated more on what modern moral philosophers think than on what Plato thinks. Socrates takes the basic challenge to concern how justice relates to the just person’s objective success or happiness (Greek eudaimonia). In Book One, he argued that justice, as a virtue, makes the soul perform its function well and that a person who lives well is “blessed and happy” (352d-354a, quoting 354a1). At the beginning of Book Two, he retains his focus on the person who aims to be happy. He says, “I think that justice belongs in the best class [of goods], that which should be loved both for its own sake and for the sake of its consequences by anyone who is going to be blessed” (358a1–3). Given this perspective, Socrates has to show that smartly pursuing one’s happiness favors being just (which requires always acting justly) over being unjust (which tolerates temptation to injustice and worse), apart from the consequences that attend to the appearance of being just or unjust. But he does not have to show that being just or acting justly brings about happiness. The function argument in Book One suggests that acting justly is the same as being happy. If Socrates stands by this identity, he can simultaneously show that justice is valuable “itself by itself” and that the just are happier.

But the function argument concludes that justice is both necessary and sufficient for happiness (354a), and this is a considerably stronger thesis than the claim that the just are always happier than the unjust. After the challenge Glaucon and Adeimantus present, Socrates might not be so bold. Even if he shows that justice is happiness, he might think that there are circumstances in which no one can be just and happy. This will nonetheless satisfy Glaucon and Adeimantus if the just are better off (that is, closer to happy) than the unjust in these circumstances.

1.2 Rejected Strategies

After the challenge of Glaucon and Adeimantus, Socrates takes off in a strange direction (from 367e). He suggests looking for justice as a virtue of cities before defining justice as a virtue of persons, on the unconvincing grounds that justice in a city is bigger and more apparent than justice in a person (368c-369b), and this leads Socrates to a rambling description of some features of a good city (369b-427c). This may seem puzzling. But Socrates’ indirect approach is not unmotivated. The arguments of Book One and the challenge of Glaucon and Adeimantus rule out several more direct routes.

First, Socrates might have tried to settle quickly on a widely accepted account of what justice is and moved immediately to considering whether that is always in one’s interests. But Book One rules this strategy out by casting doubt on widely accepted accounts of justice. Socrates must say what justice is in order to answer the question put to him, and what he can say is constrained in important ways. Most obviously, he cannot define justice as happiness without begging the question. But he also must give an account of justice that his interlocutors recognize as justice: if his account of justice were to require us to torture red-headed children for amusement, he would fail to address the question that Glaucon and Adeimantus take themselves to be asking.

Moreover, Socrates cannot try to define justice by enumerating the types of action that justice requires or forbids. We might have objected to this strategy for this reason: because action-types can be specified in remarkably various ways and at remarkably different levels of specificity, no list of just or unjust action-types could be comprehensive. But a specific argument in Book One suggests a different reason why Socrates does not employ this strategy. When Cephalus characterizes justice as keeping promises and returning what is owed, Socrates objects by citing a case in which returning what is owed would not be just (331c). This objection potentially has very wide force, as it seems that exceptions could always be found for any action-type that does not include in its description a word like ‘wrong’ or ‘just’. Wrongful killing may always be wrong, but is killing? Just recompense may always be right, but is recompense?

So Book One makes it difficult for Socrates to take justice for granted. What is worse, the terms in which Socrates accepts the challenge of Glaucon and Adeimantus make it difficult for him to take happiness for granted. If Socrates were to proceed like a consequentialist, he might offer a full account of happiness and then deliver an account of justice that both meets with general approval and shows how justice brings about happiness. But Socrates does not proceed like that. He does not even do as much as Aristotle does in the Nicomachean Ethics; he does not suggest some general criteria for what happiness is. He proceeds as if happiness is unsettled. But if justice at least partly constitutes happiness and justice is unsettled, then Socrates is right to proceed as if happiness is unsettled.

In sum, Socrates needs to construct an account of justice and an account of happiness at the same time, and he needs these accounts to entail without assuming the conclusion that the just person is always happier than the unjust.

1.3 The Adopted Strategy

The difficulty of this task helps to explain why Socrates takes the curious route through the discussion of civic justice and civic happiness. Socrates can assume that a just city is always more successful or happy than an unjust city. The assumption begs no questions, and Glaucon and Adeimantus readily grant it. If Socrates can then explain how a just city is always more successful and happy than an unjust city, by giving an account of civic justice and civic happiness, he will have a model to propose for the relation between between personal justice and flourishing.

Socrates’ strategy depends on an analogy between a city and a person. There must be some intelligible relation between what makes a city successful and what makes a person successful. But to answer the Republic‘s question, Socrates does not need any particular account of why the analogy holds, nor does he need the analogy to hold broadly (that is, for a wide range of characteristics). It works even if it only introduces an account of personal justice and happiness that we might not have otherwise entertained.

Although this is all that the city-person analogy needs to do, Socrates seems at times to claim more for it, and one of the abiding puzzles about the Republic concerns the exact nature and grounds for the full analogy that Socrates claims. At times Socrates seems to say that the same account of justice must apply to both persons and cities because the same account of any predicate ‘F’ must apply to all things that are F (e.g., 434d-435a). At other times Socrates seems to say that the same account of justice must apply in both cases because the F-ness of a whole is due to the F-ness of its parts (e.g., 435d-436a). Again, at times Socrates seems to say that these grounds are strong enough to permit a deductive inference: if a city’s F-ness is such-and-such, then a person’s F-ness must be such-and-such (e.g., 441c). At other times, Socrates would prefer to use the F-ness of the city as a heuristic for locating F-ness in persons (e.g., 368e-369a). Plato is surely right to think that there is some interesting and non-accidental relation between the structural features and values of society and the psychological features and values of persons, but there is much controversy about whether this relation really is strong enough to sustain all of the claims that Socrates makes for it in the Republic.

Still, the Republic primarily requires an answer to Glaucon and Adeimantus’ question, and that answer does not depend logically on any strong claims for the analogy between cities and persons. Rather, it depends upon a persuasive account of justice as a personal virtue, and persuasive reasons why one is always happier being just than unjust. So we can turn to these issues before returning to Socrates’ remarks about the successful city.

— original source —


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