April 12, 2005
more thrasymachus/foucault

Æ - Plato, Justice, and the Beautiful Soul

The reason for this universal pattern in the laws and customs that govern human societies is not simply human greed. To speak of greed is to suggest that a different, non-selfish kind of human behaviour is both possible and, in some way, superior. Neither of these alternatives, however, is the case. Humans behave the way they do because of the desires that they have, and there is no non-arbitrary way of deciding whose desires should be satisfied and whose not. Stated differently, there are no independently existing standards of right and wrong conduct; we make these standards, which means that, in practice, the rules of correct human conduct prevalent at any particular time and place will be the ones that serve the interests of the politically powerful. People who censure other people’s behaviour as being greedy are in fact merely trying to re-arrange things more to their own advantage. There is no higher standpoint from which to judge the actions of others. Morality is simply war conducted by other means.

If I were to ask you who holds the above views about justice and morality, you might be tempted to name several contemporary figures, perhaps a modern de-constructionist such as Michel Foucault, or some of the many contemporary followers of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, the above views are all put forward by one of Socrates’ interlocutors in Plato’s Republic, a man by the name of Thrasymachus. [1] Thrasymachus’ account of morality and justice is a somewhat extreme version of moral subjectivism. Moral subjectivism argues that human actions are not moral because of any intrinsic properties that belong to them, independent of us. Rather, human actions are moral because they elicit a certain response in us, typically because they please us or are useful to us in some way or other, and, as a consequence, we consider them to be morally good. This position is sometimes also called moral relativism inasmuch as moral judgments are thought to be grounded in individual preferences that are peculiar to one person or a particular group of persons, and do not hold universally.

I mention Thrasymachus’ moral subjectivism because it is important to realize that the views on the nature of human morality and justice set out by Socrates in the Republic are presented by him in full awareness of the alternative account of morality and justice stated above. In other words, Socrates’ account of morality and justice is not a naïve one, presented by someone who is unaware that another, much less flattering account of human behaviour is possible. On the contrary, in Thrasymachus, Socrates faces an opponent who believes he has dispensed with all religious and conventional obfuscation, and has instead reason and scientific observation on his side. The same can be said for Socrates’ defence in the Symposium of the view that the objects of our experience are beautiful only to the extent that they possess certain intrinsic, observer-independent properties. Socrates defends this claim explicitly against what might be called aesthetic subjectivism, namely the view that beauty is not an intrinsic feature of certain objects of our experience, but that we consider something to be beautiful only insofar as it pleases us. The first part of my paper considers the arguments given by Socrates in Plato’s Republic for what one might call moral objectivism. The second part of my paper attempts to show how very similar arguments are used by Socrates in the Symposium to argue for what one might call aesthetic objectivism. In the third part, I consider briefly some objections to the above views and how Socrates might respond to them.

Christopher Byrne is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Co-ordinator of the Classical Studies Programme at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. His research interests include ancient Greek views of nature, in particular, Aristotle's natural science, and ancient Greek moral theories. Two recent publications are "Matter and Aristotle's Material Cause," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 31 (2001), 85-111, and "Aristotle on Physical Necessity and the Limits of Teleological Explanation," Apeiron 35 (2002), 19-46.

The perversions of Michel Foucault by Roger Kimball
One thing that is refreshing about Foucault’s political follies, however, is that they tend to make otherwise outlandish figures appear comparatively tame. In a debate that aired on Dutch television in the early Seventies, for example, the famous American radical and linguist Noam Chomsky appears as a voice of sanity and moderation in comparison to Foucault. As Mr. Miller reports it, while Chomsky insisted “we must act as sensitive and responsible human beings,” Foucault replied that such ideas as responsibility, sensitivity, justice, and law were merely “tokens of ideology” that completely lacked legitimacy. “The proletariat doesn’t wage war against the ruling class because it considers such a war to be just,” he argued. “The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because … it wants to take power.” Of course, this has been the standard sophistical line since Socrates encountered Thrasymachus, but these days one rarely hears it so bluntly articulated. Nor were such performances rare. In another debate, Foucault championed the September Massacres of 1792, in which over a thousand people suspected of harboring royalist sympathies were ruthlessly butchered, as a sterling example of “popular justice” at work. As Mr. Miller puts it, Foucault believed that justice would be best served “by throwing open every prison and shutting down every court.”

From the increasingly-entertaining New Criterion

Posted by illovich at April 12, 2005 01:29 PM
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