Plato’s suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

“‘Death with Dignity’: is it suicide?” is the title of a thoughtful OUP blog post by veteran philosopher Margaret Battin, who argues that what we label certain activities matters very much in shaping how we think of them.

You thought there was a war on Christmas? Try a war on Saturnalia! The essay is actually a thoughtful discussion of how to “deal” with the upcoming holidays in an increasingly multicultural environment, with some help from Seneca.

And now for something completely different: a thoughtful book review of Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint: The Story of Makeup. Turns out, critics (read: men) have used makeup as yet another tool to oppress women, an observation that puts certain feminist perspectives on the subject on the defensive.

Analyst Joseph Burgo tells his patients that they really ought not to feel (too?) guilty about having “first world problems.” And especially that they shouldn’t use their social conscience as an excuse for not addressing their own problems.

Participate to an ongoing philosophical experiment at the New York Times’ Stone, set up by Gerald Dworkin. You might discover that it’s okay to lie much more often than you think.

20 thoughts on “Plato’s suggestions

  1. SocraticGadfly

    First, the lying piece. David Ottlinger, you might want to read that, and maybe, finally, accept that people do construct coherent arguments that lying is not prima facie wrong. (As I did.)

    Beyond that, the SEP notes that there’s no universally accepted definition of what lying is. Does it include an intention to break trust, as well as to deceive, or not? If it does include both, then “white lies” aren’t lies, as I also noted elsewhere.

    In either case, what we call “white lies” are a social lubricant as much as anything else. Similar to gossip, to some degree. And, not uniquely human. Without breaking Hume’s “is ≠ ought,” note corvids as well as primates that engage in similar behavior.

    On specifics, 1-3 on the quiz are all fine in my book. 4 is iffy; it depends in part on knowing how the wife would like to remember the husband, and the scenario doesn’t spell that out. No. 5, acceptable. No. 6, acceptable as part of negotiations, but not afterward. (In reality, it appears LBJ didn’t know of the deal being linked even after he became Prez, which may have been another reason for his hawkishness on Vietnam.) No. 7 OK because no trust exists at that moment anyway. No. 8 OK as part of testing placebo effect. No. 9 OK similar to 7. No. 10 generally not OK, as it’s likely to violate trust issues.


    The “first world problems”? The empathy overload is one angle, but how many people who use that phrase actually have that much active empathy? At times, I wonder if use of the phrase isn’t but another example of slacktivism.


    I personally think that makeup may be to some degree a control issue but women have the power to solve that.


    War on Saturnalia? Per an old blog post of mine, and per an old motto, “Laplace is the reason for the season!”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Coel

    Hi Socratic,

    I just think better scholarship is needed …

    I agree with you there. What would be good would be for some number of historians from adjacent fields to apply the usual historical standards to this field. Currently it is near impossible to find any disinterested and objective accounts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ejwinner

    I hope Massimo will forgive the following ruminations; but as it happens, the problem of the lie has been much on my mind lately.

    From Dworkin: “John lies to Mary if he says X, believes X to be false, and intends that Mary believe X.”

    This is the baseline definition of the lie, at least in Analytic philosophy. See James Mahon’s SEP article:

    Unfortunately, this definition, while useful in a dictionary, is misplaced in an encyclopedia. It is woefully incomplete.

    From Mahon:
    “Consider the following joke about two travelers on a train from Moscow (reputed to be Sigmund Freud’s favorite joke) (reference: G. A. Cohen):

    Trofim: Where are you going?
    Pavel: To Pinsk.
    Trofim: Liar! You say you are going to Pinsk in order to make me believe you are going to Minsk. But I know you are going to Pinsk.

    Pavel does not lie to Trofim, since his statement to Trofim is truthful, even if he intends that Trofim be deceived by this double bluff.”

    Actually, Trofim is correct, Pavel is lying. The problem with the Analytic theorizing over lying is that, despite needing to contextualize lying, especially when considering it’s ethical justification in certain situations, it doesn’t really grasp the profoundly social underlying structure, which necessarily includes audience expectations and the liar’s manipulation of these. Pavel knows Trofim doesn’t trust him, and so effectively lies to this expectation (not knowing how deeply Trofim distrusts him, to the point that he reveals the lie as a truth). This sort of situation, wherein a sentence can be both truth in one sense, and yet lie as to audience expectation, is not accountable in most Analytic philosophy, where the matter should be decidable on the basis of sentential analysis, predicated on a justified true belief model of knowledge. Real lying is not about sentences, and it isn’t even about what anyone believes; it’s about social relationships and expectations. One can speak a lie without needing to believe the sentence spoken to be untrue – or indeed, without believing anything about it at all. (Pavel may not believe he’s going to Pinsk, he just wants Trofim to think he’s going to Minsk.) What’s important is the expectation of the audience within the context.

    Those wishing to maintain the purity of the logical analysis of lies as statements seek to maintain a rigid distinction between the lie and other forms of deception. In practice, this distinction cannot be maintained. Elsewhere in the SEP article, Mahon writes:

    “If it is granted that a person is not making a statement when, for example, she wears a wedding ring when she is not married, or wears a police uniform when she is not a police officer, it follows that she cannot be lying by doing these things.”

    But I don’t grant this; or, rather, I hold that its incompleteness trivializes it. The notion that an unmarried woman wearing a wedding ring (aware of how others will percieve this, in a given cultural context) is not a kind of lie, is uninformed as to how humans communicate through non-verbal signification, and the complex ways that the verbal and non-verbal relate.

    Now, is the woman wearing the ring engaged in cruel play on innocents for the sake of vanity? or is she protecting herself in a threatening social context? That depends on the context, and on the expectations others have for her.

    (Which. BTW, also tells us something about the social usefulness of cosmetics, doesn’t it?)


  4. SocraticGadfly

    EJ, yep, I referenced that SEP definition on Ottlinger’s piece over at Dan’s site. I wasn’t focusing on its incompleteness, but rather to show that there’s no accepted definition of lying, especially whether trust issues as well as deception issues are included, or not.

    Per cosmetics: “Does this lipstick make me look fatter?”


    Michael: Well, if you really think that will always work, perhaps you, like I presume David, doesn’t have a wife asking you clothing questions.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Robin Herbert

    “John lies to Mary if he says X, believes X to be false, and intends that Mary believe X.”

    Hmm “Does this dress make me look fat?” “No” (unsaid “the fact that you are fat makes you look fat”)

    Or “Jump out the window to escape, the fall won’t kill you” (unsaid “But the sharp stop at the bottom, that’ll kill you”)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ejwinner

    Sorry for the length of previous rumination, an effort to think an issue through while writing a response.

    The final note of my piece was intended to raise questions concerning the phenomenon of make-up, because, while the review was well-written, I was rather disappointed with Shmidt’s report of Eldridge’s book. I don’t see how we can have an adequate account (especially one historically informed) of the phenomenon of make-up, without discussion of those cultures where both men and women engage in cosmetics, eg, 18th century France. And I would be interested also in how certain tribes use make-up during rituals. Finally, can we not consider tattooing a kind of permanent make-up? Humans seem to have a fascination for masquerading their bodies, regardless of (although including) gender considerations in certain cultures.


  7. ejwinner


    You seem to be mellowing (a little) on the mythicist/ anti-mythicist debate concerning jesus. I hope so. As an atheist, I find that debate rather scholarly and esoteric, and at best tangential to (even distracting from) the question of whether faith in any god is justified. (As you rightly note, the biases have muddied the waters; but this is true on both sides, at least right now)

    (Note: Due to the large, lengthy aporias of poorly recorded history involved, it’s not possible to demonstrate Krishna is a myth or not, only that a long time ago, in a galaxy far away… somebody once wrote something, and that people believed it enough to pass it on. Might that make Hinduism more acceptable to a non-believer? Well, I should hope not!)


    Unfortunately, as I enter the autumn of my years, my bladder seems to want less sleep than I do. Is this a sign of evolutionary progress into a higher form of primate? I doubt it.

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  8. Thomas Jones

    socratic, having some inexplicable problems commenting directly, but Massimo was kind enough to post. And, yes, on the persona. As I remarked in my email to Massimo, Lit majors are trained to see personae everywhere. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Coel

    Hi ej

    As an atheist, I find that debate rather scholarly and esoteric, and at best tangential to (even distracting from) the question of whether faith in any god is justified.

    Yes, you’re right on that. I had always taken the attitude that mythicism was a rather silly and pointless thing to argue — until I started actually reading what some of the mythicists were saying, and seeing how it actually makes more sense of Christian origins. I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to settle the issue either way, but arguing for mythicism does have the side benefit of annoying Christians. 🙂


  10. Robin Herbert

    I may have been reading the wrong Jesus mythers, nut none of the ones I have read make much sense. They usually have this over complicated narrative often depending on guesswork and even stuff that is just wrong. In my experience the mother stuff is more likely to amuse than annoy Christians.

    To me, the more common sense explanation is that there was this holy guy who had followers, he got executed but his followers, and others, kept the sect going, building it into a religion.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Massimo Post author


    “I don’t see how we can have an adequate account (especially one historically informed) of the phenomenon of make-up, without discussion of those cultures where both men and women engage in cosmetics, eg, 18th century France”

    Yes, I had the same thought while reading the review. And I agree with your suggestions of also looking at the role of body paint in rituals, as well as tattoos. I think it’s much more complicated than some (dare I say it? sure!) simplistic feminist narrative portraying makeup as a tool of repression. It can be, but not always, and there’s a lot more going on.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. SocraticGadfly

    On the make-up issue, the facet that it didn’t cover men’s long use of make-up, or why men eventually stopped using make-up, are other shortcomings of the piece, and probably among its biggest.


  13. SocraticGadfly

    On masks, the Greek “prosopon” meant generally the same “persona.” Sorting out the exact nuances of distinguishing it from “hypostasis” and translating both into Latin fueled the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, Christology, the “separation” of Nestorianism and later of Miaphysitism from “orthodoxy” and more.


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