Author Archives: Massimo

About Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

We are all invited to the conversation, and if you disagree you may be logophobic

“There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.” (Socrates, in the Phaedo)

You may have noticed that these days it has become really difficult to have a reasonable conversation. With almost anyone. I’m not referring to the obvious culprits: Trumpists, purveyors of alternative facts, or those who dismiss critical journalism as “fake news.” I’m not even talking about the classical examples, from creationists to believers in all sorts of alternative medicine, the paranormal, UFOs, and so forth (I wrote a whole book about those). I’m talking about my own “tribe,” if you will: progressive, left-leaning liberals.

I have been one of those since I was young, convinced that the fascism that had gripped my own country, Italy, for the two decades leading to World War II was the true evil of the world. Yet, even back in high school I experienced the disturbing intolerance of certain quarters of the left, where any thought that did not align exactly with the orthodoxy of the moment was automatically branded as either “fascist” (thus emptying that word of meaning), or, at best, “qualunquista” (literally “one with random opinions”).

I profess cosmopolitanism, the notion — going back to the ancient Cynics and Stoics — that we are all human beings, endowed by that very fact with a degree of dignity that deserves respect and, most importantly, equal rights. I regularly donate to organizations that fight on behalf of civil rights, of immigrants, and of the freedom of the press. I think that women ought to be paid equally to men and ought to be afforded exactly the same educational and working opportunities. I think it monstrous to deny rights to Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ). I am not religious, but I do not believe that religion is the root of all evil, nor do I believe that any particular religion is ethically worse than any other (with the exceptions of some cults like Scientology).

Yet, I have been told to go fuck myself, you transphobic bastard, simply because I tweeted — without comment — an article that explored some interesting, and to me rather puzzling, conflicts among segments of the feminist, lesbian, and transgender communities. According to this otherwise thoughtful and in-depth piece, my sexual aesthetic preference for slender women cannot but be political, which, obviously, makes me “fatphobic.” If I raise the issue of Islamic terrorism, in a reasonable and historically informed fashion, I risk being branded an Islamophobe (though, funny enough, if I mention Christian terrorism linked to abortion clinics or white supremacy, I get plenty of nods of approval, within my tribe). If I voice the opinion that while the Israeli are guilty of unlawful occupation of Palestinian territory and of slaughtering unharmed innocents, it is also true that too many Palestinians are intolerant and have systematically undermined their own case, then I am, of course, a fascist (again) Islamophobe pig. And so on and so forth.

And then there is this rather new, entirely postmodernist malady: the idea that unless someone has actually experienced something (being it colonialism, gender discrimination, racism, and so forth) then one is not entitled to express an opinion about it, especially if one happens to be a “privileged” white male.

Let me be clear about the latter two points. First, yes, I amply recognize my privilege. I just don’t call it that, because it’s not helpful. I happen to think that everyone, regardless of gender or ethnicity, ought to have a somewhat nurturing family, a decent education, job opportunities, and be safe from discrimination and police violence, like I have been throughout my life. It’s not a fucking privilege, it’s the way all human beings should live. Period. And that’s going to happen only if we stand united to fight discrimination and injustice, rather than wasting energy and time shouting down some of our own allies, shaming them for having gotten lucky at the gene-cultural lottery. That sort of shouting — especially anonymously on social media — may make you feel virtuous, but it is positively damaging to the causes you allegedly care about.

Second, yes, it is certainly the case that people who directly experience discrimination are in a unique position to talk about it, and that they should be afforded a primary place in public discourse in virtue of that very fact. But we also know from plenty of research in social psychology (see here and here, for example) that first person experience is extremely unreliable, as people filter such experiences through all sorts of cognitive biases that inevitably distort their perceptions of things. That is why we need the rest of society to also come to the discussion table. Social progress is made possible by the constructive, and yes, even critical, dialogue among many voices, the by now increasingly old fashioned value of pluralism.

At his point, some readers will have already put down this essay and rushed to social media to begin a campaign of shaming, outraged by the few paragraphs above. So I can keep talking to those who have stuck it so far. Those who have left the conversation, I maintain, suffer from a peculiar disease described by philosopher Nicholas Shackel in a delightful paper published back in 2005 (Metaphilosophy 36: 295–320), entitled “The vacuity of postmodernist methodology: logophobia.”

The Greek roots of the term are obvious: “logos” means “thought,” particularly rational thought, and “phobos” means “fear of.” Logophobia is defined by Shackel as, “a skeptical doctrine about rationality … [where] rationality cannot be an objective constraint on us but is just whatever we make it, and what we make it depends on what we value.” He adds, “[opponents] are held to disguise their self‐interested construction of rationality behind a metaphysically inflated view of rationality in which Reason with a capital R is supposed to transcend the merely empirical selves of rational beings.” In other words, logophobics claim that since reason cannot possibly solve every problem, so you can proceed with dismissing reason altogether.

Shackel’s paper is actually a serious, and at times rather technical, critique of the modus operandi of postmodernist (and deconstructionist, and anti‐rationalist feminist) authors such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean‐Francois Lyotard, David Bloor, Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, to mention just a few of the major offenders (though I personally make distinctions of degree among the named people). At one point I added to the list a number of pseudoscientists, such as the Intelligent Design proponents Bill Dembski and Michael Behe, alternative medicine “gurus” such as Deepak Chopra, or vaccination‐deniers such as Jenny McCarthy. And now, to my deep regret, it is becoming painfully obvious that both the extreme right (which, at the moment, appears to include most of the Republican party in the US), and certain increasingly vocal groups of the left, have been struck by the disease as well.

According to Shackel, logophobics have developed an arsenal of strategies to obfuscate clear thinking, which they deploy whenever pressed by a skeptic. For instance, consider Foucault’s classic thesis that there is no such thing as scientific truth, because truth is a reflection of local socioeconomic and political power: “The essential political problem for the intellectual is not to criticise the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that his own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology, but that of ascertaining the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth.” This is apparently strong stuff, but it becomes a much milder statement when Foucault later tells us what he means by “truth”: “‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.” Really? And here I was thinking that truth means as accurate a description of a subject‐independent reality as possible. Silly me.

Shackel calls this “troll truism,” which he defines as, “a mildly ambiguous statement by which an exciting falsehood may trade on a trivial truth.” It is a particular form of so‐called Humpty‐Dumptying, named after the character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Humpty Dumpty famously tells Alice, after she points out that he is arbitrarily switching word meanings in the course of their discussion: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Now, to be fair, Foucault did have a point: science is a social activity, and scientists are human beings, prone to the same cognitive and cultural biases as everyone else. Also, some science has been in the thralls of either economic or political agendas, or both. Similarly, when Amia Srinivasan, in the article linked above, claims that even our sexual preferences have a political dimension, the thought is neither absurd nor easy to dismiss. But the political, or the economic, are not the beginning and end of everything we do or think. There are (Zeus forbid!) biological instincts and constraints on our behavior, there are matters of taste, and there are simple reasonable disagreements. To reduce everything to the political is to commit the Marxist mistake, only in the latter case everything reduces to economic struggle. No, the human experience is just too varied and complex to be explained away by mono-factorial accounts, no matter how good the intentions of those that push for such accounts.

Logophobia, I maintain, is a broad condition that can strike adult humans of all ages, genders and cultural backgrounds, especially when they have never been exposed to the basics of critical reasoning, or when they have grown up in the thralls of a powerful ideological system. And no, being a scientist, or a philosopher, does not make you immune, unfortunately. The effect of the disease can probably never be eliminated, as we all suffer from it, to an extent. But they can be reduced by means of sound education, although that requires painful effort on the part of educators and subjects alike. Once the subject is past middle school, it becomes increasingly difficult, though not quite impossible, to overcome the malady. But it’s important to try, as huge amounts of financial resources and time are wasted as a result. Occasionally, lives are lost as a direct outcome of logophobia, especially when the logophobic is a politician with the power to start a war, or a celebrity pushing an anti‐medical health practice. And important political agendas may unwittingly be delayed or even undermined when logophobic activists manage to shut down discourse they find threatening, insulting, or “fascistic.”

Needless to say, fighting the spread of logophobia is a primary responsibility of every reasonable thinking person, practicing scientist, and professional philosopher, despite the highly unfavourable odds against defeating it — which is why a thorough knowledge of the disease and of its symptoms is so crucial. Spread the word, and watch out for logophobics near you! (And beware of not becoming one yourself…)

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Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 133

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Friction-free fictions and the problem of techno-optimism.

The ashtray has landed, an uncharitable view of Thomas Kuhn.

Steven Pinker’s ideas about progress may be fatally flawed. These eight graphs argue why.

Is philosophy absurd? Only when you’re doing it right.

The friend effect: why the secret of health and happiness is surprisingly simple.

Does anyone have a right to sex? You would think this doesn’t need more than a one-word answer, and yet here is a long and fairly well argued one.

The easiest way to lucid dream, according to science.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 3, the Laches and the question of expertise in teaching young people

The Laches is the next dialogue we will explore from the Early Socratic Dialogues as translated and commented on in the Penguin edition edited by Trevor Saunders. It is a splendid example of just how good Plato was at dramatizing situations, though precisely because of that it also raises the issue of whether good dramatic writing is helpful to, or gets in the way of, good philosophizing. The scene includes two elderly Athenians, Lysimachus and Melesias, who wish to know who is best qualified to teach their young sons, and how. They are watching a military display, so they end up asking two generals, Nicias and Laches, what their opinion is, and Laches, in turn, invites Socrates — who is nearby — to join the conversation.

Nicias happens to be in favor of professional instruction, while Laches is more skeptical. And Socrates turns the discussion into an exploration of the nature of bravery as an aspect of goodness, on the grounds that a good teacher ought to know what goodness is, before imposing his views on young boys. Nicias, incidentally, was the general that ended up in charge of the ill fated Athenian siege of Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, a siege he almost completed successfully, until the arrival at the last minute of the Spartan general Gylippus, who killed Nicias despite the fact that the latter had spared Gylippus on several previous occasions. Also noteworthy is that fact that this is the first dialogue in which Socrates brings up the controversial notion of the unity of the virtues, the idea that one cannot coherently be, say, courageous but unjust, an idea that makes sense only if one sees all virtues (including courage) as inherently moral in nature.

The dialogue is probably best seen as an example of the combination of two approaches to advancing a philosophical argument: the logos, obviously, i.e. the presentation of a given argument by way of reason; and what the ancient Greeks called the muthos, which translates to a story, or a myth, but that for them had a broader and more positive connotation than it has for us today.

So, the Laches begins with Lysimachus and Melesias wondering how to best educate their sons, in order for them to grow up good as men capable of enjoying a good life. They think that some sort of higher education is needed, perhaps of a military type, which is why they approach the two generals, Nicias and Laches. Lysimachus assumes that virtue can be taught, and that generals are suitable to advise him on the value (notice: as distinct from the specifics) of military training, two assumptions that Socrates eventually questions.

Laches is the one who notices Socrates nearby, and suggests that the philosopher joins the conversation, introducing him as an expert on education, something that Nicias wholeheartedly endorses. Laches also praises Socrates for his bravery at the recent battle of Delium, suggesting that had more Athenians behaved that way the battle would have had a far more favorable outcome for the city.

LYSIMACHUS: Socrates, and Nicias and Laches, people of my age really can’t keep in touch with the younger generation any more, we just potter around at home most of the time feeling our age.

SOCRATES: Well, Lysimachus, on that matter I’ll certainly try to give you any advice I can, and I’ll also try to do everything you invite me to do. But I think it’s only right that since I’m younger than these gentlemen and rather inexperienced in the field, I should listen to what they have to say first and learn from them.

At this point, Nicias talks about the advantages of military training, listing a number of them. The most important one turns out to be that military training makes one brave, which implies that virtue can be taught, and that it is, therefore, a kind of knowledge. Laches disagrees: for him bravery is not a type of knowledge, but a behavior that depends on one’s character.

It is at this point that the two generals ask for Socrates’ opinion, who says that military training here is just a means to an end, and since that end is the boys’ education, what is needed is an an expert in education, not military training. (And he immediately disavows being such an expert.)

SOCRATES: To follow on from what I was just saying, then, if we were wanting to consider which of us had the most expertise in athletics, how would we go about it? Wouldn’t we choose the man who’d learnt about athletics, who’d practised, and who’d been trained in the sport by top coaches?

MELESIAS: I think so.

SOCRATES: So, even before we consider that, we should ask in what subject we’re looking for teachers, shouldn’t we? … So what we have to consider is this: is any of us an expert in caring for the character, and able to care for it properly, and which of us has had good teachers?

Nicias candidly explains to Lysimachus how Socrates works:

NICIAS: You seem not to know that whenever anyone comes face to face with Socrates and has a conversation with him, what invariably happens is that, although they may have started on a completely different subject at first, Socrates will keep heading him off as they’re talking until he has him trapped into giving an account of his present life-style, and of the way he has spent his life in the past. And once he has him trapped, Socrates won’t let him go before he has well and truly cross-examined him on every angle.

Socrates then explains that whenever one claims that he can improve X by adding Y, he ought to know what Y is. Here Nicias and Laches think they can educate the boys by adding goodness to them, so they should know what goodness is.

SOCRATES: So the qualification we need is this: we need to know what goodness is, don’t we? Because if we hadn’t a clue what goodness actually is, there’d be no way in which we could possibly give anyone any advice on the best way of acquiring it, would there?

LACHES: No, I don’t think there would, Socrates.

Socrates then zooms into the obvious aspect of goodness that is pertinent to the discussion, since two of his interlocutors are generals: bravery. What is that? Laches attempts a definition by describing the behavior of a good infantryman, saying that to be brave is to stand and fight. But it doesn’t take long for Socrates to dispatch of this by counterexamples: sometimes the brave thing is to retreat in order to be able to fight another day, and at any rate, soldiers are not the only ones who can be brave.

SOCRATES: [bravery is standing to fight] with the possible exception, Laches, of the Spartan infantry. At the battle of Plataea, so the story goes, the Spartans came up against the troops with wicker shields, but weren’t willing to stand and fight, and fell back. The Persians broke ranks in pursuit; but then the Spartans wheeled round fighting like cavalry and so won that part of the battle.

LACHES: That’s true.

All right, says Laches, then let’s modify our definition: bravery is endurance. Well, responds Socrates, only if endurance is accompanied by wisdom, since endurance for its own sake is hardly a virtue. Here it is Nicias who offers help, fine tuning the definition of bravery by distinguishing between different kinds of knowledge: doctors and farmers, for instance, have technical knowledge that is different from the sort of knowledge that they are interested in at present, i.e., knowledge of good and evil. If they changed the definition of bravery as “endurance with knowledge of good and evil” the counterexamples put forth earlier by Socrates would lose force.

Socrates pushes back against Nicias’ revised definition, even though scholars seem to agree that what Nicias is saying actually reflects Socrates’ own preferred answer. If courage is endurance with knowledge of good and evil, then what about animals and children? Is Nicias denying that they can be brave too? That’s right, answers Nicias. Contra popular belief, animals are not brave, and children aren’t either, at least until they mature a certain understanding of things. Animals and children sometimes behave as if they were brave, but they cannot properly be described as such because they do not actually appreciate the dangers of what they are doing.

NICIAS: ‘Brave’ is not a word I use to describe animals, or anything else that’s not afraid of danger because of its own lack of understanding; I prefer ‘fearless’ and ‘foolish.’ … So you see, what you and most people call brave, I call reckless: brave actions are those coupled with wisdom, as I said.

I find this point to be analogous to contemporary discussions about morality: are primates who, say, show an inclination toward sharing resources fairly with other members of their group acting morally? No, they are acting in a moral-like fashion, but unless they are capable of understanding what they are doing and why (and there is no evidence that they do) applying the moral label to their actions is a category mistake.

Socrates isn’t done, though. He points out to Nicias that now he can no longer distinguish between bravery and goodness, and yet he had previously agreed that bravery is but a part of goodness. They now appear inextricably linked to each other.

That’s pretty much the end of the discussion, with Socrates admitting that they don’t really know the answer, and that they would all well served by looking for someone who can teach them this sort of things. But in reality Nicias’ final proposal is pretty good, and the issue raised by Socrates is answered by the (Socratic!) notion of the unity of the virtues. While nowadays we think that someone can be, for instance, courageous and yet unjust, for Socrates (and the Stoics who followed him on this) that’s an oxymoron. All virtues are unified by wisdom, the knowledge of good and evil, so that only a just person can be courageous, in the moral sense of the term.

As counterintuitive as the notion of the unity of virtues is, I have come to really appreciate its power, which i really prescriptive more than descriptive. It does not negate that someone can act in what looks like a courageous way even though that person is also acting unjustly, and perhaps we should simply use two different words to distinguish such cases. Common sense courage, call it courage-c, may be displayed by a daring criminal, for instance. But virtuous courage, call it courage-v, is precluded to such individual. More difficult is to account for the reverse situation, say someone who understands what is and is not just, and yet fails to act on it for lack of courage. Socrates would say, I am guessing, that such a person is not really just, he only understands justice at an abstract level, but he has not internalized the concept as a matter of practice.

Which brings me to the crucial issue mentioned above, yet only indirectly tackled in the Laches: can virtue be taught? The answer appears to depend on what one means by “taught.” Virtue is certainly not just a matter of theoretical knowledge, as the case of someone who understands justice and yet fails to act on it demonstrates. But it isn’t a matter of practice only either, since Nicias has made clear that one’s acts should be informed by one’s understanding, if they are to count as moral. So virtue can be taught, but such teaching is a combination of sophia and phronesis, i.e., theoretical and practical wisdom.

(next: the Lysis, in which Socrates investigates the nature of friendship)

Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 132

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The scientific case for two spaces after a period. Turns out not to be convincing. At all.

Thinking (and philosophizing) through film and music.

Banning electronic devices in the classroom, some empirical evidence.

The complexities and perils of the academic debate about feminism and transgender rights.

New insights into Ancient Roman economy by way of Greenland’s ice core sampling.

The silencing of the lesbians?

Sam Harris and the myth of perfect rationality.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

The morality-as-cooperation hypothesis and the link between evolution and moral philosophy

“Morality” comes from the Latin moralis, which was Cicero’s translation for the Greek ethos. The Greek word is related to our idea of character, the Latin one has to do with habits and customs. In an important sense, then, morality (or ethics, used here interchangeably) is the study of how to conduct your life, and particularly how to constructively deal with other people.

Recently, a group of researchers headed by Oliver Scott Curry has put out a paper (as yet unpublished) entitled “Is it good to cooperate? Testing the theory of morality-as-cooperation in 60 societies” which is both interesting and more than a bit irritating. (Here is the site with the full version, and here is a commentary by the lead author, put out by the Evolution Institute.) It is interesting because it provides tantalizing empirical evidence to bolster the case, made by several researchers for a long time now, that the bio-cultural origins of a moral sense lie in the need for a species like ours to foster pro-social behavior, or as Curry et al. put it, “cooperation.” Frustrating because it fails to make the crucial conceptual distinction between the origins of morality and its current function, as well to recognize the equally important difference between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to ethics. I’ll do my best to highlight both the positives and the negative in what follows.

First off, a recap of the study as presented by the authors themselves:

“What is morality? And to what extent does it vary around the world? The theory of ‘morality-as-cooperation’ argues that morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life. Morality-as-cooperation draws on the theory of non-zero-sum games to identify distinct problems of cooperation and their solutions, and predicts that specific forms of cooperative behaviour — including helping kin, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior possession — will be considered morally good wherever they arise, in all cultures. In order to test these predictions, we investigate the moral valence of these seven cooperative behaviours in the ethnographic records of 60 societies. We find that the moral valence of these behaviours is uniformly positive, and the majority of these cooperative morals are observed in the majority of cultures, with equal frequency across all regions of the world. We conclude that these seven cooperative behaviours are plausible candidates for universal moral rules, and that morality-as-cooperation could provide the unified theory of morality that anthropology has hitherto lacked.”

Curry’s commentary begins with more than a whiff of scientism: “What is morality? And are there any universal moral values? Scholars have debated these questions for millennia. But now, thanks to science, we have the answers.” Ah! Yes, thanks to science we have the answers! Except that those two questions are quite distinct, of course. The nature of morality has been debated by Socrates (in the as yet unsurpassed Euthyphro) and is of course the topic of the entire field of meta-ethics. Whether there are universal moral values is a rather ambiguous question: do we mean whether there ought to be (prescriptive) or whether there merely happen to be (descriptive)? Philosophers tend to be concerned with the first sense (e.g., Kant), and are more than happy to leave the second one to anthropologists (it is, after all, an empirical question!).

Curry suggests that addressing problems of social behavior is something that has kept natural selection busy, so to speak, for millions of years during the evolution that led to the human lineage, and that moreover, once cultural evolution got started people have added a panoply of norms, rules, and institutions to deal with such problems. So far so good.

The approach used by Curry and his collaborators revolves around seven principles imported from evolutionary biology: “Kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favors, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution explains: why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity; why we defer to our superiors; why we divide disputed resources fairly; and why we recognize prior possession.”

Setting aside a few caveats (like the fact that not all societies actually have a taboo against incest), this theoretical apparatus does, in fact, go a long way toward explaining the origin of the behaviors mentioned. That brought the researchers to predict the universality of the following seven moral rules: “love your family, help your group, return favors, be brave, defer to authority, be fair, and respect others’ property.” And their results do show that these rules are present across cultures, though different societies vary in the way they rank or prioritize the rules. While their data do not explain the reasons for this variation, they also found no case were any of the rules was considered bad.

The overarching conclusion: “so there is a common core of universal moral principles. Morality is always and everywhere a cooperative phenomenon.”

Woah, slow down a second here. First off, perhaps the seven principles in question are common across modern cultures, but that does not ipso facto mean that they always were, nor that they evolved by natural selection, though that is a plausible scenario. Take, for instance, “be fair.” Are we really to understand that “fairness” was a moral precept in the highly unequal ancient Egyptian, or Roman (or pretty much all other) societies? And what do we mean by “fair,” anyway? Fairness may be the same as equality, or not, depending on one’s views, so we have to have a discussion about what it means and how the concept is interpreted in various societies.

“Be brave” is another highly ambiguous idea, and again it is hard to imagine that it means the same thing in, say, modern day Japan, with its penchant for anti-individualism, and ancient Sparta, which was characterized by a cult of individual bravery. And of course there are many different ways of being brave (or cowardly).

Second, jumping to the conclusion that morality is “always and everywhere” about cooperation seems entirely unwarranted. We are not ants or bees, each of us has autonomous projects that we intend to pursue and that have a large impact on the degree to which we flourish, as individuals. Yes, human beings are essentially social animals, and we flourish within a given social framework, but I would argue that morality isn’t about cooperation, but rather about how to balance self-centered vs pro-social needs. The two aspects — myself as an autonomous individual and myself as a member of a group — are in constant tension, and it is that tension that morality addresses, not just the group aspect of it. Cooperation is just one means to the end of survival, reproduction, and flourishing.

And by the way, natural selection doesn’t give a damn about the latter, but we most certainly do. Which is why a lot of our norms, rules, and institutions don’t address mere survival and reproduction, but rather issues such as justice, fairness, and access to resources. That is, they are concerned with flourishing.

Third, one can perfectly coherently object to some of those rules even being on a list of moral dicta. Let’s consider three of them a bit more closely: help your group, defer to authority, and respect others’ property.

At the least since the ancient Cynics and Stoics introduced the concept of cosmopolitanism, it is actually highly morally questionable to “help your group” if this is taken to mean regardless of circumstances, or at the expense of other groups that have an equal claim to resources. Today, it is not acceptable to engage in wars of conquest, for instance, in order to make our group thrive (the fact that it happens is irrelevant to the moral point). It isn’t even acceptable to exploit other groups economically, or by imposing on them environmental damages for our own convenience.

As for deferring to authority, nope, that’s a no starter. It may be a common cross-cultural practice, but it’s a bad idea, and it is in fact highly immoral if one does so blindly, following the orders of whoever is in charge. That way lies the road to tyranny, which is not morally acceptable, in either ancient or modern societies.

But surely we should respect other people’s property. Well, it depends. If it is acquired unethically, even if legally, no, I don’t think there is any such moral requirement. If your wealth is both disproportionate and arrived at by exploiting others (and let’s be frank, if it is the former, it can hardly not be the latter), then it is just and fair to pass laws to relieve you of much of that burden, through proportional taxation, for instance. My libertarian friends can scream loudly all they want, but that doesn’t make their claims to having a “natural right” to property one bit less nonsense on stilts (in the immortal phrase by Jeremy Bentham).

So, by all means let us inquire into the likely biological and cultural evolution of morality. It is a fascinating topic, somewhat amenable to empirical investigation. But let’s not confuse the descriptive with the normative aspects of the question, just like we wouldn’t for a second confuse, say, an account of the origin of mathematical thinking with the delivery of a sound proof of Fermat’s last theorem. Any time Curry et al. tell me that rule X is universal it is still perfectly meaningful for me to reply, yes, but is it moral?

Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 131

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The rhetorical structure behind just about any kind of writing.

The role of luck in determining pretty much everything.

Don’t blame phones for narcissism. A new book argues that 2,500 years of culture have caused an outbreak of self-obsession.

When authors are forced to become more or less shameless self-promoters.

Some good news: people who understand evolution are more likely to accept it, even if they are politically conservative or more religious.

She called his elevator joke offensive. He called her complaint ‘frivolous.’ Neither of them is helping.

The Greeks didn’t have modern ideas of race. Did they see themselves as white, black – or as something else altogether?

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 2, the Ion and whether poetry can teach moral skills

Homer

Do poets know what they are talking about? That’s the question at the center of the dialogue known as Ion, from the name of the main character (other than Socrates) to appear in it. This — after last week’s introduction — is the first actual installment of our discussion of the Early Socratic Dialogues as translated and commented on in the Penguin edition edited by Trevor Saunders, so let me give you a preview of how it’s going to work.

Each post from now on will summarize one of the seven dialogues in the book, beginning with a very short introduction, followed by a section-by-section analysis with selected quotes. Obviously, for a more in-depth treatment of individual dialogues readers are invited to read Saunders’ book. We will conclude each installment with a brief discussion of the main topic, above and beyond what Socrates says. I advise readers to look at the Socratic character with sympathy, in order to appreciate what Plato wrote and learn something, quite regardless of the fact that, obviously, philosophy has made progress in the intervening 24 centuries, so that a modern philosophical take on the specific subject matter would be different.

In the Ion, Socrates’ position is that poets have no idea what they are talking about, and do their thing in a state of madness. Peculiarly, though, Ion is not actually a poet, but rather a rhapsode, that is someone who went around gorgeously attired, chanting the works of Homer or other poets. What makes Ion (the character) interesting, however, is that he was one of those rhapsodes who also lectured on the subject matters covered by Homer, presenting himself as a teacher of human relationships and conduct, as well as a repository of technical information, on topics ranging from sailing to military command. That is why Ion is Socrates’ target here, because he makes claims to knowledge. So what we are about to witness is a demolition job, aimed at showing that rhapsodes — and by implication poets — are not, in fact, teachers of moral skills.

This discussion, in a sense, is still with us today, as one does often hear that literature in general, and (some) poetry in particular, are capable of providing insights into the human condition that are beyond the reach of empirical investigation or dialectical approaches (such as the sort of philosophy practiced by Socrates). Notice also, while following along, that when Socrates says that Ion is “possessed” by the Muses, there is an interesting sense in which he is talking about what we today refer to as intuition, as distinct from explicit knowledge. See this book review of mine on the allied topic of divination in the ancient world, and how it was considered both a type of skill and an inner sense tapping into hidden (i.e., subconscious) knowledge.

The dialogue begins with Socrates pointing out a peculiar flow in Ion’s alleged skills: apparently, the fellow is able to expound only on technical matters as presented by Homer, but by no other poet. If Ion possesses an actual skill, it certainly appears to be a rather strange one.

SOCRATES: It’s obvious to everyone that you are unable to speak about Homer with skill and knowledge – because if you were able to do it by virtue of a skill, you would be able to speak about all the other poets too. … So have you yet seen anyone who is an expert at demonstrating which paintings of Polygnotus, son of Aglaophon, are good and which are bad, but can’t do the same for the other painters? (532c-e)

Socrates then goes on to suggest that Ion does not possess a skill, but rather taps in some sort of strand of inspiration (from a Muse), and since there are several such strands, that explains why he can speak about Homer but not about other poets.

SOCRATES: This fine speaking of yours about Homer, as I was saying a moment ago, is not a skill at all. What moves you is a divine power, like the power in the stone which Euripides dubbed the ‘Magnesian,’ but which most people call the ‘Heraclean.’

(533d, the reference is to the phenomenon of magnetism, which was known to the Greeks.)

SOCRATES: Or don’t you think I’ve got it right, Ion?

ION: By Zeus, I think you have. Somehow or other your words touch my soul, Socrates, and I do believe good poets interpret these messages from the gods for us by divine dispensation.

SOCRATES: So you rhapsodes in turn interpret the words of the poets, don’t you?

ION: You’re right in that, too.

SOCRATES: So your role is to be interpreters of interpreters?

ION: Surely.

(535a)

SOCRATES: One poet depends on one Muse, another on another. Our description of this is ‘he is possessed … Starting from these first rings, the poets, one man dangles from another and catches the inspiration – from Orpheus in one case, Musaeus in another; but most are possessed by Homer. You’re one of them, Ion: you are possessed by Homer … You say what you say about Homer not in virtue of skill or knowledge, but through a divine dispensation and possession. (536a-c)

Socrates then pushes the argument further, suggesting that the only people able to make a judgment about the sort of technical things Ion talks about when declaiming Homer (e.g., sailing, military operations, etc.) are those who are expert in the respective fields, because they possess actual skills. By implication, what Ion says about morality is also not to be trusted, but needs to be subjected to the expert opinion of those who have mustered that particular skill, i.e., philosophers.

As is often the case, however, the conclusion of the dialogue is aporetic, meaning that there is no firmly established positive account, only a negative one. We have not learned what poetry is, only that it is not a skill. But the implication is important, because the reader will have to conclude that if he wants to learn about sailing, military campaigning, or — most importantly as far as Socrates is concerned — ethics, he better not listen to poets.

(Referring to Homer describing chariots)

SOCRATES: Now, in these lines, Ion, which will know better whether Homer’s description is correct or not – a doctor or a charioteer?

ION: A charioteer, of course.

SOCRATES: Because he possesses this particular skill, or in virtue of something else?

ION: No, because he has the skill.

(537b-c)

SOCRATES: So in the case of the lines you quoted, will it be you or a charioteer who knows better whether Homer puts the matter well or not?

ION: A charioteer.

SOCRATES: Presumably because you are a rhapsode, not a charioteer.

ION: Yes.

(538b)

SOCRATES: Then again, will a rhapsode know better than a doctor what sort of thing is appropriately said by someone in charge of a sick person?

ION: No, not that, either.

(540b-c)

Here Ion attempts to recover, stating that he does know what he is talking about, and as a consequence in the course of his performances, whenever he is talking about war he says what would be appropriate for a general to say.

SOCRATES: Well then, in the name of the gods, Ion, since you are the best among the Greeks at both activities, at being a general and at being a rhapsode, why do you traipse round them as a rhapsode, but not as a general? Or is it your view that the Greeks are in sore need of a rhapsode crowned with a golden crown, but have no need of a general at all? (541b-c)

(Please notice the Socratic sarcasm here, and at the end of the next bit.) In the end, Ion has to concede Socrates’ point, which leads him to suggest that having divine inspiration is actually better than having a skill:

ION: There’s a lot of difference [between skill and inspiration], Socrates: it’s a much finer thing to be thought divine.

SOCRATES: Well then, let’s grant you this finer status in our eyes, Ion: as a eulogist of Homer you are not skilled, but divine.

(542a-b)

The modern take: So, what should we think of poets as purveyors of technical or ethical knowledge? Obviously, today we would separate the two issues entirely. I doubt any contemporary poet would seriously claim to have knowledge of sailing just because he wrote a poem that mentions boats, or of war strategy because he wrote about armed conflict.

Poetry is normally celebrated on aesthetic grounds, and so is literature more broadly. But there is also a sense in which (some) modern poets do claim a special insight, if not into ethics, at least into the human condition — which for the Greco-Romans amounted to the same thing. Clearly, that insight does not come from systematic empirical evidence (i.e., science) or dialectical-critical reflection (i.e., philosophy). It is, rather, intuitive, and intuition is not magic or divine (contra what Socrates might or might not have really believed), it is the result of unconscious processing of information about our experiences on the part of our brains. So, if a poet, or author, has had a significant amount of personal experience dealing with human beings under unusual or dramatic situations, then that person may, in fact, have developed intuitions that she is able to convey by way of prose or poetry.

My personal take is that literature is indeed a vehicle to improve our understanding of others at a personal, emotional level. Contra Plato, I wouldn’t ban it from Massimo’s Republic. But I do maintain a certain degree of skepticism about both literature and poetry as forms of knowledge (outside the aesthetic domain), because it is anecdotal knowledge, and it is conveyed in a way that immediately lends itself to emotional manipulation. And now it is time for me to leave you and go back to reading the two novels I’m currently going through: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (L’amica Geniale, I’m reading it in Italian) and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

(next: the Laches, in which Socrates inquires into the best education we can give to our kids)