Thursday, June 25, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book II

The irascible Thrasymachus has retired, leaving Glaucon to duel with Socrates. The former divides goods into three classes: those "which we welcome for their own sakes" (ex. harmless pleasures), those "which are desirable not only in themselves, but also for their results" (ex. knowledge), and those which "do us good but we regard them as disagreeable" (ex. the care of the sick).

He then asks Socrates into which class would he place justice. Socrates replies: "In the highest class--among those goods which he who would be happy desires both for their own sake and for the sake of their results." But since the actions of men leave this classification in some doubt, they proceed further. Glaucon proposes to speak of: "the nature and origin of justice according to the common view of them". He also hopes to "show that all men who practise justice do so against their will, of necessity, but not as a good." Lastly, he argues that: "the life of the unjust is after all better far than the life of the just" if we take the common view. In this somewhat convoluted way, he hopes to provide a means by which Socrates may make clear to him the superiority of justice in respect to injustice.

Glaucon argues that justice is merely what is lawful, and that laws have been developed by men with the aim of reducing the injustice each suffers at the hands of his fellow men. He then recounts the now famous story of the ring of Gyges. Gyges is a shepherd, who receives a ring from a deceased ancestor. The powers of the ring are such that those who wear it may become invisible at will. After becoming aware of these powers, Gyges seduces the queen and kills the king, proving that men act justly only because they fear the consequences of acting otherwise. "If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice."

He next claims that "the highest reach of injustice is: to be deemed just when you are not." The just man will be his opposite, acting justly, but appearing to be unjust. Given such a situation, Socrates finds it difficult to make the case for the just man.

As an aside, since Plato likely viewed his mentor, Socrates as the just man, and since the Republic was almost certainly written after the Athenian assembly condemned the just man to death, the importance of the argument can be readily grasped. If Plato wishes to convince his audience of the desirability of just living, he must confront the fact that in recent memory, just living has led to many undesirable consequences.

Drawing upon an assortment of Greeks, Adeimantus joins in and comments: "Since then, as philosophers prove, appearance tyrannizes over truth and is lord of happiness, to appearance I must devote myself." In other words, justice is seen merely as a means; the end is being thought of and treated well. Justice has merit only insofar as it aids us in attaining the appearance of being just so as to acquire benefits for ourselves. Moreover, quoting Hesiod, since "vice may be had in abundance without trouble; the way is smooth and her dwelling-place is near. But before virtue the gods have set toil, and a tedious and uphill road." We do well do practice vice, only taking toil to disguise it from our fellow man.

Deceiving our fellow man is easy enough, but what of the gods? Adeimantus doubts their existence, or at least their concern for man. We know of the gods only through the poets, anyway, "If the poets speak truly, why then we had better be unjust, and offer of the fruits of injustice; for if we are just, although we may escape the vengeance of heaven, we shall lose the gains of injustice; but, if we are unjust, we shall keep the gains, and by our sinning and praying, and praying and sinning, the gods will be propitiated, and we shall not be punished."

Another aside: I'd be interested, PJ, if you find the existence of the gods--or God--necessary for perfect justice, seeing how injustice seems so profitable in this life. I don't think this can be taken as proof of God's existence, but I'm not sure I find Adeimantus's objections to be sustainable.

Back to the dialogue. Adeimantus ends his argument pleading Socrates to "show what effect [justice and injustice have] because of [themselves] on the person who has [them]--the one for good and the other for bad." He feels that this is not asking too much since Socrates has dedicated his whole life to the question of justice.

Somewhat at a loss, Socrates then proposes to examine the argument at a larger scale. If it is difficult to define justice at an individual level, perhaps it will be profitable to examine justice "as the virtue of a State". Once a consensus is arrived at regarding justice at a large level, the principles can then be applied to the individual level.

Socrates proceeds to examine the beginnings of a theoretical city. "Then, as we have many wants, and many persons are needed to supply them, one takes a helper for one purpose and another for another; and when these partners and helpers are gathered together in one habitation the body of inhabitants is termed a State. "

He begins to people his city. I am struck here by Socrates identification of the advantages of the division of labor. Starting with four or five people, the city quickly begins to swell, as individuals are brought in to provide a specific need.

Another striking statement: " And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war." Meanwhile, spurred on by Glaucon, Socrates adds yet more people, with an aim of adding luxury, at least for certain members of his society.

He believes that he has stumbled on the origins of war. Since the land of his growing city will be insufficient for the number of people now living in it, he believes his city will attack that of his neighbors. This is a reasonable conjecture, but it seems too narrow. Athens, whence Socrates hails, entered in on an expedition to Syracuse without any real need for land. Instead, Alcibiades, a student of Socrates, plainly argues that the war will bring glory to Athens.

His point about the superiority of a division of labor leads him to conclude that a standing army will be necessary for his city. But I'm unconvinced on this point. One of the downsides to a standing army is that this class can become cut off from the rest of the population, as in late Imperial Rome, and as with the Military Industrial Complex today. This leads to a separation of interests, as the soldiers will be more eager to practice an art which should be reserved for defensive purposes.

Nonetheless, Socrates dwells on the "guardians". They must be "spirited" so as to fight well, but gentle in regards to their fellow citizens. To maintain this balance requires a philosophical mind. He then proceeds to discuss the education of the guardians, starting with "music and poetry before physical training." Since the young are the most malleable, it will be crucial to supervise those who tell them stories. Only those which are beautiful and true will be acceptable; no lies about the gods, for instance, will be allowed. The gods must be told of as they are, which is to say, good.

Here I must interject. Insofar as this is an intellectual exercise, it may proceed with much edification. However, if someone were to actually implement the society of Socrates, anyone dwelling therein would find himself in the midst of a totalitarian nightmare. A State which may limit what stories a mother may tell her child has a far reach indeed.

Socrates engages in a somewhat lengthy aside on the gods. First, we are not to accredit bad things to the gods, but only good things. Second, gods do not change, because any change would be a degradation, and no one would willingly make himself worse. Third, the gods would never deign to use falsehood. "Then is God perfectly simple and true both in word and deed; he changes not; he deceives not, either by sign or word, by dream or waking vision."

Fascism defined

I'm awaiting a response from PJ before I post on Book II of The Republic, but in the meantime I wanted to quickly correct an oversight in my earlier post on fascism. Simply put, I glossed over the important part in which one defines one's term before using it as a bludgeon. Since Jonah Goldberg has been influential in my education regarding fascism, I will use his definition:

Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politics and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the “problem” and therefore defined as the enemy. - Liberal Fascism, p. 23

Given the society which Socrates envisions in his attempts at justice, fascism is hardly off topic. My question, especially for Troutsky: is this definition is a good one? If not, how would you correct Goldberg's definition?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book I

Since Blogger doesn't do a very good job of alerting viewers about this, I should probably begin by calling attention to the fact the this is not "A Wiser Man Than I" (whom I know better as Eric), but guest-blogger PJ who is writing. Last summer we had a enjoyably productive exchange over Mill's On Liberty, and we're now hoping to repeat that success with Plato's classic treatise in political philosophy, The Republic. We plan to alternate treating each of its ten books sequentially, perhaps adjusting the format as we go along. What follows is a summary, with very light commentary, of Book I.

The topic to be considered is justice. The book opens not with an argument, but with a description of the setting in which the dialogue will take place. Socrates and Glaucon have been observing the religious festivities of Piraeus and are on their way back to Athens when Polemarchus and some other citizens of Piraeus chase after and rather aggressively persuade them to remain for further events and conversation.

Socrates proceeds to speak graciously with the elderly Cephalus, introducing what may be an implicit theme of the book: a possible contrast of deference and respect for tradition with the a priori, rational approach of philosophical argumentation. Soc asks for a report on the difficulties of old age. Cephalus relates that, contrary to common opinion, he has views old age as a blessing: it is an escape from the appetites and passions that "importune" the young, jerking them from one pleasure to the next without real fulfillment. Of course, he adds, how one ages is the result of how one lives. The just man will enjoy his old age, whereas the libertine will bemoan his loss of the desires that ruled him in his youth, in which he found the all the guidance and satisfaction he ever knew. (Interestingly, Soc will reach a similar sort of conclusion at the end of this book.) Even wealth, to some extent a necessary condition of happiness, is presented as valuable mostly for sheltering us from many common temptations to vicious activity.

And so the question arises of what it is to be just, and, at this point, Cephalus (in a perhaps symbolic move) passes the argument over to his son Polemarchus and leaves the group in order to take part in a religious ceremony.

Here are the four attempted definitions of "justice" that emerge in the subsequent debate, together with the objections raised to them:

1. "Speaking the truth and paying whatever debts one has incurred."

But: Sometime paying back a debt in changed circumstances can lead to evil (as with speaking the truth in certain circumstances). It doesn't seem just to return a weapon to a friend who has lost him mind.

2. "To give to each what is owed to him."

But: (as above)

3. "Friends owe it to friends to do good for them, never harm." (Later emendation: We can be mistaken about who are our friends, so we should revise the original definition accordingly.)

A short detour: Consider justice as a "craft" on analogy with medicine or horse-training. What does it give, and to whom or what does it give it?

This raises the issue of the many respects in which things can be good or bad for different people with different needs in different situations, and of the diverse array of experts best qualified to provide for these needs. To do good for one's friends when they are at sea requires the skills of captain; when they are at war, those of a general; when they are hungry, of a cook; when they are sick, of a doctor; etc. To be truly just, on this definition, would require super-human capacities. (I take the next argument of the text to make the same point in a different way, and so I pass over it here.) In these passage Soc is closely anticipating what I believe will be the (still rather rough) position that he reaches at the end of Book I.

Furthermore: If justice is doing good to one's friends, doesn't it also require us to give to one's enemies what is bad for them? It seems so. But isn't treating enemies badly likely to make them resentful, less virtuous, and unjust in their character and action? Could the authentic exercise of justice directly produce injustice in this way? This seems wrong.

At this point, Thrasymachus violently interjects, expressing anger and contempt with Socrates for refusing to confront the issue and give a real definition.

4. He proposes the following: justice is "the advantage of the stronger." The rulers of a city, whatever its form of government, decide what justice is in accordance with their own advantage.

But: sometimes rulers make mistakes and give orders not to their own advantage. So it appears that sometimes subjects should not obey their rulers.

No, Thras responds, people are only rulers to the extent that they command what is, as a matter of fact, to their advantage, and so all commands that come from rulers, as such, must be obeyed.

Soc rejoinds: Crafts (a class to which we are at least provisionally regarding justice as belonging) do not seek their own advantage, but the advantage of their objects. For instance, medicine is not about about advancing the interests of medicine or of doctors, but of advancing the health of patients. So it seems that rulers must seek precisely what Thras denies: the good, not of themselves, but of their subjects.

Thras accuses Soc of naiveté. As if the ultimate concern of shepherds were for the good of their sheep! Shepherds seek the good of shepherds -- of themselves -- for whom sheep have a merely instrumental value.

His speech in defense of this (343b-344c) is, for me, the most difficult passage of the first book. The problem is that Thras equivocates on the definition of justice. Sometimes he uses it as the "simple" men do, on something like one of the first definitions considered. Other times he uses it in his own sense, where it is equated with strength broadly understood as the ability to gets one's own way in spite of any resistance from others. True justice is actually harmful to the one who obeys, but (presumably) not to obey would be even worse. In a claim anticipating Niezsche's screed against "slave morality," Thras claims that "those who reject injustice do so not because they are afraid of not doing it, but of suffering it." By the end of the passage he has explicitly equated true justice with injustice in its "simple" sense. Thus justice, for Thras, has its perfection in tyranny.

In response, Soc returns to his earlier claims about the structure of craft. A good shepherd, insofar as he is a shepherd, truly does seek the good of his sheep. The fact that wage-earning accompanies this craft does not affect the point in question. Ruling, Soc argues, is a lot of work. And what it is to do that work well and be a good ruler is a separate question from the kind of wages or other benefits he might receive. Indeed, in a now-famous claim, Soc declares: if good people are willing to rule, it can only be out of fear of being ruled by someone worse than themselves--for the best people are not motivated by the love of money or honor that are the typical "wage" of ruling (347c).

Here the argument shifts to consider whether the life of the just man or that of the unjust man is to be preferred.

Thras regards injustice (in its simple sense) as something not merely profitable, but as something "fine and strong," to be included along with the likes of "virtue and wisdom."

Yet, Soc proceeds, the unjust person is precisely the one who thinks that he deserves to outdo everyone -- just or unjust -- whereas the just person will not seek to outdo other just people. Appealing again to the notion of "craft," Soc argues that this simply cannot be right: "in any branch of knowledge or ignorance, do you think that a knowledgeable person would intentionally try to outdo other knowledgeable people or say something better or different than they do, rather than doing or saying the very same thing as those like him?" (350a). He continues to develop this claim for the specific case of justice, and this will be the penultimate movement of the book's argument.

The claim is that justice in something like the simple sense is necessary for the success of justice in Thrasymachus's sense. No city can conquer another without sort of internal coherence that we typically want to characterize as at least akin to justice in its usual sense. In order to become strong enough to assault its neighbors, a city must organize relations among its citizens so that it can function as a single unit. Socrates is here anticipating what I believe will be the final position of The Republic, that justice cannot be cashed out in terms of the actions of singular agents, but only in terms of the harmonious organization of the whole body politic.

The final move of the chapter is to identify justice, thus loosely characterized, as a virtue of the soul, and to infer -- just as Cephalus claimed in the beginning -- that a just person will be happy and an unjust one unhappy. We might return to this later, when Soc says more about the soul and the virtues.

We can discuss from all of this whatever is most of interest to everyone. Do any of these arguments look particularly good or bad? Are there any important possibilities that are simply not considered? Is there any point at which I seem to misread the text? How should the narrative framing affect our understanding of the arguments advanced in the text?

All thoughts welcome!

Cheers, PJ

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On advertisement

Even among those who would prefer capitalism to socialism, there are certain aspects of the free market which many find repugnant. Advertising, for instance, may be tolerated when it aims merely to inform a potential customer about the product or service the entrepreneur wishes to sell; but when the advertisement cajoles a consumer--on false pretenses--we seem to recoil in horror. Surely the makers of Axe Body Spray are being disingenuous, and thus deserve our wrath, when they imply that a man who uses their product will wind up, unassumingly, next to a gorgeous woman at the supermarket only to wake up the next morning--but as I've said, it's implied.

The typical take here is that Axe, or its equivalent insidious corporation, is exploiting ignorant consumers into thinking that their product is something that it isn't; nine times out of ten, the product misleads consumers into thinking they will be sex machines to all the chicks, something most of them will never be. Two critiques of this line of thinking present themselves:

1) While the critics are able to correctly determine that the advertisement is engaging in hyperbole, they too readily assume that only a small segment of the population is capable of reaching a similar conclusion. I'm hardly one to defend the masses against their own stupidity and ignorance, but a Chesterton quip springs quickly to mind: "We lose our bearings entirely by speaking of the 'lower classes' when we mean humanity minus ourselves." The fact that one is capable of appreciating the not so subtle point cannot be taken as proof that those capable of likewise grasping it are insignificant in number.

2) Even supposing that someone is duped into buying a product based purely on its sex appeal, we err if we assume he will never realize that it is failing to help him achieve his desired ends. In my opinion, Axe is a wretched product, both over-priced and reeking of smells I never want anywhere near my body. But if enough people like it--even at its price, and regardless of its efficacy in the getting-with-babes department--it will deservedly sell. Both consumers and producers benefit in any voluntary exchange.

As the economist Joseph Schumpeter put it:

The picture of the prettiest girl that ever lived will in the long run prove powerless to maintain the sales of a bad cigarette. There is no equally effective safeguard in the case of political decisions. Many decisions of fateful importance are of a nature that makes it impossible for the public to experiment with them at its leisure and at moderate cost. Even if that is possible, judgment is as a rule not so easy to arrive at as in the case of the cigarette, because effects are less easy to interpret. ( Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, p. 263; quoted in Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, p. 888)

If we are to assume that man is incapable of resisting the siren's song of an advertisement on the market, we have little to fall back on in the way of a defense of democracy. It is much easier to tell if we are smoking a bad cigarette, or applying awful smelling deodorant, than it is to know if, say, a stimulus package was the most effective means of creating a recovery.

When you get right down to it, claims that electing a certain political will end terror or cause the rise of the oceans to slow are far more ridiculous than insinuating that applying a certain scent will help one win a lady. The latter is at least bound to happen on occasion, whereas the political promises reside almost entirely in the land of the fabulous. Critics of advertisement, then, would do well to me more consistent in the application of their charge. Although it is ultimately unsubstantiated in the free market, leveling it in a political context would serve us all.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A few words on praxeology

In his wonderful book, The Church and the Market, Thomas Woods--a fellow Catholic libertarian--makes a very persuasive case that the Church accept free market capitalism as a system fully in accord with Catholic teaching. Woods is a member of the Austrian school of economics, which believes in fundamental and universal laws which undergird the science of economics. Unlike some of the doctrines of the Church--that of the Trinity, or of the Immaculate Conception--which can be known only through Revelation, the laws of economics are comprehensible to man through the use of his reason alone. They can be derived through the study of praxeology: the science of human action. As Murray Rothbard put it: "Praxeology and economics deal with any given ends and with the formal implications of the fact that men have ends and employ means to attain them." (Man, Economy, and State, p. 73)

The nature of economics, then, is such that it is not concerned with ethics. This point requires clarification. After all, certain economic transactions, even in a free market--that is, without the use of or the threat of violence from either party--produce ends which most ethical systems would condemn. It can hardly be ethical, for instance, to hand a child a loaded gun. Whether or not the has exchanged one of his toys with you in the process is irrelevant. We should realize, however, that we condemn this act not as economists but as ethicists. Strictly speaking, to paraphrase Fred Reed, an ethical economist is a contradiction in terms. Praxeology is not the right tool from which to extract morals. This isn't a slight against it; one cannot derive morals from physics either.

With this in mind, Woods argues that just as economists are out of their area of expertise when discussing ethics--although, since free, they may speak on whatever subjects they so choose--the popes, too, are out of their jurisdiction, so to speak, when recommending specific economic policies. The popes may, and should, implore Catholics to give charitably to the poor. But if they prescribe a specific method for achieving a desired end--in this case, the amelioration of poverty--an economist may criticize based on the economic viability of the method prescribed. As Woods puts it: "Any reasonable application of moral law in concrete circumstances must take into account all the facts of those circumstances. Economic law is one of those facts, whether its opponents like it or not." (The Church and the Market, p.30)

To demonstrate by way of example, recent popes have expressed a desire that all workers be paid a "living wage". Now, setting aside the problem with determining the amount which constitutes a living wage, let us all agree that such an end is desirable. However, if the Pope insists that it would be preferable for governments to enforce this living wage, economists may rightfully explain to him the consequences of his action. In fact, they should explain these consequences, since the end result of his policy will be the opposite of that which he intended to achieve. For economics teaches us, plainly, that an increase in wages which cannot be supported by the market will create more unemployment than would have otherwise existed; laid off workers will be the price the market extracts for wages the more fortunate workers receive. If this point seems suspicious, bringing figures into it--chosen arbitrarily of course--may help clarify. If the U.S. Government mandates a minimum wage of $100 per hour, the effect would be massive unemployment; the vast majority of workers are not productive enough to justify such a wage.

I'll have some more thoughts to offer on this topic later. For now, the essential point is that a desire to achieve some end does not give one moral high ground if the obvious economic effects of the attempt to achieve this end can never produce it. The converse holds true as well. An opposition to, say, minimum wage laws, does not mean one is insensitive to the plight of the poor. On the contrary, if the poor will be hurt by such a law, those who would support the poor cannot support it. If me may modify Samuel Johnson's famous maxim, it seems hell is paved with the good intentions of those ignorant of economic law.