Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Routledge Handbook on Well Being - Part 01 - Plato

I have a new project.

Given my plans to return to graduate school in Boulder, and given the fact that Chris Heathwood - a professor who deals most closely with the types of issues I am interested in - is focused on the philosophy of well-being, I figured that I should become better able to hold a conversation on that specific subject.

Towards that end, I have purchased Guy Fletcher (ed.). The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being (Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy (2016).

Article 1 in this book - Erin Brown, "Plato on Well-Being" - concerns (obviously enough) Plato's conception of well-being.

Egoistic Interpretations

She begins by claiming that, according to Plato, all human action either does or should aim at the individual's well-being.

Plato’s characters agree that everyone wants his or her life to go well and that, on reflection, at least, all our other goals are subordinate to this (Euthd. 278e, Symp. 204e– 205a).

Apparently, my reaction to this is the common reaction among contemporary philosophers - that this is selfish, egoist, and immoral. However, Brown responds that this misunderstands Plato's conception of a good life. A good life is a life of virtue, and this is not egoistic.

All of this seems to spin around the idea that virtuious activity - activity that considers the interests of people other than the agent - is also good for the agent. Virtue makes not only the lives of others better, it makes the virtuious person's life better as well.

It seems to me as if Plato could not distinguish between an admirable life - a life that people generally have reason to praise - and a life that is good for the person who lived it. His idea of a "good life" seemed to blur this distinction, equivocating between the two meanings.

This, I would have to say, is a problem for Plato, not for Ancient Greece. According to Brown, Plato includes in is dialogues those who thought understood a distinction between a politician doing that which is good for the community and a politician doing that which is good for the politician. The latter type of politician, if successful, can have a better life than the politician who sacrifices his own interests for the good of the community.

The possibility of genuine self-sacrifice seems to be missing from Plato's account - it is logically impossible. Any agent who sacrifices himself for others obtains a better life for himself by definition. It is logically impossible to perform some heroic act in which another person benefits that does not benefit oneself as well, simply in virtue of one's being the type of person who would perform such an action.

Imagine a father who is in the car with his son, with the son driving, when the son causes an accident. It is the son's fault. However, the father takes the blame, claiming to have been driving the car when the accident happened, so as to protect his son. This is an act of self-sacrifice. He may secure a good that matters to him - the well-being of his son. However, in doing so, his life is, by any conventional account, worse off than it would have been, now that he has this accident on his driving record.


Brown then goes on to discuss the Protagorean conception of well-being.

Protagoras was a "pre-Socratic" philosopher who held that "man is the measure of all things". For all practical purposes, all we can ever know is how things appear to us, and it is a mistake to try to talk about how things are in fact. This means that well-being, for Protagoras, is only "what appears to a person as well-being and nothing more". There is no objective well-being.

Plato objects against this extreme form of relativism that it cannot handle prediction. He uses the example of a person drinking an elixer that the agent believes will quench his thirst, but which will instead make him sick. A prediction of a future state is a matter of objective fact, not a matter of opinion. It is something about which an agent can be wrong.

This contradicts Protagorean relativism where we cannot be wrong in anything because all we ever have is "how things appear to us," which cannot be mistaken. In fact, we can be mistaken, and we often are.

This goes with a discussion of the role of wisdom in having a good life.

The discussion of wisdom focuses on a realm of well-being theories that are called "objective list" theories. What makes a life go well involves acquiring in sufficient quantity the items on a list. This includes such things as health, wealth, and power.

Plato answers that none of these things contribute to a good life unless they are used well. Furthermore, the instrument that allows us to use these things well is the instrument of wisdom. Wisdom is always good, whereas anything else the objective-list theorist puts on the list of goods is only contingently good. Thus, wisdom is the only thing that is needed for a good life.

Brown points out that Plato seems to be going "outside of common sense" here. We can characterize Plato's argument as saying that, since wisdom is a necessary condition for a good life (it tells us how to use everything else well), then it is a sufficient condition for a good life. This inference is invalid. The fact that wisdom tells us how to use these other things well does not imply that the other things are not needed. A person may need an oven to bake bread - but this does not imply that the person who only has an oven is capable of baking any bread.

Plato also seems to be claiming that wisdom is the only thing that is necessarily good - whereas everything else is only contingently good. However, there is another necessary good on this list - health. Health is always good. However, this is because health is a value-laden term; it literally means that one's physical or mental faculties are performing well. This is true in the same way that beauty is always good - if it did not have goodness, then it would not be called beauty. Wisdom is always good in this same way. It refers to thinking well (whereas not thinking well is "foolishness").


According to Brown, many people attribute something of a hedonistic conception of well-being, where well-being is the acquisition of pleasure and absence of pain.

She provides three reasons for this - and Brown provides reason to reject each of them.

First, in Protagoras, Socrates articulates hedonism in the Protagoras. Yet, Brown argues that the objective here is to describe a system in order to criticize it. Typically, Plato would have a character in the dialogue defend the position that he will have Socrates criticize. However, Protagoras "balks at endorsing hedonism", Plato has Socrates continue the conversation by attributing the view to "the many" instead. It is a mistake to think that his development of hedonism in this account is a defense of hedonism.

Second, in Republic, Plato's Socrates defends the claim that it is always better to be unjust by arguing that the just person is better able to satisfy his desires (and thus acquire pleasure) than the unjust. Brown argues that, in this case, Socrates is using a conditional argument - that given certain assumptions that Gloucon, in this case, would accept, we can get to the conclusion that it is always better to be just than unjust. However, this does not imply that Socrates (or Plato) accepts those assumptions.

Third, in Laws, Plato seems to assert that the best life is the most pleasant. Here, Brown argues that the fact that there is pleasure to be found in a good life does not imply that pleasure is what makes it a good life.

The main reason to reject the idea that Plato argues for hedonism is that he has Socrates directly attack the theory.

There is the problem that some pleasures are better than others, and some pleasure are completely shameful, suggesting that there must be a standard other than pleasure which we can use to determine better and worse pleasures.

He also argues that what is good for us makes us better - but that pleasure does not make us better "since pleasure occurs in foolish people just as readily as it occurs in intelligent people".

Plato also has Socrates argue that, while what is good for us is the opposite of what is bad for us, pleasure and pain are not opposites. Pleasure and pain are, instead, distinct sensations, which we can feel at the same time. Consequently, pleasure cannot be identified with what is good for us.

The fact that Plato explicitly rejects hedonism tells us that we should look for an alternative interpretation of those parts of his writings where he appears to endorse it.

The Socratic Conception

We are left with what Brown calls the Socratic Conception of well-being. On this account, as mentioned above, well-being is virtuous activity - which may also be understood as wise activity or activity in accordance with reason.

On this account, she says.
Plato’s dialogues offer two ways of identifying virtuous activity. The first is psychology. Virtue is the disposition that makes its possessor do what it essentially does well (Rep. 352d– 354d). To give an account of the virtues of the soul, then, one must first give an account of how the soul works. An account of healthy and unhealthy psychological functioning will identify the virtues as the dispositions of healthy functioning.

The second way of identifying virtue is wisdom. For Plato, virtue is or requires wisdom, and wisdom is or requires a coherent grasp of how things are. So virtue is determined not merely from the “scientific” point of view, working out an explanatory account of how, say, anger works, or love, or lust, but also from the agent’s point of view, working out how these feelings, and the values they implicate, do and do not hang together with each other and with all our other attitudes. Only if we can survive Socratic examination can we begin to think that we might be wise and virtuous, and this constrains what wise and virtuous activity could be.

However, I do not see how this answers the question.

It is like saying that the goal in making a trip is to travel wisely. This is an instruction about how to get from Point A to Point B, but it tells us nothing about what Point B is. In fact, we cannot even begin to "travel wisely" or "travel according to reason" until we first have a Point B.

Similarly, I do not see how we can live a good life according to wisdom or reason until we have an idea of what the good life is. Once we have our "Point B", then we can appeal to wisdom and reason to tell us how best to get there.

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