Instilling Public Virtue
June 16, 2010

Romantic history painting. Commemorates the Fr...
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My earlier post about the ethical limits of state interference in culture ties into one of my major concerns in political philosophy: public virtue. Namely, what it is, and how to get some.

It seems to me fairly self-evident that a strong sense of public virtue is necessary for the continued survival of a democracy. After all, in an ideal democracy or republic (which, admittedly, we don’t have), accountability and legitimacy ultimately ends with the decisions of the people. So the state, then, would only be as virtuous as its citizens.

Maybe you disagree. The counterargument is that voting should be done purely as an exercise in self-interest, because if everyone votes in their own self-interest then the result will be candidates and policies that benefit the majority of the people. But very few would argue against some basic limits on the ability of the majority to assert its will, and the reason given tends to be pretty simple: letting the majority enslave the minority and trample on its rights would be unjust. Which makes me think there’s a consensus that justice is a greater priority for a society than making 51% of the society as happy as possible.

So an ideal democracy, then, would be one in which as many people as possible—a bare majority, at the very least—make rational voting decisions based on the outcome most likely to produce a more just state.

So the next question—and, I think, the truly difficult one—is this: Is there a just way to guide voters into freely making decisions like that? Is it just to even try?

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Literary Readings of Plato
May 25, 2010

Cover of "Republic (Oxford World's Classi...
Cover of Republic (Oxford World’s Classics)

A lot of commenters have been offering up very smart readings of Platonic dialogues, and particularly the Republic, that understand the arguments Socrates, Glaucon, Thrasymachus and others offer up as standing for more than just the arguments themselves. I’ve heard a lot of similar readings of Plato; for example, in Grand Strategies, Charles Hill insists that the Republic is obviously a satire, and Plato meant to satirize, not endorse, the vision Socrates offers up of a nation-state run by philosopher-kings.

I’m not so sure about that. But regardless of the merits of what Hill says, it’s not so much a philosophical critique as it is a literary one. When one argues that the debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus over the nature of justice is a metaphor for something else, that, too, is a literary critique.

Obviously literary readings of the Republic have a lot of value, and the text is, among many other things, a great work of literature. But I think attempts to read it like this expose some of the limitations of philosophy: in order to do a philosophical analysis of the arguments in the Republic, we pretty much have to take them at face value and assume that the participating parties mean exactly what they say and no more. Otherwise, the argument gets so mired in  ambiguity that there’s no clearly defined logical progression of ideas to break down and evaluate.

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Thrasymachus’ Challenge
May 24, 2010

Plato along with Socrates and Aristotle were f...
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Alright, enough preamble; let’s do some philosophy.

When I took Ethics, almost the entirety of the class was spent reading Plato’s The Republic, in which Socrates is portrayed as having a series of dialogues regarding the nature of justice and the ideal state. The one that always stuck with me—and troubled me for long after the end of the semester—was the dialogue that concludes Book I, between Socrates and Thrasymachus.

At this point, Socrates is still trying to come up with a satisfactory definition for the word “justice,” and Thrasymachus responds by sneering at his naïve attempts. He offers up two definitions. First, he says that, “the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own.”

Later, he argues that “justice” is a social construct—it is whatever is to the advantage of the stronger, ruling party.

Obviously, these two definitions are in conflict with one another, and Socrates shoots them both down eventually. It does not help Thrasymachus’ case either that he is, throughout Book I, hectoring, rude, and generally abrasive on a level not seen anywhere else in the text.

So why was the passage so troubling? Maybe because I didn’t find Socrates’ rebuttal persuasive. But before I get into why, I want to hear what you guys think of Thrasymachus’ argument.

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