PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 107 25th July 2005
I. 'Who Escapes Plato's Cave?' by Daniel Silvermintz
II. 'Studying with the University of London External Programme' by Moira
III. Moral Objectivity and Moral Relativism: Exchange between Stuart Burns and
Not for the first time, an incautious remark in my Glass House Notebook has landed me in trouble. Daniel Silvermintz challenges something I said concerning Socrates' mission: 'The Philosopher teaches the physician to be a good physician, the statesman to be a good statesman, the stonemason to be a good stonemason, the motorcycle mechanic to be a good motorcycle mechanic.'
'Good' in what sense?
This was my idea: Robert Pirsig's enlightened motorcycle mechanic in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance isn't a philosopher or metaphysician -- certainly not a moralist -- yet has learned that there is such a thing as a philosophy of motorcycle maintenance. The same applies, I wanted to say, to medicine, stonemasonry, statesmanship -- and business. But how can you know this without studying philosophy? Are there two kinds of 'philosophy student', those who grapple with the problems of ethics, metaphysics and epistemology that philosophers have debated for 2500 years, and those who limit their interest in philosophy to its practical impact on their own vocation or discipline?
In a very timely article, Moira McIntyre who has just completed her BA in Philosophy via the University of London External Programme offers some very useful practical advice for distance learning students starting out on the BA. Moira's advice is required reading for all students taking the University of London BA with tutorial support from Pathways.
Stuart Burns in his comments on the article by Brandon Johns on the moral philosopher David Ross (Issue 106) reminds us that the final line of defence of the moral objectivist in response to the challenge of relativism is to say that when moral beliefs clash, at least one must be false. In his reply, Brandon Johns looks at two alternative explanations why David Ross does not make for this seemingly obvious move.
I. 'WHO ESCAPES PLATO'S CAVE?' BY DANIEL SILVERMINTZ
In spite of his own efforts to encourage philosophic thinking in an audience outside the academy, Geoffrey Klempner argues that Socrates' labours discoursing with his fellow Athenians were not similarly expended with the hope of impelling others to embrace the philosophic life. Geoffrey Klempner writes,
Plato's Philosopher in the Republic escapes the Cave of
illusions, to experience the brilliant Sun, the Good, the
Ultimate Reality, but then goes back to the cave to rescue
the other poor souls who got left behind. Then he does
what? -- teach them metaphysics? Are you kidding?? That was
not why Socrates went to the market place, why he sought to
engage anyone and everyone in dialogue, challenging their
prejudices and forcing them to think about their lives. The
Philosopher teaches the physician to be a good physician,
the statesman to be a good statesman, the stonemason to be
a good stonemason, the motorcycle mechanic to be a good
Glass House Philosopher, Notebook II, p. 5
Does Socratic ethics promote, as suggested by Geoffrey Klempner, a professional ethics, encouraging individuals to be better producers in the economic order? Although many Plato scholars might believe that the majority of individuals do not have either the capacity or the need for studying philosophy, I would like to challenge this diagnosis of the human condition by reconsidering the aim of Socrates' mission.
Geoffrey Klempner is certainly correct that Socrates' inquiries were primarily concerned with questions about how best to live a human life rather than abstract speculations about the nature of being. In his intellectual autobiography, Socrates recounts that he had pursued cosmological investigations along the lines of the natural scientists during his youth, yet had ultimately abandoned these studies since they offered him no guidance regarding the realm of human affairs. Notwithstanding the radical shift of Socrates' object of study, his ethical inquiries employ all of the rigors of the metaphysician, which he had cultivated in his earlier scientific studies. In light of Socrates' intellectual journey, one wonders if others will become more reflective about their lives without thinking like the metaphysician and philosopher.
Let us begin our analysis with the strongest evidence from the Platonic dialogues in support of a non-philosophic professional ethics. As with so many issues contested in platonic scholarship, the dramatic and dialectical form in which arguments are presented in the dialogues provide fertile ground for competing interpretations. I shall demonstrate this principle by using the same textual evidence both to defend and oppose Geoffrey Klempner's interpretation.
Why should an individual act with justice when he or she could transgress the law with impunity? This basic ethical dilemma provides the central question of the Republic. After investigating and rejecting several commonly accepted definitions of justice as philosophically insufficient, Socrates redirects the conversation from the arena of personal accountability to the justice exhibited in political communities. Since Socrates' ultimate understanding of ethics is contingent upon belief in the intangible soul, he is forced to employ an analogy as a means of explicating something that belies direct investigation. The central books of the Republic are, therefore, focused upon considering justice in politics despite the fact that this is not the primary concern of the dialogue.
Once Socrates has introduced his method for studying ethics through an analogy to politics, he enlists his discussion partners as founders of an ideal city. Although the city experiences several regime changes, one principle established with the city's origins remains intact over the course of its tumultuous development. Recognizing that political communities come into being to satisfy the mutual needs of the citizens through the exchange of goods, Socrates suggests that the city will be provided with the best quality goods if each citizen labours at a single profession that best suits his or her natural abilities. Socrates here defends his notion of the division of labour leading to expertise among the city's craftsmen:
Is it so easy that a man who is cultivating the soil will
be at the same time a soldier and one who is practising
cobbling or any other trade, though no man in the world
could make himself a competent expert at draughts or the
dice who did not practise that and nothing else from
childhood but treated it as an occasional business?
Plato, Republic 374c
Each citizen satisfies his or her civic duty to the city by devoting his or her labours to a single profession and becoming an expert in a given field.
Rather than any universal ethical imperative, it is the principle of job specialization within Socrates' ideal city that first brings to light political justice. Socrates declares,
'Listen then,' said I, 'and learn if there is anything in
what I say. For what we laid down in the beginning as a
universal requirement when we were founding our city, this
I think, or some form of this, is justice. And what we did
lay down, and often said, you recall, was that each one man
must perform one social service in the state for which his
nature is best adapted.' 'Yes, we said that.' 'And again
that to do one's own business and not to be a busybody is
Plato, Republic 433b
Prefiguring Bernard de Mandeville's notion that public benefits result from individuals pursuing their private vices, Socrates lauds the superior commercial life of a city whose citizens perfect their talents amidst the competition of the marketplace.
Although this reading of the Republic has thus far supported Geoffrey Klempner's notion of professional ethics, one can already see that the justice exemplified by the moneymaking class does not, as one would expect from ethical action, result from any deliberative choice. On the contrary, the craftsmen selfishly pursue their business activities in order to satisfy their bodily desires while all the time neglecting the sort of self-examination that might result in self-imposed restraint. Once the genuine virtue of the properly ordered soul of the philosopher is revealed, the previously extolled artisan is diagnosed by Socrates as simply slavish and in need of the interdicts of outside governance:
And why do you suppose that 'base mechanic' handicraft is a
term of reproach? Shall we not say that it is solely when
the best part is naturally weak in a man so that it cannot
govern and control the brood of beasts within him but can
only serve them and can learn nothing but the ways of
Plato, Republic 590c
How do we reconcile Socrates' opposing judgments of the city's craftsmen? Is the craftsman to be regarded as an exemplar of the virtuous citizen or of the vicious glutton?
Although Socrates may have lauded the role of the dedicated and specialized worker in producing superior goods for the city, he was obviously not assuming that one's expertise in a given field is in any way a reflection of one's respective virtue as a human being. There is nothing in the formation and cultivation of the artisan's skills to indicate how he or she will put these to use. The physician could just as easily apply his or her knowledge and training to kill someone as to save his life.
The discrepancy between one's virtue as an artisan and one's virtue as a human being may be reconciled by remembering that the inquiry regarding justice within the city was only pursued as a means for uncovering justice within the individual. Drawing upon Socrates' analogy, Aristotle understands ethical activity as the universal work proper to us as human beings,
Are we then to suppose that, while the carpenter and the
shoemaker have definite functions or businesses belonging
to them, man as such has none, and is not designed by
nature to fulfil any function? Must we not rather assume
that, just as the eye, the hand, the foot and each of the
various members of the body manifestly has a certain
function of its own, so a human being also has a certain
function over and above all the functions of his particular
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1097b
Aristotle's notion of the subordinate teleology of the bodily organs is most helpful in situating one's professional virtue relative to one's virtue as a human being. The eye or the hand only serves its function when operating as part of a living organism. The statesman organizing the city for maximum efficiency and productivity had likewise reduced the individual to a functionary instrument performing his or her assigned task in the economic system. While there is dignity to work, there must be something more to a human life than one's business activities.
Socrates had initially suggested that each citizen doing his or her job exemplifies justice. While this principle benefits the commercial life of the city, it comes at a cost to the individual. Aristotle's notion of the universal job proper to all human beings allows us to re-appropriate Socrates' definition of justice, whereby all individuals must practice a single job appointed to them by nature. What then is the business of being human?
The search for the one universal job brings us back to Socrates' analogy between the individual and the city. If an individual soul is to be well-ordered, then it must do more than provide for the organism's physical well-being. Socrates declares that cities will only find peace when they are ruled by philosopher-kings who order the city with an eye fixed upon the transcendent good. While Socrates may believe this is an impractical political proposal, he declares without qualification during his trial that 'the unexamined life is not worth living' (Plato, Apology 38a).
2. While suggesting that there are more and less virtuous business people, Geoffrey Klempner ultimately argues that business is conducted in an arena outside of the realm of ethics. See his 'The Business Arena', Philosophy for Business Issue 5, 7 March 2004 https:---. For additional discussion of the ethics of the craftsman, see my 'Socrates in the Marketplace', Philosophy for Business Issue 20, 6 July 2005 https:---.
3. For this characterization of Socratic philosophy, see; Aristotle, Metaphysics 987b and Cicero, Tusculan Disputations V.10-11.
4. Plato, Phaedo 96a-c
5. For Socrates' justification of the political analogy, see Plato, Republic 368d-369b.
6. All quoted Plato passages are taken from Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Apology, trans. Harold North Fowler; Republic, trans. Paul Shorey, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967).
7. Bernard de Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees and Other Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997).
8. Also see Socrates' harsh judgement of the craftsmen in Xenophon, Economics IV and Aristotle, Politics 1260b, 1277b, 1328b, 1342a.
9. Socrates uses this example at Plato, Republic 332d and Plato, Lesser Hippias 375b.
10. Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 19, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934).
(c) Daniel Silvermintz 2005
Daniel Silvermintz Human Sciences & Humanities University of Houston-Clear Lake Houston, TX 77058, USA
II. 'STUDYING WITH THE UNIVERSITY OF LONDON EXTERNAL PROGRAMME' BY MOIRA
I've just completed a University of London External Programme BA in Philosophy which I've been studying for over the past four years. I hope the following advice will be of use to anyone who is studying or planning to study via this route in the future. All of these are things I learnt 'the hard way' by having to develop my study plan year on year. I hope this article will help some others get the most from the external programme.
A. Make sure what you're studying will be examined
The biggest problem I found with the programme was the vagueness of the syllabuses. Often what was included in the syllabuses were rarely featured if at all on exam papers. There is nothing more frustrating than spending a lot of time preparing a topic area for it to not appear on the exam paper when you arrive. I found the following structure very helpful.
1. Read a general introductory text to this area and the appropriate chapter in the provided course texts.
2. This provides you with a basis to evaluate the questions on the past papers and group them into frequently occurring topics. Focus only on those topics which appear frequently. I am very interested in applied ethics and spent a fair amount of time on this topic erroneously as it only rarely appeared on the exam.
3. Don't try and study every topic on the module, focus on five to six. This should give you plenty of choice in the exam without making you spend too much time trying to decide.
4. Try and make sure that the reading you do covers the breadth of questions under this topic. If you are doing a historical module, keep your topics in mind when doing your initial reading of the course texts.
5. Once you've started to read around the area, try and come up with your own opinions on the topic that you're studying and then try to find arguments that back up or challenge this argument. I find it a lot easier to argue for something that is my point of view.
B. Be concise
When making notes for the course, bear in mind that it is completely assessed by exam. There is no point copying out long quotes, even if it does state the argument you want exactly. It is unlikely that you'll be able to memorise this for your exams. Instead, look for a summary sentence that sums it up that you may be able to memorise. Also focus on the fact that you've got only an hour to write on any topic by not gaining too much information. This may detract you from making a clear argument in the exam by trying to write down a lot of information in a rushed manner. For my final exams, I condensed each topic into a Mind Map covering just an A4 sheet of paper.
C. Be prepared for new perspectives
On all topics, you could get surprised and find a new perspective is questioned in the exam if you are unprepared. Try to prepare for exams by:
1. Splitting questions on the topic into two and using half to aid your enquiry and half to use as practice papers by tackling them without specifically having looked for information. This should allow you to find gaps which you need to research.
2. I found using the paper from the previous year as an unseen practice where I timed it in exam conditions -- so I had to decide on questions, plan etc in exam conditions -- further helped me plan for the unexpected.
3. Read recent journals. Often the examiners appear to ask questions on topics that have recently been brought up in journals and debates.
4. Make sure you're familiar with all terms featured in past papers and also all arguments that the examiners suggest are relevant in their reports.
D. Reading for speed
A lot of philosophical arguments in books or journals are quite lengthy and wordy. This can be both hard to get to grips with and also present you with an argument that you can't re-present in an exam. If you consider that you'll want to present at least three arguments in your exam, knowing and having read all the possible counter arguments from a 40 page paper isn't going to fit in the time. I found it is often possible to search on Jstor to find someone who has criticised or furthered an argument: they will often have summarised the argument that they're going to discuss in the first page or two.
Best of luck to anyone studying through the external programme.
(c) Moira McIntyre 2005
III. 'MORAL OBJECTIVITY AND MORAL RELATIVISM: EXCHANGE BETWEEN STUART BURNS AND
Brandon, I read with great interest your article in the 106th issue of the Philosophy Pathways.
Your discussion of the various causes of moral disagreement made me ponder a cause you did not mention. You attribute to Ross two sources of moral disagreement -- the varying circumstances of various societies, and factual -- i.e. non-moral -- disagreement. You then discuss some of the difficulties of Ross's moral objectivism that arise from his view of the sources of moral disagreement. And you conclude that Ross's two sources do not seem to cover the field sufficiently. While I found this discussion very enlightening, I feel that one (obvious to me) source of moral disagreement was not addressed. You do not mention it. And from the fact that you do not reference Ross's mention of it, I assume that Ross does not either. (I have not myself read Ross, so I cannot comment from any personal familiarity with his text.)
Near the end of your discussion you offer the example:
"For instance, suppose X and Y are both members of the same
society. Indeed, let us assume that both have lived their
entire lives in the same neighborhood, are of the same
ethnicity, similar educational backgrounds, and so on.
Further, suppose they disagree on the rightness of the
death penalty. Now, Z has just been convicted of murder and
sentenced to death. It is conceivable that X and Y disagree
as to the (moral) rightness of Z's sentence without any
disagreement between the two regarding the relevant
"It might be thought here that perhaps X and Y disagree as
to whether the impending execution of Z would be an
instance of murder; in which case, X's and Y's disagreement
can be traced back to a factual disagreement. But we can
assume that they do not disagree on this issue -- both
agree, say, that the execution of Z would not be an
instance of murder. And yet, clearly X and Y are in moral
disagreement. Such cases, therefore, are left unaccounted
for on Ross's view."
The source of disagreement that was not mentioned is the possibility that either X or Y has a false, or incorrect moral belief. If, as is the premise of your discussion of Ross, morality is objective, it is always possible that a person's understanding of what is objectively moral is erroneous. If morality is objective, then there are moral facts of the matter in addition to the non-moral facts. And hence, in addition to the mentioned disagreement over the non-moral facts of the matter, there might be disagreement over the moral facts of the matter. Perhaps if the likelihood of erroneous moral beliefs is added to the two sources of moral disagreement you attribute to Ross, it would more adequately cover the field.
Based on your description of Ross's theory, I can see two immediately possible sources for disagreements arising from erroneous moral beliefs. One, of course, is just the simple wrong belief. Some people still believe that the world is flat, the moon is made of green cheese, the Apollo moon landings were fabricated, or communism is a workable economic system. If people can have false beliefs about the non-moral facts of the matter, why can they not also have wrong beliefs about the moral facts of the matter? The other source of disagreement would arise from the fact that circumstantial differences change over time. At some time (t1) it might be the case that P(C1) defines the proper moral rules. But at some later time (t2), circumstances have changed so that P(C2) now defines the proper moral rules. Yet is it quite possible that the normal processes of socialization do not adapt as quickly as circumstances change. So that some people are socialized to believe that P(C1) defines the proper moral rules, when in fact the proper rules are now defined by P(C2).
Suppose it is objectively the case that Z's sentence is immoral. But Y (say) has been persuaded by some fancy but not logically valid oratory that Z's sentence is morally acceptable. Or, alternatively, X (say) has been taught an out-of-date moral rule that the death sentence is morally acceptable (because at some past time, it was -- vis Exodus 21:24). Then X and Y will be in moral disagreement without either a difference in their respective circumstances, or a difference in their understanding of the non-moral facts of the matter. Their disagreement will result from a false belief about the moral facts of the matter.
Given your familiarity with Ross's text, perhaps you might comment on whether (and how) Ross deals with this additional possible source of moral disagreement. Do you think that this additional notion should make any difference to your appraisal of Ross's theory of the foundation of ethics?
(c) Stuart Burns 2005
To recap, Ross's moral objectivism can be stated as follows:
(MO) For any moral principle P: (i) P is objectively true,
and (ii) P combines with circumstance to yield sets of
moral rules that are themselves objectively true relative
to the circumstance in question.
The question is: How does Ross account for the widespread divergence of moral beliefs? Well, he provides a non-moral analysis of moral disagreement. More specifically, Ross cites the following two causes as largely responsible for moral disputes.
(1) circumstantial differences
(2) disagreement over non-moral facts
As I note in my paper, I think (1) and (2) account for a wide range of moral disagreements. However, I don't believe either (1) or (2) can explain the disagreement between X and Y regarding the death penalty (DP). Why not? Because in this case, call it (C*), X and Y are neither located in different circumstances nor do they disagree on the physical facts surrounding DP.
In response to (C*), Stuart Burns thoughtfully proposes a third cause of moral disagreement available to Ross:
(3) disagreement over moral facts
If morality is objective, then there are moral facts of the
matter in addition to the non-moral facts. And hence, in
addition to the mentioned disagreement over the non-moral
facts...there might be disagreement over the moral facts of
As is clear from (MO) above, Burns is right to attribute to Ross the existence of moral facts. He then suggests that the source of (3) owes to a delay between the processes of socialization and circumstantial shifts. Now then, does (3) provide Ross an explanation for (C*)? I'm not convinced it does. In what follows, I will briefly lay out a disjunctive strategy for denying the effectiveness of (3). The idea is this: either (a) if Ross accepts (3), then (C*) remains unaccounted for, or (b) Ross is not in a position to help himself to (3) given his reductive project.
One strategy is to allow Ross (3), but deny that it can account for cases of the type (C*). Recall that (C*) is constructed such that X and Y have conflicting beliefs with respect to DP. This, despite X and Y being in sufficiently similar circumstances and agreeing on the relevant non-moral facts. Now, given Ross's objectivism, it is necessarily the case that either X's or Y's belief is false (assuming DP is either morally right or wrong). Let's assume both that X's belief is false and that, as Burns suggests, the source of X's (false) belief owes to a lag in socialization with respect to a recent shift in circumstance(s). If X is socialized to believe falsely about DP, yet Y is socialized such that his belief about DP is true, then contrary to (C*), X and Y do not exist under sufficiently similar circumstances. That is, (3) does not account for disagreements such as (C*), because it drives a circumstantial wedge between X and Y, respectively.
One way of interpreting Ross's program is to understand (1)-(2) as a reductive account of moral disagreement. Evidence for such an interpretation would come from the fact that Ross's analysis of moral disagreement is cast purely in non-moral terms. If this interpretation of Ross is plausible, then it is (plausibly) not the case that Ross would embrace (3). (3) would clash with Ross's analysis of moral dispute because it -- unlike (1) and (2) -- is not a non-moral account of moral disagreement. (3) claims that some moral disagreements are the result of disagreements over moral facts -- i.e., some disagreements are genuinely moral. Hence, if Ross wants an account of moral disagreement in non-moral terms, then (3) is unavailable to him -- and (C*) disputes remain anomalous.
So, on the one hand, invoking (3) to account for (C*) alters the circumstances of X and Y. While on the other, Ross's project might well be reductive, in which case Ross is not entitled to (3).
(c) Brandon Johns 2005