Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Knowingly doing wrong

In his conversation with Polus in Gorgias, as elsewhere, Plato's Socrates argues that no-one ever knowingly does wrong. We always act for what we perceive to be the good, and if our actions are not good, this is because we ignorantly take too narrow a view of the good (perhaps it seemed good for ourselves, but we overemphasized this to the exclusion of the bad it would create for others).

The question comes up in the context of a tyrant, who Socrates concedes has the power to do as he sees fit, but denies that this is the same as doing what he wants (by which Socrates seems to mean what he really, really wants -- i.e. that which is genuinely beneficial).

Do you think this Socratic view is at all defensible, or does our more sophisticated modern understanding of the complexity of human motivation make Polus' more common-sense view more plausible?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Meno and Recollection

The famous slave-boy demonstration in the Meno purports to show that learning is possible because we already in some sense know everything. We can raise legitimate questions about whether it convincingly shows anything of the sort. Doesn't Socrates more-or-less feed the boy the answers? Doesn't calling learning recollection (anamnesis) simply beg the question of how we learned it in the first place?

Setting these interesting questions aside, however, I think we should take Socrates very seriously when he says: "I do not insist that my argument is right in all other respects, but I would contend at all costs in both word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it."

Whether these particular arguments work or not, then, Socrates is committed to this search. Perhaps his reasoning here is analogous to that in the end of the Phaedo, where he insists on the importance of living as though we were immortal (though we can't prove it), and attending to our characters accordingly. We found some danger in this reasoning on that occasion; is there analogous danger here?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Elites and Elitism

The accusation of elitism has a mind-numbing effect on any conversation. Perhaps this is because we use the term ‘elite’ with two distinct senses, one as a mere description with a mild hint of approval (“Usain Bolt is an elite athlete”), and the other heavily tinged with evaluative emotions: resentment, envy, anger, and fear of our own inadequacy. In this mode the term indicates all our uneasy and contradictory responses to the experience of class.

We might think a charge of elitism would stem only from a specific accusation that a person with talents or accomplishments above the norm has expressed, in words or demonstrative actions, arrogance toward those purportedly beneath her. It suggests a lack of graciousness and humility particularly unseemly in a person of such accomplishment (from whom we expect, whether fairly or not, a well-developed moral character sensitive to others’ feelings and limitations).

Such a charge is slippery, however; it is difficult not to slide between the two senses of ‘elite’. Many people, wrapped up in unexamined fears and resentments, can easily be brought (by a careless journalist or a calculating demagogue) to think that a person who is elite in the purely descriptive sense must automatically be an elitist – that is, someone who puts on superior airs and thinks and behaves condescendingly toward others – whether she is or not. And once leveled, the charge is virtually unanswerable, because any discussion of it sophisticated enough to tease apart the muddled senses will look, well, elitist, at least to those already immersed in the emotional stew of the accusation itself, which plays on any underlying anti-intellectualism it can find.

Accusations of elitism are, for these reasons, perennially fraught and difficult to debunk. It’s a bit like trying to show that you’re not in denial; once the accusation has been leveled, you’re trapped, whether you’re Socrates or Obama.