Sunday, August 08, 2004

Plato: Is morality an intrinsic good?

I promised more from Plato's Republic, so here I shall deliver. This extract really challenged me when I read it. I was dumbfounded as to how to respond. I'm intrigued to know what you guys would say if someone asked you this. Unfortunately the online translation I've copied here isn't quite as easy to follow as the hard copy I've got (translation by Robin Waterfield). Basically what is being said is this:

The character wants to know whether it is intrinsically better to be moral or immoral. Everyone agrees it is good to be moral in general because people trust you, are nicer to you etc. But the question he wants to explore is: Is morality inherently good or is it just useful for its external benifits? So he does a thought experiment, which contrasts a super-moral person against a super-immoral person. But in this thought experiment, all the people of the city think the saint is a sinner and the super-sinner is a saint: Thus the sinner gets the external benifits that morality would have conveyed and vice versa. In this case is the saint truly better off than the sinner (due to morality being inherently better)? If so, why?


(From Book 2)

Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and unjust, we must isolate them; there is no other way; and how is the isolation to be effected? I answer: Let the unjust man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirely just; nothing is to be taken away from either of them, and both are to be perfectly furnished for the work of their respective lives.

First, let the unjust be like other distinguished masters of craft; like the skilful pilot or physician, who knows intuitively his own powers and keeps within their limits, and who, if he fails at any point, is able to recover himself. So let the unjust make his unjust attempts in the right way, and lie hidden if he means to be great in his injustice (he who is found out is nobody): for the highest reach of injustice is: to be deemed just when you are not. Therefore I say that in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him, while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice. If he have taken a false step he must be able to recover himself; he must be one who can speak with effect, if any of his deeds come to light, and who can force his way where force is required his courage and strength, and command of money and friends.

And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honours and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust.

When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.


Blogger Matt said...

Well, it totally depends on your ethical framework. If you are talking about hedonism (happiness is the goal) then sure, the unjust guy comes out a winner. But if you hold that there are actually greater things to life, such as having a clear conscience, or being honest, or being justified in God's eyes, then you can come up with a totally different result. I guess it all depends on what your goal is...

Blogger Philotas said...

You have to have a reason to be moral. if you have a core belief behind those morals, then you know you will benfit in the end, even if you're being torn apart at present.
Christians are moral because we have been commanded to love one another. you can have moral people who arent Christians however, but you will find that they also have a belief behind those morals. eg. for King and Country, or for the good of the many, to protect or serve a loved one...

I guess the reverse is also true as well. some 'immoral' scientists or the like may well believe that what they are doing (though it may be immoral) is for the greater good.

Belief is the key behind morals, so really, is it better? depends on what you believe, and what you believe about society.

I believe that if there were not moral people, our society would regress into tribes ruled by the strongest, either that, or anarchy. where each individual does whatever they like, as long as it benefits themselves.

Blogger Andrew said...

Okay Matt, the character (Glaucon) in the Republic would probably respond by asking "Why do you want to / why should anyone have such goals? Saying 'anyone who values morality as an intrinsic good, will be moral because of that' ignores the question of whether morality IS an intrinsic good."

Also the idea of "being thought-well of by God" falls under the category of things Glaucon is trying to EXCLUDE from consideration. It is a fringe-benifit of morality, not an intrinsic result of having it. So let's imagine that God, like everyone else in Glaucon's example, thinks badly of the moral person and regards well the immoral person.

Blogger Richard said...

Consider Job: (16:15-17)
I have sewn sackcloth over my skin,
And laid my head in the dust.
My face is flushed from weeping,
And on my eyelids is the shadow of death;
Although no violence is in my hands,
And my prayer is pure.
Job was not happy. And the fact that his conscience was clear was no consolation. He had no reason to hope that his prosperity and health would be returned to him (although it was).

I think there is no reason to say that the just man is better off, except that a Godly one recognises his creator and directs his life to be in service and submission to, and in relationship with, Him. This is God's desire. This is not to say that God will not give us what is best for us, this should not, however, be our aim.

Therefore I would say that it appears there is no intrinsic advantage in morality per se, however to me it is unclear whether "advantage" is meaningful in this context. Perhaps it depends on what meaning you ascribe "conscience".

enough from me :)

Blogger Matt said...

But really, is anything *intrinsically* better than anything else? Realistically, the only way we can actually decide whether something is good or bad is by its external influences. The idea of "intrinsic good" is very much a greek idea -- so probably, purely within the context of the passage you've quoted, sure, morality makes you unhappy. But I would still maintain that something can only be valued through external means.

Blogger incognito said...

An interesting but pointless question, IMHO. I don't believe you can define goodness and badness in terms of benefits to the doer. Nor can you seperate goodness and badness from their consequences to OTHERS - goodness and badness cannot exist without people interacting, IMHO. You can't 'be intrinsically good' unless you actually DO good.

How you define 'good' is another matter, but I believe it must be defined in terms of purposeful intent. Goodness, to take a stab, is found in an action intended to truely benefit someone else in preference to one's self. (I just made that up so it could be wrong...) There are benefits that come to the doer from being good, but these are NOT THE TRUE MOTIVATION for doing good. Goodness is defined by love, not lust. Indeed, it is born out of love. Lust is by definition selfish, but love is not self-centered, and instead considers others as more important than yourself.

Thus, to think of goodness in terms of what it benefits the doer or in terms of 'intrinsic moral goodness' is directly in opposition to how I have defined good - for goodness is intended to benefit SOMEONE ELSE and can only exist when it is done for someone else. Thus I think this whole thought experiment is setting up a contradiction in definitions and therefore bound to resolve nothing.

It seems the people of this city have confused the very definition of good with bad, hence making the whole thought experiment pointless.

Blogger Andrew said...

My reflections on the matter...

It is obvious that something is only beneficial for its benefits. So how should we understand the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic benefits? By excluding extrinsic benefits we are not meaning to exclude all benefits simply because they are benefits. Rather we are seeking to exclude benefits that result from other people. A more helpful thought-experiment, perhaps, would be of you as the only-existing person in the world... would it then be better for you to be moral or immoral and why?

My answer to that question is "moral" because I have come to believe that love in and of itself is an intrinsic good. While immorality (which boils down to lack of love for others) might allow us to exploit others for material gain, at a spiritual level it is self-destructive of us. In failing to love others we become creatures of hatred and internal corruption. In hating others we inevitably come to hate ourselves simply because the idea of loving ourselves and hating others is not a spiritually logically consistent position. It has an internal tension which must eventually resolve itself in love for yourself and everyone else, or hatred of yourself and everyone else.

Thus the supremely immoral person, in the original example is going to gain material benefits, but is in sore danger of having his very soul "disintergrate" so to speak... he is committing what amounts to spiritual suicide by filling himself with a lack of love he destroys everyone in himself that makes him human and becomes something horrible. Whereas the saint, regardless of any benefits he gets from God or man, has within his soul/spirit a harmony and life that is intrinsically connected to his love. This is, I think, what Paul understood when he said if he had no love he was nothing and that he would rather have love than all the faith in the world (1 Cor 13).

Blogger Andrew said...

"How you define 'good' is another matter, but I believe it must be defined in terms of purposeful intent. Goodness, to take a stab, is found in an action intended to truely benefit someone else in preference to one's self. (I just made that up so it could be wrong...)"

That, Reuben, is EXACTLY what I concluded some time ago. Interestly it separates "goodness" from "God" and thus, thinking of Euthrypo's dilemmia (ie does God define good arbitrarily or is it beyond His control?), it asserts that goodness exists objectively outside of God... and thus, contrary to what many Christians like to argue, it is possible to have objective morality in an atheistic world-view.

Blogger incognito said...

Yes Andrew, and it is obvious that there are many truely good non-Christians. I don't think defining goodness as I have seperates it from God - it simply defines seperately from God. I don't see why Christians should make such a big deal of goodness being solely connected with God. Sure, as Father and Creator he is the ultimate source of all goodness, but then by the same token you could say because He made the universe - He also made badness by allowing it to happen.

This comes back the whole good/bad contrast thing I blogged on a while ago. In order for God to give us a chance to be good, he HAD to give us the chance to be bad. There is no virtue without true choice between good AND bad.

So I don't think the question "does God define good arbitrarily or is it beyond His control" is particularly relevant. Goodness is not arbitrary - it is a direct consequence of relationship and cannot exist without it. Wherever there is relationship, good can occur.

But, the real crux of your last point is that it assumes we would know how to be good (or bad) without God. If you look at Adam and Eve, they only gained the knowledge of good and evil after they disobeyed God, thus learning.

Without ever knowing the difference between good and evil - would we be any morally better than animals? Without intent or purpose, do actions have any moral implication at all? It could be argued that God gave humans the chance to learn the difference, to understand the intent of their actions, and therefore become moral creatures.

Blogger Andrew said...

I wasn't actually asserting that there *were* "truly good" non-Christians, I was just saying that it is possible to construct the ideas needed for objective morality within a non-Christian worldview. Many Christian apologists (eg William Lane Craig) argue that:
1. Objective morality is inconsistent with a atheistic worldview
2. Objective morality is true.
3. Therefore atheism is false.

They usually support premise 1 on the grounds on ignorance: that neither they nor any atheist philosopher they have read has been able to think of a way of constructing an objective moral framework within an atheistic system of thought.

You and I seem to agree this argument fails because premise 1 is false.

Interesting is your assertion that non-Christians can be "truly good". I think I agree with you, though lots of Christians have thought otherwise. There have historically been numerous statements of Christian faith suggesting that without belief, or baptism etc it is impossible to do anything "truly good". One online discussion I was reading recently was arguing that the verse "without faith it is impossible to please God" in Hebrews somewhere means that non-Christians can never do anything truly good. That interpretation seems to me to be totally at odds with Romans 2 where Paul asserts that Gentiles can actually do good and their conscience will show that their actions were truly good.

Blogger incognito said...


Blogger Jared said...

No one read this but who cares.

I agree with the above assertions that non-Christians can be truly moral, for humans were made in the image of God and since God is good, then humans were created with goodness. However, since the fall things have gone screwy and the question is how complete was the fall? I personally believe that it is impossible for humans to reach absolute evil and within each of us there still resides the image of the absolute. Also as St. Paul asserts in Romans non-Christians have a conscience now condemning them now justifying them. But morality is not enough for salvation.

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