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Plato's analogy in the Republic between health and justice


To: Lyn F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's analogy in the Republic between health and justice
Date: 27 November 2007 13:30

Dear Lyn,

Thank you for your email of 18 November, with your University of London Greek Philosophy essay (or, rather, essay fragment) in response to the question, 'Assess Plato's claim that justice is to the soul what health is to the body.'

I would have responded sooner had I taken the time to read your email where you said that the essay was not complete and asking for advice on how to continue. Normally, my deadline is ten days, but I would have tried to get back much more quickly. I am sorry to have kept you waiting for this.

The essay is OK so far as it goes. The first thing you need to do is separate out the question of Plato's analysis of the structure of the soul into three components -- the validity of his analysis, whether it gives a plausible explanation of the process of moral reasoning etc. -- from the wider question whether justice can be understood by analogy with the concept of health, which is the main focus of the question.

The problem that you would be grappling with in addressing the wider question is the problem of where moral values ultimately come from. A 'naturalistic' moral theory would be one which attempted to define moral values in terms of 'normal' or 'correct' functioning. Although there is room for competing accounts of just what is 'healthy' (e.g. is it healthy for a girl who is nearly six foot tall to be only eight stone? is it healthy to engage in extreme body building? etc.) there is a sense in which we can decide whether a person is healthy or not simply by conducting a medical examination. It is a matter of fact, not value, they an individual is not suffering from disease or injury, has organs which are all working etc.

How plausible is it, that we could give an account of justice which would enable one to decide, in a similar manner, whether a person's soul was 'healthy' or not simply by looking at his or her behaviour without making additional value judgements?

As an illustration of this, you might be interested to look at Rachel Browne's ISFP Fellowship dissertation 'Ethical Relations' which argues that behaving immorally can be understood as a form of psychological maladjustment.

This is a problem of moral philosophy. G.E. Moore's famous 'Naturalistic Fallacy' argument (look this up if you haven't heard of it) puts the case that we can always ask, with respect to any factual description, 'But is this good?' Alternatively, it is possible that you might have heard of David Hume's argument that one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is' which makes substantially the same point.

Is it plausible, that someone who behaves cruelly or unjustly towards others, or neglects their concerns for the sake of his or her own self-interest, must have something wrong with his or her soul? Of course, they may have, but we are looking at a theory, or possible theory, which says that failure to be just must be a consequence of a 'disordered' soul. Why?

Another question is whether Plato is in fact offering a purely naturalistic theory of morality/ justice. It could be argued that the 'order' of the soul which he has described is only partially analogous to health. In other words, he is not defining justice as simply a form of 'mental health' but rather bringing in metaphysical considerations which transcend the merely factual.

What you do need to do (which is certainly not evident from the extract that you have shown me) is not only read the relevant sections of Republic thoroughly, but also read commentaries on Plato which discuss this issue. Ideally, I would like to see a bibliography at the end of each essay you send me, just to reassure me that you haven't just relied on the text alone or the section in Grayling.

All the best,