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Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge


To: Alex V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge
Date: 28th October 2008 11:18

Dear Alex,

Thank you for your email of 22 October, resending your University of London Ethics: Historical Perspectives essay which you originally emailed on 20 October, in response to the question, 'How defensible is Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge?'

This is an excellent piece of work which raises a number of important issues. I liked your use of an original thought experiment (the peanut butter factory), intended to raise a difficulty about the relationship between virtue and prudence, which I shall discuss in a moment. I was also impressed by the fact that you were able to link up what Plato/ Socrates says about virtue in different dialogues.

There is a fundamental problem here, however, which you touch on, although it is not the main focus of your essay. This has to do with the 'is-ought' dichotomy and the idea that knowing what is the ethically right action in a particular situation is sufficient, by itself, to motivate ethical action -- without requiring, in addition, the desire to be ethical.

If one needed a desire to be ethical, in addition to knowledge of what is the ethically right action then your 'evil but shrewd' person Q is all that is required for an effective counterexample to the 'virtue is knowledge' thesis. Q knows all about virtue. He knows exactly what an ethical person would do in any situation; that is how Q is able so successfully to mimic the ethical person, and also how he is able to predict what we will do, in order to manipulate us successfully.

This kind of argument would sound very strange to Socrates, however. His view of virtue=knowledge is not the Kantian idea that reason suffices for ethical action (so that a person like Q is acting 'irrationally' and therefore demonstrating lack of knowledge in the sense of a failure of reason), but rather a view which Kant would decry as mere 'prudence', the idea which you explain of doing actions 'for the good of one's soul'.

What is good for the soul? I don't think it is possible to discuss this without explaining Plato's conception of the 'order' of the soul and its relation to the order of society. An ordered soul is more important than life or death. The courageous soldier is prepared to lay down his life for his comrades for 'self-interested' reasons, because dishonour is worse than death. This is something that was ingrained in the Greek concept of 'virtue'.

Is virtue a 'techne' or 'episteme'? Apart from combining techne and episteme, I think that there is another possibility which you have overlooked, which is emphasized again and again in the Socratic dialogues. Socrates repeatedly fails to define virtue, or courage, or temperance, etc. Yet he does not deny that there are persons who are virtuous, courageous or temperate. The moral that Plato/ Socrates draws from this is that we have a kind of recollected 'knowledge', sufficient (in some sense) for right action and also sufficient for our being able to *judge* when a purported definition is inadequate.

From this perspective, we seem to have a choice between saying that no-one is *really* virtuous, although persons can come close to virtue, because they have not achieved the end goal of the Platonic dialectic, which is 'episteme' of the Forms. We can form adequate judgements on what is ethically good or bad, or what is good or bad for the order of our souls, and yet these judgements are not fully knowledge, and therefore have the treacherous tendency to 'run away' that Socrates explains in the Meno, when talking about the road to Larissa.

In that case, perhaps Plato/ Socrates would reply to Kant that if you really *knew* the Forms, as the philosopher aspires to do, then you would find yourself incapable of acting anything other than virtuously. In that case (in some mysterious way, yet to be explained) knowledge does suffice for action.

I want to focus on the peanut butter factory example, in the light of this. I am not persuaded that 'Socrates assumes a virtuous person would sacrifice themselves'. Yes, if the upholding of virtue itself was at stake then sacrifice would be necessary. The virtuous man can never once allow virtue itself to be overturned. (Think of situations where this would be on the agenda: for example, resistance to an evil dictatorship.) However, in the present example, we have yet to decide what is the 'virtuous' thing to do. Socrates is not an 'altruist'. He does not require, of the ordinary citizen or the warrior, that they count themself as nothing in relation to the needs of the other. However, for the virtuous person, the good of others is worth risking one's own good, provided that the risk is a fair risk.

This is indeed how most persons would view the peanut butter factory example. You don't know that you will die from an allergic reaction. You fear that you might, but this fear has to be balanced by the knowledge that if you do nothing your acquaintance might die as a direct result of your inaction. It is a difficult judgement call. In this case, as in many real life situations, we are acting under conditions of uncertainty. We are not being asked to trade our good for the good of others, but rather to take a risk, and the only question is whether it is a reasonable risk. (This applies even in war, even though the notion of what is a 'reasonable' risk is very different: consider the contempt with which Allied troops viewed the Japanese suicide pilots.)

You also raise an issue about freedom. The view that virtue is knowledge, or that to know what is the ethically right thing to do is sufficient for ethical action, goes along with the Spinozist idea that 'freedom is the capacity to be determined by reason'. This is not what the ordinary man thinks of 'freedom' and yet we do have real life examples, as when someone says, 'Don't ask me to do that, I can't do it.' For the man or woman of virtue, there is no choice to make, no sense of 'freedom' to do good or evil. Maybe such persons are few and far between. The majority of us struggle along trying to discover what we should do, or what we should be.

All the best,