I have been trying to understand the idea that Thymos phrased, Does morality exist?” or, in another way, “Is morality Possible?” In order to do that I have imagined we are several people gathered together discussing what to do with our last sandwich. It’s an important discussion because we are all hungry. When we are through with our talk, then we will do whatever we need to do. I want to say we will then know what to do.
That is, our decision about what to do with the sandwich is based on what we know and what we value. I have gone on and on trying to talk about what I take to be Socrates’ account of knowledge and values. Part of what I mean when I talk about his account is about examples like this one about the last sandwich. However, the account Socrates holds is surprising. It might seem to be the one that I have so far outlined where people get together and discuss what they should do about some scarce commodity. I do not believe this would be an accurate account, although, it may be what we would want to believe he advocated.
I spoke about Thrasymachus and how he suggested what really happens in these kinds of situations is that some guy who’s been hanging out in the shadows comes up during the dispute and pulls a gun. He pulls a gun and steals the sandwich for his own purposes. According to Thrasymachus, it’s thugs like this who have the power to steal what they need who determine what people will understand by “justice.” If the thugs can steal the last sandwich from hungry people, they can also make them think it’s justice.
Socrates has a reputation to uphold. It would be slander to say that Socrates actually agreed with Thrasymachus about the powerful. That would be to make Socrates out to be an ally of his friends the tyrants, when most believe he was only interested in doing philosophy and watching the world go by. However, it would not be slander if I could show that Socrates truly agreed with the claims Thrasymachus made.
I think Socrates rejected the idea that we should be resolving questions like what to do with scarce commodities by encouraging everyone involved to make their case. Instead, like Thrasymachus he sided with the thug who pulled the gun. He thought that it was true that thugs were able to steal what they needed and when they had the power could dictate what people subsequently considered justice.
People may think that far from being an ally of Thrasymachus and his lot Socrates argued against their position. Socrates rails against Thrasymachus in the first book of the Republic. Thrasymachus enters the argument wild eyed and restless to prove his point, but leaves cowed with his tail between his legs.
It would take some heavy duty arguing to show that Socrates and Thrasymachus actually agreed. However, some of this work needs to be done to show how Socrates can seem to oppose Thrasymachus and yet come up with a view that claims we do not know what we think we know, because we do not understand what the terms we use to speak mean, or the claim that our lives are like those who live in the cave in his Allegory.
One part of this work is to argue that Thrasymachus is just a stalking horse for Socrates. Thrasymachus says all the things that we should reasonably oppose about how the powerful determine justice and all. Where Socrates argues against Thrasymachus, he thus makes it seem that he opposes what Thrasymachus claims about the powerful. All he really opposes is the way Thrasymachus puts his argument as an advocate of rhetoric. Rhetoric is said to be one of Socrates’ major targets. Instead of rejecting the doctrine that the powerful determine justice, rejects the rhetorical argumentation that Thrasymachus used to explain his position.
I will only suggest here that Thrasymachus as well as Glaucon are weak when, though they are concerned to promote an account of justice, they typically fail to provide any supporting arguments for their claims. They put up a good front, but never engage in follow through. Their strategy is to provide alternative positions to their opponent’s, “but it could be this, or it most likely is some other way, while avoiding altogether providing any kind of supportive argument for their own claims. There would usually be no way that an opponent could effectively resist a rhetorician’s position so long as there were never any reasons supporting their positions on any issue. It may be possible to stonewall an argument so long that the rhetorician’s opponents have to give up and move on, leaving the rhetorician holding the field of battle, so to speak.
Socrates accepted the claim that Thrasymachus made, but instead of explaining it in rhetorical terms, he supported it as a matter of logical argument.
In order to explain this claim, I want to return to my sandwich example. I want to contrast two ways of determining what to do with the last sandwich. On the one hand, I want to talk about how we all were involved in determining what would be done with the sandwich given we were all hungry and it was the last sandwich. The importance of doing it this way was to resolve our conflict without resorting to force, to make sure there would be no unmet objections, so that when the decision was made, and there was no more sandwich, no one would be able to then say that the decision process was unfair. When we decide what to do we want it to be because we know what to do, and not just jump to a decision without dealing with all the issues involved.
On the other hand, I will talk about how the thug lurking in the shadows came up with a gun and stole the sandwich from the rest of us. One can imagine that such a person was also hungry and because he kept away from the rest of us suspected that he would not get any fair share of the sandwich when the decision what to do was made. He might be afraid that he’d get no sandwich and pretty much starve. He might be staying away from the rest of us because he thought, perhaps, that we had something against him, or maybe he imagined he had something against the rest of us. For whatever reason, he thought his own best option was to look after himself. His own purpose in life was to survive and the most reliable way of doing that was to use the gun in his pocket and take the sandwich from the rest of us.
Now, I maintain that one can think of deciding what to do with the sandwich in two fundamental ways. I want to rely on the little bit of jargon that I’ve developed to think about my argument. There is the first way, where we listen to everyone’s view. I want to say that there, knowledge and values are matters of not just rhetorical argument, where one is concerned for oneself and uses the fact that there are alternative positions on any question to support one’s own position, or not just logical argument, where one is only concerned with whether one’s own claims are supported by one’s own arguments. They are not matters of just one or the other, but are matters of both thought of together. In other words, knowledge and values, what we base our decisions on, are on this view matters of argument where one considers both the fact that there are alternative points of view to any issue, and that there are good or bad reasons in support of any position.
Thrasymachus promotes the view that questions about what to do with the last sandwich, for example, are typically decided by thugs using guns. He supports this claim as a rhetorician would, with the presentation of his views and a lot of alternative takes on it, but without any effort to back up his claim with any support. This characterization of both Thrasymachus and Glaucon goes along with the fact that Thrasymachus changes the statement of his view, without getting anywhere against Socrates, and though Glaucon stays with his statement of fewer options, is forced to listen to Socrates lecturing him throughout the next thousand books of the Republic without being able to put up much resistance.
Socrates remains a covert advocate of the claim that might makes right, even though he argues against Thrasymachus and Glaucon who advocate overtly for such a view. We can see this is true because it’s Socrates who advocates the Allegory of the Cave, promotes the scheme to create and rely on the Guardians, and makes people out to be skeptics and nihilists based on commitment to his own view. All of these philosophical doctrines are implications of the view promoted by Socrates himself, that knowledge and values are matters of logical argument alone.
Glaucon tells us about the myth of Gyges. This is the story of a shepherd who finds a ring of incredible power. It makes the one who wears it invisible. Using the ring, Gyges goes down to the city, seduces the Queen, kills the King, and rules his country ruthlessly from then on.
He concludes his story with the following moral:
Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
The argument here is that Gyges does not consider any objections to his self serving efforts. He doesn’t consider, for example, anyone pleading for mercy for the lives of the King, or the honor of the Queen. He doesn’t listen to anyone arguing that what he is doing for himself is not in the interest of the people of the country he has taken over. He does not listen to the claim that he is a criminal and that his actions will lead to the destruction of himself and to his country.
He does not listen to these criticisms because, as he Glaucon argues, to do so would be irrational. You would be an idiot for not taking what you could to preserve oneself.
For the thug with the gun, not using the gun to take the last sandwich would be irrational. He was not participating in the argument and so could not expect to benefit from the process of deciding what to do with the sandwich. So, in order to survive, his best most reasonable option was to ignore the interests of others and take the sandwich.
Socrates tells us a story about the Allegory of the cave. Our lives are like those who live in such a cave. He goes on to explain how we should understand the differences between the opinions and prejudices that we have, based on our experience of shadows, and knowledge and values which would be based on the experience of reality, or the fact that the shadows are produced by objects being carried in front of the fires.
One of the big pieces of arguing I must do is show how Socrates’ Allegory is based on Glaucon’s myth of Gyges. In making this argument, I would be showing that Socrates covertly agrees with Thrasymachus and Glaucon that the powerful ultimately decide questions of knowledge and value.
I pointed out that if Gyges, or the thug with the gun, were powerful enough to take over the country, or steal the last sandwich, then they would be powerful enough to make people say that what they did was just. In other words, they would be powerful enough to force people to reject any notion that might challenge the powerful. It is Socrates’ innovation to argue that knowledge and values are just understood as matters of logical argument, in other words, the practice of making any consideration of another point of view irrelevant.
One of the characteristics of logic, as opposed to rhetoric, is that logical arguments are not about any kind of issues or controversies in the way of rhetorical arguments. So, where one rhetorical argument can be compared to another because they are about some controversy, logical arguments cannot be compared or contrasted in the same way. Logical arguments are about whether their conclusions follow from their supporting arguments as a matter of form. For example, in the logical argument, “If p, then q. P is true, therefore q is true,” the question is whether the conclusion “q is true” follows from its premises “If p, then q” and “p is true.” There is no way in logic to consider how this argument is related to some other argument.
It is when Socrates claims knowledge and values are in principle matters of logical argument that the irrelevance of comparison makes both impossible. The Allegory shows this by demonstrating that each persons understanding of the world would be independent of every other person’s because their experience of the world is different. This solipsism does not depend on everybody experiencing different things, as in different shadows, but on the fact that knowledge and values for each person is a matter of logical arguments that themselves cannot be compared or contrasted.
It is just such a world that makes knowledge and values impossible. We should not be surprised that an account of knowledge and values based on the idea that decisions about what to do about, for example, the last sandwich, are determined by thugs with weapons should imply that both would be impossible.
The question, then, is if we are considering such an account of knowledge and values, what the Allegory of the cave would have to do with it. The Allegory is offered by Socrates, in defense of his own commitment to the idea that the powerful determine justice, for instance, as a way of excusing or justifying such a view. It’s a bribe.
Socrates is saying his audience should accept the view that he thinks is in the interest of thugs with weapons because it will offer the prospect of valuable prizes. If only his audience will go along with the thugs and agree that knowledge and values are matters of logical argument, then the Allegory tells them that the world is about a conflict between a good cop and a bad cop. Our misery with the powerful in this world is caused by the influence of a bad cop. Call him Satan. But there is a good cop who will save us from the bad cop. Call the good cop God. In reward for doing whatever the good cop wants, he will reward you with another life after you’re done with this one, and he will intercede in this life on your behalf.
The Allegory works as a bribe because in order to get his audience to accept his account of knowledge and values as a matter of logical argument he promises you life after death and the salvation of your loved ones from suffering. It works because it is the Socratic account of knowledge and values as logic which makes the Allegory, or some similar metaphor, necessary for one to imagine that people would commit themselves to such a monstrosity.
I like the story of the Trojan Horse because it describes so well the position Socrates has put us all in. He offers us a certain picture of how the world could be, complete with an account of how the world is a matter of suffering, and the existence of a loving God who, along with his sidekick the Socratic Hero, is available to save us from this vale of tears. It is this offering that people respond to when they commit themselves to the idea that reality is, in fact, a matter of the Allegory of the Cave. The story of Troy is a cautionary tale about what happens when one commits oneself to something like a religious icon, like Socratic principles or the Socratic hero, or a woman, as in Helen, without being curious enough to investigate what such commitments entail. In the case of the Allegory, it commits one to what the thug did to steal the sandwich. The Allegory involves the thug stealing the sandwich just as sure as the Trojan Horse held little angry Greeks who were bound and determined to destroy Troy and all it stood for.
I began this post by mentioning the idea that Morality doesn’t exist. I wanted to say that this wasn’t just an idea. It is true so long as people draw guns to steal what they need to survive. The act of engaging in force makes argument, and hence morality impossible. I wanted to include our consideration of knowledge in this argument. If the point of an argument is to come up with knowledge, as I think it is, then if one makes arguing productively impossible, as one does with a gun in the face, then knowledge would be impossible too. I have tried to indicate why there is a connection between force and skepticism or nihilism, the ideas that knowledge and morality are impossible and so do not exist. This connection was utilized by Socrates to get his audience to go along with the powerful despite the fact that doing so was against his audiences’ interests.