31 March 2005

Intuitive or Counter-Intuitive?

Here's an interesting paragraph from Hendrik Lorenz's review of Plato's Utopia Recast on the Dependency Thesis:

[The Dependency Thesis] is the claim that all goods other than virtue are 'dependent goods', which is to say they are good for people who possess virtue, but bad for the unvirtuous. The dependent goods conspicuously include such things as health, wealth, political influence, and the satisfaction of one's desires. The Thesis is thus an astonishingly counter-intuitive claim. It implies that no unvirtuous person is, or ever can be, benefited by health itself or its restoration, or by the satisfaction of ordinary and in themselves perfectly blameless desires such as hunger, thirst, and sexual arousal.
A very small quibble: the last sentence seems to suggest that hunger, thirst, and sexual arousal are always 'perfectly blameless', which does not seem quite right. Can't someone, for instance, be blamed for being hungry, when his hunger results from habitually overeating? (And in general I think the view that 'satisfaction of desire' is good--whatever the desire--is itself a counter-intuitive claim. Not that this is important to settle here, since the Dependency Thesis can be evaluated with respect to other goods only.)

But that things that allow us to act, or to act more effectively, prove harmful to us when we are intent on acting wrongly--that seems intuitive. "It would have been better for him if he had still been struck low with the stomach flu", said of a man who, after recovering, carried out his planned murder today, seems perfectly right.

If this is so, suppose we interpret the Dependency Thesis as: insofar as someone is not virtuous, other things besides virtue are not good for him? (If you wish: take 'not virtuous' to mean 'vicious'. That ambiguity can't affect what's at stake, although it can make the maxim seem more or less plausible.) Why is that 'astonishingly counter-intuitive'?

(Surely this is an issue about which readers of Dissoi Blogoi have views.)


Hendrik Lorenz said...

Dear Michael (if I may):

I agree with your "very small quibble". To express clearly what I had in mind, I should have written something like this: "It implies that no unvirtuous person is, or can ever be, benefited by health itself or its restoration, or by the satisfaction of such ordinary and in themselves perfectly blameless desires as may be involved in occurrent hunger, thirst, or sexual arousal."

I'll try to get this improved statement into the published version. Thanks for pointing this out!

Hendrik Lorenz

Anonymous said...

One contemporary figure who finds a view like the Dependency Thesis "astonishingly counter-intuitive" is Thomas Hurka; see his attack on "the conditionality view" on pp. 241-243 of _Virtue, Vice, and Value_. Actually, to be fair to Hurka, he describes the view only as "_highly_ counterintuitive."

Among the various objections Hurka offers, he insists that "it is hard to explain what is objectionable about a vicious person's enjoying pleasure if that pleasure is not good or a benefit to him" (p. 242; he cites Slote, Lemos, and Audi as agreeing with him). I take it that Hurka's point about pleasure could be applied to any list of relevant goods one might propose (e.g., health). So, I take it that Hurka's point is that if we think it's objectionable that vicious people have health, beauty, etc., the best explanation is that those people actually _do_ benefit from those items.

Now I don't see why this objection should pose that big of a problem for the Dependency Thesis. Why couldn't Socrates just say, "If we think there's something objectionable with vicious (or non-virtuous) agents having these various goods, what's objectionable is not that they're benefited by having them. So long as they're vicious, and since they can't use these items well, they can't be benefited. Rather, what's objectionable is that _they_ have things that _would_ be good for those with virtue. That is, precisely because the vicious _don't_ benefit, their having these items seems a waste."

Anyway, there's one reason why one might find the Dependency Thesis counterintuitive. I wonder what whether other D.B.ers have to say about Hurka's criticisms....

-Matt Walker (Yale)

Anonymous said...

Are things that are properly classified as “goods” things that always & invariably benefit those who have them or things that that only occasionally and unpredictably seem to reward their possessors? Our (Socratic) intuitions tell us that wealth and beauty and fitness and political power, especially when they are present to an exceptional degree, are very risky attributes, both attracting trouble and leading their possessor hubristically into trouble. (The spectacle of Alcibiades haunts many of the dialogues.)
What is counterintuitive about the claim that such attributes aren’t real (ie., reliable) goods for people who lack wisdom? On occasion, from a short term perspective, unwise people may seem to benefit from their wealth & power & fitness, but their lack of wisdom is inevitably going to get them in real trouble as they take unsound financial & physical risks. They will crash & burn.

Anonymous said...

I fear my previous comment on this topic was much too obscure. I meant to allude to Plato’s well-known discussion of goods at Euthydemus 279a-281e. I believe this is his mature position on the dependency of “goods”, and even in the late dialogues, he never backs away from it. See, for example, Laws 661a, “for the goods of which the many speak are not really good at all”. There follows a catalog of the usual so-called goods including health, beauty, & wealth.
The position argued in the Euthydemus is that wisdom is the only good. Derivatively, the WISE USE of so-called goods or "assets" may be called good. Wisdom is the only good because it is the only thing that is always & everywhere good for the one who has it. Having or seeking wealth is not reliably good, enjoying or pursuing pleasures is not reliably good, even the exercise of courage (boldness) in the ordinary sense of the term is not reliably good & beneficial.
Reformulated in this way, the Dependency Thesis is certainly a bold claim, but I don't see that it outrages our intuitions in the ways alleged.

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