23 October 2005

But the Refutation Wasn't Refuted

I suppose my hints revealed what I think about the matter.

Plato would reasonably suppose that we judge that something is shameful (ignoble, aischron) for a reason and that--along the lines of the Euthyphro--the reason why we so judge it could not be our being pained when we judge it so. Thus any pain we take when judging something aischron, or pleasure we feel when judging something kalon, could not be that on account of which we judge it to be so.

Plato would also reasonably suppose that a judgment that something is aischron implies a repulsion from the thing so judged; also, that there are two possible grounds for our being repulsed from something, that it is painful or bad, just as there are two possible grounds for our being drawn to something, that it is pleasant or good.

Thus, in the argument:

1. A's wronging B is more shameful than B's being wronged by A.
2. What is shameful is so on account of its being painful or bad.
3. What is more shameful is so on account of its being more painful or worse.
4. A's wronging B is not more painful than B's being wronged by A.
5. Thus, A's wronging B is worse than B's being wronged by A.
6. Thus, generally, it is worse to do wrong than to suffer it.
Premises 2. and 3. simply give, plausibly, the general grounds on which someone might judge something to be shameful or more shameful, and premise 4 points out that the basis for this judgment cannot be the pain present in the action/passion, since this predominates in the passion, not the action.

The argument, then, is not invalid; and (as a reader observed) it would irrelevant, for the argument, that Polus is drawn to accept 2. and 3. on bad grounds.

On the other hand, Plato shows considerable artfulness in having Socrates lead Polus to accept 2. and 3. in the way that he does. It is typical in a Platonic dialogue that an argument have points of vulnerability, which are defended against later in the dialogue (the Phaedo being a star example of this). What are the objections that might be raised against the argument as I have construed it?
(1) That our judgments that actions are shameful or noble simply have no basis; they lack a ground. There is nothing on account of which we judge actions to be shameful or noble.
(2) That there is nothing in an action or passion to which we could be drawn or attracted, except the pleasure or pain that they involve.
Yet these are precisely the objections that Callicles raises, and which Socrates aims to refute in his refutations of Callicles. Callicles effectively urges (1), when he maintains that the judgment that it is more shameful to wrong than to suffer wrong is 'by convention'; and he puts forward (2) insofar as he argues that 'good' amounts to no more than 'pleasant', and 'bad' to 'painful'.

Polus the character is drawn to Callicles yet also capable of being swayed by Socrates. It is therefore artful of Plato to have Polus accept premises 2. and 3. on grounds which still suggest some allegiance to Callicles.

Yet for all that the argument is not invalid by equivocation, as Vlastos argued.


Anonymous said...

I am very far from feeling I understand this argument in the Gorgias, but assuming Michael's reconstruction of it, I would ask two questions. I’ve always assumed from the examples Plato uses here & elsewhere that premise 1 implicitly quantifies over a single wrongful action. For two agents A and B and some particular wrongful action x, A’s wronging B by doing x to him is more shameful than B’s suffering x at A’s hands. Thus, A’s defrauding or lying to B is more shameful than B’s being defrauded or lied to by A. There is some plausibility in this claim, but then we come to the inference from 5 to 6 which, I take it, tries to generalize the quantification over wrongful actions in some fashion. There are several possibilities, but let’s just consider one: for two agent A and B and some wrongful act x, A’s wronging B by doing x to him is more shameful than B’s suffering any misfortune y at B’s hands. Thus, A’s lying to B is more shameful than B suffering a terrible mistreatment or injustice at A’s hands. I will say only that this is prime facie a much less plausible claim, and I see no defense of it in this part of the Gorgias.
Now if we read premise 1 as above, premise 2 should clearly become, in my view at least, something like : What is shameful about A wronging B by doing x to him is so on account of x being hurtful or bad for B. But this does not agree with your expansions of 2 and 3 as 2’ and 3’. Frankly, I don’t whether 2’ and 3’ are in good agreement with the text but they strike me as weak, implausible claims. So the argument as you reconstruct it seems to be already in trouble in second premise.
I could say more but I think I've indicated some of the problems we have with even understanding this argument.

Jimmy Doyle said...

I am also unsure what to make of the argument overall, but two things occur to me:

(i) One understandable reaction to premise 1 -- "A's wronging B is more shameful than B's being wronged by A" -- is that it can't be true, because A's wronging B is identical with B's being wronged by A, and an action cannot be more (or less) shameful than itself.

(ii) I don't think that we can attribute to Callicles the view that "our judgments that actions are shameful or noble simply have no basis; they lack a ground." First, Callicles thinks that some judgements of shamefulness have grounds and are true: for example, the judgements that he (Callicles) himself makes that it is shameful to spend one's life doing philosophy (ie "whispering in a corner with two or three boys" -- "such a man seems to me, Socrates, to be in need of a good kicking"), or the closely related judgement that it is shameful to spend one's life in a way that leaves one vulnerable to malicious prosecution. These are of course supposed to be judgements about what is naturally rather than conventionally shameful. But they are central to Callicles' outlook. Secondly, it seems an exaggeration to say even of judgements of conventional shamefulness that Callicles thinks they lack any ground. The ultimate ground of the masses' judgement that (eg) it is shameful to murder one's relatives in order to become a tyrant (a judgement about Arcesilaus that even Polus cannot bring himself to dissent from), on Callicles' view, is that such actions threaten the status quo whereby the weak majority fetter the (naturally) noble and talented minority. On Callicles' view, given what the masses really mean by the judgement that such an action is shameful, they are perfectly correct; it's just that actions that are shameful in this (conventional) sense are not really (naturally) bad -- and are in fact really (naturally) good.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Anonymous, I had mentioned your first difficulty in my original post
g?blogID=11017234&postID=112958811012930812). The inference from 5. to 6. is justified if there is nothing shameful about being on the receiving end of an injustice. (I accept that, and yet this is not something easily accepted in cultures where 'honor' is important; so admittedly I am puzzled as to why Plato can, apparently, presume that this will be acceptable to his readers.)

As regards your second difficulty, it would seem Plato should insist: "No, what is shameful about A's wronging B by doing X to him is so on account of A's deliberately bringing about something hurtful or bad for B."

Jimmy: I'm not sure what to say as regards your (i). Isn't it clear that murdering is different from being murdered? Your (ii) I accept, and it forces me to be more precise in what I say: Callicles holds that an action itself, conventionally judged shameful, does not provide the ground of that judgment.

Jimmy Doyle said...

Murdering is different from being murdered, in the sense that A's murdering B is different from A's being murdered by B. But surely A's murdering B is not to be distinguished from B's being murdered by A; it is the same event.

Michael Pakaluk said...

This is very interesting, Jimmy, and I, for my part, will need to give it further thought.

In logic I have taken it for granted that "Brutus killed Caesar" is the same as "Caesar was killed by Brutus". (Geach claims that they must be the same, if logical analysis is to be possible.)

And yet it seems to me now that there are reasonable, and natural, senses in which (i) Brutus' murdering Caesar, and (ii) Caesar's being murdered by Brutus, are different 'events'.

e.g. There are reasonable and natural senses in which it seems true to say that (i) includes Brutus' deliberation beforehand, but (ii) does not; that (ii) is something that happens to Caesar, but (i) is not; also, that Brutus perceives (i) in a way he does not perceive (ii), and vice versa for Caesar.

Paul Hoeber said...

I don't see the "senses in which (i) Brutus' murdering Caesar, and (ii) Caesar's being murdered by Brutus, are different 'events.'" Taking the first example in a legal or moral sense, it is certainly not the case that "(i) includes Brutus' deliberation beforehand, but (ii) does not." If (ii) does not include Brutus' deliberation beforehand, then it is wrongly characterized as Caesar's being "murdered" by Brutus, though it may be correctly characterized as Caesar's being
"killed," "done away with," etc., by Brutus. The second and third examples strike me as just false.

Apollodorus said...

I appreciate the discussion about whether or not killing and being killed are really distinct 'events,' and I think I agree that they are not. What Caesar 'had done to him' must have involved, at a certain point, Brutus' deliberation, such that we can say that 'Caesar was assassinated,' and he could realize that fact before he died, whereas if some random thief had killed Caesar on a whim in order to steal his toga, we wouldn't say that he was assassinated, and he wouldn't have been able to rightly come to that conclusion.

That discssion misses Socrates' point entirely, though, and you can see that if you stop for a second and consider in a first-personal way the difference between accidentally hitting someone with your car and accidentally being hit by someone else's car. Of course you can't be both both people in the same 'event,' but you can adopt the perspective of each agent in the same event and see that there certainly is a significant distinction between the active and passive agents in the event. Given that Socrates' discussion is about pain and shamefulness, neither of which are things out there in the world independent of any human agent, it makes perfect sense to distinguish between the relative pain and shamefulness of being the active or the passive agent in any given 'event.' And that is what the argument is about, after all, whether it is better to be the active or the passive agent.

Can you really maintain, Jimmy, that the question makes no sense at all because there is no difference between acting and being acted upon? You would almost certainly not defend that position about pain; i.e., I presume that you won't try to tell us that being killed can not be more or less or anything but identically painful to killing. Why not, then, extend the same treatment to shame? It is a more complex emotion than pain, if pain is really an emotion and not merely a sensation-behavior complex, but it is no less than pain something that an agent experiences for himself in a way relevantly different from others.

Note also that we've moved beyond discussing the question of whether or not the argument is fallacious and we're just discussing whether it's true. That's all fine and good, but what has ceased to be in question is whether the argument contains a fallacy. At least, I don't think we'd be right to call an argument fallacious because we disagreed with its premises. The only serious problem of that sort as it stands in the text is that which Anonymous pointed out, that the final conclusion might 'generalize the quantification over wrongful actions in some fashion' so that my wronging you in some rather trivial way would be more shameful than my being wronged by you in some very serious way. I'm not sure that Socrates really commits himself to that now, though he certainly does say that it is always worse to act wrongly than to be wronged; is there any indication that we should read the implication into what he says, or should we consider whether it is an implication that Socrates and/or Plato were either not aware of or not interested in working out at the time? I think that it is probably the position that Socrates would want to take, but I doubt that there is really sufficient argument for it in this section of the Gorgias at least. It may be something that we're left to piece together from what Socrates says later about wrongdoing; i.e., if we understand wrongdoing as he does, will we not be more ashamed to do any amount of it than to suffer any amount of it? Regardless, I think we have reasonably rescued Socrates and Polus from the charge of fallacious reasoning.

Jimmy Doyle said...

"Can you really maintain, Jimmy, that the question makes no sense at all because there is no difference between acting and being acted upon? You would almost certainly not defend that position about pain; i.e., I presume that you won't try to tell us that being killed can not be more or less or anything but identically painful to killing. "

Wimpish disclaimer: I was trying to articulate an "understandable reaction" rather than to speak in propria persona. Certainly being killed is (usually) more painful than killing, but that's not the point. Event A cannot be more or less painful (or F, for any F) than event B if A and B are the same event. "Painful" in this context is simply underdetermined unless we specify an answer to the question "Painful for whom?" Then we're in a position to say: X's killing Y is exactly as painful, no more and no less, for Y, as Y's being killed by X.

Here is a way of understanding what Socrates is up to when he presents these arguments from premises asserting that something is aischron to the conclusion that it is kakon: he is essentially calling the “soft” immoralist’s bluff. By a “soft” immoralist I mean someone like Polus who wants to affirm cynically, like Callicles, that everyone would really like to be a tyrant and thinks that that would be best but, lacking Callicles’ intellect and boldness, still wants to pay lip-service to conventional pieties about it being shameful to commit injustice. Even if Vlastos is right and Socrates’ argument is formally invalid, this does not diminish the profound ethical truth that Socrates nevertheless succeeds in expressing: the soft immoralism of Polus is inherently unstable. He can’t have it both ways: if he and everyone else really do think that it’s best to be an unjust tyrant like Archilaus, any attempt to maintain subscription to the conventional view that it’s shameful to commit injustice is merely so much noise in the service of self-flattery. (Compare Socrates’ assertion in the Protagoras, possibly not in propria persona, to the effect that an agent who says that he knew that his action was not the best available to him is merely deceiving himself, because if he really had known that a different action was better, he would have done it.) Once the concept of the shameful floats free of the concept of what’s objectively bad and to be avoided, it is a mere alibi for hypocrisy. Conversely, if the assertion that it is shameful to commit injustice is seriously meant, it is merely inconsistent to go on to claim that it’s really best to be a tyrant. This is one of many ways in which Callicles shows himself the more formidable opponent: unlike Polus, he sees the danger of inconsistency and simply rejects the conventional pieties about shame. (Or rather: he tries to, but it turns out not to be as easy as he thought; see 494e7-8: “Aren’t you ashamed, Socrates, to turn our conversation towards such subjects [sc catamites etc]?”)

Vlastos’s “Was Polus Refuted?” is symptomatic of a myopia to which analytic commentators on Plato are prone. Obviously, the analysis of arguments and the detection of fallacies are extremely important. But an almost exclusive focus on what follows from what can blind the reader to other features of the dialogue that may be more philosophically important. One often gets the impression that a commentator thinks his job is done once the fallacy has been exposed: time to move on to the next chunk of text. But where is it written that a fallacious argument cannot be the vehicle of a crucial insight? The impropriety of this assumption is not confined to the study of Plato, or dialogue, or ancient philosophy. (See Anscombe's comments on Hume in "Modern Moral Philosophy": she protests that he is a great philosopher, effectively because his errors were so profound.) (This is to assume that Vlastos is right about Socrates’ failure to refute Polus. He may not be, eg if Michael is right.)

The analytic commentator really combines two errors. The first is to treat the dialogue merely as a series of propositions, as if it could have no philosophical content that is essentially dramatic. The second is to suppose that the only propositions that could be of philosophical interest are the strictly true ones, and the only arguments of philosophical interest are the strictly valid ones.

(c) James Doyle

Michael Pakaluk said...

Jimmy, I'm interested in your criticism of "the only arguments of philosophical interest are the strictly valid ones". One thinks that an argument is like a bridge. An invalid argument goes nowhere; it simply fails to bridge anything. Worse, it can lead us to waste our time on a path that goes nowhere.

I don't disagree with you, but can you say more about how an invalid argument can be important. I mean: in ways other than testing our logical acumen, e.g. the way Zeno's paradoxes get used.

I wonder if the contrast between Parmenides and Zeno isn't precisely to the point: the one profoundly wrong, the other simply a puzzle.

By the way, Vlastos' article can be criticized even on terms that analytic philosophers would accept. We would ask an undergrad or grad student who alleged a similar fallacy: "Okay, this is prima facie a fallacy, but what might Plato say in reply? Can the argument be repaired or restored? does it have an insight which nonetheless is preserved?" Etc. Vlastos seems content with simply the first step.

Jimmy Doyle said...

I guess "Was Polus Refuted?" is an example of the sort of thing I mean: even if Socrates' argument is formally invalid it suggests a deep and true insight. Another example from the Gorg would be Socrates' "birds of a feather" argument against Callicles that anyone who tries to protect himself against injustice necessarily ends up committing it because he'll have to ally himself with the powers that be. The argument can't be sound: Socrates elevates sociological rules of thumb to the status of exceptionless laws. But it suggests an important truth: that given the circumstances of human life, unless one is literally going to be a hermit, one must take sides. (I talk about this in a paper coming out in OSAP next year.)

I'm not sure that what you say about "going beyond the first step" isn't essentially the same point put another way. If we start out thinking that an author is one of the greatest philosophers of all time, we'll be inclined to cut him a lot of slack and apply the principle of charity pretty liberally when it comes to anatomising arguments. And if the author really is one of the greatest philosophers of all time, the approach will pay dividends; otherwise we'll just be projecting our concerns onto his bad arguments. If we start out reading him in the same spirit as we'd read an undergraduate essay we guarantee in advance that if he is a great philosopher we won't get any of the benefit; we'll merely end up reinforcing our own sense of superior logical acuity by covering the text in red ink: "Non-sequitur!" "Unclear!" (Look at Bostock on the Phaedo.) A little humility, is all I'm sayin'. Maybe the conclusion doesn't strictly follow -- but is there perhaps an important truth lurking behind the technical fallacy? Perhaps roughly the same question can be put this way: can we patch up the argument in such a way that it's valid, its premises are plausible and its conclusion is interesting? That's why I say that you may be making the same point. I don't have the reference to hand, but Jonathan Bennett says in Kant's Analytic something to the effect that Kant is wrong on nearly every page (of the CPR), but we can learn more from his errors than from most other philosophers' truths.

Disclaimers: (1) I don't want to suggest that Vlastos was guilty of this particularly often. In fact, given what he did for the study of Socrates and Plato in the twentieth century, I think we all ought basically to revere him, whatever faults we may find with particular interpretations. (2) I don't want to suggest, either, that it can't be fruitful to pinpoint why an argument in (eg) Plato doesn't work. A good example here would be Bernard Williams' paper on Plato's polis-psyche analogy in the Republic. If Plato's making a mistake here, it's a deep and interesting one. And if he's not, we might learn something important in seeing how his argument can be defended against the criticism -- as I believe we learn something important from Lear's "Inside and Outside the Republic." Some of Lear's main theses may in the end be wrong too, but that's not the point -- he's made us think about the dialogue in a genuinely new and interesting way.