17 November 2005

Minding the Gap

Remember that the Sachs/Grote problem is that Plato's argument in Republic II-IV changes the subject. What is at issue is whether to be just in the ordinary sense makes someone happy. But Plato argues that to be just in a special, newly defined sense makes someone happy. Plato therefore needs to connect the two notions of justice and argue:

(A) Anyone who has internal (psychological, Platonic) justice also has ordinary (pratical, vulgar) justice.
(B) Anyone who has ordinary (practical, vulgar) justice also has internal (psychological, Platonic) justice.
Eric Brown attempts a solution (at least for claim (A)) in his recent, stimulating article, "Minding the Gap in Plato's Republic" (Philosophical Studies, 2004, 275-302). The solution is also encapsulated in Brown's contribution to SEP. Brown's view, in brief, is that the 'gap' between these two notions of justice is meant to be filled by Plato in his account of early childhood education in books II and III:

This brings us to Books Two and Three, where Socrates offers a long discussion of how to educate the guardians for the ideal city. This education is most notable for its carefully censored "reading list;" the young guardians-to-be will not be exposed to inappropriate images of gods and human beings. But Socrates is remarkably optimistic about the results of a sufficiently careful education. Well-trained guardians will "praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good," and each will "rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he's still young and unable to grasp the reason" (401e4-402a2). Note that Socrates has the young guardians not only responding to good things as honorable (with spirited attitudes), but also becoming fine and good. Moreover, Socrates is confident that the spirited guardians are stably good: when he is describing the possibility of civic courage in Book Four, he suggests that proper education can stain the spirited part of the soul with the right dispositions so deeply that they will be preserved "through everything" (429b8, 429c8, 430b2-3).

This optimism suggests that the motivations to do what is right are acquired early in moral education, built into a soul that might become, eventually, perfectly just. And this in turn suggests one reason why Socrates might have skipped the question of why the psychologically just can be relied upon to do what is right. Socrates might be assuming that anyone who is psychologically just must have been raised well, and that anyone who is raised well can be relied upon to do what is right. So understood, early childhood education, and not knowledge of the forms, is the driving force that links psychological justice and just action (SEP, "Ethics and Politics in Plato").

The resolution is ingenious, not least for maintaining that the 'gap' in the Republic should be bridged by looking to material that occurs before book IV.

Nonetheless, Brown's resolution seems open to an obvious difficulty. According to Brown, Socrates is presupposing that "anyone who is raised well can be relied upon to do what is right." However, what is it to be 'raised well'? If you say: "It is to be raised in such a way that you are just in the ordinary way, so that you become as Socrates, not Thrasymachus, recommends in bk. I", then that begs the question.

Grant that it is possible to train a child so that he or she turns out (given additional education, etc.), as an adult, to be disposed not to betray, steal, commit adultery, etc. Grant even that one can be trained to prefer these things for their own sake. But what is at issue is whether that sort of upbringing is what it is to be raised well--that is, must children be raised in that way, if they are to be happy? That is what Thrasymachus would presumably dispute.

Suppose you say, "But in being raised to have a harmonious soul, the future guardians are thereby raised to do what is ordinarily right"--then someone might say in response (echoing Sachs), "But why couldn't someone be raised to have a harmonious soul, and at the same time be raised to steal, betray, commit adultery, etc., in those circumstances in which he could do so without getting caught?" Once again, the question is begged: it remains unclear why there is not an alternative, Thrasymachean way of being raised 'well', which imparts psychic harmony, while at the same time teaching a child to reach out unhesitatingly for advantages, when he can do so without punishment or loss of a good reputation.

What we need is an argument that there is only one way of being raised well, and that such an education imparts, at once, both internal justice and ordinary justice. But Plato presupposes this in books II-III, he does not argue for it. So the 'gap' remains unbridged by this approach.


Anonymous said...

Maybe the gap is supposed to be there because there is not a solution, and the solution suggested is so unsatisfactory that it invites doubt as to any possible resolution.

Anonymous said...

It is a busy time, so this is off the cuff.

First, it seems to me that Thrasymachus' conception of injustice as virtue is every bit as much theoretically informed as Socrates' conception of justice as virtue. The theft, the betrayal, the adultery, etc. are in the service of an end (roughly, pleonexia).

Second, Socrates, in the course of defining civic justice, paints a revisionary picture of what the flourishing of a city consists in: not pleonektein (cp. Periclean Athens) but (roughly) humming along in stable good order. By implication, he likewise paints a revisionary picture of what the flourishing of an individual human being consists in.

Suppose then we take this new conception of flourishing for human beings to heart. Won't we see that, just as we are all happy to grant without argument that we do have good reason to steal and betray etc. on Thrysmachus' conception of flourishing (as pleonektein), provided we can do so with impunity, so too we should be perfectly happy to grant that we don't have good reason to do any of these things on Socrates' conception of flourishing (as the stable humming along of a well-ordered psyche)?

In short, it seems to me that the cry "gap!" turns on a double-standard. After all, I don't think it is right to take Thrasymachus to define "injustice" by the traditional litany of wrongdoings associated with "the ordinary conception"; better, I think, to take him to define it as a kind of strength or power, sc. the strength or power to secure happiness sc. pleonexia (this or something like it is more or less implicit in his calling it virtue). And yet no one asks: but why think that this "philosophical" conception of injustice is connected with the ordinary conception, as defined by the traditional litany of wrongdoings (theft, betrayal, etc.)? No one asks this for the very good reason that it is perfectly obvious that, given Thrasymachus' conception of flourishing as pleonektein, we will often have reason to steal and betray etc. Fine. But by the same token, it seems to me likewise unreasonable (unnecessary) to ask what has Socrates' conception of justice to do with the ordinary conception, as defined by restraint from the wrongdoings on the list. It seems unnecessary b/c it is perfectly obvious that, given Socrates' revisionary conception of human flourishing, we don't have any reason to steal, betray, etc., namely b/c there is no reason to think these have anything at all to do with the establishment or maintenance of pschic good order.

[Here one might object: but what if we may prolong our life by doing so? But this is a different sort of question, one that (I think) is quite independent of the specific differences that separate Socrates and Thrasymachus. It is the question of whether it makes sense to make our life worse in the short run, so that we can prolong it, perhaps in the hope that, if we continue to flourish over the long haul, our lives will be better for it than they would have been had we let them be cut short. This question can arise for Thrasymachus (flourishing is pleonektein) every bit as much as it can for Socrates (flourishing is humming along in good psychic order). For Socrates' take on it see of course the Crito.]

[We might also object: why take Socrates' revisionary conception of human flourishing to heart? Doesn't that beg the question? Perhaps temporarily--but if so then the question is un-begged by the end of Rep IX.]

Anonymous said...

"We might also object: why take Socrates' revisionary conception of human flourishing to heart? Doesn't that beg the question? Perhaps temporarily--but if so then the question is un-begged by the end of Rep IX."

Come to think of it, why think it does beg the question? The task could hardly be to show that justice pays even on Thrasymachus' conception of human flourishing!

We've been presented then with two conceptions of human flourishing; on the one, injustice appears to pay, on the other, justice appears to pay. Which is correct? The material in Rep VIII-IX wd. appear addressed to this. It doesn't presuppose the Socratic conception of human flourishing, just the Socratic moral psychology, which informs the sketch of what the maximally unjust life would look like.

In any case the G/S objection is different: it is not that Socrates hasn't shown that justice (as he defines it) pays, but that he hasn't shown that justice (as he defines it) is ordinary justice. To me (again) this sounds no more reasonable than complaining: Thrasymachus hasn't shown that injustice (as he defines it, in effect as strength or power sc. for pleonektein) is ordinary injustice (sc. theiving, lying, etc.).

Eric Brown said...

I am grateful to have a smart and engaged reader for my proposal about the problem that Sachs resuscitated in the 1960s. I am also grateful for the objection.

But in the final section of "Minding the Gap," I consider that objection, and I argue that it might well be a fact of human nature (or a fact of human psychology, if you prefer) that no one can have a harmonious soul unless he or she has all the deeply ingrained motivations to do what is right and none of the motivations to do what is wrong.

This assumption is pervasive in antiquity, from Socrates (cf. esp. the Gorgias) to Aristotle (who makes the naturalism more explicit) to the Stoics (who make the naturalism even more obvious). It might be false, but the mere conceptual possibility that one could be a psychologically harmonious thief or thug does not show that it is.

Macuquinas d' Oro said...

"Given Socrates' revisionary conception of human flourishing, we don't have ANY reason to steal, betray,etc", because these practices in no way seem appropriate to maintaining a harmonious soul. An excellent point by the second commentator and I completely agree. But this difficulty remains. Besides the summum bonum of inner harmony, we must still secure the material necessities of life. Some people on some occasions will find it much easier/virtually necessary to do so by resorting to theft & fraud. Why should they decline to so? The summun bonum of inner harmony does not by itself seem to provide ANY reason why they should decline some acts of ordinary injustice. "Inner justice" does not motivate ordinary injustice, but neither does it provide any reason to eschew it--and that is what Plato has the burden of showing here, is it not?

Anonymous said...

'"Inner justice" does not motivate ordinary injustice, but neither does it provide any reason to eschew it--and that is what Plato has the burden of showing here, is it not?'

This is a good point. But I wonder whether Soc does set himself the task of showing we have reason to eschew even petty injustices, done just to get by. I wonder in the first place whether they are really at issue here. (There's a place in Rep I where Thras. for his part sets them aside.) But more importantly, I think Soc forsees that along with his revisionary conception of human flourishing will come some revisions to the ordinary conception of justice and injustice, so that not everything on the traditional lists always will be right-doing or wrong-doing respectively. So e.g.: putting the hurt on your enemies will presumably no longer be reckoned just. Or again: is it clear that Socrates will reckon dishonesty or theft an injustice, no matter the circumstances? How it goes in particular cases will presumably depend heavily on what in fact the ruling part of the soul knows when it knows how it would be good to live.

In sum: I think oudeis is right that Socrates must concede that he hasn't said anything to show that inner justice gives us reason positively to eschew any of the deeds normally reckoned unjust. But I also think there is a case to be made that this isn't what he undertook to show--indeed, that he expects or requires his argument to leave this open.

Eric Brown said...

Oudeis says that psychological harmony as the summum bonum does not forbid stealing to get the necessities. Anonymous-4 (who might be the same as Anonymous-3, whom I take to be the same as Anonymous-2) concedes that Socrates' notion of justice might be significantly revisionary. I don't think that Socrates can allow that much revision, and I don't think he has to. Just consider: what if among the psychologically harmonious attitudes there is a deep commitment against stealing? If that were so, then no psychologically harmonious person would steal. One could even imagine that a person would prefer dying to stealing, just as the civically courageous prefer dying to retreating as a coward. Note that Socrates thinks that the soul can be stained so deeply that it maintains its commitments "through everything."

The only question is, "Why should one suppose that psychological harmony requires a deep commitment against stealing, etc.?" The answer is, "Because that is the way human psychology in fact is." Now, that might look like begging the question, but the claim is (broadly) *empirical*, and one can begin to notice grounds for thinking that it captures the way human psychology in fact is by studying the impact of early childhood education because (it is not implausible to think that) early childhood education is necessary and sufficient to bring about commitments to do what is right (and avoid what is wrong) and to bring about a harmonious soul. Now, the bold empirical claim might, for all that, be false. But it is not crazy, and there are good reasons to think that the Socrates of the _Republic_ makes it. Moreover, if he does make it, then there is no whisper of a gap between psychological and practical justice, which would explain why those who seek evidence of Socrates filling the gap find so little where they should expect to find so much.

Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Eric Brown raises the question: might not inner harmony be thought to REQUIRE abstaining from ordinary injustice? In fact, I believe it does. The problem lies with Plato's somewhat impoverished notion of inner harmony, and especially his appointing of andreia as the cardinal virtue of the spirited part. I would propose philotimia as the key spirited virtue, absorbing andreia ( honor requires courage ) but also extending to a revulsion toward base, dishonorable acts like theft & fraud. An i-just soul whose inner harmony included philotimia would necessarily reject ordinary injustice.

Michael Pakaluk said...


Thanks for your thoughtful and vigorous reply.

Here are some other objections.

You say that it would be reasonable for Plato to regard the connection between achieving internal harmony and refraining from acts of ordinary injustice as a fact of human nature. However,

(1) What is the status of our knowledge of this fact? Is it just a matter of commonsense? I ask because then, I wonder, how much of a philosophical argument would remain in the Republic. Glaucon asks: "Show that it's better to refrain from injustice, whatever the consequences". And, on your interpretation, it seems, Socrates replies: "It's commonsense that someone who commits injustice has a conflicted soul." That may be true, but it's not philosophy.

(2) I don't see that Plato is, or by his own lights should be, satisfied with the assertion of a 'brute', empirical connection between psychic harmony and ordinary justice. Glaucon and Adeimantus tell Socrates they want him to show how justice, by its own power, leads to happiness. Socrates does not succeed in replying if he says, simply, "That's just how it is. We're hardwired that way." Hume might be satisfied with that, but not Plato, I think.

(3) If the objection of Adeimantus is any guide to what Plato thought, or what Plato took the proper constraints on the discussion to be, then the presumption of Republic II-IV is not that justice and psychic harmony, injustice and psychic disturbance, are correlated, as a matter of evident fact. According to Adeimantus, what most people regard as 'fact' is that "licentiousness and justice are sweet and easy to acquire" (364a). When fathers instruct their sons they don't say anything positive about justice itself (363a)--not what we would expect if Plato took it to be a widely acknowledged 'fact' that ordinary justice and psychic harmony were inseparable.

(4) Also, it seems to me that one must press Aristotle's (and Grote's) distinction between particular injustice (manifested in acts of fraud, theft, deceit, etc.) and general injustice (manifested in vicious acts generally). Suppose we do grant that, as a matter of fact, there is a connection between psychic harmony and general justice--between harmony and courage, moderation, generosity, and so on. Still, what needs to be shown additionally, is that there is a connection between psychic harmony and particular justice, that is, complete uprightness in fair dealings with others. But this is not clear at all. It's far from being an evident 'fact'. For instance, someone pays you more than was agreed upon. Particular justice requires that you return the difference. We need posit no internal disturbance or disharmony to explain why someone might decide simply not to act.

Consider another version of this last sort of thing--which several commentators here have touched upon. Suppose that there is a philosopher who works 9-5 in a business to make enough money to do philosophy in the evenings. One day the opportunity presents itself for him to enter a simple code into an accounting ledger, which will transfer a million dollars into his account, and he knows, from how the internal controls of the company are set up, that this will never be discovered. Suppose the million dollars would otherwise be awarded as a bonus to the immoderate, licentious CEO of the company. He would certainly use it better, to study philosophy until the end of his days in moderatin and even austerity. It's implausible to say this act would imply or require psychic disharmony.

This sort of case seems to me not to be a mere 'conceptual possibility'. Rather, it seems to me a daily experience that acting with uprightness is not a matter of controlling or checking internal disturbances.

Eric Brown said...

In response to Michael's objections:

(1) The (putative) fact that psychological harmony requires being practically just is NOT a matter of commonsense. It is a broadly empirical claim that would be accepted only after much study of human nature. The picture of the soul and especially of early childhood education are supposed to motivate the claim in the Republic, but as a very broad empirical claim, Socrates cannot argue directly and conclusively for it.

(2) I agree that Plato would not be satisfied with a brute empirical connection between psychological harmony and practical justice. Plato thinks that knowledge of nature involves more than brute empirical connections because nature is providentially ordered. That is why I usually remember to say that the (putative) fact is broadly empirical: it comes as a part of the general science of human nature, which comes as a part of the general science of nature, and Plato's idea of science is, though empirical, not exactly like our idea of empirical science.

(3) I think my reply ad (1) above suffices here, as well.

(4) To answer this point, and the accompanying example, I fear I'll sound like a broken record, though I am happy to see that Oudeis likes the tune. On my interpretation, the psychologically harmonious person has, as part of his psychologically harmonious makeup, deep commitments against stealing, etc. So it just does not occur to someone of this sort to steal the million dollars or whatever. (It is not a matter of whether this possibility, having occurred to one, conflicts with one's other commitments. It is a matter of the possibility simply not arising. That's the difference between virtue and continence, which was not Aristotle's discovery.)

Now, again, why should one believe that the psychologically harmonious person would not even think of stealing the money (or whatever)? Because it is a deep fact about human nature that psychological harmony requires such-and-such commitments and the total absence of such-and-such commitments. So on this view, Plato would need to posit a defect of psychological harmony to explain why someone might decide to fail to do the right thing, though it is possible that some defects of psychological harmony manifest themselves sometimes without the subject being conscious of the defect as of an internal disturbance. (If psychological harmony requires very broad coherence in psychological commitments, one could be relatively free of psychological disturbances and still short of coherence and harmony.)

The view requires accepting an audacious and counter-intuitive claim about what psychological harmony requires. But if you give Plato that claim, the problems melt away. And the claim is not crazy or obviously false.

More needs to be said, of course, if one wants to endorse the claim, but much of that needs to be empirical work. For now, I just worry about whether we should attribute it to Plato on the basis of the Republic, and I admit that I occasionally have doubts, especially when I am thinking about what Socrates says about money. He is awfully nervous about letting the guardians touch the stuff, and that can suggest that even the best education is no security against corruption. But, then, I've never understood whether the perfect psychological constitution is subject to decay in just the way that the perfect political constitution is, as a very strong construal of the city-soul analogy would suggest. The remarks about lawless appetites in dreams at the beginning of Book Nine are also relevant.

Michael Pakaluk said...


Thanks for your patient reply. If I may, let me try to say once more what continues to trouble me about your interesting and novel reading of the Republic.

By a 'gap' in the Republic one might mean either an unfounded inference or an unfounded premise. I agree that on your interpretation (which I now understand much better)there is no gap of the first sort, but I think that a gap of the second sort would remain.

I don't think you disagree: 'more needs to be said', you remark, '...if one wants to endorse the claim', which suggests that the premise is so far not compelling. You say that Plato does not intend the supposed connection to be a brute fact, but this is far from saying that Plato convinces us that it is more than a brute fact. Indeed, it remains the case--I think--that we can't see why exactly ordinary justice should be connected with psychological harmony. (Yes, common motives for unjust action, as these are usually understood, are removed, but what remains unexplained is why someone educated simply to have a harmonious soul should agree with ordinary judgments that these and not those sorts of actions are to be done.)

But then, if these things are so, what your interpretation does is to replace one gap with another. The new gap will seem more or less serious, depending upon how plausible it seemed to someone that the postulated 'deep empirical claim' could be substantiated and rendered intelligible.

I confess that I don't share your optimism in this regard. (Of course, I concede, children can be educated to act justly. What I dispute is that this arises other than from educating them to act justly--that it would result, inevitably, from educating them simply to have internal harmony.)

Plato may simply have held that view (although you raise doubts that he did). Yet I would be reluctant to reach this conclusion, preferring to look for an interpretation of the Republic which supposed no gaps of either sort.


Eric Brown said...


I can live with that. Like you, I'd prefer it if the _Republic_'s argument for the claim that it is always better to be practically just than unjust were a valid inference from obviously true premises. Perhaps unlike you, I doubt that anyone has such an argument, and I am content if Plato's conclusion follows validly from premises all of which have some plausibility and all of which he offers some appropriate reasons to accept.

On my reading, the central premise is contentious, to be sure, but Socrates does motivate it by his account of early childhood education, and the request that he directly show that the premise is true would be misplaced, since broadly empirical claims of this scope cannot be directly established. Only a full science of human nature could sustain the claim, and to this day, it is an open question whether the best science of human nature would.

So, yes, some sort of gappiness remains, on my story. But I take it that some gappiness is inevitable in an argument whose conclusion is that it is always better to be practically unjust than just (and, indeed, inevitable in most arguments for interesting philosophical conclusions). At least Plato has not begged the question, has tried to motivate the most contentious premise, and has come up short (if he has come up short) only because a full defense of the central premise would lie beyond the scope of the work (and indeed beyond the scope of philosophy as it is practiced today, since the premise requires empirical support). As I argue in "Minding the Gap," the most influential responses to the so-called Sachs problem give Plato an even more implausible premise without much evidence that he has bothered to motivate the premise and respond to what is, on the view of these responses, a huge whole in the reasoning at the end of Book Four.

(Your response and those that make heavy weather of Socrates' insistence in Book IV that the psychologically harmonious person really deserves to be called "just" are different, but I do not think that they solve the problem. Socrates does not--cannot--argue that the psychologically harmonious refrain from thievery and so on in Book IV. Those who think that his discussion there solves the matter give Socrates a question-begging argument, so far as I can see, and I think that reliance on the alleged univocity of 'just' or broad claims about the city-soul analogy ultimately does more harm than good to the argument. For all that, I very much like your thought that one and the same set of people is suited to live in the ideal city and to behave justly. That is surely Plato's view. But why should anyone accept it? I think that Books II and III especially but also the attention to fixed psychological tendencies and the importance of early childhood education throughout the Republic encourage the thought that nothing but the right nurture of human nature suits people to live in an ideal city and to behave justly, which is just a way of saying that I think that you need my solution to fill out yours. But I would think that, and reasonable people can disagree about which premises need more argument and which do not.)

Thanks for the helpful discussion.


Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Perhaps the wise men have already writ the last word on this topic, but then indulge me a fool’s colphon. I agree with Eric that Plato wants some sort of stronger connection being i-just and eschewing ordinary injustices. To get that, I believe, he needs his men of i-justice, like Aristotle’s truly virtuous ( not just encratic ) men, to be invariably and viscerally averse to acts of injustice. Then we can speak of something like the “psychological impossibility” of virtuous and i-just men stooping to theft and fraud and such. The problem is that Plato’s psychology, as developed in Books III-IV, does not seem to have a component we can associate with a visceral aversion to injustice. I suppose we could try to shoehorn it into sophrosune, but the excellence from which disdain of the base most readily flows is ( personal ) honor. The honor-loving soul will never disgraces itself with base acts, whatever the apparent rewards.

Eric Brown said...


That all sounds great by me, because I am inclined to think that your last sentence is enough to settle your worry. The psychologically just must have been imbued with the same sort of education that characterizes the honor-loving auxiliary guardians, and I don't see why they should have lost their deep aversion to what is dishonorable and deep attachment to what is honorable. (See esp. 402a1-4.)

I think that attention to what the rational part does all by itself when it rules the soul sometimes blinds readers to how important it is for rational rule that the other parts of the soul have been trained to function optimally. As you note, it is not as though the rational part in a psychologically just soul rules by putting down insurrections; such a rule would exemplify a troubled or even mixed psychological constitution and not aristocracy. So the honor-loving part in a psychologically just soul is surely doing its fair share of the work.