21 December 2006

Beneficial, but not Instrumental

I wonder what you thought of this penultimate paragraph from Roslyn Weiss' excellent review of Dominic Scott's Meno book:

I close with one final problem that I believe bears mentioning, namely, the assimilation of the beneficial to the instrumental. Scott contends that there is no final good in the Meno, that, indeed, such goods are conspicuously absent from this dialogue (155). It seems to me that for Socrates good things, that is, things that are intrinsically good, also have the effect of making other things good, yet such goods are not on that account "instrumental." Painful surgery might qualify as an instrumental good, but neither virtue nor knowledge does. For Socrates, even that good that is most widely agreed to be his ultimate good, happiness, is nevertheless "profitable": "It is not profitable (lusitelei) to be wretched but to be happy" (Rep. 1.354a). Good things, even final goods, are beneficial and profitable. They are not, however, instrumental.
To my mind this paragraph reverberated with this paragraph from the recent review, by Suzanne Obdrzalek, of the Penner and Rowe book in the same series:
In examining the central passage of the dialogue (216c-221d), P & R address the question, what is the first friend. P & R reject minimalist readings, according to which it is whatever we happen to desire for its own sake, proposing, instead, that it is wisdom. Their evidence for this claim is highly indirect. At the end of the Menexenus interchange, Socrates professes delight at Lysis' philosophia; P & R take this to indicate that wisdom is what is truly philon. Later, Socrates connects the good to the useful (220c)--this signals a backwards reference to the Lysis discussion, where it was established that wisdom makes one useful. At the close of the dialogue, Socrates links the good with what is oikeion; again, this harkens back to the opening, where wisdom is shown to make things he^metera. Since Plato never actually states that wisdom is the first friend, P & R are forced to rely on minute details of the text. However, these do not entirely support their case. For example, in the Lysis discussion, wisdom is what makes things useful, but is not identified with the useful (i.e. the good). Again, Socrates claims that wisdom makes things he^metera, but the first friend is what is oikeion, not what makes things oikeia. These details suggest that wisdom is a means to the first friend and therefore not the first friend, which is the end of all desire.
What do you think? Does it make sense to say that X makes Y good, and X may be desired (in part) because it makes Y good, and yet for all that X is the ultimate good (because it is 'beneficial', merely, not instrumental to anything else)?


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure this makes sense, but couldn't we say that in the case you describe X is beneficial univocally, but Y is beneficial only analogically? Or, if we want to speak of what is really, truly beneficial, we need to speak of the ultimate good, but we can also use "beneficial" to refer to instrumental goods. I suppose this would only be right if the thing that is most beneficial for making one happy is happiness.

Anonymous said...


To fill in the variables: Wisdom makes money good. Wisdom is desired (in part) because it makes money good. And yet, Wisdom is the highest good because it benefits those who have it (and money) by making them better able to manage their household. Wisdom is not instrumental to good money because having the former is not sufficient for having the latter. (Here Socrates seems conflicted: his deeds agree with this point, but his words do not as somewhere he says 'from wisdom comes money . . . ') I think if you accept Weiss' distinction between beneficial and instrumental that sense can be made of these claims. Obviously we need to interpret (no easy task!) the division of 'goods' at the beginning of Republic II as well as those passages about 'the neither good nor bad' in some early dialogues. (On this last point, I have been glancing at Naomi Roshotko's new book Socratic Virtue and it seems like it could be helpful [beneficial/instrumental?]) Further, I think we need to grant, pace Penner and Rowe, that wisdom is not the good. Doing so allows the good, wisdom, and all other 'goods' to each have their own status and explanation. After a lot of hard work, it seems quite reasonable, if not true, to hold "that X makes Y good, and X may be desired (in part) because it makes Y good, and yet for all that X is the ultimate good (because it is 'beneficial', merely, not instrumental to anything else)".

It seems that this topic deserves some blogging.

Anonymous said...

Also, we need to talk about how the good 'causes' things to be good. Is it our knowledge of the good that is beneficial? Or is it that the good, once known, causes benefit? On page 149 of Scott's book, there is a deflationary account of what it means for a form to be a cause. This might be worth following up.

Anonymous said...

Its not clear to me that the text allows us to say that we desire wisdom, even in part, because it makes something else good. Further, according to Republic, we have a love for money, and we also have a love for truth. Not to mention honor and self-esteem.

Anonymous said...

Here 'beneficial' is 'opheilima' and its cognates. LSJ takes a while until we get to 'profit' or 'benefit'. We first here of the wind making the waves bigger, where the sense seems to be the 'opheilima' is that which allows a thing to most be what it is. in other words, if a thing benefits another, then the former allows for the exercise of the virtue of the latter. So, are these things instrumental in our sense of means to further ends? Or is it better to think of them as part of the final good itself. If the exercise of virtue requires these beneficial things, then they are simply a part of the exercise of virtue, regardless of what else they might be apart from their part in the exercise of virtue.

Anonymous said...

some things benefit us without the possibility of their harming us, e.g., wisdom. other things benefit but can also harm us, e.g., money. does the notion of an instrumental good allow for such a distinction? if not, then we must stop thinking of the ophelimon and the instrumental as the same.

Anonymous said...

If Weiss were incorrect, would it not have to follow that people are ignorant so as to do harm? If so, then I think we have another reason for thinking Weiss is correct.

If wisdom is desired for the sake of its affects, then the same must be true for its contradictory, right?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Let me add my two cents to this interesting conversation.

1. Aristotle thinks that an ultimate good is desired for its own sake, and not for the sake of anything else. But Plato seems to think that the highest good is sought both for its own sake and for the sake of other things. Weiss' criticism seems to be: when Scott claims there is no final good in the Meno, he is using the Aristotelian standard, inappropriately so.

2. We're free to define the term as we wish. But it's common, as Weiss observes, to understand an 'instrumental' good as a merely instrumental good, that is, as one that would not be sought except on account of some other thing that one gains as a consequence. In that case, a good that makes other things good would typically not be instrumental, because, we may suppose, it would make other things good in virtue of its being itself good and thus, in some way, desirable in its own right.

3. I think it's a mistake to think of 'instrumental goods' and 'beneficial goods' as both instances of the same thing, viz. something which is a 'means' to some good. Here are several cases in which a beneficial ('good-making') good should not, I think, be construed as a 'means':

(i) When we recognize that the good makes us good, but only as a result of our desiring that good as itself good. (There are some goods that make us good, only on the condition that we seek them as good in their own right, e.g. a good friend. We find here also the distinction between 'objective' and 'subjective' happiness: objective happiness is the good thing the possession of which makes us ultimately satisfied.)

(ii) When the beneficial thing is in fact a person, who makes other things good freely, sc. through foreknowledge and deliberate choice, and we ourselves do not aimm to possess or use those other goods, apart from the free cooperation of this person. E.g. it seems a mistake to call a collaborator a 'means' to the good things we achieve through collaboration; and certainly he is not an 'instrument' as regards these.

(iii) When, although X makes Y good, we would always prefer X over Y, if there were a choice betweeen them. E.g. my mother makes lots of things good for me, but I would always prefer my mother to those; or cases where the good making cause always has good to a greater degree than its effects (the original of an art print, rather than copies).