20 March 2007

Author's Resolution of the Apology Difficulty

In this post I give Scott Senn's resolution of the seeming contradiction in the Apology. In a subsequent post I'll give the resolution I favor and discuss readers' comments.

Senn attributes the following view to Plato's Socrates. The only "intrinsic good" (read simply: good) is virtue. All other things are instrumentally good at best; and they are instrumental for one thing only, namely, one's growth in virtue. If the jury takes away such instrumental goods, then, it merely prevents Socrates from further growth in virtue (and in that sense it can harm him); but it cannot take away or diminish the virtue that Socrates already has (and in that sense he is invulnerable to being harmed).

The resolution seems new only in its use of a distinction between, as Senn calls it, "damaging" versus "obstructing". Senn gives these definitions:

X damages P =df. X causes P to lose some intrinsic good that P already possessed, or X causes P to gain some intrinsic bad that P did not already have.

X obstructs P =df. X decreases P's ability to gain intrinsic good (or decreases P's ability to be rid of intrinsic bad).
And then Senn explains:
... Socrates thinks he cannot be damaged. On the other hand, when he does allow that he may suffer injury (Ap. 25 D 1) or something bad (25 E, 37 B-38 B), he must (if he is not contradicting himself) be thinking only of the obstructive kind of injury. This fits very well 37B-38B; for clearly being silenced is bad only obstructively: it takes away his ability to discuss and examine (37 E-38 A), the value of which (it is natural to suppose) is instrumental. It is plausible that Socrates would similarly explain the badness of imprisonment and exile: they would take away his freedom to philosophize with whomever he wants, especially those reputed to be wise. Likewise, being fed in the Prytaneion is 'good' because it will help him continue to examine people (36 D). In the whole passage (surrounding and including 37 B-38 B), therefore, it seems that he is discussing things that are bad only obstructively and good only instrumentally. Only these do the Athenians have the power to bring about. We need not think that Socrates has in mind any other kind of injury at 25D-E.
Your views on the successfulness of this resolution?

14 comments:

Eric Brown said...

I have long liked this particular puzzle, and I had a bright undergraduate (Aaron Chait) write an honors thesis about it a few years ago.

I have two questions about Senn's view (I've not read the article).

First, does he really contrast "intrinsic" and "instrumental" goods? That is a mistake. Intrinsic (unconditional) opposes extrinsic (conditional), and instrumental opposes final. So virtue can be the only intrinsic good without being the only final good. Of course, one could adopt a very restrictive account of goodness, according to which something must be an intrinsic good to be a good at all. The Stoics think this, as does Socrates in the Euthydemus. But is there evidence that Socrates thinks this in the Apology?

Second, how does Senn match his distinction between 'damage' and 'obstruction' to Socrates' vocabulary? Does he think that Socrates marks a distinction with his words, or is he assuming charitably that Socrates must be equivocating about harms and evils?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Eric,

Senn does not define his terms, but it seems from contexts that he indeed contrasts intrinsic with instrumental, and that he is attributing to Socrates in the Apology the view that virtue is the only good.

Here's an example of a passage where Senn fails to draw the double distinction you urge. Senn is developing a criticism of Irwin:

"Irwin makes a great deal of the point that Socrates regards virtue as a purely instrumental good: he thinks that Socrates allots it no intrinsic value. But in the extreme case, he imagines that Socrates would desire nothing more than virtue. The inevitable consequence of this, on Irwin's interpretation, is that Socrates will in that case be satisfied with possessing just this purely instrumental good and with possessing no intrinsic goods." (p. 12)

I don't see any match of the sort you are looking for between Senn's contrast and Socrates' language in the dialogue. That would be one of my objections to his interpretation. Senn's language in the quoted passage (the only place where he argues for the value of this distinction) is rather vague on this point: "This fits very well"; "It is plausible that"; "In the whole passage ...it seems that...". What seems to carry the weight, really, is (as you suggest) Senn's claim that only by attributing that distinction to Socrates do we absolve him of contradiction.

M

Kent Brockman said...

How long do we have before you give your solution? I'd like to put in my two cents, but I need to give it some thought and I'm teaching all day today.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Kent,

I can't claim that my view will prove decisive, or even different in the end from what others say. But in any case I'm happy to wait until next Monday and start another thread in the meantime. I look forward to your comments.

Best,
Michael

Anonymous said...

Isn’t something “intrinsically good” just in case it’s good all by itself (independently of what it leads to), while a thing is “instrumentally good” just in case it’s good as an instrument or means to something else (i.e. because of what it leads to)? If so, then to call a thing instrumentally good still implies that it’s *good*; it just doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s good *independently* of what it leads to. Right?.... I guess I don’t quite get what Eric meant by: “So virtue can be the only intrinsic good without being the only final good.” (By the way, I think the intrinsic/instrumental distinction isn’t the same as the unconditional/conditional distinction….but I suppose it depends on what one means exactly by “conditional”.)

Also, I’m not clear why Senn should really be criticized for finding in the text a distinction that isn’t *explicitly* made. Can we reasonably expect Plato (or Socrates, for that matter, who arguably founded the attempt to be rigorous about ethical thought in the West) to have successfully developed a consistent technical vocabulary that would have definitively made clear the distinction between intrinsic goodness and instrumental goodness that we moderns recognize? Even if we cannot, this of course wouldn’t imply that Plato (and Socrates) didn’t *grasp* the distinction and didn’t *talk* in ways (perhaps vague at times) that reflected that understanding. In fact, a close look at some of the ethical puzzles that Plato has Socrates raise in other early dialogues (e.g., the Euthydemus and the Lysis) suggests that a central aim of some dialogues was just the attempt to clarify this distinction between intrinsic and instrumental (and if the early dialogues are historical, this may suggest that we have – in part – Socrates to thank for being the first to attempt such a clarification, which (as he seems to note) had led others to ethical confusion). And of course it was not exactly (the early) Plato’s way (or Socrates’) to completely solve puzzles *for* us; but many of the dialogues drop fairly clear hints as to how he would have solved them.

Think, for example, of the passage in the Apology where Socrates says, “Wealth does not bring about excellence [arĂȘte], but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men…” (30b, trans. Grube/Cooper). Isn’t he trying to point out that his fellow Athenians have mistaken things (like wealth) that are at most instrumental goods for *intrinsic goods*? (I take it that an intrinsic good may “make” other things good which otherwise have zero intrinsic value; this will happen, e.g., if an intrinsically valueless thing leads to or helps bring about an intrinsic good.)

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Anonymous,

I took Eric to be alluding to Korsgaard's "Two Distinctions in Goodness" when he was insisting that "intrinsic" is not properly contrasted with "instrumental". But how that point applies in the present case I'll need to think about. I gather you accept Korsgaard's clarification but think that Senn's interpretation is unaffected by it?

It's not clear to me that something that is instrumentally good is good, but dependently so. For instance, someone might say that "money is instrumentally good", precisely as a way of denying that money itself is good. But here we could have quarrels about univocity and equivocity. (I suppose right there one could find a solution to the apparent contradiction.)

I agree with you that it's no objection to an interpretation that the distinction it supposes is not explicit in the text. My concern is rather that what the text is explicit about seems to be in the service of some different point. But (I think) more on that later.

M

Eric Brown said...

Just for the record, since I seem to have misled Anonymous, I think that the best interpretation of some passages attributes a point to the author that the author does not explicitly make. I was just asking for clarification, to make sure I understood Senn's view.

That said, some attributions of non-explicit points are easier to accept than others. Those attributions that require that the author equivocates seem to me more problematic, for example, than those that require only that the author was silent on a particular question.

jack said...

Plato does not strike me as a man that would pose such a blatant contradiction attributed to his teacher Socrates. If Socrates was to propose a different penalty for himself,the harm or evil would not be in the punishment that would be forthcoming. The evil would be in the implied lie that he is guilty. He would be a party to that lie if he proposed any punishment for a crime he did not commit. His problem of being done harm is not that the court might propose a different punishment. Socrates will choose bravery and the truth over cowardness and the lie. He will to the end choose virtue over life. jack

Michael Pakaluk said...

Jack,

I think you are right, that the chief bad things that Socrates wishes to avoid is the twofold harm he would do himself if he said what was false and accused himself of wrongdoing--which would be the case if he were to say to the court that he deserves to receive something bad for what he has done.

Yet even if we accept this, it remains a puzzle that Socrates apparently agrees that he would be suffering something bad at the hands of the jury, if they imprisoned or exiled him. Socrates seems to accept the supposition that these would be bad things for him And clearly the jury is capable of inflicting them. Thus he seems to be supposing that the jury could, after all, harm him.

You might hold in reply that what he really takes to be bad here is not the imprisonment or exile per se, but rather his agreeing to, or his complicity in accepting exile or imprisonment--but I don't see that that refinement is supported by the text.

MP

Michael Pakaluk said...

Jack,

I think you are right, that the bad things that Socrates primarily wishes to avoid are the harms he would do himself if he said what was false and accused himself of wrongdoing--which would be the case if he were to say to the court that he deserves to receive something bad for what he has done.

Yet even if we accept this, it remains a puzzle that Socrates apparently agrees that he would be suffering something bad at the hands of the jury, if they imprisoned or exiled him. Socrates seems to accept the supposition that these would be bad things for him And clearly the jury is capable of inflicting them. Thus he seems to be supposing that the jury could, after all, harm him.

You might hold in reply that what he really takes to be bad here is not the imprisonment or exile per se, but rather his agreeing to, or his complicity in accepting exile or imprisonment--but I don't see that that refinement is supported by the text.

MP

Anonymous said...

Apology 25d-e may seem even more telling. Socrates there pretty clearly accepts the idea that "...wicked people always do some harm to their closest neighbors..." (trans. Grube). It certainly seems that Socrates is here allowing that even he would receive "some harm" at the hands of wicked folks if he were near enough.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Anonymous,

So it seems, but I don't think that passage need be understood as suggesting that.

"Closest neighbor" may in the context be referring to another bad person in some group of associates, all of whom are bad.

M

Anonymous said...

Michael,

I think the wider context of the remark at 25d does suggest that anyone (good or bad, even Socrates himself) may really be harmed if near bad people: "Are you so much wiser at your age than I am at mine that you understand that wicked people always do some harm to their closest neighbours while good people do them good, but I have reached such a pitch of ignorance that I do not realize this, namely that if I make one of my associates wicked I run the risk of being harmed by him...?" (25d-e).

Socrates clearly understands the 1st italicized proposition as entailing the second. This suggests that he means himself to be included (in principle) among "closest neighbors". Doesn't it?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Yes, I think you're right, and my way of taking that passage won't work. I'm especially impressed by "one of my closest associates"--apparently it could be only one.

Even still, there is some tension (there may be nothing to this) between your two italicized sentences--between "always do some harm" and "run the risk of being harmed". What do you make of that?