28 March 2007

Varieties of Distinctions in Goodness

I wonder if ancient philosophers shouldn't follow von Wright and try to identify, and employ, a variety of distinctions in goodness. Surely ancient texts support this; it's hardly suitable to discuss Plato or Cicero (say) using simply the mixed distinction, instrumental/intrinsic. Moreover, a distinction is like a tool: presumably it's better to have more rather than fewer to hand, even if they differ only slightly in their function.

And if it were taken for granted that a variety of distinctions were available and could be employed, then an interpreter who insisted on using just one (or a mixture of two) could be challenged (in the spirit of Korsgaard): on what special theory do you hold that just this distinction will suffice?

What other distinctions might we posit? Here are three more. Let me know what others you think should be added.

A good achievable through our own efforts vs. a good not so achievable.
Clearly this cuts across the first two distinctions. There could be final goods not achievable through our efforts (perhaps eudaimonia is a gift of the gods, Aristotle speculates), and there are clearly intrinsic goods that we cannot affect at all by our actions (the beauty of the Ring Nebula). Likewise we might not be able to obtain the sum of money needed to start a business (instrumental, not achievable); and whether a friend joins us to make watching that movie more enjoyable might depend on matters beyond our control (extrinsic, not achievable).

A distinctively human good vs. goodness that is not distinctively human.
In the Apology, Socrates reports that he asked Callias, "Supposing your two sons were colts, or calves--you'd be able to find and hire someone to groom them. But given that they are human beings... who is knowledgeable about that sort of virtue, I mean, the human and civic kind?" (th~j a)nqrwpi/nh te kai\ politikh~j, 20b). The virtue of a calf makes a calf, but not a human, intrinsically good (with distinctively calf-like goodness); the virtue of a calf is, one presumes, a final good for the calf, but an instrumental good for us; that a virtuous person takes good care of his livestock implies, as a consequence, that the goodness of his calves is extrinsic relative to his own goodness; etc.

A good for X vs. a good not good-for-X.
This distinction seems suggested by the possibility of formulating both subjective and objective versions of the intrinsic/extrinsic and final/instrumental distinctions (see previous comment). Say that a good is a good for X if it is valued by X. Plato's worry in the Lysis passage cited earlier seems to require this distinction: Can it be that human beings will value even a very great good only on the condition that they are in need? (It's not the good which is conditional upon that need, but our valuing it.)


Anonymous said...

Always good vs. sometimes good.

In a number of passages (e.g., Gorgias 467e-468a), Plato seems very keen on drawing a distinction between things that are always good and things that are sometimes good but sometimes bad. He seems sometimes to want to reserve the word “good” for things of the former sort (calling things that are only sometimes good "neither good nor bad").

This is not, I think, to be confused with the distinction between unconditionally good and conditionally good.

Also, he sometimes, oddly enough, characterizes things that are always good as things that are “in themselves and by nature goods (auta kath’ hauta pephuken agatha)” (Euthydemus 280d-e, trans. Lamb; compare Meno 88c-d). This language may make us moderns think that he’s speaking of intrinsic goodness; but I think care is advisable.

Anonymous said...

ask anyone who works with chainsaws: there is nothing more dangerous than someone who doesn't know how to use a tool properly. further, all good tools are invented (or discovered?) for some purpose, so, what are these tools for? This is why the novice does not get immediate access to the whole workshop; rather, they are given a scrap of wood and a not-totally-blunt instrument and told 'carve'. with this many tools, and this little awareness about plan or purpose, are we really reading Plato or simply flailing about until we say we are done?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Second anonymous,

I'm not sure I see your point. I certainly hope that I'm not posting on the internet dangerous instruments like chainsaws that people can harm themselves with.

I agree (maybe this is what you are saying?) that it can seem as if we are no longer doing philosophy, if we set ourselves the task of 'trying to draw as many intellegible distinctions in goodness as possible.' But then I wonder if this shows that Austin was correct in his sense that much of what counts as philosophy is simply gross oversimplification.