Sunday, June 7, 2015

On Measuring Well

In Plato's Protagoras, Socrates and Protagoras argue over the language Protagoras uses to explain what happens when, as he describes it, pleasure overtakes reason and people make horrible choices.  Socrates insists that it's not pleasure that overtakes reason, but ignorance.  Here's some key bits of the passage:
They maintain that there are many who recognize the best but are unwilling to act on it. It may be open to them, but they do otherwise. Whenever I ask what can be the reason for this, they answer that those who act in this way are overcome by pleasure or pain or some other of the things I mentioned just now...  
He sets out the problem, and questions how something can be a pleasure if it causes greater pains and deprive us of future pleasures *coughclimatechangecough*.  And he explains the problem like this:    
The same magnitudes seem greater to the eye from near at hand than they do from a distance. This is true of thickness and also of number, and sounds of equal loudness seem greater near at hand than at a distance. If now our happiness consisted in doing, I mean in choosing, greater lengths and avoiding smaller, where would lie salvation? In the art of measurement or in the impression made by appearances? Haven't we seen that the appearance leads us astray and throws us into confusion so that in our actions and our choices between great and small we are constantly accepting and rejecting the same things, whereas the metric art would have canceled the effect of the impression, and by revealing the true state of affairs would have caused the soul to live in peace and quiet and abide in the truth, thus saving our life?' Faced with these considerations, would people agree that our salvation would lie in the art of measurement? ... 
What would assure us a good life then? Surely knowledge, and specifically a science of measurement, since the required skill lies in the estimation of excess and defect... 
...when people make a wrong choice of pleasures and pains--that is, of good and evil--the cause of their mistake is lack of knowledge. We can go further, and call it, as you have already agreed, a science of measurement, and you know yourselves that a wrong action which is done without knowledge is done in ignorance. So that is what being mastered by pleasure really is--ignorance...

"The required skill lies in the estimation of excess and defect."

The entire dialogue has Socrates questioning Protagoras, a sophist, if how to act, or virtue, can actually be taught to people.  Socrates is skeptical.  But then he argues that since being virtuous is contingent on knowledge, and knowledge can be taught, then virtue must be able to be taught.

The fact that this very behaviour has been on trial and discussed and debated for thousands of years and still we haven't found a solution makes me skeptical that it's teachable.  Not to mention the fact that people can know right and still do wrong, as Plato outlined in his Republic during a later period of writing, so people need to be made to do what's right under threat of punishment or exile for the benefit of society as a whole.

So we're horrible at measuring current pleasures against distant pains.  But even if we could, we enjoy doing wrong too much for knowledge alone to lead us down the right path.


We've been over this for thousands of years, yet we still value unfettered lives that lead to unspeakable tragedies, which we call evils, over some measure of restraint which could provide some current deprivations but lead to greater pleasures later.  That which we call the good.

So it goes.

1 comment:

Owen Gray said...

It's not easy to get people to do the right thing, Marie.