Friday, October 16, 2015

Justice is beautiful because it is good and good because it is beautiful

The following is the beginning of the essay I will present next week at the annual meeting of the Association of Politics and Life Sciences.  We are meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.  

In Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates silences the sophist Thrasymachus with his famous “honor among thieves” argument.  Thrasymachus argued that justice is merely the interest of the stronger, i.e., that right actions are what subordinates must do in the service of their superiors.  Socrates responded that the “stronger” are so because they are able to cooperate with one another in their drive toward dominion; and so, they must be just at least toward one another.  Justice is then superior injustice even if you accept the view that all human actions are motivated by selfish desire. 
At the beginning of Book 2, the spirited brothers Glaucon and Adiemantus announce their dissatisfaction with this argument and each issues a challenge to Socrates.  These challenges come in the form of claims about what “the many” believe about justice and injustice.  The former argues that, in the view of the many, justice is a mean between the greatest evil and the greatest good.  The greatest evil is to be exploited by someone else.  The greatest good is to be able to exploit others.  The many realize that without restraints on human behavior, they would be the victims rather than the perpetrators of injustice.  They value justice only as a lesser evil.  Glaucon wants Socrates to show him that this view of justice is not correct, that justice is something good in itself.
Adiemantus’ view is more sophisticated.  He grants that the many do speak and act as if justice really were something good in itself; however, what they genuinely desire is the appearance and not the substance of justice.  Justice is like paper money.  It is valuable only because it is valued.  Righteous men value their reputation because it wins them partnerships and good marriages for their children.  Were it not for such commerce, they would not bother about it.  Adiemantus too wants Socrates to show him that justice is something good in itself and not something that is merely instrumental to some selfish end. 
The remainder of the Republic is devoted to Socrates’ efforts to satisfy the two brothers.  I believe that Socrates’ account of justice is convincing.  Socrates argues that justice is in fact the order in a well-ordered soul.  When intelligence governs the passions and the passions govern the appetites, each part of the tripartite soul doing its own proper business, that is justice.  This account succeeds because it presents justice as something not merely good, but beautiful; or more precisely, it is good because it is beautiful.  That is what the brothers crave. 
In this paper I will be making something of a defense on his behalf; however, I will do so by focusing on the simple fact that Glaucon and Adiemantus make their challenges in the first place.  Were Socrates wrong, neither brother would bother to seek an argument in support of justice.  Were Socrates wrong, the popular explanations of justice that the brothers articulate would not make sense, even in their apparently diminished forms. 
This is important because modern political theory and philosophical ethics largely accepts the popular views of justice much as they are articulated by Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adiemantus.  Justice is indeed valuable in so far as it advances the interests of a population strong enough to defend it.  Even then, it is valued only as a token.  He who carries the token advertises himself as a good partner in cooperative ventures. 
This view has received important support in recent years from evolutionary accounts of morality.  In the work of Christopher Boehm, Michael Tomasello, and David Sloan Wilson, morality emerges in the history of human evolution because it protects the weaker members against the stronger, encourages mutual obligations, and thus allows small groups of humans to effectively compete with other, equally rapacious bands of brothers.  All of human history over the last twelve thousand years or so represents a innovation built out of evolutionary components.  When one group assimilated another rather than annihilating it, bending the assimilated group to its service, much as one organism occasionally assimilates and exploits another, civilization was born.  For this to work, the dominate group must effectively cooperate and to do that competitive behavior within the dominate group must be controlled.  We are back to honor among thieves. 
I will argue that the moral (or the just) could only have functioned in that way because human beings are naturally inclined to see it as beautiful.  The beautiful thing is good because it is noble, beautiful to behold.  In turn, Socrates argues on many occasions in both Plato’s works and the Socratic dialogues of Xenophon, that the good is beautiful.  Socrates admires a beautiful set of armor because he can see that it was exquisitely tailored to some individual other than himself.  It was good for the armorer’s client in so far as it fit him.  It was good for Socrates only in so far as it was beautiful.  Beauty transcends the good which gives it birth.
To take another example from evolutionary psychology, imagine a beautiful house.  Now imagine that there is a verdant forest just behind it, and beyond that a range of hills.  Large picture windows at the front give views of a plain dotted with trees.  Not too far in the distance is a river or lake.  That is a valuable piece of real estate.  Why?  Our ancestors needed access to water and to the occasional prey that gathered there.  They also had to fear predators and other human beings.  They liked to be able to see what was coming and to have somewhere to retreat to.  Our notion of what is a beautiful home was forged as our ancestors moved about and succeeded in finding places that allowed them to flourish and thus become our ancestors.  A Montana ranch house I once visited has all of these elements but none of them were necessary for survival.  It was good because it was beautiful. 
We like to tell stories in which the wicked are defeated and the just triumph.  These stories are beautiful to us because we have a taste for justice.  That taste was a product of evolution because it promoted the successful reproduction of our great great… grandmothers and grandfathers.  That the taste for justice was selected for in our evolution doesn’t change the fact that the object of the taste often has nothing to do with our own reproductive success.  We admire justice even when it has nothing to do with us just as we admire a beautiful painting of a beautiful house that we can never live in.  In that way the taste for the noble transcends the good from which it was born. 

In this essay I will show that inequity aversion, the human distaste for injustice in both two party exchanges and in observations of third party exchanges, show that Socrates was right.  

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