Friday, October 19, 2018

Socrates' biopolitical science

Plato’s Gorgias begins with a scene that could borrow the soundtrack from Westside Story.  Gorgias, a famous orator, has just demonstrated his talents before an audience at the house of a wealthy and powerful Athenian politician named Callicles.  The two are standing with a third trained orator, Polus, as people do after the show is over, when Socrates and his entourage approach.  You can easily imagine Socrates’ student Chaerephon and whoever else is with them‑Plato? Xenophon?‑snapping their fingers in rhythm with the swing of the orchestra.  The first word of the dialogue is Πολμου, the Greek word for war.
Socrates engages in three dialogues, with Gorgias, Polus, and then Callicles.  A lot of the next two thousand years of the history of philosophy play out before your eyes.  I concentrate here on his conversation with Polus. 
Polus has been trained in the art of persuasion.  He believes that this art can empower him to convince anyone of anything.  That means that he can convince a jury of his or anyone else’s innocence regardless of the evidence.  He has a get out of jail free card. 
Why is such a power valuable?  To Polus, it is obvious: you can abuse, rob, or kill anyone you want to.  He thinks everyone would want such a power and is charmed by the thought that he, unlike almost everyone else, possesses it.  The power to kill without regard to justice is his treasure. 
Socrates destroys Polus with a simple disjunctive syllogism.  He asks Polus which is better: to do injustice without paying a penalty or to do injustice and suffer the penalty?  Polus insist that the first is obviously better than the second.  So far, so good.  Then Socrates asks which is more disgusting?  Polus admits the obvious.  To do injustice and get away with it is disgusting. 
It seems that Polus could hardly deny it.  His name is pronounced almost the same as polis, the Greek word for the political community.  How do we, the people of this polis‑Athens, the United States of America‑see it when we think that someone has done a terrible thing and gotten away with it?  We are disgusted. 
The Greek word for disgusting is ασχιον.  It indicates both moral and physical ugliness.  It is frequently translated as “shameful” or “foul.”  Socrates points out that if something is ασχιον it is either unpleasant or bad for you or both. 
I offer my own illustrations.  Spoiled meat is unpleasant and bad for you.  Reattaching a severed finger by the application of leaches is disgusting enough, but good for you if it works.  Shooting heroin is the very opposite of unpleasant; it is, however, disgusting because it is very bad for you. 
Since killing with impunity is not unpleasant to the murderer at least, it must be bad for you.  You shouldn’t do it, if you know what you are doing. 
Here is the disjunctive syllogism.  If killing without penalty is disgusting, then either it is unpleasant or it is bad for you.  It isn’t unpleasant to kill without penalty (it’s exquisite! Polus insists).  Therefore; it is bad for you. 
1.       (D É (U Ú B))
2.      D
3.      (U Ú B)
4.      ~U
5.      \ B
If you don’t follow the symbolic logic, take my word for it.  This is a logically valid proof.  If the premises are true, the conclusion is inescapable.
At this point I can introduce a little biosocial science.  The same part of the brain that is engaged when we sense something physically disgusting‑running sores or spoiled meat‑is engaged when we view something morally disgusting‑someone abusing a child or cheating a friend.  If the one clearly functions to help us avoid what is bad for us, it is likely that the latter functions the same way. 
Today I read a study by Tom R. Kupfer and Roger Giner-Sorolla: Communicating Moral Motives: The Social Signaling Function of Disgust, from the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science.  The results of the study indicate that when someone expresses disgust in reaction to some moral violation such as cheating a friend, she is signaling to others that she cares about moral principles and is prepared to join others in enforcing them.  That is good for her because it attracts other similar partners.  It is good for us, because it makes it possible for us to trust one another and so cooperate more effectively.
At some point in our evolutionary history, our biological capacity for disgust was harnessed by our evolved psychological mechanisms for cooperation.  Doing injustice without paying a price may be good for the individual in the short run but it is bad for the political community and therefore bad for its members in the long run. 
Socrates didn’t know about evolution.  He understood the truth about justice and injustice perfectly.  Only now is modern science catching up to him. 

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