The Ockham Society (Friday - Week 5, MT19)

Ockham Society

The main claim of the defense of justice in Plato’s Republic seems to be the following eudaimonistic thesis: the life of a just person is the happiest life one can live. However, some scholars (e.g. Irwin 1995, Gentzler 2012) further hold that Plato is an egoist, and they ascribe to him the claim that we should be just because and only because justice promotes our own interests (i.e. happiness). However, the egoistic interpretation seems to be contradicted by Plato’s claim that the philosopher should return to the cave to rule instead of indulging in contemplative happiness. The demand of justice seems to conflict with self-interest in this case. I discuss in this paper Gentzler’s recent attempt to rescue the egoistic interpretation. According to Gentzler, Plato’s egoism is indirect: it is in our interest to develop pro-social dispositions that allow us to be moved to action by reasons beyond our self-interest (2012, p. 55). This view is still a form of rational egoism because ultimately what we have reason to do is grounded in facts about our own interest (ibid., p. 40). I argue that this view is philosophically unattractive for exactly the reason that Socrates’s interlocutor Glaucon identifies at 519d: namely, that indirect egoism collapses into direct egoism (rejected by Socrates) under self-reflection. Merely asking oneself the question of whether the just action maximizes self-interest would often convince the egoist not to do the right thing, and the indirect egoist cannot rule this question out in principle. Therefore, if Plato does not accept direct egoism, he does not accept indirect egoism either since he recognizes the force of this objection. I further attack the assumption that Plato must be a rational egoist at all and argue that eudaimonism is compatible with anti-egoism. The philosopher-ruler’s practical reason is no longer egoistic at the end of her education, but this transformation is compatible with the claim that her life is still the happiest among all possible types of lives.

Ockham Society Convenor: Sean Costello | Ockham Society Webpage