2 | “The just life is the happiest life.” Socrates on the proper constitution of the soul

[This is installment 2 in my Ethics 101 project.]

In my first installment, I posed the question: Why be moral?

Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates in Plato’s Republic suggests that this question is difficult to answer because there seem to be prima facie reasons to prefer acting immorally when it benefits us. The problem is that, intuitively, we think of morality as something intrinsically valuable – something that should carry weight in itself, regardless of whether or not it results in good consequences. Saying that one ought to be moral because, and only because, good things come from doing so seems to be a debasement of the idea of morality.

So anyways, this was the challenge posed by Glaucon at the beginning of Plato’s Republic. Hundreds of pages later (because Socrates has a tendency to ramble and get sidetracked), we finally get our answer.


As any good philosopher should, Socrates begins his response to Glaucon’s challenge by getting clear on the subject matter. Up until this point I have been using the terms “moral” and “just” somewhat synonymously, and indeed in everyday use we tend to associate one with the other. But Socrates has a very specific conception of justice: each part of a system playing its role and only its role, rather than taking over the role of another part for which it is less suited.

This can be applied generally, for example to a city: Justice in a city is achieved and maintained when everyone in that city knows their role and sticks to it; nobody is attempting to do anything they’re not supposed to do. Those who are best suited to rule are in positions of governmental power, those who are best suited to defend the city are soldiers, and so on for all the different roles a citizen may play.

This conception of justice can also be applied particularly, to individuals. Just like a city, an individual has different “parts” with different ideal functions. This is true in many senses – biologically, for example – but for Plato and Glaucon’s purposes the relevant sense is psychological.

According to Socrates, there are three main parts that make up our psychology (in the Republic he uses the word ‘soul‘): the rational part, the spirited part, and the appetitive part. The rational part of our psychology is in charge of weighing the options, making the best decisions for ourselves, and all that good stuff. Pretty intuitive. The appetitive part is also pretty intuitive: it’s the part of our psychology that deals with desire – whether that be hunger, lust, or whatever else one might crave. The spirited part of our psychology is probably the most difficult to grasp, but basically its job is to “help” the rational part. Oftentimes, what we rationally judge to be best for us conflicts with what our appetite craves. Our ‘spirit’ is supposed to help drive us in the direction of what’s rational.

Justice, then, when applied to the individual, means that each part of our psychology is playing the role that it ought to: the rational part is ultimately in charge of making decisions and the spirited part helps ensure this by keeping the appetitive part in check.

Conversely, injustice in an individual is when the parts of our psychology are out of whack; maybe the spirited part isn’t doing its job properly and our appetitive part is calling all the shots or something. I hope it’s immediately obvious to all of us how and why this could be a very bad thing.

So it turns out we do have reason to value justice as justice: we’d be pretty fucked without it! In some cases it may seem like not playing the part we’re supposed to (a law-abiding citizen, for example) can get us ahead, but Socrates thinks this is mistaken. If justice just is the parts of a system working together as they ought to, it’s pretty clear that we ought to want this wherever it can occur – whether it be in a city or in ourselves.


Reading this back to myself, I realize this is a bit anticlimactic. Honestly, I found Socrates’ answer to Glaucon’s challenge to be pretty unsatisfying too. In Plato’s defense, the book as a whole has a lot more to say – it was just irrelevant for my current purposes (i.e., the Bib Exam).

Next week I’ll discuss Hobbes’ response to the question “Why be moral?” from his work Leviathan.

Ethics 101: An Introduction to the Course

So I’m about to start studying for my ~big, scary, super intensive 3rd-year bibliography exam~. Basically, I need to choose a branch of philosophy that I intend to develop a strong, thorough foundation of knowledge in (ethics, obviously) and then read through a pre-selected bibliography of core texts and ideas in that branch. I take the exam based on this bibliography at the end of this school year.

I would like to share some of my notes here on my blog as I work through this reading list. The first reason being that I think it’ll help me personally (as a philosopher, as a communicator, and with motivation to study and keeping me on track). The second – and probably more important – reason is that I think (if I do it right) this could be a great resource for people (particularly, undergrads or non-academics) who want to get a good lay of the land and major ideas in moral philosophy in an accessible and manageable manner.

These two goals kind of feed into each other: I need to have good notes in order for this to be genuinely helpful to people other than myself, and if I am focused on creating genuinely good notes on my reading I am more likely to do better on the exam. Win-win ๐Ÿ™‚

So throughout this school year I’ll be posting notes which:

  • Cover core and landmark writings in ethics/moral philosophy from all eras (ancient Greeks to present day)
  • Contextualize these writings in the greater sphere of relevant debates and ideologies
  • Are accessible for everyone and (to the best of my current foresight) will not presuppose any familiarity with moral philosophy
  • Maintain a(n albeit introductory-level) sense of academic rigor
  • Individually, are intended to give one a gloss of the topic at hand
  • Collectively, are intended to give one a fairly solid foundation of the basics of moral philosophy

These posts will be given their own hyperlink in my main menu and organized by topic for ease of access and use.

Class is in session ๐Ÿ˜‰ Welcome to Ethics 101.

Becoming Friends with my Inner Critic

“Inner critic” has been known to mean lots of different things, but my therapist and I use it to refer to that voice inside my head that always has something negative to say – whether it be about my academic performance, my personal relationships, my body image, or something else. We both agree that I have quite the aggressive inner critic, and we’ve been talking a lot about how I can better manage it.

The problem, as she so insightfully put it, is that my inner critic has been the source of a lot of my success. I wouldn’t have gotten my black belt, run marathons, won debate competitions, graduated college summa cum laude, or been accepted to some of the best philosophy PhD programs had I not pushed myself further than most others did. My high standards have always been what sets me apart – and I’m proud of the ways in which they do. Silencing or ignoring my inner critic just doesn’t seem like an attractive option to me.

But I do realize that in the long run having such a vocal and fierce inner critic is harmful to my health and wellbeing, so the solution we’ve (i.e. my therapist and I) have come up with is, rather than trying to rid myself of that vicious voice in my head, to become friends with it. To acknowledge what it’s saying and be able to have a conversation with it. I’m still struggling to find that middle ground, but it’s a start.

Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome (n): a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”


Impostor syndrome has always been something I’ve struggled with since starting my study of philosophy. Some points of my academic career have been worse than others, and usually it’s in relation to my circumstances/situation. (For example, next to no feelings of doubting myself around the time I was awarded both departmental awards as a graduating college senior, but terrible impostor syndrome after I got rejected from three grad schools in a row.)

My grad school experience thus far has been one hell of a rollercoaster so I’ve had my ups and downs when it comes to keeping my impostor syndrome under control. To that end, here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • Being honest about it helps. I was always open about my feelings of inadequacy with several (well-chosen) people in my department, and oftentimes, more than just comfort or sympathy, I was met with understanding. It turns out that so many of my colleagues can relate to how I’m feeling and are either going through or have gone through it as well. It’s been so affirming and encouraging to know that these feelings aren’t unique to me. And in general, I think being open about how you’re feeling can, over time, contribute to a culture in which such topics are dealt with better instead of being treated as taboo or something to keep bottled up.
  • The more comfortable I become in an environment, the better sense of belonging I have, and the less I feel like I don’t deserve to be there. So in general, coping with impostor syndrome may just take some time.
  • It’s good to remind myself that I’m my own biggest critic and that my assessment of my own performance is necessarily biased, and that people with way more experience than me have judged my work adequate (or better than adequate).
  • On a similar note, it’s also good to remind myself that it’s okay to suck sometimes. If I write a shitty term paper or say something stupid during a seminar, that’s fine. We all have our moments. It doesn’t mean that – on the whole – I am not deserving of my place in academia/in my department.

“Teaching is never neutral.”

Recently my department held a teaching workshop, and we brought in someone from the School of Education to present to us. One of the topics that came up was how to approach politically-charged topics in the classroom as the teacher, the worry being that, as instructors, we want to portray a sense of neutrality to our students while still touching on important and relevant issues.

The presenter responded with with a simple yet striking assertion:

Teaching is never neutral.

This sparked a lot of discussion at the workshop and what was said has given me a lot to think about.

Firstly, I think our workshop leader is right. Teaching is never neutral, nor should it be. This doesn’t mean that instructors should start taking time at the beginning of each class to campaign for their favorite presidential candidate, but I do believe there are many ways in which instructors can and ought to take a stance.

Here are some things I do as an instructor which carry political significance:

  • Dress casually. Especially as a woman, how I present myself to students in terms of dress makes a big difference. I know lots of people who purposely dress more professionally on the days they teach to make an impact on how their students perceive them. I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kinds of values to espouse, and concluded that “appearing professional” wasn’t one of them. I want my students to respect me, but I don’t want it to be in part because of how I dress.
  • Include my pronouns in my email signature. I am obviously a woman, but I think the practice of being explicit about your pronouns anyways is a good one. It normalizes it for everyone and keeps it from being a burden that only trans people have to bear.
  • Instruct my students to address me by my first name. Again, I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and concluded that I feel a lot more comfortable with my students calling me by my first name instead of using “Miss”. This is a barrier that some TAs (understandably and justifiably) want to keep up, but I personally don’t want it between me and my students.
  • Comply with accessibility requests. Okay, so, granted, this one is kind of requiredย of me to do by my university, but even just the fact that this is a university-wide requirement sends a political message of anti-ableism.

A Check-in: The Beginning of Year 2

3 weeks in. So far, so good – great, actually! I’m not really sure where to start, so I guess I’ll just go in order.

I spent the summer living with my partner in Santa Barbara, California. I really missed that place, and getting to spend so much time there was healing. Living in my favorite city with my favorite person did a lot to undo all of the mental and emotional stress I felt throughout my first year, and ultimately I think this recovery set a really solid foundation for the start of my second year.

I moved back to the east coast for the start of the school year after the first week of August. My dog, Luna, stayed with my partner in California with my partner, so I moved alone. My lease ended on my old apartment and I moved into a new place with one of the people in my department. She’s incredible, and she’s got the sweetest boys (a dog and a cat). She’s big into home decor and customization, so she’s got rugs and pictures and plants everywhere. It’s a complete 180 from my old place, and I feel so much more at home here. I think living with her has also been good for my mental health in general; she’s a great roommate, really cheery, and nice to spend time with. (She’s also the one who deals with the cockroaches – an endeavor I had to undertake by myself when I lived alone.)

The diversity workshop I had been planning and co-organizing for the better part of a year took place a week before classes started. We had a great group of participants and we received great feedback! This being the first time we’ve organized it, it was really really rewarding to hear good things from them. Despite how much stress and work went into putting this workshop, I’m really excited to build on what I’ve learned this time around and move forward!

I increased my dosage for antidepressants. I started taking them about 7 months ago and stumbled around a bit trying to figure out kind/brand worked best for me. I saw some small but definite changes back then but now that I’ve settled on a particular brand, I was able to increase my dose about two weeks ago. The effects have definitely been noticeable! My anxiety can still be pretty bad at times, but it’s less debilitating overall. Most significantly, my depression is comparatively non-existent! I can get up to work, get myself out of the house, keep my space clean, go to the gym, enjoy the company of other people, and keep generally good spirits throughout the week! It’s an incredible feeling – even more so because it’s been consistent. I’m very, very pleased about how I’m responding to these meds.

I’ve been working out consistently and it’s done a lot to help with my perception of my health and body. Because of my eating disorder the way I’ve viewed my body has always been a bit warped and toxic, but whenever I’m working out consistently I experience less anxiety about it – even if the physical changes aren’t too noticeable. I try to do yoga most mornings, run 3x a week, lift 3x a week, and have one day off to rest and recover. I’m really proud of myself keeping this schedule up; I think a lot of it has to do with increased motivation from my antidepressants working really well.

I starting teaching! (TAing, technically.) It’s an intro to moral theory course and I have two discussion sections every week. Being the only person in my cohort having never taught before, I was pretty nervous my first week. But I’ve really come to enjoy it! It’s incredibly rewarding, and so nice to see my students engage in class discussion. I’ve had several students tell me that what I’m doing is really helpful in their understanding of the material and it really encourages me to be the best teacher I can be. My undergrad Intro to Ethics TA was who ultimately got me interested in pursuing philosophy, and I hope I can impart some of that passion onto my students now that I’m in that role.

Overall, I’ve been keeping on top of my work. My time management and prioritization skills have gotten way better since I was a first year and I feel very much on top of things. I haven’t yet felt overwhelmed about my workload and I’m completing all my reading assignments on time. One thing I’m particularly proud of so far this year is my participation in classroom discussions. I had trouble with this last year because of anxiety and impostor syndrome and just fear/timidness in general, but this year I feel like I’m doing a lot better in getting over that and convincing myself that I have valuable things to contribute.

Like I said, so far, so good! ๐Ÿ™‚

I don’t like meta-ethics.

Ethics is divided up into (at least) two parts: normative ethics, the goal of which is to provide action-guiding theories of right and wrong (or permissible, impermissible, and obligatory) action; and meta-ethics, the goal of which is to answer questions about morality itself (Is it something objective or subjective? What do we mean when we say something is wrong?).

I really don’t like meta-ethics.

Firstly, I don’t like meta-ethics because it’s really hard.

On a less petty note, I also don’t like it because I’ve consistently found it to be something that “the folk” (non-philosophers, the everyday person, whatever) fall back on to defend themselves when there isn’t really anything else going for them.

“That’s just your opinion! Who’s to say you’re right and I’m wrong?”

“Well I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on what’s right.”

This tactic is especially troubling when deployed in political or social justice discussions, because it stops the conversation from going any further (like we’re supposed to answer one of the great meta-ethical questions succinctly and sufficiently in the context of a conversation?!) on matters that we really need to do something about.

I hate that people use meta-ethics as fallback and I hate that there’s not really anything you can do in response.

This has been my rant of the day.

Application Advice: Letters of Rec

This advice is specifically for philosophy undergrad seniors or BA/MA-holders who are applying to Philosophy PhD programs. Maybe it’ll also apply to other people in other situations in other fields. [Insert the usual disclaimer to take what I say with a grain of salt, every situation is different, etc.]

How to ask:

  • Ask early! At least a month in advance, but probably more. Professors can get pretty busy around application season, so you want to make sure you get your request in early, giving them plenty of time to work on it.
  • I recommend asking via email first, and then offering to meet in person later on if necessary. In the email, explain what you’re applying for and say when you will need the letter by. Include a brief statement about why you think this professor in particular would be a good letter writer for you. Finish the email by saying that you’ll give them all the necessary information (including application materials) if they agree to write you a letter.
  • A sample email:

Hi Professor!

I am applying to PhD programs in philosophy this upcoming cycle, and if you’re willing, I would love for you to be one of my letter writers. I took classes ____, ____, and ____ with you and enjoyed them immensely. From this I hope that you have a pretty good understanding of my academic abilities. (For reference, attached is a paper I have written for one of your classes that I am particularly proud of.)

If you feel you are able to write me a strong letter, I can email my application materials to you to aid in your writing: a draft of my writing sample, personal statement, statement of purpose, and CV. Additionally, if you would like to meet in person to discuss this further, I am available at ____.

(Also, please feel free to say no. Given how competitive admissions are, I would only want you to write me a letter if you feel you can write me a good one. Otherwise I am happy to find someone else.)

Thanks for your consideration! Sincerely, …

Who to ask:

  • Ask a professor you can depend on! From experience, I can say that nothing sucks more than your letter writing falling through on their agreement and dealing with the stress of missing letters from your application.
  • As much as possible, you probably want to ask people in the philosophy department and you probably want to ask people who are professors (as opposed to adjuncts or grad students). Also if possible, try to have at least one letter writer whose area of research is similar to or the same as your stated area of interest. Admissions committees take into account who is writing your letter – not just what it says!
  • Only ask professors who you have a good, strong relationship with, and who can speak positively to your philosophical abilities. This sounds like an obvious one, but it’s particularly important to keep this in mind when considering how many letters you should submit. Most places require three but accept up to five. Three strong letters is better than three strong and one mediocre one.

What to do after you’ve secured your letter writers:

  • Send along those application materials you promised. You want to give them some leads for what to write about, and also make sure that what they say about you is in line with what you say about yourself in the other parts of your application.
  • Send them gentle reminders one month, two weeks, one week, and each day up to three days before the letter is due. Sometimes professors get busy, and it’s ultimately your responsibility to make sure all parts of your application are submitted on time.
  • In the case that your letter writers fail to submit their letter on time (God forbid, but it happens), email the DGS of the school you’re applying to letting them know of your situation. Most places (at least in my experience) grant a short grace period/extension for professors to get their letters in. (You’ll still have to submit the rest of your application materials on time, though.)
  • After all letters have been submitted, write a sincere thank you note to each of your professors. Letters of rec are one of the most important aspects of your application, and hopefully they put a lot of thought and effort into writing them for you. (I recommend a handwritten note instead of an email – it’s way more meaningful!) Bonus: This keeps you on good terms with them if you ever need to ask them for a letter again in the future.
  • Several months later once admissions decisions have rolled in, make sure to let your professors know what happened! They played a central role in your application process and they should know the outcome.

Hope this was helpful! Best of luck to everyone ๐Ÿ™‚

Responsibility for Attitudes: Our Pasts; Emotional Requirements

I recently finished Smith’s “Responsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life” (2005) and wanted to jot down a few thoughts and questions I have after reading.

First, a thought: I really liked the way she states her view towards the end of her paper:

What matters in determining whether an attitude is morally attributable to a person is whether it can reasonably be taken to reflect that person’s evaluative judgments. The fact that a person’s evaluative judgments are usually shaped in various ways by her early attachments and environment does nothing to undermine the claim that they are still genuinely her judgments… The responsibility one has for becoming a certain kind of person must be distinguished from the responsibility for the attitudes one in fact holds. (267-268)

That is, whether or not a person is morally responsible for their attitudes depends only on whether it reflects their internal, evaluative judgments. How this person came to have these evaluative judgments is not relevant here.ย I am inclined to agree with this statement, and am sympathetic to the arguments Smith puts forward in defense of it. She puts the point quite beautifully; I expect that I will return to this portion of her paper in the process of preparing my MA thesis.

Second, a question: Are we always morally responsible for not being emotional or sympathetic enough?

Surely there are situations in which we could be blamed (Casually conflating moral responsibility with blameworthiness here. Move along.) for lacking in emotional sensitivity, but I think the topic merits a little more examination that Smith gives in her paper.

She introduces an example from Williams of “unavoidable but harmful consequences”: A truck driver, who, through no fault of his, runs over a child. He will feel differently from any spectator, despite people trying to convince him he was no worse than one. Nonetheless it is good that the driver still feels regret, for we would have “some doubt” about him if he did not: “This would indicate a failure to appreciate the seriousness and significance he has, however blamelessly, helped to bring about.” Smith immediately accepts this, adding, “to feel regret involves the judgement that something of value has been lost.” (249-250)

I myself am not so ready to grant this. Firstly, it is not clear to me how this explains why the driver should feel differently from a spectator. Wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) the spectator also make the judgment that something valuable has been lost, and so feel regretful, as well? If this is the case, then we should feel perfectly at ease if the driver felt the same as a spectator. From “the driver should feel regret”, we cannot then say “and this is how he differs from the spectator.” In fact, I think, the correct conclusion to be drawn here given the description of regret is “and so too should the spectator.”

But this brings me to my second objection: Why should we take this to be a correct characterization of regret? Why couldn’t some different attitude be the result of acknowledging something valuable lost? Is this the only underlying judgement that regret could have?

My general concern here is that we are expected to feel in a certain way. Why should we feel worse than a spectator? Why should we feel some sympathetic emotion at all? And why are we morally answerable for not doing so?

What would be so wrong about the driver feeling a detached, somber acknowledgement for his situation instead? There are approximately 1 million suicides worldwide per year, and this is generally the feeling we have towards each of these cases. (Perhaps even that is a stretch – we don’t even know about most of these cases except for the fact that they are happening. It’s hard to feel deep emotions in general towards things we do not know anything about.) I would be hesitant to call these attitudes wrong. Given that our personal (as opposed to causal) contributions in all such cases are equally irrelevant, why is it not morally acceptable to feel the same about them all? Why should our causal contribution be relevant if it was completely through no fault of our own? A detached, somber acknowledgment towards your situation seems morally permissible to me; Smith seems to assume it is not. Why must we feel more?

What counts as philosophy? Reflections on academic passing and divergent work

I recently re-read Dotson’s paper “Concrete Flowers” (2011) in preparation for a diversity workshop I’ll be leading next month. In the paper, Dotson offers some commentary on the current state of professional philosophy which is both insightful and incredibly sobering. (If you’re in the field of philosophy and haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.) Her discussion on what she refers to as “academic passing” really spoke to me, and in this blog post I want to use it as a backdrop to reflect on how my view of philosophy has changed over the years.

Dotson defines academic passing as “an academic performance in which scholarly work perceived to have a somewhat threatening ‘academic lineage’ is presented or categorized by others as the kind of work that it is not.” She laments the pressure felt, especially by minorities, to conform their work to fit the mainstream, dominant conceptions of academic philosophy. She says,

The irony is that, despite defining philosophy as an uncompromising, no-holds-barred critique, only some kinds of critical engagement are welcome: those that leave untouched the suppressed question, “But what does count as philosophy?” Paradoxically, leaving that very question suppressed makes it difficult to generate radically new ideas in the field.

My own views on this topic have changed quite radically over the years – so much so that my opinion on it has not yet been settled. It’s a complex, multidimensional issue which I am not sure how to address. In the remainder of this blog post I’d like to lay out how my thoughts on the question What does count as philosophy? have evolved over the years.

The general outsider’s attitude towards philosophy, at least in my circles, is one of apathy or disrespect. Students at my undergrad university believed the major to be easy, unchallenging, and unimportant. Even my parents were disappointed when I announced that I would be pursing philosophy.

So when I switched into the philosophy major as an undergrad I found myself feeling the need to justify the value of what I did: “Philosophy isn’t just ‘thinking about life’ and spiritual spacey bullshit about our place in the universe – it’s full of rigorous, critical thinking! It’s about precision and crafting strong arguments! Philosophy helps develop superior reasoning skills! Our major scores the highest on the LSAT! Blah blah blah!”

And for quite some time (an embarrassingly long amount of time, if I’m being honest), this was the view I held. This was how I differentiated the colloquial understanding of philosophy from academic philosophy. When people asked me what I do, I emphasized these differences. I cited the logical structure that underlined our arguments and the principled way in which we approached questions. I wanted people to understand that I wasn’t getting my degree by just meditating and writing down every #fakedeep thought that came into my head.

But, as Dotson rightfully points out, restricting philosophy to this very narrow, traditional style is harmful. Firstly, I closed myself off to so many worthwhile ideas by refusing to engage with others who used a non-analytic philosophical style or focused on non-traditional questions. Secondly, I was failing to see the hypocrisy in my actions. I was first drawn to philosophy because of its relentless curiosity, but in restricting my work to a very specific style and taking for granted the deeper question of what counts as philosophy, I was failing to embody the very traits I idolized. Most tragically, however, I was excluding those who were not trained in or did not conform to the Western philosophical tradition, actively contributing to the problem of under-representation in my field.

My thoughts on what counts as philosophy have since evolved to become more broad and inclusive, though now I am left with many questions of how to proceed from here. I’ll discuss the (current) most pertinent one.

First, some background info: I’m organizing a workshop with an aim of helping students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds apply to grad school. We especially focused on reaching out to students from universities currently without a philosophy graduate program or undergraduate adviser. Several of our participants met these criteria, and several others came from very small colleges/departments. We asked students to include a writing sample in their application and – unsurprisingly, given our target audience – many were written in styles that would be considered non-traditional for our discipline. Nonetheless, they were very obviously great papers written by capable students.

On one hand, the goal is to give them the best chance of getting into a PhD program. While I don’t know the exact standards admissions boards use to assess writing samples, I’d hazard a guess that basic command of standard philosophical writing is high on the list. Given the goals of the workshop, is it not a responsibility of mine to emphasize this point?

But on the other hand, forcing future PhD students into a predetermined mold leads to precisely the problems I have outlined above. If one of my long term goals is to increase diversity in philosophy, should I not encourage these differences instead of usher them out? The problem is not divergent work. It is our community’s close-mindedness; it is thereย that we should focus on enacting change.

I’m not sure how to proceed.