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.

Body Modification: How Far is Too Far?

One thing I find myself idly wondering about sometimes is how far it is permissible to modify someone’s body – with their consent, of course. (I want to clarify here that I’m specifically wondering about cases in which A is seeking a modification to be done by B (who is qualified), and I am focusing on the permissibility of the actions done by B.)

There are some things which are obviously permissible to administer to others: braces, corrective surgeries, manicures, and hair cuts/colors to name a few. I would also place most tattoos and piercings in this category.

Less clear are more dangerous/higher-risk body mods. Eyeball tattoos, for example, might be questionable because of the lack of knowledge about their long-term risks – permanent blindness and glaucoma being very real worries. Facial tattoos on young people who do not yet have a stable source of income or have no other tattoos are also questionable. Some tattoo artists go so far as to refuse to do them under these conditions.

My intuition is that most people would not blame a (qualified) mod artist for administering the above procedures, though. I think most of the judgement would fall on the recipients. That is, it’s not the provider’s fault for offering these mods so much as it is the recipient’s fault for seeking them out.

If we push this to an extreme, though, I think it’s possible we do cross the boundary from blaming recipients to blaming mod providers. There are, for example, people diagnosed with a condition called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), who feel an intense disconnect from their abled bodies and wish the removal of (a) limb(s) or sometimes their sight. Lots of energy has been spent within the field of medical ethics attempting to settle the question of whether or not it is permissible for doctors to carry out such a person’s wishes. Even more controversial (but perhaps less plausible) are people who do not have BIID but nonetheless want to modify their bodies in similar ways. What are we to say of body modification providers (I don’t know whether use of the term “mod artist” here is appropriate) who carry out these requests? My intuition here is that many people would not merely be willing to say that it is still just the recipient’s fault for seeking out the body mod; this time, some of the blame does rest on the provider.

I suspect the permissibility of the mod artist’s actions in cases like these are largely dependent on 3 things: First, the intensity of the desire for modification – Is it a desire which, if left unfulfilled, leaves the potential recipient with psychological damage? Second, the preparedness of the potential recipient – Are they aware of the impact this mod will have on their life? Will they still be able to earn a steady income? Do they have any dependents? And lastly, the intentions of the mod provider – Have they shown appropriate concern for the potential recipient?

Going from here, I think a really interesting question to ask is whether or not it’s ever permissible for a mod artist to modify someone’s mental state rather than just their physical state. We already permit some forms of this – hypnosis, for example. But what about, say, lobotomies? What if someone of sound mind were to ask a mod provider to alter their brain such that some of their mental functions were to diminish? And, if technology advances far enough in the future, what if we were able to modify very specific mental traits, like the ability to feel emotions, or wiping certain memories? Would it be permissible to perform such procedures? (I realize this last bit may be a bit of a reach to fall under the umbrella of “body modification”, but strictly speaking it is a modification to a part of the body.)

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. 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?