Plato's Moral Psychology Essay

4137 words - 17 pages

Plato's Moral Psychology

I argue that Plato's psychological theories are motivated by concerns he had about moral theory. In particular, Plato rejects the modern account of rationality as the maximization of subjectively evaluated self-interest because, had he adopted such an account, his theory of justice would be subject to criticisms which he holds are fatal to the contractarian theory of justice. While formulating a theory to remain within ethical constraints sometimes violates the canons of scientific theorizing, Plato avoids this mistake.

The first serious account of justice Plato considers in the Republic is the contractarian account.(1) It holds that is always instrumentally ...view middle of the document...

The contractarian account is also unacceptable because it has no foorce in the case of the Lydia Shepherd.(3) Finally, Plato holds that we must reject the contractarian account because a better account is available to us, viz., his own account of justice. But to show this Plato must establish each of the following: 1. There really is a difference between perceived self-interest and actual self-interest, that there can be a difference between what one believes to be in one's interest and what really is in one's interest. 2. Provide an account of what one's actual self-interest is.(4) 3. Show that one's actual self-interest, like one's perceived self-interest, is the sort of thing one could come to know.(5) 4. Show that once one has knowledge of one's actual self-interest one will come to see that it really is of value, that it is worth pursuing and that we are the sort of entities which could be motived to act for the sake of our actual self-interest once we come to know what those interests are.(6) 5. Show that acting in accordance with one's actual self-interest is identical with (or, at the very least, compatible with) being a just person. That is, he must show us that the just person is also the rational person, one who bases her actions on reason. 6. Show how his account of the relationship between justice and rational self-interest illuminates our pre-critical concept of justice in an attractive way. That is, he must show that his account provides us with a truly valuable conception of justice.

In Book IV of the Republic, Plato provides us with an account of human psychology compatible with the idea that we might be motivated by the goal of acting in our actual, rather than our apparent, self-interest; he outlines a picture of human nature which allows for the possibility that moral motives could be our motives.(7) The first step in understanding Plato here is to see why he feels it is necessary to develop this account of human nature. Why doesn't he simply rely on the standard account of human nature, the account adopted by the contractarians with whom he is arguing?

The psychological theory assumed by Glaucon in stating the contractarian account of justice was best stated and most ably defended by Hume.(8) Hume held that the human mind is divided into two parts: reason and the passions. The passionate part provides us with goals, things we want for their own sake. The rational element serves to determine the best, or most efficient, means of attaining that which the passionate element has informed us we want. For Hume, reason does not play a direct role in providing us with motives; it does not determine what we want, only how to get that which we want. As Hume put it, reason "is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions".(9) But this powerful and elegant picture will not serve Plato's purposes as can be seen by conjoining Plato's reconciliation of morality with rationality with Humean psychology. To see that this is so I...

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