Welcome to our Ethics review forum on Rachana Kamtekar’s Plato’s Moral Psychology (OUP 2018), reviewed by Nicholas Smith. Excerpts from the blurb and the review are below, but you can read both in their entirety via OUP’s website and Ethics, respectively. (You are welcome to participate in the forum even if you haven’t read either. Though as you’ll see below, if you believe it is best to read both, you will read both.)
The book abstract:
Plato’s Moral Psychology is concerned with Plato’s account of the soul insofar as it bears on our living well or badly, virtuously or viciously. The core of Plato’s moral psychology is his account of human motivation, and PMP argues that throughout the dialogues Plato maintains that human beings have a natural desire for our own good, and that actions and conditions contrary to this desire are involuntary (from which follows the ‘Socratic paradox’ that wrongdoing is involuntary). Our natural desire for our own good may be manifested in different ways: by our pursuit of what we calculate is best, but also by our pursuit of pleasant or fine things—pursuits which Plato assigns to distinct parts of the soul, sometimes treating these soul-parts as homuncular sub-agents to facilitate psychic management, and other times providing a natural teleological account for them. Thus PMP develops a very different interpretation of Plato’s moral psychology from the mainstream interpretation, according to which Plato first proposes that human beings only do what we believe to be the best of the things we can do (‘Socratic intellectualism’) and then in the middle dialogues rejects this in favour of the view that the soul is divided into parts with good-dependent and good-independent motivations (‘the divided soul’). PMP arrives at its different interpretation through the methodology of reading dialogues with a close eye to the dialectical dependence of what the main speaker says on the precise intellectual problem set up between himself and his interlocutors.
From the review:
Kamtekar begins her exploration of Plato’s moral psychology by observing that Plato seems to commit himself to several theses with respect to moral psychology:
- Virtue is knowledge.
- Wrongdoing is involuntary.
- We always do what we believe is the best of the things we can do.
She then goes on to note that many scholars at least used to suppose that these three theses implied a further thesis, namely:
- There are no nonrational or good-independent motivations.
These theses generate problems of interpretation. So, for example, while (1) seems to be the view given in several of Plato’s so-called “early” or “Socratic” dialogues, it seems to be rejected in, for example, the Republic. There, justice is explicitly identified with the harmonization of the three parts of the soul and therefore cannot plausibly be understood in wholly cognitive terms. The same inconstancy in Plato’s support seems to apply to (3), as well: whereas the early dialogues indicate support for (3), the case of Leontius in Republic 439e–440a is often regarded as evidence that Plato moved away from this view.
Kamtekar recognizes that scholars have often tried to explain the apparent inconsistencies in Plato’s support for positions such as (1) through (4) by invoking what has come to be known as a “developmentalist” reading of the dialogues. Roughly, developmentalists have argued that a number of the positions supported in the “early” or “Socratic” dialogues are modified or rejected in later dialogues. […]
Traditionally, opposition to developmentalist readings has tended to come from so-called “unitarian” scholars who have argued that the apparent shifts in Plato’s views—which developmentalists have understood as changes in his philosophical development—are only apparent and can be explained away. […]
Kamtekar appears to call for a different interpretive approach, which does not make the assumptions common to both developmentalist and unitarian practices. Her own method, as she characterizes it, recognizes the “dialectical dependence of what is said, especially by principal speakers, in order to determine Plato’s relationship to various substantive theses p that are presented and argued for in the dialogues.” “Dialectical” here requires explication, which Kamtekar is careful to provide: “The basic idea is that the interpretation of sentences that seem to express psychological doctrine should be informed by an understanding of what role these sentences play in the dialogue: for or against what are they used? Are they adopted because the interlocutor, or most people, or the main speaker himself, believes them? Or because they explain something that one of the parties believes?” (11).[M]any will find Kamtekar’s nondoctrinal readings appealing. She does not, however, offer any explanation for the fact that none of Plato’s ancient readers had any problem with attributing to Plato the views (or “doctrines”) for which his main characters argue. Aristotle, for example, reads Plato as a developmentalist (including the additional historical claim about the view of the historical Socrates being represented in the early dialogues). In reporting Plato’s views, Aristotle unabashedly identifies them with the arguments of Socrates in later dialogues, such as the Republic (see his critique of Plato in bk. 2 of the Politics). Strong support for the unitarian approach, by contrast, can be derived from the fact that all of the later members of Plato’s Academy did not seem to recognize any instances of inconsistency in the view Plato presents in his works. […]
Certainly the best part of Kamtekar’s book is her careful review of the various expressions of the view that wrongdoing is always involuntary. […]
As she notices near the beginning of chapter 3, there is actually only one text that seems to indicate that Socrates recognized the possibility of voluntary wrong-doing. In the Apology (26a2–8), Socrates scolds Meletus, “If I corrupt them [the youth] unwillingly, the law here isn’t to bring people to trial for errors of this sort, namely unwilling ones, but to take them aside in private to teach and admonish them. For it’s clear that once I learn, I’ll stop what I’m doing unwillingly. But you’ve avoided associating with me and you didn’t want to instruct me, and instead you bring me here to trial where it’s the law to try those who need punishment, not instruction”.
Kamtekar avoids concluding that Socrates is simply misleading Meletus or the jurors here, which he would be doing if we simply assume that it is his (and/or Plato’s) view that all wrongdoing is unwilling, full stop. Instead, she notices that in this argument “ignorance of the fact that corrupting one’s associates makes them vicious, and so such as to harm one, is what would make it possible for one to corrupt them willingly” (72; emphasis in original). Such actions thus allow that there is a sense in which one can do wrong willingly insofar as one forms and acts successfully on the intention to harm others. Even so, such actions count for Plato as unwilling insofar as they also always harm those who perform such actions, and such self-harm is always unwilling.