Notes on Plato: Republic 358c – 360d

May 27, 2013 — Leave a comment

Is nature or convention the basis of society and the state?

The ‘usual’ view of the nature and origin of morality:

Immorality is more attractive than morality as a way to live ones life. Plato asserts that in nature doing wrong is good, and having wrong done to oneself is bad. The disadvantages of having it done to one far outweigh the benefits of doing it. Therefore disadvantages are unavoidable, and benefits are unattainable. The most profitable course of action for people is to enter a contract with one another in which no wrong will be committed or received. Laws and decrees follow, as do the terms ‘legal’ and ‘right’. Morality is construed as a compromise which in and of itself is not ‘good’, but does have the value of preventing people from doing wrong. Morality therefore is only actually practiced by people who lack the ability to do wrong, as those with the real ability to do wrong would not recognize or legitimize the contract. Morality is a structure from which people will deviate given the opportunity.

This fits into the wider view that human society is a product of human agreement and convention. As such it is radically different from the world of nature. Society requires a universal commitment to conscience and justice in order that such contracts between people and the state remain viable.

This discussion comes about from what appears as an early recognition of the problem of relativism. The Athenian’s are demonstrating an awareness of differences in culture and society between Greek cities and between Greeks and other peoples. Society and culture happen to be the way they are because of particular historical development. The conventions and social contracts are man made and so therefore do not have to be the way they are. The ability to create such contracts and organise society is put forward as human kinds best defence against the superiority of the forces of nature and the superior (physical) powers of other animals. Humans are able to conceive a universal commitment to conscience and justice. One can see the grounding of all epistemological and ontological problems here. The separation between a constructed set of conventions and knowledge systems, and nature itself (the ontological world).

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