Against absolute goodness


Richard Krautinterviewed by Richard Marshall.

Richard Kraut broods constantly on Ancient philosophy and ethics, thinks utilitarianism, Kantian and neo-Kantian Rawlsianism are hedonistic and faulty, thinks Aristotle very relevant and thinks goodness figures large in our everyday thinking. He has written many booksabout these and related matters and all his thoughts are groovaciously deep-fried. Which of course makes him distinctly bodacious.

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher? You’ve been one for some time now. In that time, what have been the biggest changes you’ve witnessed to the way philosophy is done and its status? Has it been as satisfying as you hoped?

Richard Kraut:I started developing an interest in philosophy when I was in high school (Erasmus Hall, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn). My older sister had completed college, and had been a philosophy major, so there were some philosophy books lying around the house. I can’t recall reading any of them, but their titles intrigued me. And somehow or other I fell in with a group of brainy kids who were reading Bertrand Russell – Unpopular Essaysand Marriage and Morals, not his “technical philosophy,” but, even so, enough to make me want to take a philosophy course as soon as I went away to college (University of Michigan).

The subject took hold: I enrolled in philosophy courses every term, enjoyed them all, became a philosophy major, and had no doubts about going to graduate school (I wound up at Princeton). It was a smooth, easy process. I’ve never had any regrets, and have never felt conflicted about the value of philosophy or whether it was something I should be pursuing. Yes, it’s been as satisfying as I hoped it would be – perhaps more so. I was extremely lucky, because there is no way of knowing in advance whether one’s interest in a subject is going to continue to develop or fade. Or whether new ideas will keep coming.

You ask about changes in the way philosophy is done and its status. I was an undergraduate and a graduate student in the 60s, and when I look back at the 40 years of philosophical work that has been done since then, my sense is that it has been a period of tremendous growth and accomplishment. The subject of moral philosophy has been enriched by many great figures like Rawls, Nagel, Scanlon, Williams, and Parfit. In the study of ancient philosophy, there have been many advances in our understanding of the three main Hellenistic schools (stoicism, epicureanism, skepticism), while the study of Plato and Aristotle has also flourished. My sense is that as an intellectual practice academic philosophy is in a healthy condition. The importance of such major thinkers as Hegel and Heidegger is more widely acknowledged than it was when I was a student, and there is a broad consensus among academic philosophers that the subject should never lose touch with the canon of great historical works of earlier centuries.

Since philosophy is inherently an adversarial activity (one is always arguing against someone), it is in a way remarkable that we agree as much as we do about which problems ought to be taken seriously and which authors should be read. One unhealthy change should be mentioned, however: it has become necessary for academic philosophers to do quite a bit of publishing in order to remain in the profession. Graduate students are encouraged to have one or two publications in professional journals. At research universities (and even at some teaching-oriented liberal arts colleges), junior faculty members must have five or six publications or a book, if they want to become tenured. There is nothing unfair about any of this; these or comparable quantitative standards apply to every academic field. But I think philosophy is a field in which it often takes decades to reach a point at which one has something very important and worthwhile to say. One result is that some talented philosophers who might have done valuable work leave the field because they are developing too slowly. I suspect that many other academic fields do not suffer in the same way from the pressure, which arose in the 1970s, to publish and establish one’s reputation at an early stage of one’s career. Is economics, for example, losing talented economists because of the need to publish? I doubt it. But I’m pretty sure that philosophy is.

I’m not sure what is meant by the “status” of philosophy, but here are some thoughts that might be relevant. In my experience, philosophy is a subject that has a deep hold on a significant number of intellectually curious young people. They naturally love the questions it asks, and they appreciate the rigor and depth of the great historical figures. Some people will be bitten by the philosophy bug; they need only be exposed to it. But there are other people who are annoyed when they encounter philosophy, because they expect it to be at the same time profound and easy to understand. If they have to work hard at it, they think that somehow or other this is the fault of the writer – that it should be as easy to read philosophy as it is to read a work of popular history or a magazine article. They don’t think that mathematics or physics or ancient Greek should be easy, but for some reason they do have that expectation of philosophy. This attitude exists, I think, even within academia. There too, philosophy is regarded as insular and needlessly obscure. In that respect, I think the “status” of my discipline is not what it should be. I don’t think this is a problem that has become worse over the years. But it has not become better.

It’s not as though I think that philosophers should be entirely let off the hook. I often come across philosophical writing that could have been made more reader-friendly, had the author been aiming to write for an audience of people who are interested in philosophy but are not yet specialists. Often, just a bit more effort would have allowed the author’s thoughts to reach a wider audience. So, my view is that the “status” of philosophy suffers for several reasons, and that philosophers are partly, but only partly, responsible for this.

3:AM:You’re an expert in ancient philosophy, but you use this expertise to engage with vital contemporary moral and political issues. Is this something that drew you to this domain, or was it something that grew out of realising that the Ancients had something to say to us?

RK:I fell in love with Plato’s writingsas soon as I started reading him, and this made me want to learn Greek (which I began studying intensively between my sophomore and junior years). Plato’s ethical and political works are accessible to beginners and have a powerful protreptic quality – they are emotionally powerful and make philosophy seem more important than any other human pursuit. (I am thinking particularly of his Gorgias.) It took me more time to appreciate Aristotle. As a separate interest, I also started reading widely in contemporary moral and political philosophy.

It may sound strange to say that this was a “separate interest” but what I mean is that I didn’t, at first, think that Plato or Aristotle had to be compared with philosophers of the twentieth century. I found their ideas intriguing and worth exploring for their own sake, and I wasn’t committed to any notion that modern or contemporary philosophy was inferior, or that philosophy had better turn back to its roots in antiquity. But over the years, I started developing an interest, which grew stronger, in the question of which ideas (if any) in Plato or Aristotle (or later ancient Western philosophers) could still be defended – and of providing a defense for them. So I turned increasingly from primarily historical and interpretive questions to the project of assessing the strengths or weaknesses of what these historical figures were saying. When I had a year’s leave of absence in 2004, I wrote the first draft of What is Good and Why, which defends some very Aristotelian ideas about human well-being.

3:AM:In that book you challenge two mainstream strands of contemporary ethical theories with ideas developed from the Ancient Greeks don’t you? You argue that neither utilitarianism nor neo-Kantian Rawlsian contracturalism are adequate. Before you say what you propose in their stead, what are the main difficulties that you identify with these two approaches to ethics?

RK:Utilitarianism in its classical formulation (the utilitarianism of Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick) says that there is one supreme principle of morality: maximise the good. Much of the opposition to it in the twentieth century has recoiled from it because of the way in which this seems at odds with our ordinary thinking. As W. D. Ross pointed out in The Right and the Good, it is an awful reason to break a promise that, after giving one’s word, one discovers a better use of one’s time (better in utilitarian terms). No promisee would accept that as a legitimate justification for failing to honor a commitment – and who could blame him?

Rawls also used a powerful example, in A Theory of Justice: it would not be a justification of slavery if it turned out that it produced the most good – if the suffering of the slaves was sufficiently outweighed by the well-being of the masters. It’s not an adequate reason to enslave people that other people would benefit a great deal from being slave-masters.

There is another problem with classical utilitarianism: it was committed to the thesis that the good that is to be maximised is one thing only – pleasure (and similarly the only bad thing to be avoided is pain). Early twentieth century philosophers who wanted to remain utilitarians – I am thinking of G. E. Mooreand Hastings Rashdall– were attracted, for good reasons, to a more pluralistic conception of what is good. They held that such things as knowledge, virtue, beauty, and friendship are good in themselves, and are not merely to be valued as sources of pleasure.

But the more fundamental problem is the one that Ross and Rawls identified. Even if utilitarianism embraces a pluralistic conception of the good, their objections will remain powerful against that new version.

As to your question about “neo-Kantian Rawlsianism”: there are several things to say here. Kant himself has a hedonistic conception of the human good, and so his theory has that weakness in common with classical utilitarianism. Rawls did well to reject hedonism in A Theory of Justice, but what he replaced it with is not very satisfactory. His idea (and here he borrows from Sidgwick) is that what is good for a human being is the fulfillment of the plan that he would rationally choose were he to deliberate fully and clearly about his options.

Basically, the thought is that you construct what is good for you by following a certain procedure: whatever the outcome of that procedure is, that’s where your good lies. He acknowledged that according to this view if someone rationally chooses to devote his life to counting blades of grass, then that really is best for him. Obviously, the notion of rationality is doing a lot of work in this theory, but Rawls, like most philosophers, makes the standards of rationality rather low – it requires little more than thinking coolly and consistently. So, he is saying: if someone coolly and consistently decides to spend his life doing something that strikes other people as boring and trivial, he is nonetheless doing what is most of all in his interest to do, because what is best for someone is defined as whatever arises from a rational procedure. My reaction to this example, like most people’s, is that it would have been better for the grass-counter to devote himself to other activities. We can recognise that such a life has less of what is good for the person living it than do other human lives. There’s a standard we use to evaluate how good his life is for him, and judged by that standard, the grass-counter could have done better – even if he made his decision without violating the very weak norms of rationality that Rawls has in mind.

In his second great work, Political Liberalism, Rawls portrays his theory of goodness (which he calls “goodness as rationality”) as one that is to be used solely for purposes of constitutional design and basic justice. It is not meant to be in competition with hedonism or any of the historically important theories of goodness: all such theories (which he calls “comprehensive”) are inherently divisive and controversial, and so they should be used primarily in the private sphere. That form of liberalism, which adopts a stance of neutrality between competing conceptions of the good, has many defenders and opponents. It is currently one of the great divisions in contemporary political philosophy.

A point that is often overlooked is that Rawls remains committed, even in Political Liberalism, to the thesis that some conception of the good must be used in the political realm. He never suggests that political theory can get by simply with a theory of justice or moral rightness – or that these notions can be understood independently of a conception of what is good for citizens. Rather, his idea is that the theory of goodness that he proposes in A Theory of Justice–what he calls “goodness as rationality” – is the theory that ought to be used by citizens when they reflect on matters of basic justice and constitutional design.

It’s therefore a fair question to pose about Rawls: what is it about this theory of goodness (goodness as rationality) that makes it the best theory of goodness for a political community? I don’t think his work directly addressed that question, but presumably the answer he would give is that justice requires one to use goodness as rationality in one’s dealings with fellow citizens. In other words, goodness as rationality does not (for Rawls) need to be the correct or best answer to the question, “what is good for human beings?” It only needs to be the theory of goodness that justice requires us to use.

I find that an implausible view because it amounts to saying that in the political realm we ought to treat others as though goodness consists in one thing, even if we think and publicly announce that it consists in another. It’s much more attractive to look for a theory of what is good for human beings that can be defended on philosophical grounds and that can at the same time serve as a publicly recognised standard of well-being. Rawls thought that this has become an impossibility in the modern world, but I am not that pessimistic.

3:AM:Your approach is largely a mix of Platonism and Aristotelianism, isn’t it? I think you call it a developmental theory of well-being that places the idea of ‘flourishing’ at its heart, don’t you? But you’re not using that term to mean ‘human flourishing’ are you? You say at one point: ‘Good poetry, good wolves, goof thieves, and good people are all good in the same way: in all cases, some contribution is made to what is good for someone, and that is what supports the judgment that S is a good K’. Can you say something about this crucial idea and then how your ethical system works?

RK:My approach does have both Platonic and Aristotelian elements, but probably the Aristotelian aspect of it is more pronounced. There is a kind of realism that both Plato and Aristotle share, and I’m very attracted to it. They both rejected the view that goodness, beauty, justice and other such properties are human constructions – that there is no other standard of correctness than an individual’s preferences or whatever norms happen to prevail in this or that society.

Against this, they think that what is good for someone is rather like what is healthy for someone: it’s not the creation of our thinking but a real property that is “there” whether we realise it or not. You can have a disease that will make you die at an early age, and neither you nor anyone else might realize that you are unhealthy in this way. That disease is bad for you, even though no one knows of it. Similarly, a society can be unjust even if no one thinks of it as unjust.

The way in which Aristotlehas had a greater influence on my thinking is this: Plato tends to think of goodness as a property that mathematics can help us understand. The idea is that what makes things good (a good poem, a good person, a good building) is a certain proportion, balance, structure, or harmony. It’s not a silly idea. So, he concluded that if we study the geometry of planes and solids, or the harmonies of music, that will help make us better decision-makers (provided we have been well educated in other ways). That strikes me as an intriguing idea that has not been very fruitful.

Aristotle shows no interest in it, and I think his instincts were right. So he pares away the parts of Plato that rely on this mathematical conception of goodness, and what remains is a conception of the well-lived human life as something that arises out of the good dispositions that children normally have and the good habits they acquire when they are well brought up. It’s a process in which certain potentialities of human nature are actualised through a long and gradual process – a process in which we become more skilled at recognizing what we have reason to do and why, and in which our emotions become more responsive to those reasons.

People sometimes say that in Aristotle’swritings the Greek word that is often translated “happiness” (eudaimonia) really would be better translated “flourishing.” That’s not quite right. It would be better to say that eudaimon means something like “living well,” and that Aristotle’s distinctive conception of what it is for a human being to live well calls for that individual’s rational and emotional powers to unfold properly over a long period of time. “Flourishing” and “thriving” are good ways of capturing this idea.

As you point out, it’s part of my view that the concept of flourishing has very broad application. It applies not just to human beings but to many other living things. We can say that certain kinds of animals do not flourish in captivity. Or that your hibiscus is not flourishing in that windowsill. That leads me to the thought that what it is for any living thing to have a life that is good for it is for that organism’s potential to grow and develop and be exercised in a mature form. What makes a good human life good for the one who is living it is, in this respect, similar to what makes any living thing fare well.

Of course, this idea is too abstract to provide any answers to the concrete questions we face about how to manage our lives. But it fits with the realism that I find in Plato and Aristotle. Just as a plant’s flourishing is not a matter of it’s living according to a standard that it devises (plants can’t do that sort of thing), so too with us.

I want (finally) to respond to your question about good poetry, good wolves, good people, good thieves, and so on. One of the hypotheses I endorse in What is Good and Whyis that when we evaluate things in relation to the kind to which they belong (a poem is not just plain good – it’s good as a poem), we should consider whom they are good for. Here’s an obvious example: a college or a university can’t be a good college or university unless it is good for someone. Even All Souls (in Oxford), which admits no students, has to be good for the scholars who have positions there – if it is to be a good college. More typically, good schools have to be good for students. Good people are also good for someone – they ought to be able to help at least some others.

These are very plausible and unambitious claims. But I admit that there are cases in which my hypothesis could be challenged. Must a good poem, for example, be good for someone? That’s a difficult issue in the philosophy of art, but I’m inclined to think what makes poetry good is the way in which it exercises and expands our imagination and our emotional life. A mind exposed to good poetry grows, and that’s good for the mind. But there are other hard cases. What about a good thief – is someone’s being a good thief good for anyone? Most people would say that being a good thief is simply a matter of skill at thievery, and that whether such a skill does anyone any good is irrelevant. But why do we assume that one skill a thief ought to have is the ability to avoid detection? Obviously because we take it to be bad for the thief (or for his employers, or the government he is working for) to be detected. The skills a thief ought to have are simply the ones it would be good for him (or those on whose behalf he is working) to have.


3:AM:You argue that most parents would agree with your ideas. Why do you find that this is a far better system for understanding ethics than the alternatives?

RK:What you have in mind here is my point that when parents reflect on the well-being of their young children, they often think in terms of the unfolding and training of natural capacities. This indicates that the conception of well-being that I favour is not a philosophical invention alien to common ways of thought – something that a philosopher dreamt up out of the blue. It is part of our conceptual framework that infants and children are beings that need to grow, and that this process is good for them. There are wonderful things that we experience in childhood, but Peter Pan to the contrary, refusing to grow up is not healthy.

Other theories of well-being simply overlook this aspect of our common normative framework. Rawls, for example, as I’ve noted, focuses on rational planning: what is good for us is to achieve the plan that we would adopt with full deliberative rationality. But infants and small children are not yet able to engage in the sophisticated intellectual activity we call planning. They can’t look for reasons to pursue this end rather than that. Yet it is undeniable that much that they do is good for them, much that they do is bad for them, and much that willy-nilly happens to them is good or bad for them. It can’t be the case that we have two different concepts of what is good for a human being – one of which is applicable to infants and small children, and the other of which is applicable to later stages of life.

Of course, the things that are good for small children are different from the things that are good for adults. But there is only one relation here: the relation of being good for someone. I think that one point in favor of the developmental conception of well-being that I derive from Aristotle is that it recognises this unity.

3:AM:Your approach endorses the idea that there is a single best way of arriving at the good. This is a key distinction isn’t it between contemporary ideas and the Ancients. Bernard Williamscriticised the arrogance of moderns who sneer at the Ancients for holding such an unsophisticated view, but isn’t there a little bit of truth in the claim that its unlikely that there is just a single best way to decide on the good?

RK:Bernard Williams was a formidable philosopher. The questions he raised about the over-ridingness of morality and about what he called “internal” and “external” reasons were extremely fruitful. I also admire him for the breadth of his learning and interests. His familiarity with Greek antiquity - he especially loved Sophocles and Thucydides - allowed him to make important contributions to the study of both Plato and Aristotle. But I also think he underestimated them.

In Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, he gives them credit because they, unlike many modern philosophers, ask the very broad question, “how should one live?” rather than the narrow question, “what does morality demand of us?” But he didn’t think their answers to that broad question were very plausible, and he also thought that “how should one live?” is actually too broad and abstract a question.

You are right that he criticised the arrogance of the “moderns who sneer at the ancients” – that is one of the main themes of Shame and Necessity. But although I don’t think he sneered at the ancients, I think he was not a great fan of the philosophers of Greek and Roman antiquity. A large part of the reason for that is that Williams was not sympathetic to their realism. This emerges in his denial that there are such things as what he called “external” reasons. When he says that all reasons are “internal,” he means that whatever you have reason to do must be based ultimately on preferences, desires, dispositions that you already have.

On this basis, I think he would agree with what you are suggesting: there isn’t, as you put it, “just a single best way to decide on the good.” That’s because there are lots of differences between people, and what is good for someone must arise out of what is peculiar to that person.

A theory of well-being can easily say “here is the one best way for a human being to live” and then add “but there are as many different ways of instantiating that general formula as there are human beings.” For example, Rawls’s theory of well-being says that the best way to live is to achieve the ends that you would adopt with full deliberative rationality. But that allows for the possibility that no two people will achieve a good life in exactly the same way, because no two people will have exactly the same ends. In the same way, the approach I favour holds that there is something that all good lives have in common: in each case, certain natural powers have been developed and are being exercised.

But that leaves the door open to the possibility that no two individuals are exactly alike in the way they should develop. People differ in their talents, temperaments, and tastes. A child who has one kind of personality and set of skills should develop in way that brings out the best in these; another child’s developmental path will be at least somewhat different, perhaps radically different. So, I want to say that there is a great variety in the species of human well-being, but that all of these species belong to a single genus.

3:AM:Implicit in all ethical enquiry is the question of method. You argue that Aristotle’sethical method was ‘endoxic’ which I think means something roughly like dialectic, doesn’t it? And I think you endorse the idea that this approach is something that Aristotle proposed as a general method and not just for ethics. Is that right and, if so, does this mean that Aristotle put the philosopher in a neutral stance – someone presenting the position that reconciles a dispute rather than being an active player? And I guess one has to wonder if this is the right way to find out the truth?

RK:Aristotle had a crucial insight about philosophical methodology: it thrives on disagreement. Typically, when he wants to work out a theory about something – about the soul, or the nature of change, or the good – he starts by taking a look at what other people have said about that subject, and he acknowledges that although they contradict each other, much of what they say has some initial appeal. That’s still a common way to teach philosophy. It’s not the way science is taught, and some people regard this as an indication that philosophy is intellectually inferior to science. But the fact that they have different methods doesn’t show that there is something suspect about philosophy.

One of the most attractive features of Aristotle’s way of proceeding is that it forces each of us to look beyond ourselves and to see what can be learned from others. (It is part of the method to look not only at other philosophers, but to look at what non-philosophers think – as Aristotle would put it, what “the many” think. Sometimes philosophers go off the rails and the views of “the many” are superior.)

It’s quite different from the methodology that Descartesmade famous in the Meditations. Of course, Descartes proposes that methodology because he thinks it serves his agenda: he wants to propose a way of thinking about matter and mind that will replace the grip of the Scholastic framework. As a general strategy for arriving at philosophical understanding, it is not a good idea to doubt everything you think you know, in an effort to find a starting point that cannot be put beyond doubt.

I agree with you that Aristotle’smethodology would have a serious defect if it required anyone who is engaged in a philosophical inquiry to look only at what others have said about the matter. In fact, you have put your finger on something that Aristotle failed to make explicit in his various remarks about methodology. He ought to have emphasized that a philosophical inquirer is “an active player,” as you put it – someone who is not merely adjudicating the disagreements of others, but is also creatively proposing new possibilities that others have overlooked. I don’t think he says anything to rule out that creative factor as one component of a good philosophical method. So, I’m inclined to say that he provides an excellent starting point for finding a good method, but that his views need supplementation.

3:AM:You say: ‘Although ethics must be judged by the same endoxic method used to prove truths in every other field, we should recognise that it is a field in which some of what is shown to be true holds only for the most part.’ So you argue that ethics always has to be open to exceptions and that this is what Aristotle thought too. But was this supposed to distinguish ethics from, say natural science and if so, do you think it did, given that many argue that natural sciences are also open to exceptions? Perhaps there’s a difference between how Aristotle conceived of the natural sciences and how contemporary philosophers do so that explains this?

RK:Aristotle thinks that in both the study of nature and the study of ethics we encounter many truths that hold only for the most part. But it’s important to be careful here: he doesn’t mean that we encounter only truths of this sort. He gives a few examples of universally true statements in ethics, though they are not accepted by everyone. He says that adultery, theft, and murder are always wrong; to call an act adulterous, for example, is already to say that there is no occasion in which it is right.

Obviously, not everyone agrees. But most people would accept his point, using different examples. A common example used by philosophers these days is that torturing people just for the fun of it is always wrong. This is hard to reject because the description of the act builds in a reference to the motive, and obviously if that goal is the only proposed grounds for an act of torture, it fails to justify it.

How common is it for the sciences to affirm generalisations that are recognised as holding only for the most part? That is a very complicated question, and I don’t know the answer. On my understanding of thermodynamics, when you put a cold object into a warm glass of water, there is some possibility that the cold object will get colder and the water will get warmer. If it happens, that calls for no revision in our understanding of the laws of physics. So, in a certain sense, you might say that it is only for the most part true that the cold object will warm up the water to some extent. I think of the social sciences, the life sciences, and our common sense framework as resting much more heavily than do physics and chemistry on generalisations that are true only for the most part. Smoking cigarettes tends to lower longevity and health, but there are exceptions.

But in any case Aristotle deserves a lot of credit for his attempt to show that the natural world is something about which we can, with the right methods and the right experiences, have a systematic understanding. I don’t think it can be shown, as he believed, that the very best human activity is one in which we contemplate the orderly nature of the universe. In that respect, his theory of well-being fails to accept, as it should have, the variety of human flourishing. It is too ambitious in its attempt to single out one kind of human career as best.

3:AM:Although you doubt if there’s anything positive in Platoabout ideas of human equality, freedom of conscience, rights to political participation, limited government, constitutional rule, democracy, you think there are valuable lessons that can be drawn from Platofor political theory even in our contemporary modern nation state context. Popperinfamously called Platoa totalitarian, but Alan Gilbertreads him as arguing against tyranny. How do you assess his political theory? Is the Republicits centre, or did he develop between the Republicand his Statesman and Laws?

RK:I think that it’s pretty clear in the Republicthat Platothinks that the kind of democracy that Athens had was an extremely bad regime. It’s not the worst kind – it is not as bad as a tyranny; but it gets very bad marks. His way of criticising Athenian democracy is to imagine a city that takes its guiding principles – equality and freedom – to an extreme. There is so much equality in his imagined democracy that children and adults are on an equal footing (so that children have no respect for adults, and adults act like children). There is so much freedom that whether or not you have to submit to the laws is up to you.

A natural reaction to his critique is to say that this is unfair – it is just a caricature of a democracy. But even so I think Plato has a point: if freedom and equality have to interpreted in a way that allows for other sorts of principles and values, then they cannot be the only considerations that are relevant to the assessment of a constitutional design. To put the point differently: it is not every kind of equality that we should have and not every kind of freedom that we should enjoy. If democracy rests on a refusal to make distinctions of this sort, and if these are the only two values it recognises, then it is in trouble.

Aristotleis also a critic of democracy, but his way of criticising it takes a different form. He is not against the rule of the many – which is one way of thinking about what a democracy is. What he opposes is the use of power to secure the interests of one’s own economic class – whether rich or poor. He is just as opposed to rule by the few who are rich as he is to rule by the many who are poor. Today we tend to be suspicious of the idea that those who have fewer economic resources will use the power of their great number to mistreat the wealthy.

In our society, the political power that comes with great wealth can be enormous, and wealthy elites have devised very successful methods of insuring that their wealth will remain available to them even in democratic constitutions. But the power of wealth was far smaller in fifth and fourth century Athens, and Aristotle may have been right that the poor were just as prone to mistreat the rich as the other way around.

To get back to Plato: It’s clearly his view that if a community could find an small group of human beings (men and women) whose ethical and intellectual skills were of the highest order, then there would be no point in giving them decision-making authority for only a limited period of time. Making political decisions is not something that everyone does well – so why not leave it to people who are moral exemplars and have a deep understanding of justice and human well-being? That’s one of the basic ideas of the Republic.

It’s not a silly idea. (He is not saying that we should give absolute power to anyone who has a Ph.D. in philosophy.) I think it has important implications for the way we think about voting. To vote is to undertake a serious responsibility, and it should be discharged only if one measures up to certain standards of fairness, objectivity, and understanding. Many voters are pretty bad voters, in that they don’t make enough of an effort to vote well. It's hard to be in love with a democracy in which that is the case.

After Plato wrote the Republic, or perhaps even while he was writing it, he must have realised that it does not serve as a guideline or blueprint for how actual regimes should be governed. He thinks it is important to see what the best realisable regime would look like, but that is compatible with acknowledging that it would be a disaster for a political community to turn absolute power over to just any group of elite politicians. So, that leaves a huge gap in his political thinking: how should existing political communities be reformed? What model should they look to, if not the model provided by the Republic?

The answer to that question is the (very long-winded) one he gives in the Laws. And one of the fascinating things about this dialogue is that Plato relies to some extent on some of the mechanisms of democracies. The most important offices are filled by means of a complicated series of elections. Safeguards are put into place to insure that magistrates do not misuse their power. There are fixed terms to most positions of power. There is an assembly in which all citizens meet. Women are to be educated in many of the same ways as men.

Of course, this is not a regime that would we or Plato’s contemporaries would classify as a democracy. Citizenship is restricted to those who have at least a modest amount of land. Even so, it has some democratic features. And I don’t think there is anything in the Lawsthat requires him to retract his picture of an ideal society in the Republic.

3:AM:You think that valuable intellectual activity need not take the form of knowing that something is so, don’t you? So, devoting your life to something even when nothing known is gained is a desirable form of cognitive growth even when it falls short of a goal of knowing. This is something that seems hard to land with people greedy only for results and certainty. Do you think that deeper consideration of this point would help contemporary debates about the purpose of universities, education, philosophy and life, especially in the context of a culture that seems rather anti-intellectual and somewhat philistine?

RK:I like the words you use in framing your question – “greedy only for results and certainty” – because of the analogy they draw between an obsession with money and acquisitions and an obsession with the accumulation of known facts. Of course, in certain contexts, knowledge is exactly what we are and should be looking for. We don’t want to punish someone who is accused of a crime unless we know that he has committed it. In the sciences, we want knowledge not only of what is the case, but also of why it is so; the most valuable scientific theories are the ones that do the most work in answering these why-questions. But it is form of intellectual narrowness to think that the best or only worthwhile use of the mind is to acquire knowledge.

Listening carefully to a complex piece of music, studying a poem, being aware of the complex relations between the characters in a novel or play – all of these are forms of intellectual exercise, but it would be a distortion of why they are valuable to view them as ways of acquiring knowledge. Someone can be quite knowledgeable in a certain area without having much in the way of understanding or insight. (Think of someone who has memorised a lot of historical facts, but does not have a larger picture in which they take on deeper meaning.) Works of art need to be understood in order to be appreciated – but here too understanding is not the same thing as knowledge. And it would be silly to set oneself the goal of understanding as many works of art as possible.

As Socrates saw, it is already a worthwhile accomplishment to rid oneself of the assumption that one knows something, if in fact one only thinks one knows. One is in a better condition, intellectually, if one is aware of one’s cognitive limitation than if one is not. That is partly because one will never improve if one does not recognise any need for improvement. But someone who has become aware of how much more difficult a problem is than he had realised has already done something worthwhile and admirable – even if he does not solve the problem.

That’s one of the reasons why philosophy is such a valuable activity. There are deep, difficult problems in our intellectual framework, and they should not be evaded; it is already an accomplishment to become aware of them, even if we cannot settle on one right solution to them. One of the dangers of seeing scientific theories as a model of intellectual accomplishment is that one loses sight of these other forms of mental growth.

3:AM:You ask the deep question in your book Against Absolute Goodnesswhich is this: ‘Are there things we should value because they are, quite simply, good?’ What seems an easy question gets trickier once we start to consider that often we relativise the term good to ‘good for such and such a purpose’ or person. But that’s not what you are after is it? G.E. Moore in his ‘Principia Ethica’ wrote, ‘The only possible reason that can justify any action is that by it the greatest possible amount of what is good absolutely should be realised.’ Moore seems to be answering your question with a ‘yes.’ You think he is wrong because absolute goodness isn’t a reason-giving property? Is that right?

RK:I’m fascinated by the large role that goodness plays in our everyday thinking, and the philosophical tradition that goes back to Plato has also placed “the good” at the center of moral philosophy. My project in Against Absolute Goodnesswas to show that a certain way of thinking about goodness – the way that G. E. Moore advocated (and perhaps Plato as well) – is a mistake. Moore thought that he was simply making explicit and clarifying something that common sense already presupposes. He called the property that is taken for granted in our common ways of talking “absolute goodness” – meaning that it is not what is good for someone or good for some purpose, but simply good.

“Because it is a good thing” seems, at first sight, to be a way of answering the question, “why should I value that?” Similarly for badness: it seems obvious, for example, that if you should take aspirin to avoid a headache, that is partly because pain is not in itself neutral in value; it is by itself a bad thing. I wrote Against Absolute Goodnessbecause I think that these seemingly obvious points are not at all obvious, on second thought. There is, in fact, nothing to be said in favour of the idea that goodness is a property that some things have, and others lack; and that it’s because certain things have the property of being good that we should value them.

I think that pain is not bad absolutely. It’s not something whose presence in the world makes the world a worse place, as Moore supposed. Rather, the sensible thing to say about pain is that (in many circumstances) it is in itself bad for the person who feels it. Even if the pain you feel does not interfere with your ability to accomplish your goals, it is often a bad experience. (There may be exceptions: there are pains so mild we don’t mind them; and sometimes even severe pain forms a part of a larger whole that needs the pain in order to be good on balance). But a bad experience is not bad full stop; it is bad for the one who has that experience.

This may sound like an issue so abstract that it could have no practical implications, but it does. Some people say that knowledge should be advanced because knowledge is by itself a good thing. According to this view, knowledge need not be good for anyone to have – its pursuit is justified whether or not it benefits anyone. I have no objection to the thesis that knowledge need not be useful – a means to a further end – in order to be worth pursuing. Philosophy, for example, is often valuable without being instrumentally valuable.

But I would never say that philosophy’s value consists in its being good full stop. The more plausible thing to say about philosophy is that it is a mind-expanding subject: your mind is deeper, broader, enriched, through its exposure to philosophical questions. If you are interested in philosophy and study it in the right way, you are better off than you were before, simply because your mind has been transformed for the better. That is to say: it is good for you. We don’t have to say “it’s a good thing (period)” because it is more plausible to say that the reason why you should learn this subject it is good for you.

It’s sometimes said that people should be kept alive, however much they are suffering, because human life is in itself a good thing – even when it is not good for someone to be alive (or good for other people that he is alive). But this view can’t be right, if being good (period) is not a reason-giving property. So, this issue, seemingly so abstract and inconsequential, has an important political dimension.

3:AM:How does this approach square with the idea that there is one way of achieving goodness? As we noted earlier, you have written that ‘there is just one legitimate route – the route of goodness – for arriving at practical conclusions’, so why doesn’t that thought endorse a kind of absolute goodness, understood in terms of this one legitimate route?

RK:The word “absolute” is used in many ways, and this can easily create confusion and misunderstanding. Sometimes it is used interchangeably with “objective.” To be committed to the existence of “absolute values” is to be committed to “objective values,” that is, values that are “out there” in the world, values that exist whether we recognise their existence or not. Hamlet is denying that there are “absolute” or “objective” values when he says: “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

I think he is wrong about that. None of us really believes that we can make something valuable or good or worthwhile just by thinking that it is. My thinking that I am a good tennis player does not make me a good tennis player. My thinking that I am a good person does not make me a good person. I may be wrong in thinking that I have chosen the option that is best for me. And so on. When we struggle to make good decisions, we assume that it is all too easy to decide badly; we presuppose that there are objectively better and worse ways of handling our practical problems. In that sense, we all believe that there are objective values, and since “absolute” is sometimes used to mean “objective,” we all believe that there are absolute values.

The word “absolute” is used differently when Moore and other philosophers talk about something being good absolutely – good full stop, or good simpliciter, or quite simply good (period). These philosophers are not saying, with Hamlet, that nothing is good but thinking makes it so. Rather, they are saying that some things are good without being good for anyone. That is what I am skeptical about. In Against Absolute Goodness, I express my doubts about whether something’s being good (period) is a reason for valuing it.

But I don’t have any doubt at all about the importance of the concept of what is in a person’s interest – what is advantageous, or beneficial, or good for someone. It would be crazy to deny that sometimes (in fact quite often), the fact that an action would be good for someone is a good reason to undertake it. Doctors ought to devote themselves to what is good for their patients. Teachers ought to devote themselves to what is good for their students. It’s part of normal social life that we pay attention to what is good for the people we encounter and the people with whom we are affiliated.

One of the most controversial claims I make in What is Good and Whyis the one you cite in your question. My thesis is that whenever we have reason to do something, one part of the reason is that the action chosen will be good for someone (or not as bad for someone as the alternatives). For example, if you have reason to do something that you have promised to do, then keeping your promise will be good for someone (yourself, or the promisee, or some third party). A promise that will do no good for anyone is a promise that one has no reason to keep.

Putting these reflections together, I can now answer your question: my thesis that what is good for someone is a ubiquitous component of good practical reasoning allows me to accept “absolute” goodness in one sense, but it does not commit me to “absolute” goodness in another sense. It allows me to reject Hamlet’s thesis. That is, it allows me to say that what is good for me is something that I could be wrong about. But it does not commit me to saying that something’s being good absolutely – good (period) – is a reason for valuing it.

3:AM:We’ve already talked about Plato’s politics. But superficially at least, Aristotle’s politicsseems pretty repulsive. You say that Aristotle’s politics were full of doctrines that are not now and probably never were credible. He thought slavery was justified, that women should stay at home and that manual labour is degrading and those engaged in it should be barred from full citizenship. He thinks democracy corrupt, and so on. And its linked to an ethical theory that is embedded in a metaphysical theory that probably can’t accommodate modern science. But despite all this, you think there are riches that have been either missed or undervalued don’t you? So why should we take Aristotle’s politics seriously and what are these riches?

RK:Aristotle takes over from Plato the extremely plausible thesis that the design of all political and social institutions should be governed by a conception of the good. It is with these two figures that the notion of a “common good” enters political thought. By calling it a “common good,” they mean to convey the idea that the good of each member and segment of the political community is equally important. If any portion of the political community lacks the resources to live a good life, then political institutions are failing to achieve their proper function.

A contrasting idea, which guides utilitarianism, is that although everyone’s good counts for something, institutions should aim at the greatest total good, even if that requires sacrificing the good of some for the sake of the larger good. But Plato and Aristotle hold that something is deeply wrong with a political regime if it allows some citizens to achieve their good at the cost of the good of others. No just society would tolerate that. (Even in Aristotle’s defense of slavery, the idea is not that the institution is justified because the good of the master outweighs the good of the slave. He thinks that the slave is better off being guided by the rational foresight of the master.)

Many contemporary liberal theorists find it very attractive to say, with John Rawls, that political institutions must be designed so that no conception of what is good for people is favored over any other. The state must be neutral between competing conceptions of the good – that is their way of explaining why the state must be secular. This means that for Rawls and other like-minded liberals, a state cannot support cultural institutions. It cannot, for example, give tax exemptions to museums on the grounds that enjoying great works of art is part of a good life. I think it would be hard for Rawls to justify the teaching of music, arts, and literature in public schools. That would be akin to teaching Catholic dogma: it would presuppose a conception of what is good that cooperative citizens need not share.

I find Aristotle’s approach to the design of public institutions far more plausible. It is very hard for a society to be a good society – one that is not only just but is good for people to live in – unless the resources needed for human flourishing are transmitted from one generation to another through education and cultural institutions. Aristotle’s political philosophy rests on a conception of human flourishing that is extremely attractive, and it can be employed by modern democracies. We can say that he was badly mistaken in his assumption that certain people are naturally inferior in their cognitive skills; we have thousands of years of historical experience that he lacked, and we can more easily see that assumptions about the natural inferiority of whole peoples or groups lack empirical support. When we throw out that part of Aristotle, much is left standing.

I even think we can learn something from Aristotle’s antipathy towards democracy (which he shares with Plato). Neither of them was opposed to giving significant political responsibilities and powers to the general citizenry – provided that the citizens are fair-minded, impartial, and have some understanding of what is worthwhile. For Aristotle, the Greek word, demokratia, means rule by a large group of people whose outlook on politics is biased by the fact that they have less wealth than those few who are able to avoid the necessity of working for a living.

He uses a different word – politeia, which can be translated “republic” – to name the kind of political system in which power is widely distributed among citizens and these citizens are not biased in their own favor or in favor of their own economic class. His view is that this is one of the good ways of organizing politics, and that democracy (in his sense) is not.

Aristotle is as deeply opposed to oligarchy (the rule of the rich) as he is to democracy (in his sense of that word). When he studies a political society, he looks not only at the legal system, but at the norms and practices that hold sway, and this leads him to recognise that the rich can dominate the poor even when the laws formally grant equal power to both classes. He would have no trouble, then, with the idea that many of the states that we call “democracies” are really oligarchies.

3:AM:Do you think understanding the context of his work and life mitigates his class and gender biases or is he just an apologist for inegalitarian views we find morally repulsive these days?

RK:Aristotle’s attempt to justify slavery is a great moral defect. So too is his failure to follow Plato’s lead in challenging contemporary attitudes towards women. Plato is completely serious about giving women a much larger role to play in political life. In the Laws, he does not give them complete equality, but even so, his proposals that they should receive an equal education, serve in the military, and hold some political offices are obviously meant to be taken at face value. But Aristotle simply follows traditional Greek biases and allows women no important roles outside the household. The one thing we might give Aristotle some credit for, in this area, is that he (unlike Plato) saw the importance of addressing the question whether slavery can be justified.

I don’t think we can let either Plato or Aristotle off the hook by saying that their biases regarding slavery or women or both were quite common in fourth century Greece. They themselves realised that philosophy must look beyond social conventions and must ask whether prevailing norms have a deeper justification. So, they were not living up to their own intellectual standards.

But it would be a failure of our own if we refused to take Aristotle seriously as a political thinker because he tried to justify slavery. Here was a blind spot in his thinking. That does not show that he had no insights, or that we have nothing to learn from him.

3:AM:Are there political theorists that you find have been able to develop ideas from Plato or Aristotle into the modern setting. Rawls, for example, is the most profound political philosopher of the modern era, but he springs from Kant rather than the Ancient sources doesn’t he? So is there anyone, or any current political tradition, that is rooted in either of these two giants?

RK:Amartya Senand Martha Nussbaumdeserve a lot of credit for making use of certain concepts that play a large role in Aristotle’s political philosophy. Rawls himself borrows little from Aristotle, even though he makes some very perceptive remarks about him. (He takes nothing from Plato, so far as I can see.) But I entirely agree with you about the profundity of Rawls, and his place in the Kantian tradition. There is something profoundly wrong in both Kant and Rawls – they underestimate or ignore the strength of an Aristotelian approach to well-being, and the role it can play in political philosophy. But philosophy makes progress when it throws up competing theories for our consideration. It would be a mistake for someone with Aristotelian sympathies not to take Kant or Rawls seriously.

3:AM:Scott Bermanhas recently argued that Platonist metaphysics is consistent with modern epistemology and science. He calls himself a Platonist! Do you agree with his assessment of Platonic metaphysics and are you a Platonist too? Or an Aristotelian?

RK:I think that the most important part of Plato’s metaphysics is still extremely attractive and plausible. What I have in mind is his notion of “carving nature at the joints” and his insistence that what we call “the world” does not merely contain physical objects. What he saw was that human conventions (linguistic, social, etc) cannot be the sole basis for our classificatory schemes. The distinction between oxygen and hydrogen is not just a human construction – there really are different sorts of things out there, and we had better pay attention to them. And we should agree with Plato that things made of physical parts are not the only real things. Justice, for example, is a property that some social institutions or people or laws have and others lack; but justice is not made out of stuff in the way trees are.

All of this is completely acceptable to Aristotle. I think of him as enhancing the Platonic tradition rather than rebelling against it, by showing the importance of concepts that Plato had neglected – notions like potentiality and actuality, capacity and realisation, matter and form. So, I think of myself as both a Platonist and an Aristotelian, and I think large portions of their metaphysics are still viable.

3:AM:And finally, for the readers here at 3:AMwanting to delve further into the world of Plato and Aristotle are there five books (other than your own, which we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this) that you could recommend for us?

RK:Some of my recommendations (those of Cooper, Hadot, and Frede) are works that move beyond Plato and Aristotle, so I hope you don’t mind my including them.

John M. Cooper: Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus
Pierre Hadot: Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault
Melissa Lane: Plato’s Progeny: How Socrates and Plato Still Captivate the Modern Mind
Danielle Allen: Why Plato Wrote
Michael Frede: A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought.

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