August 1, 2005

Goods in the Euthydemus

In the Euthydemus, Socrates appears to make a mistake. Of course, Socrates never makes mistakes, so I must have misinterpreted it, but I have yet to have it explained to me satisfactorily. It appears Socrates shifts between two different meanings of what is "truly good", and his argument is therefore invalid.

In the Euthydemus, Socrates argues that no goods are truly good except virtue. For instance, wealth in the hands of a virtuous man is a good, both for him and for others. However, in the hands of a vicious man, it is bad, both for him and for others. This is true of strength, rulership and even health, since the vicious person is better off dead, or at least incapacitated so as not to wage his evil schemes. As such, only virtue is truly good, since none of the other goods are good without virtue.

However, this raises a problem, Socrates says. If virtue is the only truly good thing, what is the purpose of virtue? We do not use virtue to get the other goods like health, strength or rulership. Do we then use virtue to gain more virtue? What could this mean? What kind of craft has itself as its only object? That would be like saying that the purpose of shipbuilding is shipbuilding, not ships. Crafts need erga or products, and virtue would have no product, since it is itself the best thing.

Socrates seems here to have made an illicit shift concerning what is meant by "truly good". In the first argument, by "truly", he means always or independently good. That is, something is truly good only when it is never not good and when it is good without requiring any other goods. However, in the second argument, he shifts the meaning of "truly" good from independently to intrinsically good. That is, something is truly good when we seek it for no further reason. It is the point at which "our desire stops", as Aristotle would put it.

The consequence of this ambiguity is that Socrates leaves out the possibility that goods other than virtue are not independantly good, but are intrinsically good. That is, we do not seek wealth and health for further goals (they are instrinsically good), but they would not be good unless we were virtuous (they are not always good). Virtue on the other hand would be the craft of making other things good (it is always good), but we desire it to make other things good (it is not necessarily intrinsically good). (If one doesn't like the idea that virtue is a mere instrumental good, virtue could be both instrumentally and intrinsically good).

As such, Socrates' concern at the end of the Euthydemus seems unfounded. Virtue can be instrumentally good, while the other goods are intrinsically, but not instrumentally good. The problem is that Socrates is using the term "truly" ambiguously. At some point, I hope to discover what Socrates was really doing here, since Socrates, as we all know, would never make a mistake like this.


Don Paarlberg said...

Socrates makes a bad argument in the Euthydemus, but not - so far as I can see - the bad argument that you attribute to him. Socrates' announced purpose is to persuade Clinias to love wisdom and virtue (278d). His argument (278e-82c) consists in identifying all sorts of things that Clinias considers good (e.g., health, wealth) and showing that they are good only when they are 'led by intelligence and wisdom' (281d). "True goodness" (your term) does not feature in the argument, nor does Socrates ever identify wisdom with “true goodness”. So, two problems. First, Socrates does not seem guilty of the equivocation as to “good” and “truly good” that you attribute to him. Second, I do not see anywhere in Plato’s text, a “second argument” that arises from a supposed Socratic question that, “If virtue is the only truly good thing, what is the purpose of virtue?”

The real problem is different. In the course of reviewing goods with Clinias, Socrates observes that good fortune is regarded as a good, perhaps the greatest good of all (279c). The problem is, of course, that it is hard to see whether and how fortune is “led by wisdom”. And Socrates winds up making various inconsistent claims, all implausible – that wisdom is good fortune (279d); that wisdom makes men have good fortune (280a); etc. Plato evidently caused Socrates tacitly to fumble at this point because he wanted us to wonder about this important problem.

Over the years, various commentators have used this Euthydemus passage as an excuse to launch extended discussions of differing ways that things can be instrumentally or intrinsically good. I've got no problem with that, but this evidently wasn’t Plato’s main purpose.

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