Tag Archives: Plato

Plato’s Dialectic

Plato held that in philosophy, we arrive at the truth by means of a process of “dialectic.” Dialectic, for Plato, works as follows:

  • We begin by having one person put forward an answer to the problem in question on the basis of certain arguments.
  • Another person then comes along, points out flaws in the first person’s answer, and puts forward his own answer.
  • Then a third person comes along, criticizes both viewpoints, and puts forward an answer that is better than either of them.
  • etc.

Plato held that, over time, this process leads us closer and closer to the truth. This is illustrated by some of his dialogues.

Plato’s theory assumes that we have a way of rationally evaluating an answer to a philosophical question as plausible or implausible. Plato held that we could see this “intuitively,” but his account of intuition depends on his metaphysics, which most philosophers have rejected.

Another perspective on dialectic comes from David Hume. Hume agrees that it often happens in philosophy that one person puts a position forward, and then another person criticizes it and puts their own position forward. However, according to Hume, the intuitions that this process depends on are subjective products of “habit or custom.” So, while dialectic can arrive at conclusions that better appeal to a given person subjectively, it is not a source of objective truth like Plato thought.

I think the only way to answer Hume once and for all is to present a body of demonstrably true conclusions in philosophy. So long as philosophy is seen as an endless debate, many will be inclined to question whether it has any cognitive status at all. There have been a number of attempts to do this since Hume, and evaluating all of them is beyond my scope here.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is an argument against divine command theory, the view that God’s commands are the source of morality. On this view, anything that God commands us to do is the right thing to do, by definition, and anything God commands us not to do is the wrong thing to do, by definition.

So, here’s the Euthyphro dilemma, based on one of Plato’s earlier dialogues:

  1. If morality is based on God’s commands, then either God commands us to do things because they are good, or it is good to do things because God commands us to do them.
  2. If God commands us to do things because they are good, then morality is independent of God, since things are good prior to God’s commands.
  3. If it is good to do things because God commands us to do them, then morality is unacceptably arbitrary. For example, God could command us to boil babies alive, and that would make it good to boil babies alive.
  4. Therefore, morality is not based on God’s commands.

This is usually taken to be a very strong argument against divine command theory.

Interestingly, this sort of argument is not usually taken to be a strong objection to other moral theories that base morality on the will of a specific person or group. For example, moral subjectivists don’t think it is a very strong objection to their view that it is consistent with boiling babies alive if my subjective desires incline me to. Moral relativists don’t think it is a very strong objection to their position that it is consistent with boiling babies alive if the group decides to boil babies alive. And so on.

Where Plato Meets Hobbes

In many ways, Plato and Hobbes couldn’t be more different. Plato was an idealist, and Hobbes was a materialist. Plato advocated free will, and Hobbes was a determinist. And, famously, Plato believed in the Forms, whereas Hobbes was a staunch nominalist. But despite their differences elsewhere, the political philosophies of Plato and Hobbes are strikingly similar.

Plato advocated a dictatorship ruled by philosophers, on the grounds that philosophers alone have cognitive access to the Form of the Good. If a philosopher is given intensive training and education over the course of decades, he will be able to pierce the veil of perception and see what is really good. And once he has mystic insight into what is good, there is no reason why he shouldn’t use force to get any misguided citizens of the Republic who disagree to obey him.

Hobbes’ dictatorship was not ruled by mystics, like Plato’s. Instead, Hobbes, claiming to be an advocate of science, advocated a dictatorship run by arbitrary whim. Words like “good” and “justice” are controversial, and there is no objective way to settle disputes about these ideas, since they are subjective. So, according to Hobbes, everyone should submit to an all powerful Leviathan out of fear of anarchy, and just agree to treat the ruler as right by definition.

Why did Plato and Hobbes both end up advocating tyranny, even though they disagreed on so many points? The answer is that, although they might superficially look like opposites, mysticism and subjectivism can both lead to tyranny in practice. Mysticism can lead to a dictatorship ruled by mystics, whereas subjectivism can lead to a dictatorship ruled by the feelings of the dictator.