Issue 21: Power

The great morality scam

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by Tim Dean on August 8, 2018

Thrasymachus sprang at the panic-stricken Socrates “like a wild beast”, looking as if he was about to tear the hapless philosopher to pieces. Thus Plato introduces us to the ‘villain’ of his classic dialogue on morality and the ideal society, The Republic.

Where Socrates is a philosopher who spreads wisdom for its own good, Thrasymachus is a sophist who charges for his insights. Where Socrates is humble and knows he knows nothing, Thrasymachus is arrogant and argues to win rather than to learn. Where Socrates is an idealist who believes pursuing justice leads to an enlightened society, Thrasymachus is an immoralist who insists that justice is a giant con.

However, like most good villains, I have come to believe Thrasymachus is really just misunderstood.

The general gist of The Republic is that justice and goodness are not just a bargain we enter into with others for our own self-interest. Rather, goodness comes from true knowledge of oneself, and living in harmony with others comes through cultivating a balance among our own capacities.

Thrasymachus is having none of that. After losing patience with Socrates’ incessant questioning, he lunges at him and charges him with talking nonsense. He then directs a spirited outburst at Socrates that I expect anyone who’s ever read one of Plato’s dialogues has wanted to shout at some point (I know I have): “If you really want to know what justice is, stop asking questions and then playing to the gallery by refuting anyone who answers you. You know perfectly well that it’s easier to ask questions than to answer them. Give us an answer yourself, and tell us what you think justice is.”

Socrates refuses, so Thrasymachus offers to enlighten him as to the true nature of justice – for a price, of course. With Socrates’ companion Glaucon acting as guarantor, Thrasymachus pronounces smugly that “justice or right is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party”.

Justice, insists Thrasymachus, is a scam. It’s a con that those in power pull on the masses to keep them in line. The shepherd watches his flock, keeping his wards safe and happy (and fat) not for their sake, but for his. Thus does Thrasymachus reject lofty ideas about an idealised notion of goodness that will make us blissfully moral beings. Morality, he says, is a tool for the powerful to advance their own self-interest, and it’s imposed on the weak, whether they know it or not.

The role Thrasymachus plays in The Republic is to give Socrates an easy target to knock down. He’s never meant to be taken seriously. His argument is supposed to be ridiculed. His aggressive posture – that of a “wild beast” – matches his arrogant tone. It’s really a cheap rhetorical trick by Plato to have Thrasymachus’ behaviour reflect his outrageous position so we’re more motivated to reject it.

And despite our modern reverence for Socrates’ logical footwork, his actual counterargument against Thrasymachus is clumsy, but The Republic swiftly leaves it behind to explore other views of morality in its pursuit of the ideal society.

I have recently come to realise that Socrates’ swift dismissal of Thrasymachus’ ‘challenge’ has done a great disservice to ethics. The majority of ethics texts I have read continue to explore questions of right and wrong as did Socrates, as if once we know the answers we can just get on with being blissfully moral. They assume we act in a vacuum, as if we are at liberty to discover moral truth for ourselves and are free to act ethically or otherwise according to our will. They assume that power has little or nothing to do with establishing the moral norms we live by.

I, too, held Socrates’ rarefied view of ethics for far too long. But now I realise how mistaken I was. It’s a little embarrassing to say, but this means that for most of my career as a philosopher, I have held a strikingly naive and erroneous view of not just morality, but the kind of questions it should be answering.

This realisation that Thrasymachus was on to something emerged during my own investigations into moral diversity and disagreement, and how moral systems evolve and change over time. I eventually came to believe that there was no such thing as objective moral truth. Rather, morality was a cultural technology that we humans had invented to help us to live and cooperate together in social groups.
The thing is, when you give up on objective moral truth, then moral deliberation is no longer about arguing over the facts of the matter; there are no such facts to settle these arguments. Instead, it’s a process of negotiation about which set of rules we ought to live by. And that shift from truth-seeking to negotiation is pivotal. This is because to negotiate, one needs to have power. And, of course, power is not evenly distributed.

What I discovered by reviewing hundreds of moral codes throughout history was that these codes were often influenced, if not outright concocted, by those in power. And many of these codes directly or indirectly benefited those in power. From shamans demanding offerings, to the Pope issuing indulgences that benefited the Church, to feudal systems that extolled the virtues of obedience to keep serfs in the service of lords, to patriarchal systems defining humanity in terms of the masculine, to modern capitalism reinforcing the myth of meritocracy to keep workers on a treadmill that disproportionately benefits the rich. It’s a pervasive phenomenon I call “moral corruption”.

So Thrasymachus was right: our moral landscape is shaped by power, and it’s often the powerful who reside on the peaks.

This is not to say that this is how morality ought to be, nor which moral rules are best able to facilitate social and cooperative behaviour. These are still core topics for ethical enquiry. But ethics can’t end there. If we read Thrasymachus charitably, he wasn’t describing how we want morality to be; he was describing it as it really is. He was giving us a descriptive account of how morality actually works in the real world.

Even if we decide to extricate power from morality, that act still requires the power to negotiate those corrupt norms away. And if you lack power, you cannot simply enter into abstract moral deliberation and renegotiate the moral norms you live by, particularly when you’re disempowered by the very moral system you’re embedded in. Catch-22.

I hasten to add that this error does not belong to all philosophers who have discussed morality. It’s just an error I shared with many within my ‘tradition’ of metaethics and Anglo-American normative ethics. Indeed, there is a long history within other traditions that have dismissed the idea that abstract moral deliberation is all we need to discover how we ought to act, and have actively discussed the importance of power. I have neglected these perspectives for far too long.

Nietzsche wrote: “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.” Michel Foucault wrote about how power can shape our roles in society, causing us to internalise even oppressive norms and come to think of those norms as our own. More recently, feminist philosophers, like Catriona Mackenzie at Macquarie University, have argued that you cannot talk about moral responsibility without talking about the social forces, including power, that impinge upon our ability to act freely and authentically.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m woefully ignorant of the depth of all these perspectives. I’m only just unshackling myself from my own rather moribund approach to thinking about morality. I have a lot of reading and learning to do yet.

But I owe a debt of thanks to that “wild beast”, that belligerent sophist Thrasymachus, for reminding me that we cannot talk about morality as it exists in the real world without also talking about power.

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