Thursday, February 23, 2023

Morality and the gods

In the Meno, we get a solution to the puzzle of why it is that virtue does not seem, as an empirical matter of fact, to be teachable. The solution is that instead of involving knowledge, virtue involves true belief, and true belief is not teachable in the way knowledge is.

The distinction between knowledge and true belief seems to be that knowledge is true opinion made firm by explanatory account (aitias logismoi, 98a).

This may seem to the modern philosophical reader to confuse explanation and justification. It is justification, not explanation, that is needed for knowledge. One can know that sunflowers turn to the sun without anyone knowing why or how they do so. But what Plato seems to be after here is not merely justified true belief, but something like the scientia of the Aristotelians, an explanatorily structured understanding.

But not every area seems like the case of sunflowers. There would be something very odd in a tribe knowing Fermat’s Last Theorem to be true, but without anybody in the tribe, or anybody in contact with the tribe, having anything like an explanation or proof. Mathematical knowledge of non-axiomatic claims typically involves something explanation-like: a derivation from first principles. We can, of course, rely on an expert, but eventually we must come to something proof-like.

I think ethics is in a way similar. There is something very odd about having justified true belief—knowledge in the modern sense—of ethical truths but not knowing why they are true. Yet it seems humans are often in this position. They know the ethical truths but not why they are true. Yet they have correct, and maybe even justified, moral judgments about many things. What explains this?

Socrates’ answer in the Meno is that it is the gods. The gods instill true moral opinion in people (especially the poets).

This is not a bad answer.


Walter Van den Acker said...

But it isn't a complete answer, because obviously the gods also instill false moral opinion in people.

SMatthewStolte said...

Walter, don’t believe everything you read in Homer.
* * *
Concerning the OP, Socrates seems to give a different answer in Book 3 of the Republic, but to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I understand it. He says that if we are educated well in music and poetry, the rhythm and harmony will penetrate the most inner parts of our souls and make us graceful and then we will be able to praise fine things and reject shameful things even while we are “still young and unable to grasp the reason” (402a). Somehow, it looks like taking music into our soul gives us good judgment about morality without giving us an explanation. I’m not sure if this music is somehow putting us into contact with the gods or what. Maybe something else that is relevant: this type of belief seems to have some kind of epistemic status higher than bare-bones assent to the truth, because, when we have it, we can “welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of its kinship with” ourselves (402a). In other words, it gives us good judgment about morality and also disposes us to recognize the explanations we are not yet in possession of.