The Paradox of Refuting Socrates' Paradox

Dissertation, Edinburgh (2008)
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What is paradoxical about the Socratic paradoxes is that they are not paradoxical at all. Socrates famously argued that knowledge is sufficient for virtue and that no one errs willingly. Both doctrines are discussed in the Protagoras between Socrates and the Abderian sophist, however the argumentative line that Socrates chooses to follow in order to refute ‘the many’ has raised a serious degree of controversy among scholars. Is Socrates upholding the hedonistic view? Or, is he only trying to show the bankruptcy of the explanation of akrasia as ‘being overcome by pleasure’ which ‘the many’ advocate? Socrates intends to do the latter, showing that this hedonistic explanation of akrasia leads to absurdity. Plato’s and Socrates’ identification of goodness with pleasure would mark a sudden and unexplained departure from their moral theories, and would render the Socratic denial of akrasia an argument with limited range –only for those assuming hedonism. If we are correct to hold that Socrates does not intend to identify the good with the pleasant, then we are immediately put against a new and much more difficult challenge; that is, to suggest how the Socratic denial of akrasia could regain its catholic plausibility against the commonsensical stance to akrasia, namely that people act against their best judgment due to their impotence to resist to motivational forces such as pleasure, pain, fear, passion and love. Socrates does not offer any other explicit account –apart from the hedonistic one- of how his doctrine could be catholically defended; hence the task of decoding the Socratic line of thought is far from an easy one. The key move in order to decode the puzzling Socratic doctrine is to understand how Socrates treats the notion of ‘knowledge’. For Socrates, moral knowledge is distinguished from mere belief; in this sense, only knowledge has the commanding power which enables one to sustain his best evaluative judgment against other motivational forces and only knowledge is sufficient for the virtuous conduct. By contrast, as mere belief is susceptible to other motivational forces like pleasure, pain, fear, etc. its possessor will, in turn, be susceptible to the revision of his intentions which derive from his best value judgment. In the Protagoras, Socrates implies that intentions grounded on belief can be ‘dragged around’ by desire; and according to my view in this paper, this Socratic stance allows a non-epistemic interpretation of his thesis. According to the traditional epistemic interpretation of the Socratic denial of akrasia, one’s wrongdoing is always a miscalculation that takes place on his practical syllogism. However, my understanding of the Socratic denial of akrasia allows cases of one even going against his best judgment, when his judgment is based on belief. In that sense, a judgment grounded on belief has insufficient power to guarantee that the chosen action will follow, whereas only judgments grounded on knowledge have a commanding and lordly power. For Socrates, everyone always goes for the good but only those with knowledge can infallibly discover and act on the good. Those with mere belief can only reach an apparent good, which may be good or bad. The motivation for the good is not unshakeable for those with mere belief since the grounding of their belief is scarcely strong enough to hold on the correct intention. Socrates therefore holds that the grounding of knowledge influences the motivational state of the moral agent. Thereupon, my interpretation differs from others in suggesting that for Socrates not all the cases of akrasia are cognitive mistakes in their judgment. Rather I hold, in opposition to the received stance on akrasia, that Socrates allows that one could act against his best judgment, when the latter is grounded on mere belief.
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2008, 2009
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