“Just What Is a Platonic Virtue?” Greg Sadler on Plato

As mentioned in an earlier post, my friend Greg Sadler came by Felician’s Lodi campus yesterday and gave a nice presentation on Plato’s conception of virtue. I’m sure Greg will be posting a video of the presentation somewhere,* but I thought I’d jot down a few very brief thoughts here on what he said.

As I understand it, the issue that motivates Greg’s project is something like this:

(1) Suppose we accept the paradigmatically Platonic conception of virtue we find articulated and defended in Plato’s Republic. This account presupposes the tripartite conception of the soul that Plato defends there, and proposes an account of the virtues as regulatory capacities internal to the soul that allow mind to govern the soul’s lower (spirited, appetitive) elements. Plato proposes four virtues–wisdom, justice, moderation (sophrosune), and courage–to play this role. On this view, the virtues are psychological dispositions that inhere in particular souls.

(2) But Plato also regards virtues as Forms, and this fact sits uneasily with (1). Forms are, on the Platonic account, entities distinct from the natural world we inhabit. They are essentially impersonal and non-psychological, and can’t be conceived of as inhering in particulars. They are separate from (chorista) particulars, and particulars depend on them, while somehow “participating” in them. (I’m relying here on the account of Plato’s “middle theory” in the Introduction of Kenneth Sayre’s Plato’s Late Ontology: A Riddle Resolved, but see also the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on the subject.)

The question, then, is either how to make (1) coherent with (2); or if they’re not coherent, how to defend a distinctively Platonic virtue ethics without recourse to the Forms–or failing that, without recourse to the problematic aspects of the theory of Forms.

As Greg pointed out, the first disjunct of the preceding disjunction arguably leads us, via neo-Platonism, to some form of Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism. The second disjunct leads us to a sort of Aristotelian (or possibly Freudian) naturalism. An interesting modern version of the first form (highly influenced by Freud, among others) can be found in the work of Iris Murdoch (see, e.g., her The Sovereignty of Good). An interesting modern version of the second form (also highly Freud-inflected) can be found in the work of Jonathan Lear (see, e.g., his book, Open Minded). (Those are my examples, not Greg’s.) It’s a question whether a distinctively Platonic view is still plausible or viable. We had an interesting and somewhat freewheeling discussion of that issue, but I’ll focus on a single theme here.

One worry I have is about the motivation for the project as a whole. The motivation for the project arises from the ontological oddities of Plato’s theory of Forms: Plato thinks that virtues are Forms, but Forms don’t seem particularly virtue-like, at least on any recognizable (to us) conception of virtue. That’s true enough, but Greg seemed to want to suggest that there is a distinctively ethical problem here for Platonism–a problem specific to ethical Forms–that can be raised in abstraction from entirely general questions about the adequacy of the theory of Forms as a metaphysical doctrine. Greg insisted that he wanted to set aside specifically metaphysical questions about the theory of Forms.

I don’t think that that’s possible. To me, Greg’s problem simply looks like the ethical version of the age-old problem of self-predication in Plato. The problem is that Forms are supposed to be paradigmatic exemplars of whatever they’re Forms of. But Forms qua Forms have features that are incompatible with the properties some Forms are supposed to have. No Form is supposed to have physical dimensions, for example, but Forms for physical dimensions are supposed to be paradigmatic exemplars of those dimensions. So the Form of Length is supposed to lack physical dimensions and yet be long (or have length). Likewise with the Forms of Size, Weight, Mass, Height, etc. (my examples, not Plato’s): they’re supposed to lack physical dimensions and yet exemplify size, weight, mass, height, etc. It seems to me that Greg has simply isolated and articulated the ethical version or counterpart of the problem of self-predication in Plato: Forms for moral qualities ought paradigmatically to exemplify moral qualities, but to have moral qualities, a thing must in some sense be psychological or personal, and Forms qua Forms aren’t sufficiently personal to have such qualities.

In either case, I reach the same conclusion. The problem of self-predication suggests that the classically Platonic conception of Forms is untenable, whether in the ethical cases or the non-ethical ones. There’s no way to defend such a theory; it just has to be junked. If we want a virtue ethics that is in any residual sense Platonic, it has to be naturalized and developed in an Aristotelian or Freudian or Aristotelian-Freudian way. Paradoxically, perhaps, Aristotelianism is about as Platonic as a viable Platonism can get.

I wonder whether the intuition that motivates Greg’s attraction to Platonism (and to the problem that comes along for the ride) has something to do with the possibility (or rather, impossibility) of moral perfection. At one point in his presentation, Greg seemed to be suggesting in passing that moral or aretaic perfection is impossible to mortal humans. No just act we ever perform is perfectly just, and no putatively just person is perfect in his possession or exercise of the virtue of justice. Something about our materially embodied selves gets in the way of perfection, and something external to us holds out a standard or criterion of perfection to which we’re obliged to strive, but that we can never hope to reach. In that sense, Platonic Forms seem attractive because they function asymptotically as regulative ideals in a sense that straddles what Plato had in mind in defending them, and what Kant had in mind in defending his conception of pure practical reason.

If you hold this sort of view, and find Plato’s moral psychology generally plausible, Greg’s problem will seem a live one: how do you marry a plausible form of that moral psychology to a plausible theory of Forms? I suspect, however, that if you reject the relevant intuition about moral perfection, as I do, the project ceases to have the same urgency. You can just admit that aspects of Plato’s moral psychology have a certain plausibility; that Aristotle and/or Freud (and their successors) appropriated the best aspects of this psychology; and that we don’t need anything like Platonic Forms to perform the ideal-regulative role that makes moral perfection impossible to us. But that’s just a speculation, and I’m curious whether it’s at all on target.

Anyway, my thanks to Greg for coming down to do the talk. I hope readers get as much out of reading about it here as I did attending it in person.

*Postscript, Sept. 26, 2014: This link takes you to the video for the presentation.

Postscript 2, October 5, 2014: Greg now has a blog post on the issue at his own blog, Orexis Dianoetike.

8 thoughts on ““Just What Is a Platonic Virtue?” Greg Sadler on Plato

  1. Very nice summary and reflection, thank you!

    I agree that, on the face of it, virtues seem to pose no urgent problem for Plato that other forms do not. To the extent that there is a special ethical role for the forms of virtues, it must be, as you suggest, in the notion of perfection: the forms are the perfect models of the virtues, and we have to try to approximate them. You suggest rejecting the intuition that we can’t ever attain perfection, but that doesn’t seem necessary to me. Aristotle, for example, seems to think that it’s at least extremely unlikely that we’ll reach perfection, but that doesn’t stop him from developing theoretical models of the best that we can strive to approximate. So I’m just not sure that, even if we share Sadler’s motivations, we need the forms.


    • I think there’s an intrinsic connection between Platonism and the unattainability of moral perfection, whether in actions or character. If Platonic virtue requires instantiating Forms-as-models-of-virtues, and Forms are immaterial and simple (while we’re not), then our material and composite natures will always “get in the way” of what virtue requires. Human nature becomes an obstacle to virtue.

      I take it that on an Aristotelian account, even if it’s difficult to achieve moral perfection, it’s not impossible (so that some version of Aristotelian-ought implies some version of Aristotelian-can). That’s for an Aristotelian account, however, not necessarily Aristotle’s own. I think Nicomachean X.7-8 is close enough to Platonism to raise the question of whether Aristotle himself regards full virtue/moral perfection as possible to embodied human beings.

      In any case, I think there’s something paradoxical about developing a model of virtue or moral perfection that is merely “the best we can strive to approximate” rather than the best we can in fact exemplify. I take some version of ought implies can to be a stricture on an ethical theory. Why define perfection as something un-doable rather than as the best we can in fact accomplish, however difficult that best may be?


  2. Yep, I agree that Platonism is intrinsically tied to the unattainability of perfection; what I resist is that the unattainability of perfection is tied to Platonism, at least so far as Platonism involves a metaphysics of separated forms.

    I reject certain versions of the ought-implies-can principle because I think that genuinely irresolvable practical conflict is possible, but since those sorts of conflicts make it only contingently the case that we can’t do what we should, they don’t cast any doubt on the principle at a higher level of generality. So we can agree that if something is strictly impossible, and not simply contingently unachievable, it cannot be something that we ought to do or strive for. But as I see it, anyway, what is only contingently unachievable may still be unachievable in every circumstance that we can take seriously as something that is likely to be realized. In those cases, the version of ought-implies-can that seems most sensible to me does not preclude our having reason to strive to approximate a contingently unattainable ideal. So long as the ideal is something that would be good to achieve, we have reason to strive to approximate it. Granted that if it were strictly impossible, it could not be good to achieve; but if it is only contingently unachievable, it would still be a good thing. Here are some examples.

    (1) There is presumably nothing about being a human being that makes it strictly impossible for me not to have a developed tendency toward procrastination, and as I would be better off if I did not have such a tendency, it seems reasonable to think that an ideally virtuous person would not have it. Given my own life up to now, however, there is no realistic possibility of me having no tendency toward it, or of my never giving in to the temptation; no matter how much I strive to eliminate that tendency and to replace it with focused productivity, it would be foolish for anyone to expect that I could end up with no trace of this long-ingrained habit. What follows from that, though, is not that I have no reason to take focused productivity as an ideal or to strive to approximate it; rather it seems to follow that I should not assess my success in all-or-nothing terms, as though my efforts to rid myself of my habits of procrastination count as failure unless I can somehow become ideally virtuous in the next few weeks.

    (2) Aristotle objects to the communism of Plato’s Republic on the grounds that it is impossible. He does not quite say that it cannot be good because it is not possible, but his criticism of the Form of the Good in NE 1.6 seems to make clear that the human good must be practicable, and that any ‘good’ that is not achievable in human action has no rightful place in our deliberations about how to live or our conception of a good life. He also objects that the communism of the Republic wouldn’t be good even if it were possible and that it wouldn’t achieve the goals that motivate Socrates’ introduction of it, but it seems clear that for Aristotle if some proposed political arrangement or ideal of flourishing is impossible, then it can’t be something we should aim at. Yet when, in Politics VII, he lays out an account of what the best political arrangement would be, he emphasizes how difficult it would be to attain all the necessary conditions for setting it up and having it go well. He is not contradicting his criticisms of Plato, because he does not regard the ideal city of Book VII as impossible, but only as contingently unattainable; it would be possible if the right set of conditions were to present themselves. But even if those conditions are so unlikely to present themselves that we cannot take them seriously, the ideal city can be an appropriate model to approximate even when we know that the best we can achieve in our actual conditions will fall far short of it.

    (3) Far be it from me to cite Rand as an example — in part because my ignorance of Rand may lead me astray — but it strikes me that capitalism is, for Rand, in much the same position that Aristotle’s ideal city and my focused productivity are. Whatever Rand may have thought about the practical achievability of pure capitalism in the here and now, it’s clear enough that she took it to be possible, and she should have taken it to be extremely unlikely to arise during her lifetime at least. Perhaps she would have rejected the notion of trying to work within the existing corporate state in order to reform it in the direction of pure capitalism, and preferred some sort of outright revolution; but in either case, it would not make sense for her to reject it as an ideal simply because the barriers to its actual implementation are so great as to set it beyond the bounds of realistic possibility for the foreseeable future.

    These examples and the principle they’re intended to illustrate are distinct from the Platonist variety of impossible ideals, and yet they show, if they’re right, that we have good reason to go pretty far in the direction of endorsing ideals that we cannot realistically expect to exemplify in full. I’m not sure how far you’d disagree, but it seems to me that the main question is just how we understand the claim that we can exemplify some ideal, and just what sort of possibility we require in an ideal.


    • I agree that unattainability of perfection is not a uniquely Platonic idea, but I disagree with the rest–though it’s possible we’re talking past one another on terminological matters. (Some of the issues here overlap with discussions we had last year at the IOS blog about moral luck.)

      A first issue: I’m not sure I understand the idea of contingent unachievability or how it’s relevantly different from impossibility to affect ought-implies-can. There are, I take it, two sorts of cases here.

      Impossibility: Some ideal I1 is offered up for agents to achieve, but I1 is nomologically impossible to such agents. It can’t be achieved, and could never have been achieved.

      Contingent non-achievability: Some ideal I2 is offered up for agents to achieve. Under ideal conditions, those agents could achieve I2, but some causal factor intervenes at t to make it impossible after t, though it was possible before t.

      Contingent non-achievability will have its own grades of counterfactual stability. Something could be contingently non-achievable now but achievable (or possibly achievable) in the foreseeable future; now and for the foreseeable future; or now and forever. (This is coarse grained, but you get the idea.)

      It seems to me that if we’re considered the situation of a given moral agent, impossibility and the strongest form of contingent non-achievability amount to the same thing. The only difference is this: I1 cannot govern agents’ beliefs, desires, or actions at all. In the strongest cases of non-achievability, I2 informs whatever turns out to be the agents’ achievable goals, in the sense that I2 is modified to fit the new circumstances (so as to require the formulation of some new ideal, I3, derived from I2). But the fact remains that I2 is not itself the goal. That’s the sense in which I take ought-implies-can to have been preserved. There is no ought that directs the agent to seek the realization of I2 if it is strongly contingently unachievable.

      Suppose it’s weakly unachievable. For instance, suppose that the realization of some ideal will never happen in my lifetime, but can in principle happen after it. Still, as an agent, it makes no sense for me to seek the realization of that ideal in my lifetime. My actions ought not be arranged as though they might directly bring about the realization of the ideal. They have to be re-conceived so as to fit ought-implies-can and yet be informed by the posthumous goal. I ought only to bring about those parts of the posthumous goal that can are predictably achievable for me. If nothing satisfies this description for me, no part of the ideal is an ideal for me. And if what’s true of me is true of everyone, the normative force of that ideal is an illusion.

      Let me send this for now and reply to your examples separately.


    • (1) Procrastination. I would take issue with the coherence of your description of the procrastination case, but part of that claim turns on what I take procrastination to be. I take procrastination to be a willful, volitional, culpable act within the agent’s control. When I procrastinate, I know that ought to be doing X, but I evade that knowledge and do non-X, making use of the self-deceived rationalization that I’ll do X later–when in fact I know, at some level, I’m only saying that because doing X is unpleasant and I prefer the pleasant to the best.* Described that way, there is certainly nothing about human beings that makes it impossible to not procrastinate. Suppose, however, that you’ve developed the bad habit of procrastination over time, and suppose it can be known with certainty that the habit cannot be gotten rid of without traces of it remaining (in the form of tendencies toward procrastination). It’s true that you can’t realistically expect the habit to go away. But then, the ideal for someone who develops the habit is to reverse it with residual traces of the habit in his psyche. Literal elimination of the traces is impossible, and not an ideal. The point, however, is that the original ideal (no procrastination) was available to you, and was once an ought for you. You have culpably turned yourself into someone no longer capable of the ought. So the original ideal was an ought, but no longer is. The less ambitious ideal is an ought, and is the only ought that governs you. In neither case is ought-implies-can violated. The point is that the person of bad habits (in the process of reform) cannot be expected to conform to the original idea once he screws things up by putting that ideal beyond his grasp. A new, less ambitious ideal must govern him.

      (2) Aristotle’s polis. I agree with all that you say about Aristotle’s conception of the ideal polis until the very end of the paragraph. Suppose the ideal polis is simply unattainable, given path dependencies that have made it unattainable. In other words, it might once have been possible to humans qua humans to attain the ideal polis, but they enacted possibilities during their long dismal history that now have made it impossible. In that case, the ideal polis is no longer an ideal. It’s a figment of our imaginations. Yes, the ideal has to be modified for the new circumstances, so that our new (lower) ideal is in some case derived from the ideal. But it’s not itself the original ideal. That ideal has to be abandoned–self-consciously, assiduously abandoned. It actually strikes me as dangerous to be governed by an ideal that cannot be brought about, and to be unclear about that fact while being engaged in political activity. The key distinction here is between the ideal of the ideal polis and that ideal reconceived mutatis mutandis. But it seems to me that there is a huge difference between those two things.

      (3) Rand’s unknown capitalist ideal. If it turned out to be the case that Randian capitalism was unachievable, it would have to be abandoned as an ideal. We would have to accept some deep compromises in it and content ourselves with achieving that. The real issue here is epistemic: how can we confidently predict that an ideal is or isn’t achievable? We’re abstracting from lots of difficult epistemic questions in treating such predictions as something we can be confident in. But it certainly is possible that at this point, ideal capitalism is not achievable. If that impossibility could be demonstrated, then pure capitalism would no longer be our ideal. Its underlying normative rationale might still have some hold on us, but that rationale would have to be radically reconceived, in which case it would no longer have the same identity as the old ideal.

      One fundamental problem I have with the Objectivist and libertarian movements (more the former than the latter) is their unwillingness to consider this possibility. It’s one thing if capitalism is an unknown ideal. But if it is an impossible or ultimately unachievable ideal, then it is disastrous even to try to approximate it. Think of the facile reasoning of the sort of Objectivist political activist who thinks: we may never have pure capitalism, but at least we can approximate pure capitalism by getting rid of all the public hospitals! (This is an actual example. See George Reisman’s Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, p. 978.) That is a form of Objectivist Platonism: The reasoning seems to be: “We can’t know whether our ideal is feasible, but we try to approximate it anyway, not bothering to count the cost because approximations of possibly unachievable ideals are good enough.” But that’s not genuine political thinking. It’s fantasy-based political theatrics. And its source, I think, is the failure to be strict enough about ought-implies-can–about what is achievable and what isn’t, what norms are norms for us and what norms are merely playthings for the imagination.

      *I fixed a confusing typo in the original version of this sentence. Thanks to Kate Herrick for noticing the mistake.


  3. Well, we’re at least not entirely talking past each other. I think what you describe as the formulation of a new ideal is what I would describe instead as the formulation of an approximation to an ideal. This is not a merely terminological difference, because I reject the suggestion that the original ideal — the one that, in my view, we should be aiming to approximate — ceases to be an ideal at all. I agree that when the ideal is contingently non-achievable, I ought not to direct our actions towards directly bringing about the ideal. But I do not see that the ideal therefore ceases to govern my beliefs, desires, and actions. The ideal can continue to govern my beliefs, desires, and actions because it can help to determine (a) the content of the approximation that I aim to realize directly and (b) the appropriate assessment of my success in achieving my actual goals. To take what I hope will be an unpretentious example, suppose the ideal for my business is complete energy self-sufficiency; for numerous reasons, I want to be able to operate indefinitely using only power generated on-site. That goal may be contingently unachievable for the foreseeable future because the expenses of acquiring the means to produce my own power far surpass the resources available. So I cannot aim to bring this ideal about directly. Nonetheless, without abandoning that ideal in favor of a more achievable one, there is much that I can do now and in the foreseeable future to come closer to that ideal. The ideal continues to shape my beliefs, desires, and actions because it is still with that ultimate goal in mind that I think about what I want, determine what is feasible, and decide what to do; in that way the ideal helps to shape the content of my more immediate goals. But the ideal also continues to operate in shaping how I reasonably regard my success in meeting those more immediate goals. Had I replaced the ideal with a more feasible one, my success in meeting my goals would bring with it the great satisfaction of having achieved the ideal; but since I have in fact not abandoned the ideal, but sought instead to approximate it, I do not sit back and bask in the realization of my goals, but celebrate my success in approximating the ideal and set out to determine how I can more fully realize it.

    You may object that this example gives us an ideal that is too weakly unachievable. But I don’t see that the role of the ideal has to change when it becomes more strongly unachievable.


    • This has been a very helpful discussion–thanks.

      I think we’re stuck in the same impasse as before, and I’m not entirely sure how to get out except to make my view clearer and more specific. I guess my bedrock commitment here is that practical rationality requires an agent to know (try his or best to know) two things:

      1. What am I capable of doing, and what am I clearly not capable of doing?
      2. Of the options I have for action, which can I fully (or perfectly) realize?

      The two questions are a constraint on what counts as a normative ideal for an agent. The ideal has to be the kind of thing the agent can fully or perfectly realize given the capacities she either has or can be justifiably expected to develop (which on my view of capacities amounts to the same thing: you can only justifiably be expected to develop a capacity based on a more basic capacity you already have, in some tricky sense of “have”). And only ideals so conceived generate oughts for a given agent. You ought to do the best you can at what is best for you, not “the best” for some idealized agent whose capacities are different from yours.

      My objection to your view has to do with the incompatibility of approximation as you describe it with (2) above. I think there’s practical incoherence (and a large psychological cost) to demanding that an agent do her best to approximate something that she cannot in fact (ever) fully realize–or that she must be agnostic about the possibility of fully realizing. In that case, virtue would be Sisyphean and futile. We would be straining to approximate something in every action but never striving to realize it in any actual goal. But if flourishing is self-sufficient and complete, a life of that sort would never be a flourishing one. It would just be endless frustration in the name of the good. In fact, I think Aristotle ends up with such a view in Nicomachean X.7-8 (this aspect of Aristotle’s view is brought out nicely in Jonathan Lear’s Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, chs. 6.7-8)

      I don’t think your energy self-sufficiency example is pretentious at all (don’t even know why it would be). But it’s ambiguous. I think the person in the example has to ask himself a stark question. Assume that energy self-sufficiency is in some sense desirable. The question is: is it possible in his case? Is it not just a nomologically possibility but a nomological possibility such that there is some nomologically likely route to it that is compatible with all his other (justifiable) goals–yes or no? If yes, it’s an ought, but only because it’s a “can.” If not, forget it: there is no point in “approximating” it. An “approximation” is an approximation-to-something, and if the “something” can’t be brought about, there is nothing in fact to approximate. He just has to reconceive what he’s doing.

      Yes, the reconception may be based on (derived from) the original ideal, but I guess I’d say the basing or derivation relation only makes sense if the relata are ontologically distinct. They are related, not identical. So I don’t deny that the new ideal is based on the old. But the new ideal is new, and the old ideal is no longer an object of action–neither directly nor indirectly. It’s not forgotten, but it’s not realized, either. Nor, I think, does the agent aim at the new ideal under the description “approximation of the old.”

      When I was in my 20s, I could do 21 pullups. My ideal was to get to 25 (which I never did get to). I’m now in my 40s, and I simply cannot physically do what I used to be able to do. Even if the 25-pullup ideal was the ideal-for-me-then based on the Athletic Ideal for Man qua Man (the best that humans can do, full stop), once I know that I cannot do 25 pullups, it is irrational to try. It’s not that I’m approximating the old ideal. It’s that I now have to try to achieve the Middle Aged Ideal, not under the description of approximating what a 25 year old could (have) achieved, but under the description of achieving what a 45 year old can in fact achieve. (Two complications. (a) I may be wrong about my capacities, i.e., underestimating them. Certainly possible, and I’d need to get my facts straight. But my point is, once I get them straight, the preceding applies. (b) In the athletic case, I think there’s a superordinate ideal of Human Health that subsumes the Athletic Ideal for Man as well as the Middle Aged Ideal. The Athletic Ideal is only possible for a brief part of a lifetime, at our athletic peak.) I think this case is simple enough to capture what’s at stake in our disagreement. On your view (as I understand it), the 45 year old is “governed by”–I would say haunted by–the imperative to approximate an ideal that is out of reach to him. But there is literally no point in doing that. Nothing is accomplished by it.

      Take another example–certainty. Imagine a person who operates with a conception of certainty about belief that she cannot in fact achieve in the circumstances in which she finds herself. And yet she strains to approximate it anyway. I’d say that the imperative to approximate would distort the structure of her beliefs. Instead of admitting that certainty is not possible to her and moving on, she’s straining to achieve a kind of certainty that she’ll never get.

      Anyway, these aren’t arguments so much as attempts at clarification. I’d need to think longer and harder to get “under” the issue and produce convincing arguments. (Which I think is possible.) My views on this issue, by the way, are pretty orthodoxly Randian–basically just a by-the-book application of the view she defends in “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, my favorite essay of hers (minus the anti-Rawls rant at the end). It reads like a weird combination of Aristotle and Francis Bacon, but I think that combination is unique to her, and basically right.


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