Socrates and Mill on the unexamined life

Samantha asked:

In the Apology, Socrates says, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ (38a) Do you think that J.S. Mill would agree? More generally, do they agree about the nature of the good life? Explain why or why not.

Answer by Graham Hackett

I’ll start with a quote from JS Mill

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” (Utilitarianism)

Sometimes, when we read JS Mill today, we may form the impression that what is being said is glaringly obvious. This is because much of the matter discussed by him has now come to be regarded as settled and received opinion in the 20th century. We know that Socrates (through Plato) believed that everything, even the most taken-for granted concepts, such as courage, prudence, temperance etc should be subjected to the most rigorous questioning. Philosophic examination of this type, plus contemplation of ultimate questions of truth and justice constituted the “examined life” for Socrates. Famously, as you indicate in your question,  Socrates, at his trial  declared that he would choose death rather than live the unexamined life. Lest we get carried away with the nobility of his sentiment, we would have to admit that living the examined life was not something that Socrates thought was a road which should be taken by all. We know that, as described in The Republic, only a small privileged group would be able to do this, thus befitting them for just rule.

Although he may seem like a million miles distant from Socrates, J.S Mill also has a version of an “examined life”, although it is very much different from Socrates version. The source to read for this is “On Liberty”, published in 1859. Of course, the main aim of that essay is that the promotion of liberty and free speech is essential for a healthy body politic, but Mill is eager to argue that it also promotes happiness. 

There are several reasons for a permissive attitude to liberty of thought and speech. Mill says;

“Those who desire to suppress it (a controversial opinion), of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

In general, freedom of speech enables/ allows people to come to a clear and lively understanding of truths about the world. What amounts to the same thing, the silencing or censorship of expression prevents people from arriving at a clear and vivid understanding of true beliefs about the world. In addition to the promotion of free speech, Mill also has strong views on how science should progress,  Scientific theory should develop using inductive methods, and no theory should ever be regarded as the final word.

My understanding is that as well as being of instrumental significance for a healthy state, the liberties Mill describes, together with his robust views on science give us an alternative view to Socrates as to what might constitute an ‘examined’ life.

So JS Mill would certainly agree with Socrates that the examined life is a desirable one. However, there are points of difference to note between the two. What is it that constitutes the ‘examination’ in this examined life? For Socrates the process is based on theoretical analysis, abstraction  and contemplation. Concepts such as honesty, truth, courage and justice have a real unchangeable metaphysical existence; they can be discovered and known. In comparison, Mill eschews the metaphysical realm, and abandons any attempt to find a priori explanations for our concepts. Truth is a matter of empirical research, and discovering it is an ongoing eternal process. For example, liberty of speech and the resulting improvement in public living, is more than a set of governing practices. It is a culture or way of life of a community defined by equality of membership, reciprocal cooperation, and mutual respect and sympathy located in civic society. On Mill’s view, democratic participation is a way of life that unites two higher pleasures – sympathy and autonomy. 

You also mention, in your question whether Socrates and Mill would agree about what constitutes the good life.  I am a bit less secure about my answer here, but I would assume that, for Socrates, the good life would involve the search for truth and justice, and living in accordance with what one finds. The spirited, appetitive and rational elements of ones soul are in harmony. It is highly likely that Socrates felt that this good life would also deliver happiness.  Mill begins with happiness – his utilitarian approach involves that the goal of life is to maximize it. However, his writings indicate that for him, happiness (utility) is a richly nuanced concept, leading to a concept of the good life every bit as complex as the more metaphysical pursuit of Socrates.

John Stuart Mill on unreasoned belief

 Yasemin asked:

I have trouble understanding this paragraph, can you help me?

“There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument. Waiving, however, this possibility — assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument — this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.”

Answer by Graham Hackett

The author is suggesting that there are still too many people who are willing to base claims of knowledge on faith alone, unsupported by evidence, and suggests that when faith is lacking, or insufficient in itself to sustain belief, too many fall back on authority for support. Not just a case of “believe this”, but “believe this, or else…”.  The author makes the assumption that the truth is something “out there” to be discovered, independent of our minds.

I do not recognise the passage, but the criticism may be aimed at two problem areas.

The first target may be  Fideism, which is the view that claims to knowledge can be  underwritten by faith alone, quite independently of any kind of evidence. There are almost no philosophers, and I would hope (in agreement with the author) fewer and fewer of all kinds of people who would support Fideism. The reason is because it is just too permissive a standpoint; you could hold pretty well any kind of opinion as true provided you could show that people had an active faith-based belief in it. As the author suggests; “this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being.” 

It is quite true that many hold that religious beliefs are only supported by faith. For example, Tertullian, the early christian divine, is alleged to have remarked “what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Athens would be seen as the home of reason and Jerusalem the home of faith, and Tertullian is clearly making his argument in favour of Jerusalem rather than Athens. Calvin is often cited as settling the argument in favour of faith alone, even suggesting that we have a ‘sensus divinitatus”, a reliable human organ for detecting what beliefs we should have faith in. However, the matter is not quite so straightforward. St Augustine uses the maxim “faith seeking understanding”, and St Aquinas has the famous “Five Ways”, which has five arguments for belief in God, quoting reasons and evidence. These two examples suggest that Christians, at least, were not always happy with relying on faith alone. However, I do not wish to over-egg the pudding, as I do not have any knowledge as to how, in comparison with Christianity, Islam and Judaism deal with this matter.

The other target of the quoted text could be said to relate to the activity, behaviour and character of the believer. There is a great deal to be said for a “due diligence” approach to knowledge aquisition. Have we used all the tools and methods available to us for checking the truth, have we examined the authenticity of all testimony respecting the belief and the credentials of those providing the testimony? In other words, it is not just the catalogue of evidence quoted in favour of a belief which we should consider; it is also “the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being” . To use the language of reliabilism, are we a “reliable instrument for tracking the truth?

I think I would even go one step further in this direction then taken by the writer. Perhaps we should take a leaf from Aristotle’s book, and be prepared to consider the process of gaining knowledge as a set of virtues. There is a recent venture in philosophy known as virtue epistemology, which seeks to explain some knowledge issues as depending to some extent on the character of the agent. Characteristics such as open-mindedness, courage in defending beliefs, thoroughness etc, could be said to be epistemic virtues. If you wish to get the flavour of this kind of thinking, you might read the article “Virtue Epistemology” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, written by J. Turri, M. Alfano, and J. Greco. The writers are all leaders in this field. For them, establishing knowledge becomes an ongoing process conducted by agents displaying different levels of epistemic virtue, rather than a once-for-all discovery of something which is “out there”.

Well, do you think you are a reliable instrument for establishing truth, showing due diligence, and all the right epistemic virtues?

Logical and non-logical justification

Abpraxis asked:

I read and hear “logical justification” and I can’t find a definition for it. Is it as pedestrian as it sounds (can be put in the form of logic and makes a valid argument), or is it a term of art? When a philosopher insists that there is no such thing as “empirical justification” and that the “only justification is logical justification”, I’d like to know just what exactly the latter is.

Answer by Graham Hackett

Abpraxis, the more I read about epistemology, the less I think I really know. I think you are right in asking whether an expression like “logical justification” has any real precise meaning, which is invariable from one context to another, or whether it is a “term of art”, only acquiring meaning when we know the context in which it is used. Even more unhelpful if you are looking for a precise meaning, is the suspicion that it might have become a folk term — a well-known phrase or saying — used without much concern for exploring meaning.

You mention empirical justification, and logical justification as though in comparison, and imply that the former is not real, proper, trustworthy justification, whilst the latter is. I assume that you’ve done some background investigation on the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. For example, a form of argument such as;

All men are mortal
Socrates is mortal
Therefore Socrates is mortal

is a famous example of classical logic. My conclusion that Socrates is mortal is based on previous propositions, in this case, that all men are mortal, and that Socrates is a man. No empirical evidence needs to be gathered; the conclusion is justified purely by the structure of the argument, and by the assumption that our propositions are incorrigibly and self-evidently true. 

In comparison, an argument like “all ravens are black” needs empirical evidence, real hard data gathered from many observations of ravens, before we can conclude that it is justified. You can easily see that this kind of reasoning, although it might falsify our assertion that all ravens are black (we might observe some non-black ones), can never prove conclusively that our assertion is true, because any smart Alec (there are many of them) could just suggest that even after a huge number of sightings of black ravens, we have no way of knowing whether the next raven to come will be black or non-black.

So I suppose that you could use this conclusion to hold that empirical justification is never really justification at all. But here we come to the tricky part of the argument. What does justification really amount to? What has to be the case before we can say we are justified in some conclusion we have made? This is where the ground really starts to slip from under our feet.

I don’t wish to become too entangled with questions about the new and old epistemology, but you might like to do a little research on Alvin Plantinga, and his observations on justification, and his preference for using the term “warrant” instead. Although we use both terms often in much the same way — that we are warranted or justified in the things we assert, Plantinga asserts that “justification” has often been too much tied up with evidence. We claim to be justified by our evidence. Plantinga wishes to attach the term “warrant” to our beliefs. Our beliefs can be warranted in many ways. To use Plantinga’s own examples, we can be warranted in our belief that God is speaking to us personally when we read the Bible, or that he disapproves of some action of ours, or that our feeling that God has forgiven us is warranted. What makes us warranted in our beliefs (according to Plantinga) does not always have to be grounded in empirical evidence, or testimony. Our beliefs can be “properly basic” (Plantinga’s own expression) without evidential support.

Plantinga’s ideas on warrant have been much discussed. Many have criticised them as being a case of special pleading for religious claims. Plantinga himself recognises that the idea of warrant cannot be used indiscriminately to declare beliefs as properly basic. The famous example given is that we might easily be led to conclude that belief in the Legend of the Great Pumpkin (Schultz’s Peanuts cartoon) is just as warranted as any other belief, unless we establish some rules about the use of the term “warrant”.

We still have to show that we have used reliable methods, and that our beliefs in some way “track the truth”.

I am sorry that my remarks may be a little disappointing, and I am conscious that I may have muddied the waters rather than clearing them. But my main conclusion I hope is clear; logical justification is no more than a popular phrase. People think they are warranted, or not in believing something, and “warrant” however vague it is, includes more than just the traditional rules of logic and empirical data.

British EU Membership Referendum

Frank asked;

What would be a philosopher’s take on the British EU Membership Referendum?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Frank; where to start? I could write a large essay on political philosophy, and compare the value of decisions which are taken by majority vote with those which are taken by knowledgeable experts. Also, I could hold forth on whether a simple once-and for all majority referendum is better than a lengthier more measured procedure. For example, in the USA, changing an important matter like an article of the constitution requires extended discussion, and consent by two thirds of state legislatures. Deciding on whether to leave the EU or stay would merely require a simple majority of the UK electorate.

I would like to look at the question of the referendum from an ethical viewpoint. Have we an obligation to vote? We all know that the results of votes can lead to important results; governments can fall, wars can be started and lives lost. Remember that before he assumed power and banned all elections, Hitler and his Nazi party were elected by the German people. So it does seem that we have some kind of obligation to make our voice heard in the referendum. However, it is difficult to see where this obligation might come from, unless we quote Gilbert Harman’s view about the contractual nature of moral obligation and argue that voting is one of the obligations we implicitly contract to perform if we belong to a democratic state. Note that this would make only the act of voting a moral obligation, not the direction of our vote.

Also, the decisions we might take in an election or referendum might vary from being disastrously wrong to being brilliantly beneficial. Just look at the majority voting decision to call the NERC polar vessel “Boaty McBoatface”. The director of NERC felt that this compromised the reputation and integrity of his organisation so much, that he felt he had no option but to ignore the democratic choice in favour of the name “RRS David Attenborough” – which had only been the fifth most popular choice in the electors list. What does this tell us about democracy, and its ability to deliver correct decisions?

So far, this might suggest that a decision to actually cast a vote is actually a correct moral decision, a Kantian duty perhaps. However, it leaves us in the difficult position of having to say that voting in the referendum is (arguably) a moral duty, but the collective nature of these votes might be a disaster. Of course, this is a problem for all elections, and that the importance of the decision to be taken in an EU referendum just exacerbates it

So we have not only a duty to vote in the referendum but a duty to carefully deliberate our decision. But good intentions are not enough. A benevolent 1933 German voting for Hitler might act from good intentions, thinking that Hitler would not only restore the integrity of Germany, but also contribute to world peace. So voting for whether we leave or remain in the EU is different from what program I choose to watch on the TV. Or what meal I order in a restaurant. These decisions only affect me, and are nobody elses business. However, your choice to leave or remain in the EU is very much my business, not just yours.  Peoples voting decisions can cause hurt to other innocent people, so that it just seems plain wrong to say, as many people do, “go out and vote; It doesn’t matter if you know little about politics. The important thing is to vote.”

The result of the above is that I would hold that voting in a democracy is a public moral duty. However, because of the importance of the results of such decisions as that of remain or leave the EU, I would qualify this by saying that it is a public moral duty to vote well. What would voting well mean? I would argue that it places a heavy obligation on voters to pursue a policy of “due diligence” to ensure that they are convinced that they are morally and epistemically justified in the decision they have taken. As an elector, can you put your hand on your heart and claim that you have sufficient warrant for your belief? Can you truly say that you have done enough work to claim that the decision you are about to vote for will be for the public good?

You can see that this is a tall order, and makes democracy one of the more difficult political systems to pull off. Whenever I contemplate decisions such as the one in the EU referendum, It becomes pertinent to ask whether democracy can cope with it, and whether a simple blunt mechanism like a majority referendum can cope. There is no justification for believing that a majority decision will be the better because of the size of the majority in favour.

But what are the alternatives?