Socratic Moral perfection and the Unity of Virtue

One can start to make heads and tails of Socrates’s discussion of the unity of virtue with Protagoras once one introduces the concept of moral perfection. Written in 1969, John Passmore’s book, The Perfectibility of Man, remains a touchstone on this subject. Moral perfection, which is but one kind of perfection and which is not to be confused with the seven other kinds he discusses, is to be ‘entirely without moral defect.’ A morally perfect agent acts flawlessly in that he always does the right thing.

What makes it possible for one to always act virtuously? And not so according to the best possible luck or owing to the gods. This is Socrates’s question. He would likely grant Protagoras’s intuitive views that habit and feeling help to cultivate virtues in a young person and that many community members are teachers of some virtue or other in this sense. But that is not what Socrates is after. He wants to discover a teacher who, knowing what virtue is, always acts virtuously and so can teach others to always act virtuously themselves. And so far he has found none and not even, or especially, himself.

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Virtue’s supremacy and its directiveness: Reflections on Vlastos’s Socrates

In Socrates’s moral philosophy, what is the right relationship between virtue and human flourishing? In Gregory Vlastos’s view, wherein he defends the Sufficiency Thesis, there are four components:

1. Human flourishing is the final end, that for the sake of which all else is done. All action aims ultimately at human flourishing.

2. Virtue reigns supreme and is both an end in itself and a constituent of human flourishing. If someone is virtuous, then it immediately follows that he is happy. Hence, virtue alone is sufficient for flourishing.

3. Other goods are ‘subordinate, non-final and conditional’ (Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher 231). These include health, wealth, honor, and others. They are goods, and having them does make a ‘mini-difference’ to our flourishing. Yet they are neither necessary nor sufficient for happiness. What is more, they must be directed by virtue. If (say) wealth were not governed by virtue, then we might be more miserable than if we were poor and vicious.

4. The intermediates, which are neither good nor bad, only carry instrumental value. Walking, on this account, is valuable only if it is done for the sake of (say) pleasure. Intermediates do not make a difference to our being happy.

One of the reasons that Vlastos opts for the Sufficiency Thesis is that he believes the Identity Thesis (the view according to which virtue = happiness) is mistaken. What makes it mistaken? Vlastos:

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What is work?

The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure?

–Aristotle, Politics

[Under capitalism,] one does not work to live; one lives to work.

–Max Weber

Transvaluation of Values: Total Work

It was obvious to the Greeks that leisure came first and so in Aristotle’s Politics the question is how to undertake work (and what work to undertake) in order to be at leisure. It was obvious to Aristotle that the highest form of life–the contemplative life–could only be realized in leisure. His question is a genuine one: when we’re at leisure, how shall be so wisely?

Aristotle’s view has been largely lost except in quaint corners. Writing immediately after the end of World War II, Joseph Pieper observes that it is obvious to us that ‘one lives to work.’ Not only has the relationship between work and leisure been reversed; but also, and more substantively, there has been a ‘transvaluation of values’ which has transformed the very meaning and value we attribute to work and to that which is not-work. Work comes first and its many fledgling derivatives (spare time, leisure time, break (from work), weekend, vacation, sick leave, paid leave, etc.) come second. No one can even grasp weekend unless one first seized upon work-week.

This transvaluation of values is so strange, so momentous, so counterintuitive to any reasonable person (why would anyone prefer working to having a leisurely conversation?) that it begs for explanation. I have none in hand. To understand how work became, in Joseph Pieper’s words, ‘total,’ we must first inquire into what work is. This I do, in a time of leisure, below.

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Re-bundling Content: $10 Entire Ebook Collection

Re-bundling: The Very Possibility

Since the emergence of the Internet Age, the general trend has been to unbundle content (newspapers and print magazines etherized and anatomized into articles, albums cut into 99 cent singles), to make content available via search, and for aggregation sites to skim advertising profits and other profits by nudging users to pass through their sites in order to get to the sought-after content. For the newspaper industry in particular, the puzzle has been how to stay afloat while grappling with existing reality. Many papers have folded while others cut staff and soldier hopelessly on.

Usually, the verdict is grim, though it needn’t be in all cases. I believe this movement toward unbundling also enables a counter-movement toward re-bundling content. Doing so may require a creative twist, in this case by exiting or bypassing the market system.

Re-bundling Content in a Gift Economy

To test this view that one can rebundle content by exiting or bypassing the market system, I’m inserting the idea of re-bundling into a gift economy. The point is to make it sound counterintuitive in market terms yet plausible and generous in gift economic terms.

In a gift economy, gifts are intended only to meet my material needs (food, water, shelter, warmth, coldness, and health care). In this case, I am offering, as a gift, my entire collection of e-books and audiobooks. You can receive all six e-books as well as the two audiobooks on Daoism and chanting by making a $10 offer via PayPal. If you would like to offer more than $10, you may do so wholeheartedly. If you need to offer less than $10, you needn’t be concerned; you can receive the entire collection as well.

To view the collection of books, to accept my offer, and to offer your gift via PayPal, you can visit the Ebooks section of my main website.

How is This not a Market Transaction?

That’s a good question. I’ll offer two main reasons (though there are also others). Bear in mind that the mere presence of money doesn’t, on its own, make some relationship necessarily into a ‘market system’ relationship.

In the first place, then, the offerings have reasons that are different from market reasons. I offer a set of books to you in order to enhance your life, to cultivate your character. Then, you offer however much you do to me in order to meet some of my material needs.

In the second place, there is no equivalence drawn between the books and the material offering, no equals sign or X per Y. You could offer more than the amount I suggest, less, or nothing at all and in each case you’ll receive the entire collection of books.

From both of these claims, it follows that the two sequential acts in a gift economy involve taking turns. When it’s my turn, I offer something to you and you accept; when it’s your turn, you offer something else to me and I accept.