The Platonic approach or the Protagorean approach?by Naomi Goulder / December 6, 2016 / Leave a comment
From Brexit to Donald Trump, dramatic political events over the last few months have shaken confidence in and prompted widespread debate about our democratic processes. Our attitudes often affect the realities they seek to represent—some to self-fulfilling, others self-undermining, effect. Sometimes the only way to leap a hurdle is to convince oneself that one will succeed. Descartes, in his Meditations, suggests that thinking you don’t exist might somehow ensure that you do.
There are two opposing traditions on the nature of justice: a Platonic one according to which facts about justice are independent of what we think about them, and a Protagorean one according to which the facts are ultimately constructed. For Plato, knowing requirements of justice is a matter of receptivity to an independent ethical reality. For Protagoras, who said “man is the measure of all things,” knowing requirements of justice is a matter of active human creation—akin to the practical knowledge we have when, on being asked for the name of a ship, we break a bottle of champagne over its bow announcing “We hereby name this ship [X]!”
The Platonic approach tends to be associated with right-wing politics, anti-democratic appeals to expert authority, and hierarchical power structures. “Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide… cities will have no rest from evils,” argues Plato in The Republic. On his model, a philosophical elite contemplates the Form of the Good (the sun), to which the masses have only imperfect and second-hand access (shadows flickering on a cave wall), and decides their fate. A corollary to this hierarchy is the “opportune falsehood” or “noble lie”: a myth or untruth deliberately propagated by the elite to persuade the masses to comply with systems the real justifications for which the masses can’t, or don’t, fully understand.
The Protagorean approach, by contrast, is associated with left-wing politics, tolerance, and democracy. What’s beautiful is whatever we mostly call “beautiful”; what’s red is whatever we mostly call “red”; in the same way, what’s just or right is whatever we mostly call “just” or “right.” There is no elite of experts, everyone has a voice and, for example, if a large enough group self-identifies in some way then there is a presumption that they are that way. (Debates about sex and gender identities provide one illustration.)