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.)
The ultimate implications of the different approaches are, though, unclear. The supposedly progressive Protagorean has been accused by Bernard Williams in Truth and Truthfulness of making political argument look like a mere “battle of rhetorics.” In tying justice to the dominant consensus, he collapses the distinction between rational argument and brute manipulation or force and thereby short-circuits possibilities for meaningful disagreement or dissent. (A reported boast of one of George W Bush’s top advisors: “we are an empire now, we create our own reality.”) If rhetorical might is right—if there is no conceptual space for “speaking truth to power”—we are soon in an Orwellian world where the correctness of an opinion depends simply on whether those with rhetorical power hold it.
Similarly, Michael Lynch in his book True to Life suggests that we “on the progressive left have done ourselves a terrible disservice by rejecting the concept of objective truth –… Giving up on objective truth is giving in to those who would like to convince us that there is no difference between what is right and what they say is right, between lies and reality. It is not just a metaphysical mistake. It is a political one.”
The search for facts about justice that transcend power is subversive. It is no accident that Socrates was sentenced to death by the people of Athens for questioning the ultimate moral authority of their gods. Can we on the one hand insist on transcendent facts about justice, and on the other resist Plato’s own reliance on an esoteric elite with their use of lies, metaphors, or myths to inspire or placate the masses who don’t fully understand? Or should we concede, with the Protagoreans, that facts about justice are necessarily our own creation—and perhaps then focus on distributing the power to create these truths as equally as possible?
Seeking middle ground, Bernard Williams in Truth and Truthfulness cites this “critical principle”: “Suppose that of two parties in the society, one is advantaged over the other, in particular with respect to power; and suppose that there is a story which is taken to legitimate this distribution, a story which is at least professed by the advantaged party and is generally accepted by the disadvantaged; and suppose that the basic cause of the fact that the disadvantaged accept the story, and hence the system, is the power of the advantaged party: then the fact that they accept the system does not actually legitimate it, and pro tanto the distribution is unjust.”
Can the notions of differential power and advantage be understood prior to the target notion of justice? If those with least in the society were to recognise how their beliefs were brought about, through the operations of the media or education policy, say, who is to say that they would give them up? And if people retained their beliefs even after having understood how and why they came to hold them, would those beliefs then count, with respect to justice, as in some sense the last word?
Faced with a glut of opinion polls and referendums, it’s worth considering—albeit warily—the image of facts about justice that transcend belief (hypothetical or actual, expert or ordinary). Legitimate political power may require democratic consent, but perhaps one lesson of recent events is that legitimacy is not necessarily the same as justice.