The Common Good
BRING PHILOSOPHY TO LIFE
#9: The Common Good
As 2023 began, the U.S. news was flooded with reports of the difficulty of electing the Speaker of the House of Representatives by the new Republican majority. It took 15 ballots for Kevin McCarthy of California to be elected, and the initial price he paid was major concessions to a small minority of extremist Republicans such as Matt Gaetz of Florida, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania (The Associated Press, January 7, 2023). One of the concessions McCarthy made was “to reinstate a longstanding House rule that would allow any single member to call a vote to oust him from office” (AP, 1/7/23).
Although we have been hearing about the extreme political division in the U.S. for several years, this latest conflict seems to have a new wrinkle—we do not simply face a division (red states vs. blue states, progressives vs. conservatives, etc.). When members of a single political party disagree among themselves to the point of verging on a fistfight on the floor of the House of Representatives, something else seems to be emerging. Instead of a dualism, we seem to have a pluralism that spawns many different positions without a clear source of unity or anything like a common interest. Each member appears to have a singular, personal agenda, and the ideal of a common good for the party, say nothing of the country, has evaporated. Terms such as “nihilism” and “chaos” dominate the opinion segments of newspapers and news broadcasts, making clear the threat not only to democracy but to any form of organized government, whether it be monarchy, oligarchy, fascism, socialism, or any variation on the spectrum of possible ways of ruling large or small groups of people. In the current news, threats of a deadlock over the debt ceiling pose fears that such a standoff could crash the U.S. economy and do lasting damage throughout the globe: “This is the first major confrontation with the White House since Republicans took control of the House. GOP leaders have insisted on major spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit, which the United States has already hit, and a failure to reach a deal could lead to a first-ever government default and set off an economic calamity” (The Boston Globe, February 1, 2023).
Perhaps this is a good time to step back from the immediate context of this scramble for power and attention and think about the philosophical principles that make human life possible and desirable. Simple as it may sound, it is important to remember why we have governments at all. In Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Adeimantus approach the topic this way:
Socrates: As I understand it, a republic comes into existence out of human needs. We all want many things, but none of us is self-sufficient. Can you think of any other origin of a republic?
Adeimantus: None at all.
Socrates: Because we have many wants, many people are needed to provide for them; we need one kind of helper for one purpose and another kind for another purpose. When these helpers and partners come together in one place, we call that collection of people a republic.
Adeimantus: True. (Plato’s Republic, translated by Albert A. Anderson, Agora Publications, p. 369).
Plato’s characters proceed to ask about the best form of government by imagining an ideal republic that satisfies those human needs. First, let’s consider what sort of writing constitutes Plato’s Republic. It is not a philosophical essay, nor is it a political treatise. It is a form of poetry called “Socratic dialogue,” so I do not think we should take its content literally. Like any serious poetic work, it needs analysis and interpretation. But this passage offers a common principle that seems to make sense, no matter what form of government we create. All forms of republic are created by human beings, so we humans are responsible for the results.
Despite impediments and difficulties that inevitably arise, especially when republics grow, the goal in a democracy must be to promote the common good. In Book Eight of The Republic, Socrates and Glaucon examine an unattractive version of democracy that is judged not to be the best form of government. However, the basic principles that emerge in the dialectical process that unfolds over the ten books of the dialogue is consistent with the vision of democracy I have been discussing in this series. The dialectical process Plato’s dialogues foster require us, his readers and listeners, to engage in that process, not simply to read excerpts as if the truth can be captured in a digest or a sound bite. More important than the name we give to anything is the qualities and principles it manifests. That is true not only of democracy but also of the process of speaking and writing about it. One of Plato’s major contributions to this quest is his presentation and examination of a group of private teachers of rhetoric known as “sophists.” Even though they were not part of a formal school of thinkers, the various sophists shared some common characteristics that are identified and analyzed, usually by a clash with Plato’s character Socrates. If, as I believe, Plato’s poetry transformed historical figures into dramatic characters so they could promote his version of dialectic, it is important to distinguish between what the actual sophists such as Gorgias, Protagoras, Hippias, and Thrasymachus wrote and said and the words that come from their mouths in Plato’s dialogues. Socrates, too, was an actual person, but Plato’s character with that name should be distinguished from the person who went to the Agora and who, eventually, was executed by his fellow Athenians.
In fragments attributed to the historical Gorgias, for example, he claims (1) nothing exists, (2) that even if something did exist, we could not know it, and (3) even if we did know it, we could not communicate it. In other words, there is no reality and, therefore, there is no truth. Gorgias offered to teach rhetoric, the art of persuasion, so that his students could learn to present a case designed to persuade in courts, legislatures, and anywhere else where people make decisions. In the absence of truth and reality, this would give human beings a way to shape their beliefs and guide both their private and public decisions and actions. That guide is not reality or knowledge but opinion, which Gorgias said is the best we can do. Socrates disagrees.
Protagoras is best known for claim that “man is the measure of all things,” of things that are that they are and of things that are not that they are not. In harmony with Gorgias, he ignores truth and reality and focuses on persuasion. Protagoras taught his students “how to make the weaker case appear to be the stronger” so that they could make and implement laws and regulations that would promote the special interests of their clients, their constituents, or their patrons. In a similar vein, and for similar purposes, the historical Thrasymachus taught that justice is the advantage of the stronger, so he tutored his students in the practice of gaining and holding power.
To clarify the idea of “the common good,” let’s consider some passages from Plato’s Republic where sophists are distinguished from philosophers. I think this will be helpful for two reasons. First, in contemporary English usage “sophist” and “sophistry” are usually used as terms of derision but it is unclear what, exactly, is wrong. Second, and directly related to this series on democracy, on the surface Plato seems to link the sophists to democracy and thus opposes democracy. On the contrary, I believe it is the sophists who oppose and undermine democracy. In his conversation with Adeimantus, Socrates distinguishes between these private teachers and another group that seeks to indoctrinate and manipulate:
Socrates: Do you really think that individual sophists who teach privately can do that much harm? Is it not the people who say such things that are the worst sophists, the ones who indoctrinate all alike—whether young or old, male or female—and mold them in their own image through popular opinion?
Adeimantus: When do they do that?
Socrates: When they sit crowded together in a legislature, a law court, a theater, a military camp, or any other large gathering where they approve or disapprove of what is said or done with a loud uproar. They exaggerate their praise or blame by shouting or clapping, augmented by the echo from the rocks or the acoustics of any place where they are gathered. Will this not cause young people’s hearts to leap within them? How can even the best individual education withstand the flood of applause or condemnation and not be swept away by the current? Will this not instill in them the same opinions as the general public about what is good and what is bad, leading them to do what the crowd does and be like others in every respect?
Adeimantus: Yes, Socrates, necessity will compel them (Plato’s Republic, p. 492).
This passage brings to mind the so-called “populism” that pretends to be democratic but is, in truth, anti-democratic. It shuns the common good in favor of gaining power for a small group or even several groups that are determined to win at any cost, even if it shatters the world economic order and costs millions of lives.
Rather than seeking the common good, as one should expect in democracy, this so-called “populism” in its current form comes from people like Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the extremists have apparently taken the U.S. House of Representatives hostage. Roger Stone epitomizes this approach as he utilizes the worst version of sophistry. For example, on February 20, 2020, Roger Stone, a former advisor for President Donald Trump, was sentenced to 40 months in prison after being convicted of “lying to investigators under oath and trying to block witness testimony” (New York Times, 2/20/20). Those who have seen the 2017 documentary film Get Me Roger Stone will probably recall the disdain that Stone has for truth and reality and will quickly understand Stone’s claim that “those who say I have no . . . principles are losers, bitter losers.” What matters is winning, and that principle dominates everything else. The Stone documentary links that so-called “philosophy” with the driving force behind Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the way his presidency was conducted while he was in office and in his ongoing refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election that replaced him with President Biden. Steve Bannon provides another example of the kind of sophistry that has come to dominate public discourse in our time. He helped Donald Trump formulate and implement the idea of “fake news,” a term that undermines public trust in the media and helps replace truth and reality with persuasion and opinion.
Louis Menand, in the latest issue of The New Yorker, analyzes this phenomenon at great length. Here is his take on the emergence of the term “fake news”:
Almost as soon as Donald Trump took office, he started calling the news media “the enemy of the American people.” For a time, the White House barred certain news organizations, including the Times, CNN, Politico, and the Los Angeles Times, from briefings, and suspended the credentials of a CNN correspondent, Jim Acosta, who was regarded as combative by the President. “Fake news” became a standard White House response—frequently the only White House response—to stories that did not make the President look good. There were many such stories (Louis Menand, The New Yorker, February 6, 2023).
The historical Gorgias would not be surprised by this development. If truth and reality are replaced by rhetoric designed to only to persuade and acquire power, then access to and control of the media becomes the primary goal. This topic is so important, I will devote Blog #10 in this series to the role of the media in a democracy.
Plato distinguished between the “older sophists” (Gorgias, Protagoras, Hippias, and Thrasymachus) and the “new sophists” who not only use rhetoric to persuade but also put those ideas into action to promote their cause.
Socrates: And there is an even greater necessity to be mentioned.
Adeimantus: What is that?
Socrates: The actions these new sophists use when their words fail to persuade. Are you familiar with the kind of public educators who levy fines, take away civil rights, and impose the death penalty?
Adeimantus: I know them all too well (Plato’s Republic, p. 492).
These “new sophists” are still with us. They are precisely the kind of people who currently undermine the common good and do everything they can to promote what they believe is to their own advantage. Unfortunately, this is not limited to the U.S. House of representatives or even to the United States. We currently find similar actions in Brazil, in Iran, in Saudi Arabia, in Russia, in China, in North Korea, and elsewhere throughout the globe.
I believe that if properly interpreted we find Plato’s dialogues promoting and supporting values that are not only consistent with democracy but essential to democracy. Seeking the common good is one such value. Who has done more than Plato to present and defend the idea of universals such as goodness? By contrast, the sophists are not interested in universal values for the common good. Plato’s character Socrates explains how they do their job:
You might compare them with someone raising a mighty beast studying its moods and desires, learning how to approach it, handle it, and determining when and how it is hostile and friendly. They must discover the meaning of the various noises it makes and discern what sounds sooth or infuriate it when made by someone else. By constantly living with the beast, they acquire its lore, which they call wisdom. Then they organize it into a system and turn it into a craft that they teach to others. They have no idea of what they are teaching or whether the desires and decrees of the huge brute are good or bad, just or unjust, fair or foul, so they call whatever delights the beast good and whatever annoys it bad. Having never observed what is truly just and beautiful, they have no way to judge or explain their nature or the vast difference between what is good and what is necessary. Don’t you think these people are strange educators?
Adeimantus: Strange indeed (Plato’s Republic, p. 492)!