Protagoras: Two Pictures of Morality

The Review has embarked on a year-long project to publish a short piece on each dialogue in Plato’s corpus, one a week. We intend for this project to be a collaborative effort, featuring essays by undergraduate, graduate students, and professors alike. If you have thoughts on a dialogue, reach out with a submission to ucprboard@gmail.com!


Plato’s Protagoras formulates two pictures of morality. The first picture is a social picture of morality. This position is presented by the titular character Protagoras who frames moral virtue as an intrinsically social phenomenon ­– something that we have as natural creatures needing to live and work together from the cradle to the grave. The second picture is a rational picture of morality, which we get from Socrates near the end of the dialogue. He suggests that all moral virtue boils down to using knowledge to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Pre-philosophically, we have all sorts of reasons to think these two pictures stand in irrevocable tension. The social picture makes morality look like something primal and natural whereas the rational picture makes it seem like morality necessarily requires rigorous education and training. The social picture makes morality out as something democratic, demanding input from all of us collectively bound up in complicated social relationships whereas the rational picture makes morality look like something best left to technocrats who can solve fancy differential equations to optimize the social good. The social pictures make morality look like something pluralistic, with competing values and commitments blowing us in different directions with no obvious solutions available whereas the rational picture makes morality into something unified, with all moral decision-making reducible to a single pain-pleasure axis.

When faced with such a tension, one answer is to take one of these two pictures as basic and explain why we are attracted to the other. Like Hobbes, for example, we can take the rational picture of morality as basic and then try to explain social obligation in rational terms, without needing the social picture of morality. But the central myth in Protagoras provides us with compelling philosophical reasons to be dubious about this approach. In this myth, two Titan brothers, Epimetheus (“afterthought”) and Prometheus (“forethought”), are assigned by the gods to create all species. Epimetheus carefully distributes balanced natural tools and capacities to all the animals so all can survive ­– but forgets to give human beings anything, so they are left defenseless. Prometheus is able to steal technical know-how to give it to humankind, which allows humanity to develop language and survive. But human beings slowly start to perish as groups devolve into chaos, and right before humankind is about to perish full-stop, Zeus intervenes: He gifts us civic and ethical intelligence, a sense of right and wrong, and only after this are we able to thrive as a species. Here, Protagoras emphasizes that nearly all human activity rests on morality as a foundation. It is impossible for a bunch of egoistic individuals to create moral obligations because shared moral obligation is necessary for our very survival as natural beings. Prior to shared moral obligations, we would turn into wolf-food well before we could begin to form a social contract. That is, for natural facts about what is means to be human, the social picture of morality must be in some sense basic. Our shared bonds with others had to have been there all along from the beginning.

On the other hand, some might respond to the two pictures of morality by taking the social picture as basic as opposed to the rational picture ­– but Socrates notes this runs into a whole host of problems related to how morality can figure into our day-to-day lives in the way is does. Though of course we often find ourselves wanting things we know to be bad, this alienated form of consciousness is parasitic on a more unified idea of consciousness: In a basic instance, for example, I both want iced coffee and take iced coffee to be good in a single mental act. Without connecting morality to our motivational states, it seems impossible to make sense of this unity between what we want and what we take to be good. The rational picture of morality can capture this unity and thus can make sense of how morality can have a major presence in our psychological lives when we try to make decisions. But if morality is fundamentally about caring for others in a transcendent sense and is removed from our more mundane motivations, then it seems like a lucky accident for us petty, self-centered creatures to ever do what morality requires. Without the rational picture of morality, it thus seems impossible for morality to have a grip in most of our lives. And if some of us happen to become moral, it seems like a mystery or a fluke how practical, self-centered beings like us could grasp moral truths. While the social picture allows us to explain how we can naturally have the moral connects to others that we need as members of a social species, it makes morality look strange or inaccessible when we try to make sense about it first-personally as something that can be involved in our most mundane decision-making. We thus need the rational picture (or something like it) to make sense of how morality can play a core part in our lives as the often self-absorbed and shallow living things that we are. We hence are in a philosophical muddle – there are two seemingly contradictory pictures about morality which both are necessary for making sense of how morality can play the role it does in human life.

Plato, however, in Protagoras, gives us the resources to begin to work our way out of this muddle through clarifying why the social and rational pictures of morality do not stand in conflict despite our earlier intuition. The first tension between our two pictures had to do with the social picture making morality look natural, while the rational picture make morality look learned. But as Protagoras notes, it is a mistake to suppose that what is natural to us has nothing to do with learning. Human life begins in media res ­– we are born into communities with other people and from the very beginning we are inculcated into an ethical practice. Yet all the while, this inculcation is part of our lives as natural beings and is there from the start. Learning morality is like learning our first language in the sense of being something we naturally do when thrown into social situations. Morality thus can both be learned and natural.

Our second tension had to do with the social picture framing morality as democratic, as something we all have a role in, whereas the rational picture makes morality seem like it is best left to experts. Yet here Protagoras again suggests this tension rests on a mistaken supposition: that only the privileged few people can be experts. We cannot offshore our moral problems to some set of moral experts because we are all, in a sense, moral experts. We all, by and large, have a shared expertise as technicians of moral practice, which is one reason why moral life takes place democratically. The mistake is to think expertise in morality looks like expertise in other areas, like say medicine or carpentry. Knowledge of morality, like knowledge of natural language but unlike knowledge of building chairs, is something in which we all participate. Though perhaps we have subtle differences in our knowledge of morality, with some of us more knowledgeable in certain dimensions of moral practice, this does not mean that most of us have no moral expertise. This is just akin to some doctors knowing more about the brain and others knowing more about the liver. But all the while, just as it makes sense to consult a wide range of medical experts given their distinct sets special skills, the same can be said of consulting moral experts: this explains why democratic concerns can reasonably be part of moral practice, all the while conceding that moral practice requires a certain expertise.

Our third tension too rests on a specific type of confusion, though this one is identified by Socrates. The social picture of morality makes a certain pluralism of moral values seem plausible ­with competing norms and commitments point us in different direction with no obvious answers, whereas the rational picture makes it seem like there are definite answers to moral questions. But Socrates points out this rests on a confusion about context: When we think of our context locally, about what is happening here and now in the short-term, there can be all sorts of contradictions and competing impulses in moral life. It is precisely when we perceive moral questions through this narrow context that it seems like there are no good answers to certain moral problems: It seems like either I have to lie to my sister and be dishonest or make her needlessly angry and there is no good answer as to what I should do. But when we widen our context and think about what practical demands require of us holistically and which practices taken together lead to a good sort of life, the apparent contradictions will begin to go away. Though here and now it is hard for me to figure out whether it is okay to lie to my sister, this does not mean there is an irreconcilable problem in our moral framework. For all we know, this simply means making moral decisions is hard ­–– where this hardness is one of perspective-taking: We have to think in a wide enough way so as to take in all the relevant stakes. I personally am skeptical that all moral problems are resolvable by thinking widely enough but I certainly think that a lot of them are, and Socrates is right that often what locally looks an irrevocable tension between two principles can often be resolved by looking at the wider context.

In closing, I want to suggest that if we follow Protagoras far enough, we will begin to see that the social and rational pictures of moral life are not only compatible but, in a deep sense, interconnected. While Socrates in Protagoras suggests a proto-utilitarian principle that all morality cashes out in considerations of pleasure and pain, this need not be construed as a denial that we have fundamental ethical obligations to each other simply on the basis of our shared personhood. Rather, respecting each other and caring about each other as fellow individuals is built into the very structure of rational deliberations. The space of reasons – where rational thinking place ­– is only possible as a space of shared human deliberation which has certain ethical norms (I take these to include valuing agency and animate life as ends in themselves) built into its very structure. Within this space of reasons, we can begin to deliberate about complicated ethical questions. That is, reasoning only makes sense as something animate beings can do together – and thus has  certain social and moral structure dimensions built into it through and through. Perhaps the only way to come to agreement about certain tricky questions (where fundamental rights are in tension) is to look at pleasure and pain consequences as a way to find consensus. But our fundamental moral obligations to each other are all there as the basic framework within which human life and deliberation is happening. Even when we seem to argue in the most detached ways (say about the economics of single-payer healthcare or what philosophy classes to take), all our conversations are still downstream of the basic shared ethical commitment we have to one another as fellow people doing the best we can with what Epimetheus, Prometheus, and Zeus gave us.

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