August 15, 2011

Plato and the England Riots

Plato argues in the Republic that the human psyche consists of three 'parts' or motivational sets, which exist - or should exist - in a definite hierarchy. First, there is the rational part which desires truth and reality and which should rule the psyche as a whole (and note how the rational part has its own specific, rational desires; it is not just a means/ends calculator, a Humean 'slave of the passions'). Secondly, there is the thumos, the spirited part which is concerned with the individual's position in the world and which desires honour, status and success; though it involves self-respect, this self-respect depends in part on the respect that others show us. Its role is to support the decrees of reason concerning what things and actions are truly honourable and constitute true success. Lastly, there is the appetitive part which desires food, drink, sex, material goods and the money that may be needed to acquire them; its role is to do what reason (supported by the thumos) tells it to do: Plato makes a distinction between 'necessary' appetites needed for the survival of self and species, and 'unnecessary' appetites, which are simply self-indulgence.

When all three 'parts' are performing their proper roles, the psyche will be in a harmonious state which Plato identifies both with moral excellence and with flourishing (eudaimonia is often tranlated as 'happiness', but 'flourishing' is more accurate). The good life is the rational life, in the fullest and richest sense of 'reason'.

But this internal psychic harmony is almost impossible to achieve in a degenerate society. This is for two linked reasons. Firstly, the individual will not receive the quality of education needed for reason to develop and be able to take control in the individual's psyche. And in the absence of rational guidance, either the thumos or the appetites will take control. Furthermore, the absence of rational guidance means that, whether the thumos rules the appetites or is ruled by them, it will seek to gain honour and success and status simply by doing and acquiring the things that the degenerate society values. And if the corrupt society values electronic goods and designer trainers, such items will be sought not merely to satisfy the unchecked unnecessary appetites, but the unguided thumos and its yearning for status as well. We all wish to count for something.

Nor is this all. Plato would point out that strong appetites for material goods, and such a strong belief that they bestow status and self-worth, are unlikely to be confined to particular pockets of society, to particular postcodes or socio-economic groups. These strong appetites and beliefs arise precisely because people can see that this is the way status is acquired throughout that society as a whole. Plato would point out that there is, in respect of basic motivation (though not the law), little difference between the looting in London and Birmingham and Manchester and elsewhere, and the greed recently (and in some cases still) manifested by some bankers and politicians - greed which has also caused huge harm to the country as a whole. The bankers and politicians who behaved irresponsibly, and in some cases illegally (and of course that is a minority, just as only a minority of those in Tottenham and elsewhere were involved in the riots and looting), came from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. But whatever their origins, their jobs had put them, as adults, in a privileged position. A venal desire for short-term gratification is demonstrably not confined to any particular class, colour or religion.

Plato's response was to argue for a two-fold approach. There must, of course, be individual responsibilty and individuals must be held to account: one cannot use one's background as an excuse. But there must also be a willingness on the part of the whole of society to consider its values and the attitudes, actions and possessions to which it gives status. Each of us needs to consider whether we have, even unwittingly, helped foster the warped conceptions of value and status that currently obtain. We need to consider what we write, read and buy, the music and lyrics which we create and to which we listen, the programmes that we make and watch. Plato's proposals in the Republic (or at least the proposals he puts into the mouth of the character of Socrates) for the radical reformation of society are far too totalitarian and authoritarian for most of us to stomach, including me. Nor do most of us believe in the Form of the Good, on which he wants the reformatiopn to be based. But that does not detract from the brilliance of Plato's analysis of society's ills, and his clear recognition that, if we want to diminish looting and the abuse of our banks and taxes, we have to pay far less attention, and accord far less status, to the supposed 'goods' that such activities seek (I suspect it is unlikely that anyone stole a copy of the Republic). Our current predicament is not just a case of the unnecessary appetites run amok; it is a case of the unguided thumos run amok as well. Our society needs to scrutinize itself without flinching from some unpalatable truths, and then seek to renew itself, including its educational institutions, in ways which will allow for true psychic harmony to be achieved and maintained. As long as rewards and status are given, and can so clearly be seen to be given, to selfishness and greed, we cannot pretend that the riots are nothing to do with us.

September 10, 2010

Is Philosophy Dead? Stephen Hawking and The Grand Design

I have just returned from a wonderful holiday canoeing in a Canadian wilderness, and awaiting me was a request from a BBC Radio 4 programme inviting me to defend philosophy from Stephen Hawking's (with Leonard Mlodinow) polemical attack on it in The Grand Design.  I declined on the grounds that I would not have time to read the book before going on air.  But I now have read it, and here are some initial thoughts.  I do not pretend to be a scientist (though I have discussed Hawking's work with scientists), but I do pay more serious attention to science than Hawking appears to do to philosophy.  Nor do I practise a religion, though I find myself increasingly frustrated by trite dismissals of religion.

The Grand Design (GD) is altogether a very strange work.  It claims to be a sequel to A Brief History of Time (BHT), but whereas BHT  ended by claiming that 'if we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we should know the mind of God', GD asserts (p.180) that 'Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing ... Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exist, why we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.'

We will come back to God, and the divine, and the unsatisfactory nature of Hawking's argument in these final paragraphs.  Let us now turn to p. I, where, perhaps encouraged by an agent or publicist,  Hawking declares that ' ... philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.  Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.'  There then follows a very sketchy run-through of ancient Greek cosmological enquiry, a run-through which is simplistic, superficial and at times inaccurate (for example: Aristotle posits 5 elements, not 4 (as claimed on p.51), adding aether to earth, air, fire and water).  The basic assumptions are a) that ancient philosophers are simply asking the same kind of questions about the material construction and origins of the cosmos as Hawking is, and b) that philosophers are simply doing badly and naively what contemporary science - particularly as exemplified by M-theory, of which more anon - does very well.  Indeed, these assumptions about philosophy and philosophers pervade the whole work (in so far as philosophy is mentioned at all, which is surprisingly little given the challenging statement on p.1): the basic story is one of intellectual progression in a particular set of questions - a progression which has left scientifically unschooled philosophers  (i.e pretty much every philosopher, in Hawking's view) limping along behind. 

It's an extraordinarily ill-informed view of what  philosophy is, even if we leave to one side the vital work that philosophers like Zeno did in kicking off mathematics.  What of the valuable work in, for example, ethics and political theory and aesthetics and philosophy of mind that philosophers do when they have studied the supposed 'facts' with which scientists present them?  (And history suggests that scientific 'facts' are in any case provisional and vulnerable to massive paradigm shifts.)  What of the undoubted and unprovisional fact that many of these philosophers are highly knowledgeable about the area of science relevant to their philosophical enquires, be it evolutionary biology, stem cell research or neuroscience?  Above all, what of the fact that philosophers are often asking different kinds of questions from the ones that Hawking asks?  Aristotle says that one can look for four different kinds of 'cause' or 'reason'  (aitia) when examining any thing or fact or state of affairs: material, formal, efficient and final.  I suspect that if Aristotle were to read The Grand Design he might suggest that Hawking has concentrated on the material and efficient explanations of the cosmos, and simply not fully understood the force of questions about possible formal and final explanations.  To say that the law of gravity allows the universe to create itself from nothing won't do: is the law of gravity supposed to be 'nothing'?  Why is there a law of gravity and not no law of gravity? Appeals to M-theory will not satisfy either.  Quite apart from the fact that this theory is by no means polished or finalised (at the moment it's just an unproven candidate for the Theory of Everything that some scientists such as Hawking desire and it's hard to see how it could ever be tested), appeals to M-theory are only pushing the problem upstairs: even if all the maths eventually works out, we can still ask 'Why M-theory and not nothing?'  This does not mean that the answer is necessarily a designer God - though there is still space for such a conception of God; nor does it necessarily mean that the orderly physical workings of the cosmos are the divine, as the Stoics might claim (the Stoics are only briefly mentioned once, on p.23, and not in this context; Hawking cursorily mentions defining God as the laws of nature on p.29 but does not expand) - though again, there is space for such a view.  It does not even mean that there has to be any answer at all to the search for a 'final' cause of the cosmos; but humans can and will still ask the question, and some of us will feel that Hawking has not understood what such questioners are asking.  If there is an answer to this kind of 'why?' question, it will not be part of the chain of cause and effect.  Hawking's claim that God is not needed to 'light the blue touch paper' is beside the point. 

In short, The Grand Design does not demonstrate that philosophy is dead, or that philosophy is unnecessary; on the contrary, it unwittingly reveals on every page how important it is that philosophers and scientists continue to talk to each other.  And for those who believe in a divine being, there is nothing in The Grand Design which need disturb most versions of such a belief.

Dirac increasingly marvelled that physical laws could be expressed in mathematical equations that he regarded as beautiful.  Although the content of such equations has changed, the general sentiment is one with which Plato would have been entirely happy.

August 15, 2010

Favourite Political Tracks

Back in July I was interviewed by Chris Jury for his programme Agitpop on North Cotswold Community Radio (NCCR), and asked to select the 10 'political' records that have moved/influenced me the most.  As you can see, I decided to interpret 'political' in the broadest, largely Aristotelian sense.  You can now listen to the programme in full at  Here are the tracks I chose, in no particular order:

Nina Simone: Aint Got No (I Got Life)

Nina Simone: Mississippi Goddam

Verdi: Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves

Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows

Barry McGuire: Eve of Destruction

John Lennon: Working Class Hero

Emmylou Harris: Deeper Well

Clash: London Calling

Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter

Beethoven: Ode to Joy

In the event, there wasn't time for the Beethoven, and we ended with Gimme Shelter. But that proved a terrific finale, with its move from the extreme fragility of human life and happiness - so devastatingly captured in the scene from Apocalypse Now where it is used as a soundtrack - to the tentative possibility of love and redemption at the end.  Overall, I wanted a rousing mix of the human spirit enduring and ultimately soaring in the face of adversity - Aint Got No (I Got Life); Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves; Deeper Well, coruscating anger against injustice and hypocrisy - Mississippi Goddam; Eve of Destruction -and sly, sardonic wit - Everybody Knows; Working Class Hero.  London Calling is, admittedly, not exactly a political song - certainly in its lyrics - but I can never hear its raw. pounding energy without wanting to get up and change the world, at least for a bit.  It would be my choice to open the London Olympics.

So what are your favourite 'political' songs (interpreted as loosely as you like)?  Do let me know via this blog or Twitter (

May 10, 2010

Cabinet of Philosopher–Rulers: Final Results of Vote #voteplato

So, this is what the Cabinet of Philosopher-Rulers looks like now that all the votes have come in.  As you can see, the list proves that, in philosophy, seriousness and a sense of fun can happily co-exist.  You will also see that I decide to be inclusive re. who can count as a philosopher.  Most of the philosophers who won Cabinet places also received nominations for other posts:

Prime Minister: J.S.Mill easily beat off Spinoza.

Home Secretary: Hume clinched it over Voltaire and Hobbes

Chancellor: Aristotle narrowly defeated Marx 

Foreign Secretary: de Beauvoir fended off Burke and Machiavelli

Defence: Russell (the dove beat off hawk and military theorist von Clausewitz)

Education: Socrates romped home on this one. Rosa Luxembourg was his nearest rival

Arts and Culture: Zizek (the only living philosopher to make the Cabinet)

Industry: Adam Smith narrowly defeated Marx

Work and Pensions: Marx finally made it here

Science: Hypatia defeated David Armstrong

Attorney General: Rawls beat off Locke and Foucault

Health: Nietzsche edged out Heraclitus.  Interesting choice ...

Sport: Camus' footballing prowess gained him victory here

Agriculture: Aquinas

Environment: forest fan Heidegger

Chief Whip: Wittgenstein -  perhaps as a result of alleged poker-wielding confrontation with Popper?

Transport: Zeno.  Of course.

Women's Affairs: Kant - who would, I am sure, be delighted at the news. 

Housing: barrell-dwelling Diogenes

Minister for the Cabinet Office: de Tocqueville 

Scotland: Cicero.  Gosh - but perhaps voters were mischievously thinking of Scottish singer David Cicero

Northern Ireland: Francis Hutcheson

Wales: Sir Henry Jones

Hobbes received a number of nominations for 5 different posts, but didn't win a Cabinet place.  Baudrillard, Popper, Burke, Nussbaum and Frank were also unlucky to lose out.

117 different philosophers received nominations, including 25 living philosophers. 18 women were nominated.

So what do you think?  Would this Cabinet do any better than our current political masters (still Labour as I write this, though who knows who will be in charge tomorrow?)

And finally - many thanks to all of you who voted and discussed - I have really enjoyed all your contributions and they have made for a rich and intriguing debate.

May 02, 2010

U.K. General Election #voteplato Poll Update

Well, this is all proving very interesting and things are heating up nicely.  With just over 3 voting days to go to elect an alternative Cabinet of Philosopher-Rulers, over 100 different philosophers have been nominated and the race is on for the key posts.  Mill is still in the lead for PM, with Spinoza, Hayek, Aristotle, Bentham, Bernard Williams and Sue James also in the running.  Socrates leads for education and Hypatia for Science (with David Armstrong not far behind).  Hume and Hobbes are battling it out for Home Secretary, with Sorell  and Parfitt also in the mix, and there's a classic tussle between hawks and doves in Defence, with both Clausewitz and Russell in close contention.  Rawls and Locke are both showing strongly for Attorney General, though Philippa Foot is making a late run.   Amartya Sen is a possible for Chancellor, Zizek, Benjamin and Adorno for Culture.  Adam Smith and Marx are in a hard-fought battle for Business and Industry.  Bookchin looks promising for Environment and Zeno - of course - leads for Transport.  The earliest philosopher nominated is Heraclitus, and current philosophers include Sen, Zizek, Chomsky, Dworkin, Walzer, Tom Sorell, Raimond Gaita, Tim Williamson,  Sue James, David Armstrong, Onora O'Neill, Philippa Foot, Martha Nussbaum, Joan Tronto, Judith Butler and Seyla Benhabib.

So do keep continuing to post your nominations - either on the blog or on Twitter using the hashtag #voteplato.  Voting closes on May 5th and the results will be announced on Election Day.

And then I'm off to take part in the Philosophers' Football Match on May 9th Wish me luck and PLEASE tell me the offside rule ...

April 01, 2010

U.K. General Election – #voteplato

Vote Plato! Plato’s Government of Philosophers

A UK general election is looming and, for those of us who are UK voters, politicians are getting increasingly desperate for our votes … and I shall also be asking you for your votes, for at the end of this blog I shall be inviting you all to vote for your own alternative Cabinet of Philosopher Rulers. But first: who would Plato vote for if he were around today?

That’s easy: he wouldn’t vote because he didn’t believe in democracy. Certainly not the participatory democracy (if you were an Athenian male citizen) of the Athens of his day (which had, of course, put his beloved Socrates to death), and his arguments against democracy suggest he would have been no more sympathetic to our representative version. His arguments, in brief, are these:

1) The majority of people are characterized by their non-rational appetites (for e.g food, drink, sex, material possessions and the money needed to acquire them).  If left to their own devices and not guided by others, they will not only be characterized by such appetites, they will be ruled by them. As democracies are constitutions where the majority rule, then democracies will be constitutions at the mercy of non-rational appetites. The reason this matters so much becomes clearer when viewed in the context of Plato’s psychology (as expressed in the Republic). Our individual psyche is comprised of three parts: as well as the appetitive part, there is a rational part which desires truth and reality, and a spirited part which cares about worldly ambition and success. Both our individual well-being and our virtue depend on our being ruled by our rational part.

2) Because of the above, Plato also believes that democracies can be a breeding ground for tyranny. Democracies can be swayed by the oratory of popular demagogues and not realise when the demagogues start to turn themselves into tyrants who will actually undermine democratic freedoms. Furthermore, one can even view democracies themselves as a kind of tyranny – the tyranny of the irrational majority over the rational minority.  

These are not views, of course, that I personally endorse, though I believe that Plato’s critique of democracy is a salutary reminder of how democracies can go astray and how vigilant we always need to be against various forms of tyranny. But what is of relevance for the coming election is the view put forward in the Republic that states should be ruled by philosophers. So what I would love you all to do is to nominate one or more philosophers, past or present, for an alternative Cabinet. You can either just propose a name or names, or you can also say what post your candidate should have. Your proposals could be entirely serious e.g Hobbes for Home Secretary or they could be more mischievous e.g Zeno for Minister for Transport. The idea is both to have some fun and to consider whether any past or present philosophers might actually be/have been any good at such jobs.

If you want to take part in this bit of electoral philosophical fun, post your nominations, votes or thoughts on Twitter and simply add the hashtag

#voteplato to your tweet.

I have a team of three election returning officers poised to monitor the process and I will produce for the blog a more detailed roundup of the nominations after a week’s votes are in – more frequent reports will follow as the race hots up. We will close our philosophical poll on the day before the UK election is held and declare the final results on the UK general election day.

February 13, 2010

Question: Plato on Love

What is the definition of erotic love?  What are its origins, functions, aims and effects?  Are some kinds of erotic love better than others?  What is the relationship between erotic love and friendship?  Why do we fall in love with the individuals that we do, and is it either possible or desirable to transfer these erotic attachments onto other objects of desire?  What happens to the identity of both lovers and love if love is consummated?

Plato has much to say on all these questions, particularly in his dialogues the Symposium and the Phaedrus (both widely available in many translations; the Penguin translations are fine).  Over the next few weeks we'll be exploring some of the views put forward by characters in the dialogues, and also asking whether Plato gives us any clues as to which views are preferable.

First, though, I would welcome your definitions of erotic love.

And though much of Plato's analysis of romantic and erotic love is beady-eyed, to say the least, here are a couple of quotes (from a poetic translation of 1914) to get you in the mood for Valentine's Day.

'Well, when one of them ... happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other's side for a single moment.  These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another.  No-one could imagine this to be a [solely] sexual connection, or that such alone could be the reason why each rejoices in the other's company with so eager a zest: obviously the soul of each is wishing for something else that it cannot express ...' (Symposium 192c-d; translation adapted from W.R.M.Lamb)

And a powerful passage from the Phaedrus which describes how the soul of the lover starts to grow wings in the presence of his beloved:

'And as he looks upon him, a reaction from his shuddering comes over him, with sweat and unwonted heat: for as the effluence of beauty enters him through the eyes, he is warmed; the effluence moistens the germ of the feathers, and as he grows warm, the parts from which the feathers grow, which were before hard and choked, and prevented the feathers from sprouting, become soft, and as the nourishment streams upon him, the quills of the feathers swell and begin to grow from the roots over all the form of the soul; for it was once all feathered.'(Phaedrus 251a-b; translated W.R.M.Lamb)

Happy Valentine's Day!

December 24, 2009

Response: Ethics and Money Part 3 (Plato's Contribution)

Amongst other things, Mandelson wants University Degrees to be more directed to contributing to the economy.  It is, of course, perfectly reasonable for there to be a public debate about how publicly-funded Universities contribute to the public good.  Nevertheless, three questions immediately occur:

1) How is 'economy' to be defined?

2) How does the economy of a state fit in with the overall well-being of the state?

3) How is contribution to the economy to be assessed, and by whom? Can it always be quantitatively measured?  (The answer to this will naturally depend on how one answers 1) above.)

If it turns out that these three questions have not been fully thought through, then I would recommend a little Plato ...

In Plato's Republic, a dialogue in which the character of Socrates outlines what he claims is the development of an  ideally just state from scratch, money is introduced fairly early on (in 371b in Book 2) to facilitate the exchange of basic goods and services.  If each human has to produce everything required to satisfy even their basic material needs, life would be almost impossibly hard: we would each have to produce not only our own food, shelter and clothing, but also all the tools needed to produce these things, and even the tools to make the tools.  So it makes sense to specialise in different trades and exchange the products, and money is the best means of facilitating this exchange.  The function of money is thus to make life easier and provide us with more leisure.  It is invented by humans as an efficient means of satisfying certain basic needs.

The trouble, as Plato sees it, is that human psychology makes it very difficult to keep money as the efficient, labour-saving tool that it was designed to be.  This is for three main reasons:

a) Our appetites are essentially unlimited - they do not just aim to satisfy our basic physical needs but want more and more goods and goodies - so our appetite for money will also be unlimited

b)  This would be bad enough, but it's made worse by the fact that the things that our appetites desire are often in limited supply - so conflict can break out in the struggle to obtain them.  At Republic 373e we are told that the origin of war is the same as that of most evil - greed.  And in another dialogue, Phaedo, the message is even blunter: 'all wars are made to get money' (66c).  And we may lose these wars and struggles; they may end up depriving us of the very thing they were designed to obtain in the first place - money.  This seems to be one of the warnings embedded in the Atlantis legend at the end of Plato's Critias.

c)  In Plato's psychology, the desires for e.g. food and drink and the desire for the money needed to obtain them all belong to the same appetitive 'part' of the psyche.  But we can quickly start desiring money for its own sake (particularly as money so often has symbolic value, as we have already seen in Parts 1 and 2 of 'Ethics and Money'), and not just as a means to satisfy other desires, and this desire to hang on to our money and gloat over it can prevent us from buying the things that would satisfy those other desires.  So there are often internal contradictions in our desire for money. 

Fortunately, Plato also holds that in the ideally just psyche this internally contradictory and essentially insatiable appetitive part, bent on goods in short supply, is to be ruled by another part - a rational part which has its own rational desires for truth and reality.  Our desire for and pursuit of money should fit in with a bigger picture of the good life based on reason.

This is not, however, the view of one of the founding fathers of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, who holds that humans are ruled by appetitive desire and seek their own individual appetitive gain (though he does admittedly believe that if trade and markets are managed properly, the pursuit of private goals can have public benefit).  David Hume, too, argues that reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.  Modern rational choice theory can look as if it is based on the same assumptions.

So; the question we have to ask ourselves is: how many kinds of desire do humans possess, and how many of these can be served by money?  It is not until we know what we think about this that we - or Mandelson - can answer questions 1) and 2) above.

December 13, 2009

Response: Ethics and Money Part 2

The first thing to do when considering the role of money in our life is to work out how much we need to pay the basic bills;, the second is to work out how much we want (in a number of philosophical systems, of course (such as that of Epicurus), the goal is to match our wants to our basic needs; we'll come back to this).  But these two tasks are complicated by the fact that in our culture money is not just a means of purchasing goods and services, but also possesses considerable symbolic value.

So a key question is: when I want to buy something, what is it that I ultimately want to obtain?  For example, I may want to buy a bicycle because I want to get fitter, or to reduce my carbon footprint (or both).  I may want to buy my niece an expensive present because I think it will make her happy, or because I want her to love me (or both).  I may want to invest in gold because I think it will provide me with financial security in turbulent times, or because the investment will make me feel that I am successful (or both).  I may want to buy a sports car because I would love the physical sensation of driving it, or because I want others to admire or envy me, or because I think it will make me seem more attractive (or all of the above!).

The next question, therefore, is: how important are these ultimate aims to me?

Then: if they really are important, is money the only, or the best, means of achieving them?  For example: if my aim is to make my niece happy and/or to strengthen her love for me, could these aims be better achieved by giving her some of my time rather than an expensive present?

If I still really feel that a) my ultimate aim is important and that b) spending money on this particular product or service is the only, or the best, means of obtaining it, then I finally need to ask myself whether, even so, buying the product or service would in fact satisfy my need or want?  Is this particular need or want (for love, say, or a sense of security, or the admiration of others) insatiable or satiable?  If it seems to be the first, is it really insatiable, or does it just appear that way to me because I am conceiving it in the wrong way, or because I have been trying to satisfy it by the wrong means?  

If the need or desire really is genuinely insatiable, would I perhaps be better off trying to rid myself of it entirely rather than trying to obtain more and more money in a fruitless bid to satisfy it?  Or could I perhaps learn to accept that some needs and desires are intrinsically insatiable, and decide only to try to accomodate them to a certain degree but no more?

Next time we'll look at some of the things Plato has to say on these issues. 

November 27, 2009

Response: Ethics and Money Part 1

Firstly, there is certainly no tension between ethics and money, if ethics is interpreted as involving questions about how to live and what sort of person to be.  In a money-based economy, we all need enough money to satisfy basic needs if we are to survive; we probably also need enough money to satisfy some non-basic desires as well, if we are not simply to survive but to lead a good life.  Working out what these basic needs are may well be an area of dispute; deciding which non-basic desires merit satisfying assuredly will (we'll be coming back to this).  So we all need either to make money, or to obtain it by some other means.  And the ways in which we make or obtain money themselves are part of how we live and who we are, and may be done in ways which increase or decrease our own overall well-being and/or which increase or decrease the well-being of others.

But we do not just have to make or otherwise obtain money in order to satisfy at least some of our needs and desires.  We also have to spend it (or use the products which others have bought for us), and the way we spend money is also an ethical issue.  How was the product produced or made?  What are the working conditions of those involved in its production?  What is the environmental impact of its production, transport, marketing, use and disposal?  Should we buy from local sources?  What is going to be the overall impact of the product on our happiness or the happiness of others?  How are we going to find the time to work these things out when we are rushing round the supermarket before picking up our children from school?!

For almost all of us, the making and spending of money will also involve a current bank account, and most of us will also need to borrow from and save in banks and building societies at various stages of our life.  Some of us will also choose to invest e.g. in shares or gilts or property.  So there will also be ethical considerations connected with the terms on which we save, borrow or invest, and the nature of the bank or company with which we are dealing.

So, on the one hand, money undoubtedly plays a key role in our ethical life, and given this, it is strange how little time most of us spend thinking about how best to earn, spend, save, borrow and invest it, in ways that will increase our well-being and perhaps the well-being of others too.  It is also strange how comparatively little attention is given to such matters in most schools (though there are some commendable exceptions, and the situation is slowly changing for the better).  Given this lack of attention to the bigger picture of how money fits in to the good life, it is perhaps not surprising how many unintentional anomalies there are in our thinking and practice e.g someone may say that they think money does not buy happiness and that being wealthy can be dangerous, yet exhaust themselves trying to make money to leave to their children, or they may say that they think investing in shares is wrong without bearing in mind that the banks they use or companies they buy from are doing exactly that.  Nor is it surprising how many rows couples have about money (some of which, of course, are caused by events which are out of their control, but some could be avoided with more discussion and planning).

On the other hand, most of us (as I suggested last week) only want money because we think it can further other ends, yet spend a huge proportion of our waking lives trying to make the stuff that we (mostly) only want because of something else ... And we may further feel trapped in jobs that we hate, and end up feeling intense resentment and frustration.

So our current relation with money in the west is confused and conflicted.  Next week we'll look at whether we can start to clarify the situation (using Plato for some help), and whether we can take any steps to make money work for us, rather than the other way round.


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  • @ Ivor, Jowett's trans. "...there is laid up a pattern of it, methinks, which he who desires may beh… by W Lindsay Wheeler on this entry
  • @W Lindsay Wheeler: Plato's "ideal" state is portrayed as perhaps a paradigm laid up in heaven (end … by Ivor Ludlam on this entry
  • Excellent, this is always refreshing to use the pre–moderns to analyse modern and post–modern proble… by Shenpen on this entry
  • First of all, Plato's "ideal" state did exist! It's called S–P–A–R–T–A. (Morgenstern, cited in Mülle… by W Lindsay Wheeler on this entry

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