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Politics

Polemarchus’ Concession

In Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ refinement of Cephalus’ definition of justice is “speaking the truth and paying your debts”, which Socrates suggests to be wrong (331 d).  This however is objected by Polemarchus, claiming that, according to the poet Simonides, his father’s characterization is fitting; at this point, being the superficial man Plato portrays, Cephalus leaves the conversation (331 d).  Thus being the heir to Cephalus’ argument (and wealth), Polemarchus is bid by Socrates to elaborate upon his claim, offering a counterexample (331 e).  Socrates asks if justice is repayment of one’s debt, then such a definition should hold in all cases; however, Socrates enquires if a person were to ask a friend to keep a weapon, should the friend return the weapon even if the friend asks for it “when he is not in his right senses” (331 e – 332a).

Polemarchus replies this is not the case, instead refining his meaning to be “a friend ought always to do good to a friend, and never evil” (332 a).  Socrates then asks what of enemies, in which Polemarchus replies they are also to receive what is owed; instead of good, enemies deserve evil (332 b).  Thus Socrates refines Cephalus’ and Polemarchus’ definitions, equating “debt” with “giving to each man what is proper to him” (332 c).  Socrates then asks “what due and proper thing is given by medicine” and cookery, in which Polemarchus replies “drugs and meat and drink” and “[s]easoning of food” respectively (332 c-d).  Further, Socrates asks who is able to do good and evil in times of sickness, and who is likewise able during a sea voyage; Polemarchus replies a physician and ship pilot (332 d-e).  Socrates continues to offer various examples in which some form of specialized knowledge is required or at least desired, e.g. ship buying, horse selling, husbandry, etc., and Polemarchus concedes that those with authority in each matter are best suited (333 a – 334 a).  Thus by analogy, Socrates suggests justice to concur with some sort of specialized knowledge or authority, which in turn, Polemarchus also concedes.  But if justice is to be characterized in this manner, Polemarchus’ claim that it is “giving to each man what is proper” is rendered trivial in that no form of authority exists within this definition; it seems as if an individual can judge what is proper for another at a whim (332 b-c).  I agree with this particular point in Socrates’ argument; if justice is to be found in catering to friends and renouncing enemies, better yet if it is the business of giving good people good and bad people bad , it doesn’t seem as if “justice is not good for much” (333 e).  However, Socrates’ wants to claim that justice is found in some specialized skill set, which is rather contrary to both Polemarchus’ and contemporary notions of justice.  Here I disagree with Socrates in that justice, at least in simplistic cases, requires no specialized knowledge or authority.  Below I will elaborate upon both my contention with Polemarchus’ and Socrates’ definition of justice. I will conclude that Socrates is correct in claiming that Polemarchus’ characterization leaves justice trivial; however I will suggest that Socrates’ claim that justice requires specialized knowledge potentially allows for grave injustice.

Considering Socrates’ formulation of Polemarchus’ claim, “giving each man what is proper”, at first seems in accordance with justice (332 c).  After all, good people seem to deserve to have good bestowed upon them, and likewise bad people seem to deserve bad.  But an objecting question which I believe Socrates may be willing to accept, may be: How are we to tell good from bad people?  This isn’t explicit in Polemarchus and Socrates’ dialogue, however it seemingly can be placed in their discussion of doing “good to the just and harm to the unjust” which is opposed to Polemarchus’ original claim that justice is found in doing good to friends and evil to enemies (334 d-e; 332 a-b).  Here Socrates claims that it is possible to be “ignorant of human nature”, more specifically of a friends’ nature, and yet according to Polemarchus’ claims, albeit the friend is unjust thus deserving evil, simply because of the friendship the friend receives good (334 e; 332 a).  Aside from this speculation, it seems that the point here is primarily concerned with the likely partiality found in friendships, where justice is typically thought blind (to borrow a cheesy cliché).  So cases involving friends or enemies seemingly must be dismissed due to possible partiality.  Now, back to the above speculation; if this ignorance is granted in situations friendship, it is seems soundly deducible that such ignorance befalls strangers as well.  Such being the likely case, it is rather impossible to judge a person’s character if they are not known by the judge.  For example consider that a lady sitting across from me on a train just committed x action and x is unjust[1], but I have no way of knowing that she has committed x so am polite and courteous to her by given up my seat.  Although x was committed, ignoring the insignificant “good” bestowed, good was given to her when this lady deserved to stand, or much worse.  Such also works in reverse where I bestow bad upon a person when they deserve good[2].  So it seems impossible to judge whether a person deserves good or bad when considering complete strangers.  This impossibility seemingly renders justice trivial in that good may be given to bad people and vice versa.  However this seems to be a weak claim against Polemarchus’ definition; it is weak in that that it is laden with my indifference to the lady and what she deserves at best, but moreover it is clear that I am completely uninformed.    Stronger cases may be made if I witness the particular action or at least hear an account from a reliable witness.  Even these cases may falter in instances when information is lacking; imagine I see the lady commit action y which is good.  Witnessing y I am compelled to leave my seat, being the least I can do, since I consider her to be a good person, but little do I know that days before committing y she committed x and is undeserving of my seat.  My ignorance still hinders Polemarchus’ account of justice seemingly as much as my indifference; so let’s consider a case in which I am fully informed about the lady’s actions.  Also, to put aside any notions of possible infinite regress, consider I am now well educated in all of the lady’s actions either by observation or by reliable, well informed witnesses along with complete impartiality, i.e. I am something like an ideal observer, however this is not quite the case due to my finite, non-future-telling, etc. nature.  In this case, although I witness the lady’s good action y and assume it deserves reward, I also know of her past action x and all of her other past actions a through w, good and bad.  With such information it now seems possible to judge whether the lady justly deserves my seat.  It seems only such a case can render Polemarchus’ conception of justice actual or at least useful.  But this case seems utterly non-existent in that this pseudo-ideal observer account is unlikely to exist in the world.  It would take the mindset of a stalker to be so informed that an adequate judgment may be made not only about this lady but anyone else.  Thus I suggest, as a product of reality, I am not capable of effectively giving what is proper in this and like circumstances.  Therefore Polemarchus’ account of justice still seems trivial.

Above I have treated myself as if I have some specialized skill or authority to discern what actions are just and unjust; this seems reasonable in that for a judgment to be made by an individual, the individual should know their personal stance.  So it may seems as if not disagree as strongly with Socrates’ claims as originally stated.  However, in the above, I do not discount the lady’s equal ability to make judgments as well, which doesn’t seem to be Socrates’ aim.  Using Socrates’ analogy, if I were to go to a physician for some ailment, her opinion rather than mine actually counts.  The doctor has the specialized skill required to diagnose, I do not; since I am lacking in such authority, it doesn’t make too much sense to suggest both of us have equally sound diagnoses (excuse cases in which the doctor is wrong and patient right).  This also seems correct with other professions with respective professionals; there isn’t equal say between professionals and non-professionals.  Socrates’ argument rests in justice seemingly being the profession with a professional having authoritative say over non-professionals.  But even if this is granted, I feel that such is open to possible abuse, which may also render justice trivial.

This concern is addressed by Socrates, however for a different reason, when he asks Polemarchus “who is best able to do good to his friends and evil to his enemies in time of sickness?”, in which he replies a physician (332 d).  This is designed to show that Polemarchus’ definition of justice allows for injustice, but I am skeptical that this is anything more than a diversion away from his claim.  This aside, I think Socrates’ establishes a rather strong example against his argument from authoritative justice.  Extracting from Socrates’ question, those with specialized skill in some field seemingly not only have knowledge of their skill, but also of the negation of their skill.  Using the physician, she is capable of diagnosing and also misdiagnosing.  Suppose her diagnostic power is used for evil in that she recognizes a potential scheme to make extra money on various patients she treats.  She may diagnose exactly what one unlucky patient has, but not relay the true illness to them; withholding this information she is able to prescribe just the right medicine to keep the patient alive and coming back, assuring him that his ailment requires more time to be eradicated.  Such a case seems only likely in instances involving specialized knowledge, in which the one without such knowledge knows nothing and thus has no definitive say in the matter.  Transposing medicine for justice, it seems that it too may also fall to similar worries.  With justice having someone with authority over what is to be just, such power may ultimately be abused for the gain of the one or ones with this skill-set.  This comparison may be a bit rash or even slippery, but I am not suggesting that with Socrates’ treatment of justice this will happen.  Much weaker, I am advocating that if justice is considered to be founded upon specialized knowledge, it seems easily possible for those with this knowledge to use it to their advantage rather than to the advantage of the whole.
[1] For the sake of this argument let us grant that x is an unjust action.

[2] Imagine any case you like.

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