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Evaluation of Plato's View of Immorality as Ignorance

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Plato’s view on immorality is ignorance is derived from the argument put forward in ‘Protagoras’ by Socrates, who claimed that all wrong and evil is done due to a lack of knowledge. In this essay I plan to critically analyze this argument and evaluate an objection to Plato’s claim that immorality is ignorance by disproving the premise that every action performed by a rational agent is the action they believe is the best action. I will evaluate the argument in favor of the claim that we will never knowingly do wrong, “that if someone knows what is good or bad, he would never be conquered by anything... intelligence is a sufficient safeguard for man” (Plato, 2000, p.55). This Socratic opinion conveyed through Plato’s dialogues is also reciprocated in Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, which I will use to aid my analysis and support of this philosophical concept.

I will firstly establish what Plato’s argument for immorality is ignorance entails, and how one is expected to avoid this ignorance. The dialogue ‘Protagoras’ is centered around the discussion of what it is to be ‘good’ between Socrates and Protagoras who have differing opinions on this. This discussion results in the contemplation of morality, in which Socrates illustrates the importance of knowledge to be moral. His argument is that if a rational human knows that an action is good and will produce further good, that is all the reason necessary to choose the moral action. He argues that it is in human nature when “you are forced to choose between two evils, nobody will choose the greater when he can have the lesser” (Plato, 2000, p.58). This belief that a rational being will always opt for the ‘lesser evil’ suggests that the choice in which they would achieve the most good is the naturally superior option. Therefore, to choose the least advantageous option is against the persons own self-interest, illustrating a level of ignorance which Plato argues is immorality, as he defines it as acting in a way in which is detrimental to one’s own self-interest. Furthermore, he believes that to act immorally is a failure of the rational reasoning all human beings are capable of. Alongside this, Plato places an emphasizes on ‘measurement’, as he believed that for a successful life it is crucial to measure correctly which actions will bring the most good, for both long and short-term decisions. This links to the cruciality of rationality as the careful consideration Plato is arguing is required is an activity linked to rational reasoning of decisions. Therefore, the reason for people’s lives going wrong is never done willingly but is due to a “lack of knowledge, and not merely of knowledge but... of measurement” (Plato, 2000, p.57). Thus, illustrating the importance of knowledge and measurement to produce good and rid ourselves of ignorance, the lack of these rational qualities results in immorality and, consequently, ignorance.

The soundness of Plato’s argument for immorality is ignorance is debatable and hard to define. I have evaluated the premises and conclusion and have deducted it is valid but lacks soundness due to the ambiguity concerning the premises. The concepts which Plato explores such as the certainty that a wrong action is in fact wrong. The situational aspects of a decision and the consequences vary in every circumstance. However, if we accept that all humans are rational beings, Plato’s argument gains more ground to achieve soundness. To conclude the soundness of this argument remains largely ambiguous.

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I have evaluated the arguments of Aristotle in relation to Plato’s claim that immorality is ignorance and will outline the similarities and divisions in their beliefs. In ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ Aristotle develops Plato’s philosophy of immorality, whilst sharing his belief that immorality is conceived unwillingly and from a place of ignorance. “Hence, among those who act because of ignorance, the agent who now regrets his action seems to be unwilling, while the agent with no regrets may be called non-willing, since he is another case” (David Ross, 2009-07-15, p.378). This illustrates the importance of self-interest to both philosophers, as it is unlikely someone will willingly choose to bring themselves harm or regret. Therefore, such a decision is a result of ignorance which highlights the unwilling in a choice which goes directly against one’s self-interest. However, he differentiates somewhat from Plato’s philosophy of immorality is solely ignorance, as Aristotle acknowledges the presence of Passions and desires; “the possibility of having knowledge and yet in a sense not having it... this is just the condition of men underneath the influence of passions” (David Ross, 2009-07-15, p.122), depicting how passion can override reason resulting in choices which could go against self-interest. Alongside this, Aristotle delves deeper into the definition of ignorance and tolerates greater allowances in comparison to Plato who believed all ignorance resulted in poor and immoral choices. Aristotle also acknowledges that ignorance does not solely result in bad consequences, it is also likely the consequences will be good and moral. The question he uses to highlight this is: “Do we do the fine actions voluntarily and the shameful involuntarily?” (David Ross, 2009-07-15, p.380). This question is a tool to have the reader consider the absurdity of this and to contemplate how ignorance will result in good or bad consequences. However, his philosophy is still in line with Plato, as he acknowledges that we should still strive to reduce and remove ignorance in order to avoid the bad consequences.

I will now defend Plato’s concept of immorality being ignorance against two objections, which aim to disrupt the argument Plato has set out against ignorance and its dangers. The first objection is challenging premise one of Plato’s arguments: every action performed by a rational agent is the action they believe is the best action. The rational agent is defined as anything that makes decisions, specifically humans, however, even rational agents sometimes perform irrationally, they may sometimes commit an action which defies the knowledge they possess telling them which action is best. Whilst this is a reasonably strong objection to Plato’s original argument of immorality is ignorance due to his lack of accounting for irrationality in rational beings. It is inadequate in opposition with Aristotle’s more advanced argument, which accommodates for the irrationality of rational beings. This is done through his acceptance and acknowledgement of passions and desires that are capable of overriding the rational aspect of decision making.

The second objection I would like to address in my essay is in conjunction with premise three: a wrong action is never the best action. The morally wrong action is sometimes the overall best choice. This objection is easily overruled by Plato’s argument, as the moral choice is always superior due to its ethical supremacy, that is unrivalled by superficial reasons such as a financial claim. A utilitarian approach supports this rebuttal of this objection, as it “is a matter of having one’s interests factored into the calculus that determines which action brings about the greatest utility” (Jaworska, 2018). Therefore, the moral action is always the stronger choice.

I have concluded that Plato’s claim that immorality is ignorance is a convincing argument in that a rational being will always choose the option that contains the most good, the best moral choice. However, I have considered Aristotle’s expansion of this claim and allowance of a ‘weakness of will’ and found it to be a more plausible argument, as it accounts for the passions which cause distraction and the override of the rational choice.

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Evaluation of Plato’s View of Immorality as Ignorance [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 08 [cited 2024 Mar 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/evaluation-of-platos-view-of-immorality-as-ignorance/
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