Appendices  pp. 219-226


By Dominic Scott

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Irwin's view

On pages 46–53 I interpreted Socrates' conclusion in the argument of 77b–78b as being that all our self-interested desires are for good things and that no one ever desires anything they know to be bad for them. But in Plato's Ethics, Terence Irwin claims that the argument is susceptible of a very different interpretation, one that would make it compatible with the position of Republiciv. He interprets the negative thesis – that no one knowingly desires bad things – as meaning that no one desires something on the grounds that it is bad, or qua bad. Then he interprets the positive thesis – that everyone desires good things – to mean only that some of our desires are for good things qua good, not that they all are. This leaves open the possibility of our having non-rational desires, focused on objects other than the good, e.g. pleasure or honour. The function of the argument is merely to insist that we never desire something qua bad, which is compatible with the moral psychology of the Republic.

Irwin's reading of the negative thesis seems to me implausible for the following reason. Meno would have to be intent on defending the view that some people desire certain things qua bad. It is difficult to see why he would do this. If the explanation is that he wants to insist that there are people with self-destructive urges, why at 78a5 does he cave in immediately to the claim that no one desires to be wretched (or that everyone desires not to be wretched)? This would be the very thesis he is out to defend if Irwin's view were correct.

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