Saturday 1 January 2000

Reason in Action (1935)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIII No. 1 Special History Issue, originally printed in The Philosopher, Volume 12, 1935.


John McMurray

Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic in the University of London

Almost the only point in which it is possible to achieve certainty about the philosophy of Socrates is that he held that virtue is knowledge. It is a view which nearly all moderns are agreed in holding to be certainly wrong. The problem of morality, we say, is a problem of the will, not of reason. The difficulty that faces us in our conduct is the, difficulty of doing what we know to be right. A virtuous person is one who is capable of doing what he knows to be right even under the pressure of severe Temptation to do what he knows to be wrong. Socrates' mistake, therefore, is an elementary, almost a childish one. Yet we have to remember that this childish mistake, if it be such, is maintained both by Plato and by Aristotle; that it is central to their whole moral outlook, in spite of the difficulties to which it gives rise. As for the correction of it, which points out that virtue is a matter of the will, we have to notice that the very idea of the will hardly exists for the Greek philosophers. They did not seem to feel any need for it

Now it may be true that the explanation of this is to be found in our own high moral development. On the other hand it may not. And before we dismiss the Greek view of the matter in favour of our own, we ought to make the attempt to understand why it is that the idea of will is conspicuous by its absence in their moral theories, and what precisely led them to identify knowledge and virtue. It is to this task of understanding that I wish here to make a slight contribution, and one which makes it very much less easy to say confidently that we are right and Socrates was wrong.

Take first the conception of will. Why is it so necessary in our thinking about human conduct? What is its function? The answer is, I think, that it serves the purpose of enabling us to pass from a static conception of human nature to the consideration of human beings in action. We tend always to start by defining a human being in terms of his character, as if he were an object with certain properties, or a machine with certain uses. Having done this to our satisfaction, we go on to ask, "What makes him act? What sets the machine going?" The answer is then, "The Will". In particular we are apt to define a human being in terms of his capacity for thought, his ability to know and understand things. We are thinking beings. Now, if this is the essence of our nature, it raises quite naturally the problem "What is it that sets a human being acting instead of just thinking?" As Kant put it in his abstract terminology, "How can pure reason become practical?" The answer is that the thinking being also has a will which enables him to carry out the decisions he has come to as a thinker.

Now, the Greeks never needed this conception of will because they never thought of starting with a static definition. A human being, they imagined, is at least alive, and life is action. To be alive and to to behave, they felt, are surely the same thing. There is, therefore, no point at which they have to ask "Now, what can it be that makes him act?" Their moral problem is not how to get him to act, but how to persuade him to stop and think. Aristotle will define Man as a rational animal. But when he does so, he does not mean, as we tend to do, that man is a thinking being with the strange capacity of getting into action. He means that he is an active, living creature - an animal - with the peculiar capacity for reflection and deliberation.

If we, start in this way, action is given; it is the main datum, the obvious fact which does not call for explanation. What does call for explanation in human behaviour is the manner in which the capacity to reason and reflect modifies the form of human behaviour, and in particular how it gives rise to the moral distinction between good and bad action. If we take for granted that activity is the natural characteristic of any living creature, we shall not find any obvious need to explain what it is that makes a man act. We shall not find the conception of will requisite at all in our consideration of human behaviour.

It becomes obvious now that it is not merely our higher development, or our deeper moral insight, that makes us insist that morality is a matter of the will. It is rather a traditional bias on our part towards defining. everything in static terms. Indeed, from this point of view, the Greek attitude of mind is more natural than ours, and possibly more proper. The idea of will may merely be a necessary fiction, to make good the limitation inherent in our initial analysis. If we leave action out of account to start with, then we shall have to bring it in again somehow later on. More than this, the view that virtue is, knowledge begins to seem less childish than it did. For in some sense it is obviously the capacity to think and reflect and know that gives to the animal spontaneity of life a moral character, and it is the increasing interference of reflection with the animal forms of action which accounts for the development of morality. In this sense at least virtue and knowledge are correlatives. But the full significance of the Socratic view that virtue is knowledge is not yet apparent. We have yet to see how this acceptance of action as the primary fact of life modifies the conception of knowledge.

Because we start from a static 'definition we interpret the statement that virtue is knowledge as if it meant that in order to act virtuously we need only know what it is right to do. First get to know what is right and then you will inevitably do it. But this is not in the least what Socrates meant. He takes action for granted. Virtue is not for him a property of the .agent, it is his way of behaving. Virtue is virtuous behaviour. What Socrates says then, is that virtuous behaviour is knowledge, not, be it noticed, that virtuous behaviour presupposes knowledge. We should also remember that knowledge which is thus identified with virtuous behaviour is, as Plato explains, knowledge of the good, and that knowledge of the good is not theoretical knowledge about goodness, but the direct apprehension of the supreme value itself. Then, the full mean of the statement can be brought to light if we put it in the form that "Virtuous activity is the apprehension of Goodness." This implies that the good is apprehended in action, and that if the good is in action truly apprehended, the action itself is a virtuous action.

This is already something very different from what is usually conveyed to our modern minds by the phrase "Virtue is knowledge." But in order to understand how such, a view arises, whether it be right or wrong, we must further consider the nature of conscious action. Consider an agent acting in any given situation. From his standpoint, before action there are alternative possibilities of action, in and upon the situation. But he can act only in one of these ways. Whichever of the possible actions he does will rule out all the others. They become impossible once he has acted. The action is irreversible, because it produced a new situation. Thus the action is a choice. This is entirely independent of any conscious choice on the part of the agent. Even if he is completely unaware. of all the possible alternatives, it is still true that they exist in the situation, whether he recognises their existence or not. His act, just because it is an act, makes impossible a number of actions which were possible before.

Suppose now that the action is not a random action but has a purpose in it. Then at once the action may be right or wrong. If it turns out to be one of the artery natives which achieves the purpose, it is right. If it does not, it is the wrong action. Again this is true if the agent is quite unconscious of the alternatives and even if he is unconscious of the purpose which the action aims at. Only in that case it is not morally right or wrong; but as soon as the agent is conscious of the end to be achieved by action in the situation, and of the possibility of acting in various alternative ways, the moral issue arises. For then the. action which he actually does defines his own idea of the good. Notice that it is his action which defines it.

By acting in the way he does, and not in any of the other possible ways, he chooses that action as the best action in the circumstances. This is the point from which Greek ethical theories start. The way a man acts decides what he believes to be good. And that is the opposite of the starting point which says that what a man thinks is good determines the way he acts. We recognise the Greek starting point when we say that if you want to know what a man really believes, you must watch how he behaves. For the consistent trend of his behaviour is his normal way of determining which of the alternative possible ways of living is the one for him. It, thus, defines his conception of the good.

Where, then, does knowledge come in? It comes in as knowledge of what he is doing. The more clearly a man recognises what the consequences of his action will be, the more he knows what he is doing, and the more deliberate and conscious his actions become as choices. Of course it is still the action which is the choice; the choice is not made first in thought and then carried out.

Now we can understand the full meaning of Socrates' statement that virtue is knowledge. If a person knows what he is doing, then the life he makes for himself is one of the possible ways in which he could have lived, and so it defines by its actual character a conception of the good. If that conception of the good, which is thus implicit in his way of living, is a false conception, he is ignorant of the true good and his life is, in fact, a false choice. The virtuous man is the man whose life is in fact a choice of the true good, and since he is a conscious being he knows what he is doing; so that his life defines consciously the good as it really is. It is quite simply true from this point of view that virtuous action is knowledge of the good, or if you prefer it, of how to live properly.

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