An Unlikely Reading of Plato

A philosopher writes:
Imagine, for a moment, if, during the tense final hours of the recently concluded negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif decided to set aside their remaining differences regarding the inspections regime and stockpiles of enriched uranium and turn for a moment to the fundamental questions that divide the two nations. Not differences in policy but in first principles.

Imagine Secretary Kerry explaining to his Iranian counterpart the philosophical roots and anthropological assumptions of American liberalism. And imagine Foreign Minister Zarif similarly providing an account of the Islamic republic. Imagine this debate continuing, fueled by endless cups of tea, long into the night, as Kerry discusses, say, John Locke and James Madison and the American founding, and Zarif discourses on Mulla Sadra and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution, as they argue about the nature of the human being, the purpose of the political community, the origin of law, and the meaning of justice.

And imagine that, as the morning sun finally rises over the city of Vienna, the two exhausted statesmen slump back to the negotiating table, now with a more sophisticated understanding of and respect for one another, and, over strong coffee, hammer out the final niggling details of the agreement in an amiable and conciliatory manner.
I can imagine everything except that last part. Fully understanding that you are negotiating with someone who has a vastly different idea about justice is not going to encourage you to negotiate in a "conciliatory manner." It's going to completely undermine your confidence that your partner is negotiating in a manner you would recognize as just. How can you take a huge risk like this on someone whose view of justice is so different from yours?

Plato gives us a picture of something quite like this in his Protagoras. Socrates shows up at a house where several other thinkers are gathered. He is accompanying a friend of his who wants to study with one of these thinkers, Protagoras. Socrates tests the quality of Protagoras' teaching by engaging him in a philosophical debate of just the kind the fellow here is proposing. It does not end in agreement, friendship, or anything good: in the end, they are exhausted with each other and firmly set in their disagreement. Both positions, though, have been proven untenable: Socrates argues that virtue is knowledge but that it can't be taught, whereas Protagoras argues that it isn't knowledge but that it is his business to teach it. Neither position even makes sense, yet they have both given their reasons and are committed to them. Socrates is the better man, the dialogue implies, because he is at least willing to admit that his position can't be true. The discussion, though, doesn't increase their friendship or mutual understanding. It only increases their desire to be rid of each other.

Eventually almost the whole of Athens felt that way about Socrates. It's why they killed him.


MikeD said...

I have long noticed the fairy tale like belief that really talking with someone from a completely different culture and background will inevitably lead to understanding and agreement is mostly swallowed whole by people who will dismiss their political opponents at home as racist, misogynistic haters who want poor people to die. I mean really... if you cannot understand and feel empathy with your fellow countrymen who hold different political opinions than you do, how in the world do you expect to make any progress with people like ISIS and Iran who legitimately want you dead?

Texan99 said...

I'd be the first to argue that, if you really could find common ground with your adversary and look at things through his eyes for a bit, you'd be much better able to cut a mutually satisfactory deal. I just don't think it's as easy to find common ground as people suppose, especially when each side thinks that the ideal the other strives for is disaster in disguise, if not a crime against God.

It's easier when all they want to argue about is how to give each side confidence that the other is not in a position to exert total dominance: then they can fix a border and stare tensely at each other over it. If either side insists that the other change itself internally, it will be hard to avoid trouble. If one side can't even tolerate letting contraband ideas over the border, even worse.

Luckily our statesmanlike leaders have cut the knot: you can resolve any impasse if you're willing to surrender.

Grim said...

I mean, the article goes on to make some points I often make myself -- it's great to read Maimonides and Avicenna and Averroes, and we should definitely have a dialogue between believers of different faiths about what we learn from reading them together with our holy texts. I also think it's right that we should temper faith with reason in matters of ethics and politics, as these thinkers did. Averroes/Ibn Rushd is one of my standing examples of how Islam can be reformed -- he was an Islamic law judge as well as a philosopher, and he wrote some very humane and decent proposals to revise the laws in light of his readings of Plato and Aristotle.

Do I think that a philosophical discussion would have made the Iran deal go more smoothly? No, I do not, especially if the Iranians were truly honest in sharing their underlying philosophy. As we know from reading the Ayatollah's new 416 page book on fooling America and destroying Israel, it's pretty alarming.

Grim said...

Luckily our statesmanlike leaders have cut the knot: you can resolve any impasse if you're willing to surrender.

Heh. Lucky for us, no doubt.

Cassandra said...

I have often said that I think the biggest difference between liberals and conservatives lies in what we expect to happen when we pass a law that does X.

Example: minimum wage increases.

Conservatives expect employers to cut hours, hire fewer inexperienced workers (often women, teens, and minorities), and replace workers with machines. They expect consumers to demand fewer products and services because most products and services are price elastic (raise the price, and you lower the demand).

Liberals expect workers to be so grateful that they spontaneously become way more productive. They expect employers to hire just as many employees at the new (more expensive) price than they did at the old (cheaper) price. They expect consumers to buy more products and services since they now have more money in their pockets as a result of the mandatory wage hike.

If you expect what your opponent expects, the entire value proposition changes, doesn't it? In talking with friends and relatives who are more liberal than I, I almost invariably find our biggest point of difference lies in what we expect to happen in various scenarios.

Texan99 said...

Good point--it's not necessarily that you want different futures (as I believe we and the ayatollahs want), but perhaps that you'd like many of the same things, but have completely different views of what steps are likely to lead there.

Cassandra said...

That's been my experience, at least.

I've gotten the most traction in discussions by asking them, if I'm right about the likely consequences of some policy they support, would they still support it?

Almost without exception, they say, "No". And then I ask them what they think the likely outcome will be, and it's almost always diametrically opposed to what I think will happen.

It's an interesting thought experiment. The loss of economic liberty aside (and I'm not saying that's inconsiderable!), if I really believed that raising the minimum wage would benefit both employers and employees (and the economy!), I'd have a harder time coming up with reasons to oppose it.

I do think the loss of freedom is one of the strongest arguments for not mandating minimum wages. The government is not the best entity to determine appropriate wages for a particular job or employee. And I'm totally unconvinced by arguments that everyone's entitled to "a living wage", as that's a vague and subjective standard. We lived quite well below the federal poverty level the first few years we were married (and we had a child!).

Texan99 said...

I have a prejudice in favor of liberty myself, but I don't find it very hard to swallow a wide variety of restrictions on liberty when I can be sure they're beneficial for society in general. Easy examples are rules against murder, speeding, polluting the common water supply, and so on. For that matter, I believe the free market flourishes only when there's a good system of law and order: cops to stop theft and courts to adjudicate mercantile disputes, and everyone's stuck with obeying the results of these procedures.

I used to believe that policies like the minimum wage and the progressive tax system really helped overall. I supported these policies (and the Democratic party) until I became convinced I was in error. I was like a doctor who believed in cupping and bloodletting. One day someone convinces you you're not helping, and you stop. After that you have to listen to people yelling at you that you must not care about your patients, or you'd never withhold cupping and bloodletting, which all right-thinking people know is at the heart of good medical philosophy. Don't you want them to get well? What's wrong with you?

But the bright side is that, with some people, you can find common ground over neutral information about what works and what doesn't. If you want opposite results, it's tough. If you want the same results but disagree on the strategy for getting there, you have more options. You might agree, for instance, to try it both ways, at different times or in different places. In other words, you could accommodate your differences, and maximize liberty, in a way that needn't come to violence.