Symposium question on knowledge and decision

I think it would be fun to have a little online symposium on a question of philosophical interest. Here’s how it will work: I will ask a question of you and (if you can spare a little time to think and respond), we can consider the question and answers together. Don’t feel you have to respond just to me and my question, but feel free to respond directly to the other respondents too.

My question is based on a quotation from the Gorgias. Socrates has just pressed a conclusion upon a young character named Polus that it would be preferable to suffer injustice rather than commit it. Having defended the argument in favor of this proposition, Socrates urges his interlocutor to:

Nobly present yourself to the argument as though to a physician..” (Arieti/Barrus translation, 475d)

I interpret that presenting one’s person to argument entails submission to or deciding for any conclusion agreed to by oneself — in order that one can be healed of any false opinions that may contradict the truth of the argument. Such submission/decision is particularly difficult if the contradictory opinions are still held in high regard. Such submission can be as onerous as submitting to a surgeon’s scalpel.

My question is this (assuming that what one has discovered about virtue through argument is true):

Is deciding to act virtuously necessary to have knowledge of virtue?

Please answer in the comments. I will gather your answers up and take the matter up again in a week to discuss them with you.


After reading the comments, you should skip ahead to Follow up to Symposium Question.

25 thoughts on “Symposium question on knowledge and decision

  1. I do not expect this comment to be terribly original, but I will try to contribute. It seems to me that we often can and do know what is good without doing it. At times, even to the point of “painful knowledge.” A deep awareness that I should be doing otherwise than, in fact, I am.
    At the same time, and perhaps even as part of that experience, we are aware that in some sense, I do not know the truth or the good that I know I should be practicing. In other words, I feel quite deeply, that if I truly knew it, knew it the way I know some other truths, then my behavior would line up with my knowledge. It is not some fact that is missing, but it is a quality of knowledge that affects the will.
    I think that John Henry Newman and Bernard Lonergan refer to this as two different kinds of assent. Notional assent and real assent.

    • Good comment. My experience is certainly that we can experience the “painful knowledge” that we are not acting virtuously. But couldn’t this pain be born of the desire (or decision) to be virtuous?

      The distinction between real and notional assent is a good one. Maybe my question is a semantic one — what is meant by “knowledge” of virtue? If I say that so-and-so “knows” how to play tennis, that wouldn’t be mere book knowledge, would it? So is knowing virtue more like mastering a skill…or following an argument…or a little of both?

      • Back to the issue of real vs notional assent. Could it be that notional assent leads at best to what Plato called “doxa/opinion” and that real assent is necessary for what Plato meant by “knowledge”?

  2. Deciding to act virtuously is necessary for knowledge of virtue and knowledge of virtue is necessary for deciding to act virtuously. Some knowledge, no matter how faint, is necessary for deciding to act. This knowledge, however, is and is not knowledge of virtue. Virtue is the kind of knowledge which, to some extent, can only be acquired through the experience of acting virtuously.

    • That makes sense — another possibility beside my either/or. But let’s posit for argument’s sake that there is a circular dependence of knowledge and action. How then does one jump into the circle to begin? To quote Meno, “Can virtue be taught?” The circular answer would seem to imply “no” unless we can find a way to resolve the paradox. Right?

      • I agree. One way to resolve the paradox would perhaps involve positing an unconscious prehension which grounds the original conscious decision to act. That does bring up a further issue. Is the decision we are speaking of conscious or unconscious?

      • btillman,

        Does it matter if the decision is conscious or unconscious? And: are there “unconscious decisions”? An interesting phenomenon to try to grasp more clearly, if so…

      • “Does it matter if the decision is conscious or unconscious? And: are there “unconscious decisions”? An interesting phenomenon to try to grasp more clearly, if so…”

        This is a problem of a common language, I think. By “conscious decisions” I am referring to decisions that, to some degree, occur from an awareness of the reasons for decision. By “unconscious decisions” I am referring to decisions which are made based on an prehensive grasp of the rightness of acts without awareness of the premises which support them. In this sense, yes decisions can be conscious or unconscious. I might, as a child, observe my parents perform virtuous acts and decide to imitate these actions without being able to provide any theoretical account of why these acts were virtuous. In other words, without self-knowledge. Yet, paradoxically, it is through the possession of this non-self-knowledge that virtue can be “taught”; in other words acquired as self-knowledge.

      • Good answer. So I wonder if unconscious decision making is the dominant type. Perhaps conscious decisions are only there to override or modify the unconscious versions…

  3. Great question! Thank u. Forgive my jargon/reference. This is just a “common” approach if that is ok? It seems- (1). Where to jump into the circle- dependent on circumstance of intuition/emotion and learning. A. an adult with psychotic brain chemistry leads productive and healthy life born from good upbringing (learned) B. normal brain chemistry with bad childhood may still be virtuous depending on strength of intuitive or learned behavior. C. Good upbringing but rebels against instruction. (2). symbiotic/synergistic A. tennis player or observer— one knows the rules, the other knows the rules and plays. Between two players one will play better. soooo… If one is ignorant of virtue but is inspired by it he will increase his learning doing both practicing and knowing—while one that first learns and is inspired by knowledge will also practice and learn.. the quality of each effort enhances the other right? not paradoxical but interdependent? if so then wouldn’t the question be what is the various causes for desire for the various circumstance in people and their ability/willingness to respond with quality in effort? or am I just being redundant it the question?

    • OK, so if I’m understanding you correctly on the first part, you’re saying that in the case of “normal” development that at least a modicum of virtue is “built in” to our functioning and that we don’t have to “enter” the circle since we are already in it. Do I have this right? (By the way, this is similar to Plato’s notion of “anamnesis” in the Meno.)

      In the second part, you are saying that if virtue is akin to a skill attained through practice, then performing the activity correlating to that skill will allow one to develop the virtue attained — that the will properly directed is sufficient. Is that what you are suggesting?

  4. Hello. Thus far there have been many insightful comments here, so I hope I am able to add something positive to this discussion. I should first say that I am commenting here while on a quick break from work, so I have not gone back and re-read the Gorgias. If my comments seem out of context or are just reiterating or perhaps contradict the text, you’ll know why…..

    I first want to question virtue, and what is meant by virtue. If I am remembering correctly, does Plato see virtue, at least partially, as acting in conformity to reason? I bring this up because it is relevant to a couple sections in Hume’s Treatise I am currently reading where Hume argues against the view that virtue (or morals, or as Hume calls them: passions or perceptions) conforms to reason. Perhaps if we can come to a conclusion as to how we are guided internally toward virtuous acts, we might have some insight into how we can come to know virtue.

    I also wonder if in order to have knowledge of virtue, one must first have certain conditions satisfied. The first being (and these are not meant to be placed in a certain order) knowledge of one’s self. By knowledge of one’s self I do not mean knowledge only of internal processes and knowledge of one’s beliefs, but also knowledge of one’s self in relation to the world. Second, the experience of being on the receiving end of both virtuous acts and ill-willed or harmful actions. Third, (and I want to recognize this as something that can be cultivated) a kind or loving disposition. Fourth, the experience of acting virtuous and also the experience of acting in such a way that does harm to others.

    My initial thoughts are that these four conditions are necessary, though perhaps not sufficient to have knowledge of virtue. I am interested to hear your thoughts on what I have said, especially if you see places where my reasoning has led me astray or where you think I may have misunderstood the question.

    • Darth,
      Let me try to define virtue/arete as I think Plato to have meant it. The short definition is that virtue is “the power to sustain excellence in purposive activity.” The purpose of an eye is to see, but virtue of an eye is to see well. Aristotle saw it as a mean between extremes, as in the phenomenon of focusing an eye: I can focus too far or too closely so we have available corrective lenses adapted to either of these circumstances. So virtue is relative to a purposive function, like a skill or instrument. One of the great innovations of the Greeks (and I believe the idea was initiated by the sophists) is whether virtue can be applied to being human as such. What is the virtue of a soul? Is it a power, a skill, a form of habit, a knowledge or some other thing? And granting that there are better and worse in it field of exercising our humanity, how can we discover (or know) the virtue that would “tune the instrument rightly”? I hope that all makes sense to you. As I said, I will attempt something more adequate when I have time to compose it.

      You have nailed what I am looking for: for us to strive toward “a conclusion as to how we are guided internally toward virtuous acts, we might have some insight into how we can come to know virtue.” One qualification: I too believe that the guidance is internal, but I don’t know that and don’t want to beg the question.

      As far as Hume’s quibble: it could be that what he means by “reason” is different from the place where Plato is looking for guidance. I suspect there is a way to state Hume’s objection to the guidance of reason over virtue in a way that Plato could agree. We all have the same type of cognitive equipment — you, me, Hume, Plato — and so the evidence is within and among us, yes?

      I like your four conditions. I am not sure about all of them (for instance, does “loving disposition” already include a capacity for or knowledge of virtue?), but each speaks to a piece of the puzzle that could help us along.

      Thanks for your contribution. I’m sure we all appreciate it.

  5. Close and yes. I am assuming two things 1.that virtue is absolute and real, but that their are varying degrees in its excellence. 2.normaly we have some ,not real knowledge, but desire for good, which may lead to its search and that at some point in life we will be exposed some kind of definition of virtue sooo….. While one may have the inherent ability (excluded from the circle) to be virtuous he must still decide to enter into learning and practicing it (to enter the circle). For the second, perfect summation 🙂

    • Epistemologist,
      I think your notion of there being degrees of virtue fits with the tuning analogy that I gave in response to Darth above. Maybe we can think about that some more. By “objective and real” I assume that it would also be something that can be known, or at least something available-to-me-in-some-way-other-than-knowing against which I can measure my opinions. And “desire for good” seems right, but does that desire have a virtue different than the virtue we are searching for? Isn’t it the same virtue? In searching for virtue, am I not (even if unknowingly) applying the same norm that I am looking for? Is this akin to the condition of self-knowledge that Darth mentioned in his comment above?

  6. wow, im definitely the student and am thankful to participate. The four requirements seem perfectly plausible. I cant imagine where this would go if we brought up say… feral children. But perhaps the root of the question could be explored here absent from reason, influence, self awareness, knowledge, definable experience? If virtue can be found in this child by us and exclude those requirements then maybe there will be insight into how we are guided internally toward virtuous acts? If virtue cant be found then I would be quick to assume that the 4 requirements are necessary and go from there. Next on real-truth-knowledge etc… Im not sure it can always be definable and measured. It seems that sometimes they can be defined and measured by reason or empirical tests. Though I don’t see how I could communicate any other way than by the rules of justified true belief, the rules still seem assumptive to me. Something can still be real whether or not I can prove it right? sooo how we can come to know virtue? I would be satisfied ,I think, with an answer that included both some measurable reason but still left room for mystery that acknowledged imperfect understanding. Then we would say something like, “how I came to know in part virtue was by …….” Does this seem like a valid path of reasoning? Forgive me im playing catch up by skimming the vast texts in refrence, reading summeries and notes on these diologues. Again im thankful for this challenge and exposure to new ideas 🙂

  7. I’m not sure I follow all of that, but I would guess that feral children lack virtue — that the virtues emerge from our living in human communities. The virtues are concerned with “being human” and I think we can only become human (in the psychological sense) by entering in relation with other humans. But I am open to a contrary argument…

  8. Fair enough. I suppose I was considering if 1. the child would have “a power of attuned (openness) to the goods internal to practice” with out knowledge or insight of them or if his sole aim is primal survival which would constitute a kind of virtue in practice? in response to “…the virtue we are searching for? Isn’t it the same virtue? In searching for virtue, am I not (even if unknowingly)…” 2. if so then the four requirements are unnecessary which would provide a different way of approaching the problem. In retrospect after reading your post on virtue I see I may have gotten too far off track if this is the definition we are using. So if we agree on the four requirements, this definition of virtue, then my next concern would be in how to measure our opinions on the matter. Im reluctant to say that other people or society are a good measure. Some people may display outer virtue and not inner, while others may seem to have inner and not outer. At the same time I appreciate when others complement me on my loving disposition or acts of kindness and though I may want to use them as a measure of my progress I try not to as think/feel it is the principle of which I live that drives my inner virtue but I cant prove that or measure it except by comparing my previous feelings to now. So how will we measure our answer and “know” we are correct?

  9. Alas, I have just read Ion and drew to many comparisons with my self. Hopefully I am humble and I don’t see my self as being motivated by outward things more so then inward things. But to the question at hand it gave me some thoughts hopefully more on track. If the question is “deciding to act virtuously necessary to have knowledge of virtue?” or Is knowledge of virtue necessary to decide to act virtuously? Which this question is important to me. I would be quick to say that if under normal circumstances one would have access to both in some degree anyway. He has a built in or predisposed position to virtue and will act by nature virtuously (excluding the adverse tendencies in our nature) and will at some point learn about virtue both by experience and social influences even if he cant define it or know why. Am I wrong in saying that they are synergistic both improving one another and both occur naturally to some extent without effort? If so then wouldn’t the question be what causes the decision? or what moves us from notional to real with consistency and quality? If iv strayed to far I would be open to guidance.

    • I’m afraid I’ve set up knowledge and decision as if they were contraries and I certainly don’t intend them as such. I agree with you and other commentators who have emphasized the mutually reinforcing roles of knowledge and decision in cultivating virtue. So let me ask the question from a different standpoint in order to eliminate this sense of opposition: Can we really have knowledge of virtue without a willingness to be virtuous? I like that statement of the problem better.

      • The contrary evidence is the experience we all have had of “knowing” what we ought to be doing and yet behaving otherwise, usually with regret. Aristotle calls this “akrasia,” literally “powerlessness” but which one might call “weakness of will.” A quick example is a smoker who knows he ought to give up smoking but finds himself unable/unwilling to. Isn’t this counter-evidence?

  10. ummm??? Can we define (in some way) knowledge then? If knowledge and notion are the same then yes good counter evidence, I have a notion that I should stop smoking but I don’t so I have knowledge but I choose not to follow. On the other hand if a notion and true knowledge are different then I have no real knowledge that I should quit smoking, its only what iv been told and I have some notion of what that means to me but I don’t know it for my self as true and real. An example I think would be Anakin Skywalker he did not know the good side, only had a notion of what it was. Instead he came to know the dark side and only at the end in witnessing the character of Luke and realizing his love for him, he came to fully understand and know what he had only had a notion about previously. I hope you are familiar with my reference and maybe I analyzed it correctly. Is the second definition a good argument to sustain a NO answer? or is it preferable to accept then that YES is more appropriate?

  11. jalberg above introduced John Henry Newman’s distinction between real and notional assent. An instance of notional assent is when I agree that I ought to quit smoking and don’t; an instance of real assent is as when I agree that I ought to quit smoking and do. So we can EITHER say that the difference between the two cases is a product of decision — I decided-against in the former case and decided-for in the latter -OR- we could say that the difference is between two different degrees/types of knowledge of the obligation to quit smoking. That seems like a semantic difference to me, but semantic differences have real consequences. For instance, classes in professional ethics, in Business or Medical school say, aim at teaching something it would call knowledge, and yet it is not clear that such classes are very successful in inculcating ethics. I’m sorry if that doesn’t speak to your questions. I just want to introduce the possibility that the problem could be merely semantic.

    • yes does speak to my question and I agree that discerning the differences in concept and definition make a big difference. And both possibilities seem plausible. I don’t know how to proceed without either finding a unifying factor or exploring both possibilities and others if they were discovered. So how do we get to a conclusion from here? and hopefully can we at some point have clearer insight in how the decision or acceptance of virtue/ethics/good/knowledge are received or taken? Can we teach Ion to be an artist or can we provide for him an opportunity to know it for him self? or is being “possessed” sufficient. Can we find away to inculcate ethics in the students 100% of the time? Can we move Vader’s acceptance of good from the end of his life to the beginning? How can I truly, really, perfectly know for my self (by any definition) these things?

Leave a Reply to TheEpistemologist Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s