The Philosophy Resource

Teaching resources for philosophy students and teachers

Plato & Ordinary Jo’s view

Is Ordinary Jo the target of the argument in the Protagoras?

Yes. Ordinary Jo is exactly the target of Socrates’ argument – except that he calls them ‘the many’, or ‘most people’. Here’s what they think, according to Socrates:

‘They say that most people don’t want to do what they know is best, even though they can, but do other things instead. And whenever I’ve asked them what the reason for this is, they say that those who do this do it because they’re overcome by pleasure or grief or are in the power of one of the other things I’ve just mentioned.’

(352d)

 
He then develops at some length an argument against this view of Ordinary Jo’s that the argument is to the effect that for most people – Ordinary Jo in person, in fact – their only motivation is pleasure and the avoidance of pain. So all their values and wants become commensurable, and we can treat ‘pleasant’ and ‘good’ (or ‘painful’ and ‘bad’) as interchangeable. What Socrates ends up with is close, in effect, to the view that wanting something to be done is a bit like thinking it’s right, and wanting something not to be done is a bit like thinking it’s wrong. This leads to something which Socrates presents as absurd:

‘With that understood, let’s suppose that someone knows that what’s bad is bad, but does it all the same. Suppose someone asks us, ‘Why?’ ‘Because he’s overcome,’ we’ll say. ‘By what?’ they’ll ask us. At this point we can no longer say that it’s because he’s been overcome by pleasure—because it’s changed its name , and is now called ‘good’ instead of ‘pleasure’. So when we say, ‘Because he’s overcome’, and they ask us, ‘By what?’, we’ll have to answer, ‘By the good, for heaven’s sake.’

Well, if the person asking us happens to be a bit aggressive, they’ll say, ‘What you’re saying is ridiculous – that someone does what’s bad, knowing it’s bad, even though he doesn’t have to, because he’s been overcome by what’s good!’’

(355c-d)

 
The problem here seems to be that the akratic (the person lacking in self-control) is taken to have blatantly self-contradictory views, and that’s taken to be absurd. So it seems as if Socrates is continuing to assume that the same person can’t possibly have competing desires or contradictory beliefs at the same time. That is, Socrates is still apparently agreeing with Ordinary Jo that if knowing what’s right and wrong were not a different kind of state from the wanting or desiring which actually affects your action, akrasia wouldn’t be possible. He differs from Ordinary Jo only in holding this:

‘And so he has to conclude that akrasia is impossible. Indeed, it’s not just impossible to do what you know is wrong (or not do what you know is right) – it’s impossible to do what you think is wrong (or not do what you think is right).’

(358c-d)

Does Plato come back to Ordinary Jo’s view in the Republic?

Most commentators seem to think so. The focus is the argument in Republic IV (roughly 435e-441c), where Socrates argues that there are different parts of the soul, on the grounds that there are clearly occasions when the soul is in conflict with itself – something which is held to be intelligible only as involving different parts of the soul being in conflict with each other. The key moment is a place where most commentators take Socrates to be rejecting the view which is argued for in the Protagoras that wanting something to be done is a bit like thinking it’s right, and wanting something not to be done is a bit like thinking it’s wrong. In particular, most commentators take Socrates in the Republic to argue for at least a restricted version of one of Ordinary Jo’s views that at least for certain kinds of want, wanting something to be done is unlike thinking it’s right, and wanting something not to be done is unlike thinking it’s wrong. The key passage is this place at 437d-e, where Socrates introduces the idea of ‘thirst itself’:

‘Well then, insofar as it’s thirst, is it an appetite in the soul for more than what we say it’s an appetite for? So is thirst, for example, thirst for a hot drink or a cold one, or for a large drink or only a little one – or, in a word, for any particular kind of drink? Or isn’t it rather that if heat were there in addition to thirst, it would give us an appetite for a cold drink, and if cold were there, it would give us an appetite for a hot drink? And if large quantity is present as well, making it a large thirst, that will give us a thirst for a large drink; and if it’s only a little thirst, it’ll be for a little drink. But thirst itself will never be an appetite for anything other than what it’s naturally for, drink, and hunger for food.’

(437d-e)

 
Most commentators take Socrates here to be introducing the idea of a specially basic kind of desire, which is neither rational nor irrational – which is, rather, non-rational, and therefore something wholly unlike a thought that something is good or bad, right or wrong. They think of it as a kind of brute, animal desire, almost just physiological. And these commentators take Socrates to be explicitly insisting that this kind of want is unlike any kind of value judgement – a judgement that something is good or right – in this passage which comes a moment later:

unlike any kind of value judgement – a judgement that something is good or right – in this passage which comes a moment later:

Well, then [I said], let no one catch us when we’re not looking and undermine us by saying that nobody wants drink, but only a good drink, or food, but only good food, on the grounds that everyone wants what’s good. This would mean that if thirst is an appetite or want, it will be an appetite for a good drink, or a good whatever it’s an appetite for – and similarly for the other appetites.

(438a)
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