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Plato's Moral Psychology

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Plato's Moral Psychology

I argue that Plato's psychological theories are motivated by concerns he had about moral theory. In particular, Plato rejects the modern account of rationality as the maximization of subjectively evaluated self-interest because, had he adopted such an account, his theory of justice would be subject to criticisms which he holds are fatal to the contractarian theory of justice. While formulating a theory to remain within ethical constraints sometimes violates the canons of scientific theorizing, Plato avoids this mistake.

The first serious account of justice Plato considers in the Republic is the contractarian account.(1) It holds that is always instrumentally rational for one to further her own interests and in that certain situations (exemplified by the prisoners dilemma) it is more rational to forego one's own interests (providing others do so also) than to behave in a straight-forwardly rational way. The rules allowing one to escape prisoner's dilemmas—the rules it is rational to accept providing all others accept them also—are simply the rules of morality. Hence it is rational to be moral.(2)

Plato agrees that rationality requires self-interested action. However, he distinguishes between perceived self-interest and actual self-interest and argues that any apparent conflict between rationality and morality is simply a conflict between one's perceived self-interest and the requirements of justice. Pursuing of one's actual self-interest never conflicts with the demands of morality. Since, for Plato, it is more rational to pursue one's real, than one's apparent, self-interest, rationality and morality do not conflict. It is rational to be moral.

Plato rejects the contractarian reconciliation of morality with individual rationality primarily because the thinks that the contractarian conception assumes that a person's motives for being just are necessarily based her self-interest, while our concept of the just person holds that to be truly just one must value justice for its own sake. The contractarian account is also unacceptable because it has no foorce in the case of the Lydia Shepherd.(3) Finally, Plato holds that we must reject the contractarian account because a better account is available to us, viz., his own account of justice. But to show this Plato must establish each of the following: 1. There really is a difference between perceived self-interest and actual self-interest, that there can be a difference between what one believes to be in one's interest and what really is in one's interest. 2. Provide an account of what one's actual self-interest is.(4) 3.
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