A Short Piece on Education

The Moral Ring of Aletheia

Is there a connection between ethics and learning?

Photo by Nguyen Linh

The Ring of Gyges” story is Plato’s effort to suggest that even if we could get away with every crime imaginable, we would still be miserable, because our souls would fracture apart. The good harmonizes our lives, and if we lose the good, it won’t matter if the police catch us. If we steal money and power — if we achieve ends by the wrong means — we will suffer for it.

Plato wants to make it clear that concerns about our reputation should not be the primary reason we avoid crime and evildoing (it would be problematic if the only reason we cared about the good was in order to maintain our social status). Instead, Plato wants to argue that there is something about doing the good which “keeps us together,” that even if “the ends justify the means,” we may still not feel right. For Plato, a philosopher is someone who “keeps themselves together,” and for this reason a philosopher seeks to do the good, not in hopes of raising his or her social status, but in hopes of unifying their soul.

Plato believed we must live our lives in a way that kept our souls “together”; once fragmentation occurred, we would prove miserable and incapacitated. But to “stay together,” there are certain conditions we must meet, which means there is a certain way of life we need to follow. Generally, we need to live morally.

Now, there’s a problem here, for Plato seems to suggest that basically everyone would act immorally if they could in fact turn invisible and get away with whatever they wanted. If acting immorally tears apart the soul, this suggests that everyday people would destroy themselves if given the opportunity. How do we assure people don’t have this opportunity? Well, it seems a “Philosopher King” is needed, someone who is wise enough to overcome temptations with understanding that immorality leads to the “dead end” of a broken soul. In this way, Plato uses “The Ring of Gyges” to help legitimate his visions of a Republic. This isn’t my main point, but the effort of Plato to legitimate his project is noteworthy. Instead, what I want to focus on is the idea that if moral living keeps our “souls unified,” and if it is the case that with a “unified soul” we are more able to discover truth and even beauty, then morality entails epistemological consequences. The more upright a person we are, the more equipped we will be to discover truth. If this is true, then living ethically and knowing truth correlate.

This may not be the case, but it also easily could be true. Think about a time when you felt guilty about doing something — were you able to do any creative work? What about when you were in the middle of some terrible drama — were you able to focus? Maybe the drama wasn’t even your fault, but this just suggests that “broken souls” can entail externalities, meaning that keeping our souls together won’t just help us but also at the same time help others.

Now, if we tell a lie, but in our eyes it was “just a mistake,” we may not feel our “soul ripping apart” like Plato described, so there is indeed a “gray zone” on the question of if our soul is torn according to an “objective standard” of right and wrong or only according to “our standard” (as discussed in “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose). But that “gray zone” aside (which other works will attempt to sort out), the point is that there might be a relationship between our character and our capacity to learn and create. If we want to be creative and/or discover truth, living ethically and “keeping our soul together” could be an important step in the right direction.

On Beauty” by O.G. Rose argued that experiences of beauty are not mainly subjective but conditional, that in order to enjoy the beauty of Tolstoy, for example, we must meet the condition of “being able to read.” Similarly, it is possible that in order to generate the creativity needed to finish my short story, I must meet the condition of not feeling guilty because I stole money. Now, this could be a little different, because perhaps I could use the feeling of guilt to write a powerful scene about a character overwhelmed by guilt, but unless that just happens to be the subject of the novel I’m trying to write, then it is doubtful the guilt will be an enabling factor. The same goes with a pursuit for truth: unless I’m trying to learn the truth about guilt, it’s questionable that feeling guilt could help me discover truth. Perhaps it can, but it seems risky.

(w/ Cadell Last and O.G. Rose)

The classical idea that our capacity to learn truth is linked to our ethical character suggests that “cultivating subjectivity” enables learning, but the paradigm of modern science is generally that subjectivity needs to be “bracketed out” as much as possible (we’ve sacrificed “The Absolute” for “The Truth,” as discussed on Hegel). As noted in “The Critique of Pure Observation” by O.G. Rose, the glory of science is precisely that thinking and subjectivity are reduced in favor of observation and objectivity. Science is of course imperfect, but we would be foolish to deny the benefits we’ve garnered thanks to scientific methodologies. However, problematically, science has created the impression that the ethical character of “the person searching for truth” is beside the point: since subjectivity is generally “bracketed out,” anyone who walks into the lab and carries out a given experiment themselves will get the same results. The person doing the experiment becomes irrelevant, as Jonathan Rauch puts it, and, to stress, that is the glory of science (I personally would not want to live in a society without it). Of course though, we all know about scientists who “in the name of science” carried out horrific acts and experiments, so it’s clearly foolish to deny that the character of the scientist doesn’t matter at all, but it’s also foolish to deny that there are advantages to the scientific methodology which deemphasize the role of subjectivity. As with most things, a balance needs to be struck.

While not questioning its importance and glory, we should note that science can lead us to believe that character, subjectivity, and the like are irrelevant in all pursuits of truth, as opposed to it only being irrelevant relative to certain kinds of truth. Science has made us feel like the link between ethics and truth is entirely broken, as opposed to only broken in certain areas (and for good reason). Sure, our ethical character may not matter when we are examining the composition of a rock, but it could easily matter when we are trying to figure out the difference between “love” and “liking.” Ideas of the “soft sciences” might strongly be shaped by “who we are,” but the “hard sciences” can give us the impression that this isn’t the case and/or that it shouldn’t be the case. Science can train us to think that subjectivity shouldn’t be involved in the pursuit for truth, and as a result we can deny its presence even when it’s there or fail to realize how “ethically cultivating subjectivity” can open us up to new truths. Consequently, we generally don’t cultivate our abilities to encounter truth, which can leave us feeling like there is no truth we could encounter with better cultivation. The loss hides that it is lost.

In closing, Plato brings to our attention the connection between morality and “a unified soul,” and here I want to suggest that “a unified soul” could contribute to our capacity to experience truth, creativity, and beauty (wisdom as opposed to mere knowledge). But this suggests an interesting “chicken and egg” problem: do we learn truth and then become ethical, or do we become ethical and then learn truth? Putting aside the idea that “becoming ethical in-of-itself entails learning truth” — there can be overlap — it would seem that the “first step on the road to truth” is learning to be ethical, for that is to learn to “deny ourselves,” to separate our actions from our wants, and to cultivate freedom from our desires. Once we learn this act of “self-denial,” it would seem that we can then begin learning truth, for we have learned that it’s possible to separate “the truth” from “our ideas of the truth,” a big and critical step. If this is the case, then the denial of “the subject” could mean that we never take “the first step” on the road to learning truth: if the journey starts with ethics, then a society that tries to skip straight to truth will skip over it.

How do we improve our character then? Didn’t “(Im)morality” suggest that this effort was radically situational? And is “improving ourselves ethically” the same as “improving our aesthetic capacities?” Wonderful questions, and hopefully the works of O.G. Rose will explore them adequately elsewhere. For now though, we will conclude with glimpsing forgotten horizons opened by connecting ethics with education.

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