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Book on Platonism

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  • Cosmin I. Andron
    John M. Rist, Real Ethics. Rethinking the Foundations of Morality . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. viii, 295. ISBN 0-521-00608-2. $23.00
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 4, 2002
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      John M. Rist, 'Real Ethics. Rethinking the Foundations of Morality'.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. viii, 295. ISBN
      0-521-00608-2. $23.00 (pb).

      You can consult the review (published in Bryn Mawr Classical Review) below.



      BMCR 2002.07.26

      John M. Rist, 'Real Ethics. Rethinking the Foundations of Morality'

      Reviewed by Joachim Lukoschus ©, Nijmegen, Netherlands
      Word count: 2144 words

      Rist's aim in this study is twofold: first, he sets out to show that
      only two coherent attitudes concerning moral foundations are available,
      viz., either 'Platonic realism' or 'Thrasymachean nihilism'; second, he
      suggests that the former is far more plausible than the latter. The
      book is thus primarily about ethics, but because of its project
      substantial parts deal with ancient theories of the good and the good
      life, of justice and love, and of the soul and the nature of man. Rist
      builds his case for realism on philosophical theses propounded by Plato
      or such 'Platonists' as Aristotle, Augustine or even Aquinas. His
      study, therefore, is of interest not only to philosophers, theologians
      and, in fact, all those concerned with moral theory but also to
      classicists interested in ancient ethics.[[1]]

      The book consists of an introduction and nine chapters; it is completed
      by a bibliography and a general index. The introduction states the
      subject at issue: moral foundations. The reader, however, has to work
      through the first chapter, entitled 'Moral nihilism: Socrates vs.
      Thrasymachus', to gain full understanding of the aim and structure of
      the book. In chapter 1 Rist interprets the moral nihilism Thrasymachus
      defends and Socrates attacks in the first book of Plato's 'Republic' --
      namely the thesis that what is called justice is in fact the advantage
      of the stronger -- as a version of moral anti-realism. According to
      Rist, who on this point follows Plato as against the mainstream of
      contemporary ethical thought, this means that moral standards are not
      only not grounded in some kind of objective reality but are based on
      arbitrary preferences of groups or individuals and therefore cannot be
      rationally justified: ethical theories which pretend to justify their
      principles without recourse to 'Platonic realism' can be shown to fail
      and, accordingly, be reduced to 'Thrasymachean nihilism'. These two
      theories, Rist claims, are the only viable alternatives in the debate
      about moral foundations.

      Most of the remaining chapters develop essential aspects of 'Platonic
      realism' (chapters 2-4) or treat its major contemporary alternatives,
      pointing out their inadequacies (chapter 6-7). Chapter 5 is a bit of a
      hybrid, proposing an interpretation of moral rules and principles as
      means to ends, thereby elaborating Rist's 'realist' conception of moral
      conduct -- in which virtuous emotions and dispositions take precedence
      over rules and principles -- and, at the same time, exposing the
      limitations of a rule-based conception of justice as fairness. Chapter
      8 turns to the political implications of ethics. Chapter 9 returns to
      foundational issues.

      It's not feasible to do justice to every aspect of the book in the
      compass of this review. For example, some of Rist's discussions of
      rival theories will be hinted at in a few words, others will be passed
      over altogether; even some of the themes that are not unimportant to
      Rist himself will have to be ignored in order to present a clear
      analysis of his main argument. The following paragraphs will attempt to
      do just that, concentrating first on 'Platonic realism' as envisaged by
      Rist and then on his treatment of rival theories. After that the review
      can be aptly concluded by a brief assessment of the 'Platonism' he
      wishes to revive.

      The most important feature of this 'Platonism' clearly is its theistic
      interpretation, which Rist adopts from Augustine and the medieval
      Christian tradition. According to this tradition Plato's form of the
      Good -- which in his ethics functions not only as an objective standard
      but also as a metaphysical object of love or Eros, capable of inspiring
      human action -- needs to be interpreted as God. For goodness as a
      quality must be substantiated in something good; and as the object of
      the highest form of human love this 'something' must be a person. As
      Rist would have it, Plato's form of the Good, along with other moral
      exemplars, subsists in God's being or nature.

      On the part of man, of course, such a theory requires a very specific
      conception of human nature. Man must possess the intellectual and moral
      capacities to live by the Good; he must be able to recognize and love
      it, and to let it govern his actions. Plato copes with this requirement
      by positing a 'core self', an intellectual soul, the proper functioning
      of which in human beings is as a rule disturbed by vicious upbringing
      and practice but which cannot be corrupted itself. This essentialist
      theory -- though it does not explain why human life is as morally
      defective as it is -- explains at least the fact that at times some
      people do display moral improvement by stripping off from their souls
      the layers of mistaken belief and bad habit.

      Rist rejects this theory. Instead -- and this is a second important
      feature of the 'Platonism' he advocates -- he favours a theory of human
      nature according to which there is no such thing as a 'core self' to be
      detected, but only a 'future soul' to be hoped for. There are no layers
      that can be stripped off. The moral self of man possesses no single
      identity. It is ineradicably divided into opposed and
      self-contradictory personalities which in succession make up the moral
      history of man in this life, and which, by external help, that is, by
      God's grace, may be transformed into a unified soul after death. Rist
      takes seriously what he dubs the 'surd-factor' in human nature,
      revealing itself in the incapacity of most men by themselves to unify
      their souls and to live a life which is governed by the love of God,
      which results from the feeling of incompleteness that accompanies their
      inner division.

      In support of this christianized version of 'Platonic realism', the
      bare essentials of which have just been outlined, Rist rejects some
      major alternatives as incoherent. His criticism is not confined to
      contemporary theories, which are dealt with in chapters 6-7. In view of
      these theories he also discusses the ethical thought of Epicurus,
      Macchiavelli and Hobbes as well as that of Kierkegaard in chapter 2.
      The first three are discussed as precursors of contemporary
      'naturalism', which Rist presents as heavily influenced by Hume.
      Kierkegaard is treated as an important factor in the development of
      currently wide-spread theories of autonomy and choice. A second
      important factor in the development of these theories, viz.,
      Kantianism, is dealt with both in its original form and in its
      contemporary adaptations by theories of 'practical reasoning', as is
      also the case with Aristotelianism. According to Rist the project of
      both Kantianism and Aristotelianism to separate ethics from metaphysics
      has proven a failure.

      It would be tedious to enter into the details of Rist's criticism of
      all these theories. Instead, it seems better to sketch the main line
      and the kind of argument he uses to establish his thesis that (1) all
      the alternatives referred to are incoherent and, as a result, open to
      reduction to 'Thrasymachean nihilism' and that (2) 'Platonic realism',
      which, for all its epistemological problems, is taken to be a
      consistent and intelligible account of human life and experience, in
      the debate about moral foundations carries the day.

      Rist's claim that all the alternatives to 'Platonic realism' are
      incoherent has varying reasons. Some theories are judged incoherent
      because of the implausibility of their premisses. Rist, for example,
      criticizes Kant for his bifurcation of human nature into autonomous
      reason and heteronomous inclinations, his belief that all the
      formulations of the Categorical Imperative are equivalent, and the
      inability of his rational commands to motivate a dutiful man to act at
      all. Other theories, e.g. modern theories of 'practical reasoning', are
      found to be incoherent in that they fall short of their aim, that is to
      be an account of morality. According to Rist there is no way of
      interpreting morality as rational decision-making -- as identifying
      reasons for actions which every rational agent would accept -- simply
      because of the fact that 'I ought to do this' is not identical to 'It
      is rational for me to do this'. He opposes any philosophical
      redescription in non-realist terms of the ordinary realist
      understanding that the 'man in the street' has of 'common morality'.
      Still other theories, e.g. non-metaphysical theories of 'natural'
      rights, are deemed incoherent because they are based on mere
      assumptions. According to Rist 'natural' rights not backed up by an
      adequate metaphysical account of human value are nothing but personal

      All such theories, Rist claims, may be considered 'nihilist' in that
      their foundations cannot be established but their content can be
      interpreted, in the wake of Thrasymachus, as a political means to
      social ends. In other words, they can be reduced to pseudo- or 'as-if'
      moralities. In particular 'choice theory' -- the theory according to
      which the opportunity to choose for one self is the primary human good,
      which serves as a foundation for every person's basic right to autonomy
      -- presents itself as liable to such a reduction. For according to Rist
      the value it allots to choosing for one self is itself an arbitrary
      preference. Quasi-realist theories, which stress the social benefit of
      acting as if there were real moral values 'out there', are even
      explicit varieties of 'nihilism'.

      Rist's argument for the superiority of realism is in fact a reductio ad
      absurdum of anti-realism. He is perfectly clear about the
      epistemological problems of the Christianized system of Platonism
      described above. Yet he rejects Thrasymacheanism in favour of a theory
      which, alledgedly, explains our moral experience better. Following the
      tactic of Zeno, the pupil of Parmenides, he concentrates on the
      consequences if 'Platonic realism' should prove to be false, that is,
      he sketches the world we would live in if 'Thrasymachean nihilism'
      should turn out to be true. That world, according to Rist, would be
      unintelligible and dreadful. It would be a world of deception and
      self-deception about standards which once were thought of as moral, but
      which, on reflection, appear to be instrumental. It would be a world
      that is non-moral.

      The main reason for the title of the book -- Real Ethics -- should by
      now be clear. It expresses nothing less than Rist's attempt to
      vindicate what he considers the ordinary, realist conception of
      morality against the mainstream of contemporary ethical thought, which,
      according to Rist, transforms 'common morality' into something else.
      Assuming that this 'common morality' exists and that it is realist
      indeed, this aspect of the book deserves approval. For the fact that in
      contemporary ethics moral experience is mostly subordinated to the
      whole of moral theory and that, as a result, the experience is adjusted
      in view of the theory, is often passed over in silence. Moral thought
      shapes and reshapes morality; so it should be clear that successive
      transformations may be so fundamental as to imply discontinuity in
      morality itself as well as in moral thought. It may be true to assert,
      as Rist in fact does, that contemporary, anti-realist ethics has
      nothing to say about an older form of moral experience, which,
      expressed in a realist conception of morality, is still 'common' with
      the 'man in the street' today. The present reviewer at least cannot
      avoid the impression that e.g. John Rawls's influential theory of
      justice, which happens to make its correlation between experience and
      theory perfectly clear,[[2]] for all its virtues has little bearing on
      his own moral experience.

      This, of course, is not to say that Rist's plea for realism is cogent.
      On the contrary, in line with human experience in other fields, moral
      experience cannot be thought of as definitive and as an ultimate point
      of reference outside corrigible theory. That, however, or so it
      appears, is just what Rist does. In the end his argument depends on the
      veracity of 'our' moral experience. Yet there are powerful reasons for
      distrust. One need only think of the evolutionary approach to morality,
      mentioned only once by Rist,[[3]] although it should figure as a most
      important and perhaps the most radical contemporary version of
      'Thrasymachean nihilism'. Many interesting and even socially vital
      questions arise from its exposure of morality as inter alia a
      many-sided biological means to biological ends. Rist does not enter
      into these questions. Instead, he vindicates moral experience and, to
      the present reviewer disappointingly, without any argument to
      demonstrate its veracity, returns to 'Platonic realism'. However, he
      may have felt no need for such an argument, for in several parts of the
      book he gives the impression that he has no real intention of
      persuading the non-realist but in fact is guilty of preaching to the
      choir. Several times he discusses the attitude realists should display
      in their dialogue with contemporary anti-realists; his intended
      audience, therefore, may not be his opponents, but his philosophic

      In conclusion: the book is well-written, the argument is clear and
      discussions of other views are mostly accurate. Its main thesis,
      however, at least to the present reviewer, is rather unconvincing.


      1. Rist does not rest his case on his interpretations of Plato or
      Augustine, but he does believe in their historicity (p. 7). In fact, he
      is a recognized a specialist in the field of ancient philosophy, and
      his numerous publications have earned wide-spread recognition. In
      recent years his interests appear to have shifted to philosophical

      2. Cf. J. Rawls, A theory of Justice, Oxford 1972, sections 4 and 87.

      3. Rist (p. 53) mentions R. Dawkins, The selfish Gene, Oxford 1976.
      Dawkins has little to say about morality; cf. R.D. Alexander, The
      biology of moral systems, New York 1987 or W.A. Rottschaefer, The
      biology and psychology of moral agency, Cambridge 1998.

      The BMCR website (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/) contains a complete
      and searchable archive of BMCR reviews since our first issue in 1990.
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      the service.


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