Book on Platonism
- 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.
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.[]
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
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
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,[] 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,[] 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.
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