Wotton's Society: Dr Jessica Moss- 'Ethical Errors and Optical Illusions'

Wednesday, 1st November 2012

Dr Jessica Moss of Baliol College, Oxford spoke to Wotton’s Society this Wednesday on the ancient issue of akrasia – why we desire things that we know are bad. She approached the issue through the lens of Plato’s arguments in the Republic and titled the talk “Ethical Errors and Optical Illusions”.

“Why do we do things that we know are bad?” and “how do we stop doing this?” were questions that were of great concern to Plato. In Protagoras Socrates had suggested that we are simply mistaken – the allure of another piece of cake can be deceiving, and at the time we ate it, we genuinely believed that to do so was out best option. Therefore, to fix this problem, we must seek more knowledge. Of course, to complete the Socratic Paradox we must also believe that we are rational, that is to say that we all weigh up the options when we make a decision. Therefore, when we say, “I knew I shouldn’t have done it”, we are wrong. In fact, at that moment, at least briefly, we miscalculated and thought that to take a particular bad course was the better option.

This view changed when Plato wrote the Republic. At this point he turned to Aristotle for a more explicit explanation. Aristotle had said that we have one part of the mind that is receptive to appearances and another that is receptive to reason, or beliefs. The sun might appear to be a foot wide but reason dictates that it is larger than ‘the inhabited portion of the Earth’. In the same way, a moral option can appear to be good but in fact be bad when we consider it. Plato took a similar line of argument, though it is only implied in the Republic. If we can both wish to drink (due to appetite) but also not want to drink (due to reason) then we can deduce by a principle of opposites that our souls have two parts: the rational – logistikon – and the non-rational – alogiston. In the same way, in Republic X, Plato uses optical illusions to distinguish the rational part from the non-rational that is influenced by appearances. This part will not be swayed by reason – it will always see the drink as good. Since it can never be changed with rational argument, we should try to indoctrinate it by exposing ourselves to the right kind of moral stories, myths and so on. This admission that there is part of our soul that is not sensitive to reason is where Plato’s beliefs in the Republic differ from those in the Protagoras and has influenced modern psychology – such as in Khaneman’s ‘Dual Processing’.

Having delivered an excellent explanation of these ideas, Dr Moss invited further questions from the floor. These covered a broad range of topics including responsibility, guilt, Plato’s basis for his arguments, and his views on censorship. Dr Moss’ talk was certainly an excellent introduction to this classical problem whilst also being both thorough and clear. I imagine every person present was able to take away a great deal from the meeting and we must thank Dr Moss for finding the time to come to Eton to address Wotton's.

Bridgland (MAG)