An Analyzation of Socrates’ Argument: No One Desires Something He or She Believes To Be Bad

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates contends that ‘no one desires something he or she believes to be bad’ (77e).  Socrates’ argument is as follows (starting at 78a):

1. Everyone knows that if something is bad it’s harmful.

2. So to want something you believe is bad as such involves wanting to be harmed.

3. But no one wants to be harmed.

4. Therefore, no one wants something he or she believes to be bad, as such.

To effectively refute Socrates’ argument, one can simply provide a counterexample to one or more of Socrates’ premises.

Socrates’ first premise: “Everyone knows that if something is bad it’s harmful” is subject to objection.  This premise is a very bold claim.  It specifically states: “Everyone knows…”.  This premise does not say ‘most people’, nor does it even say ‘all rational people’ – the premise specifically says everyone, which makes this statement an absolute.  This premise can be logically notated as:

person —> knows that X is bad —> knows that X is harmful

As such, to invalidate this premise, one simply needs to provide an example of a person who knows that something is bad without also knowing that the thing is harmful.

This is easily accomplished by imagining a scenario in which a young and impressionable child is told by her mother that ‘smoking is bad’.  This child would then, presumably, operate under the assumption that ‘smoking is bad’ without an actual understanding that smoking is bad because it is harmful; this child would just think that smoking is bad simply because her mother told her it was bad.  In other words, this hypothetical shows a possible scenario in which an individual can think something is bad (child knows that smoking is bad) without knowing it is also harmful (child doesn’t know smoking is bad because it is harmful); thus, effectively invalidating the first premise of Socrates’ argument.

The second premise of Socrates’ argument: “So to want something you believe is bad as such involves wanting to be harmed” can be refuted on the grounds that it is a non-sequitur claim.  An individual’s desire to be harmed does not necessarily follow from the desire for something that the same individual believes to be bad.  Rather, this statement assumes that the individual’s desire of wanting to be harmed is tethered to the same individual’s desire for something bad.  This premise can be logically notated as:

individual X wants something believed to be bad —> individual X wants to be harmed

As such, to effectively invalidate this premise, one need only show a case where an individual desires something she believes to bad without also wanting to be harmed.

This is easily accomplished by considering the individual who cheats on his or her spouse.  Outside of polyamorous and other open relationship types, it is universally accepted by all people that cheating on one’s spouse is bad.  However, consider the individual who chooses to cheat on his or her spouse, anyways.  Consider the individual who cheats on his or her spouse due to a momentary lapse of judgment and/or a passionate heat of the moment.  This individual wants something that can be universally agreed upon as ‘bad’ — namely, sexual intercourse with someone who is not his or her spouse without said spouse’s consent — but is it also correct to assume that this individual wants to be harmed by the process of cheating on his or her spouse?  This seems to be a stretch.  An appeal to common sense would suggest that it is more likely the case that the individual who cheats on his or her spouse does not want to be harmed via the process of cheating on his or her spouse.  This is why these types of affairs are often kept a secret and are taboo.

In considering the individual who cheats on his or her spouse, we have been presented with a case where an individual desires something he or she believes to bad (cheating on his or her spouse) without also wanting to be harmed as a result.  As such, we have provided a counterexample to Socrates’ second premise; thus, invalidating the statement.

The third premise of Socrates’ argument: “No one wants to be harmed” is another absolute statement.  This premise can be logically noted as:

person —> not want to be harmed

As such, to invalidate this premise, one must show an example of a person who does want to be harmed.

This is easily accomplished: masochists, individuals who cut themselves, and people who commit suicide all want to and successfully do hurt themselves.  Granted, the harm these individuals inflict upon themselves may just serve as a means to an end, but the fact remains that they wanted to undergo harm to achieve this end.  Moreover, harming themselves purely as a means to an end does not refute the fact that these individuals still want to be harmed to achieve the said end.  The third premise does not contain the qualifier ‘even if that harm only serves as a means to an end’ — rather, the third premise specifically states ‘no one wants to be harmed’ period.  Thus, it is irrelevant as to whether or not the harm masochists, individuals who cut themselves, and people who commit suicide inflict upon themselves is merely a means to an end.  What is logically relevant is that the conditional statement, person —> not want to be harmed, has been shown to not be universally applicable and thus, has been invalidated.

By presenting counterexamples to each premise and invalidating each statement, we have severely weakened the strength of Socrates’ argument.  As such, one has reason to reject Socrates’ claim that no one desires something he or she believes to be bad.

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