A return to somewhat more familiar territory with the Protagoras.  Here a young-ish Socrates encounters the older and very famous Protagoras, and the two debate about whether virtue is teachable.

Socrates makes his argument here that people only do bad out of ignorance: first this comes up in his exegesis of a poem for Protagoras (“For Simonides was not so ill-educated as to say that he praised a person who willingly did no evil, as though there were some who did evil willingly…” 345d and following).  He then makes the argument in much greater detail starting at 352, where Protagoras claims to agree with his bizarre and counter-intuitive assertion that “whoever learns what is good and what is bad will never be swayed by anything to act otherwise than as knowledge bids” (352b).

The argument Socrates leads Protagoras through on this depends first on the contention that pleasure is the same as the good.  This is a little startling, because I’m pretty sure that in the Gorgias he argues just the opposite, but I suppose he has a somewhat eccentric view of “pleasure.”  Once he has determined that pleasure is the same as the good, and that the goal of our lives is to maximize pleasure (good), he then can conclude that there is no such thing as doing evil because of being “overcome by pleasure”; there is just ignorance about “measurement.”  When something is close to you it seems bigger; thus, if you don’t know how to measure it properly, you might mistake the closer thing for the greater (or the more immediate pleasure of eating some chocolate for one further off, but really greater, of having no cavities).

Martha Nussbaum has a great chapter on this dialogue in her book The Fragility of Goodness where she shows that this notion of measurement assumes that all value is commensurable: there is nothing distinct, or unique, about the pleasure of eating chocolate that might make it more desirable than knowing one’s teeth will be healthy.  She points out that this assumption is in direct opposition to tragedy, which shows us instances where values come into conflict: where the demands of piety, say, run counter to demands of love.  In Socrates’ world, if we only had this system of measurement, we could easily settle such conflict by just doing the math.  (This is not un-related to Rob’s earlier post on economics in the Antigone: coinage is exactly about making different things commensurate.)

Now as you can tell, I’m on the tragic side of this one.  I agree, with Euripides’ Phaedra, that sometimes we know the good but still don’t do it.  But the measurement thing reminds me of a lot of thinking I’ve been doing lately about educational assessment (yes! assessment!).  Obama wants to pay good teachers more.  But how do we measure which teachers are good?  Presumably by seeing which teach their students more.  But how do we measure that?  If I, like Protagoras, want to claim that I (and my colleagues in the professoriate) make students “better” at being citizens — and much college catalog language about leadership and global society makes pretty much exactly that claim —  how can I measure how effectively I do that?  On the one hand, I know that there are some ways to measure educational outcomes; on the other, I feel that there are aspects of education that, like the human values tragedy helps us explore, are not so conducive to precise measurement.

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