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Preparing College Reading Assignments
Rick Garlikov

The following is from my attempts to help my college freshman daughter understand how to do college work, in this particular case in regard to her first recitation class in her philosophy course, but the techniques below can be generalized to most courses that involve ideas and concepts as opposed to just pure memorization. 

This web page has to do with preparing for the classes by studying, not just reading, the assignments. I had already told her that the two most important general things for doing well in college were to go to every class, no matter how boring and worthless a bad teacher might be or might seem to be, and to keep up with all readings on time so that she did not get behind. Getting behind in a course puts you at a severe disadvantage and can easily lead to getting further and further behind.  Missing class can cause you to miss some really crucial piece of information, and most teachers do not appreciate very much students who do not attend their classes.  Moreover, it is very difficult to appreciate a course where you have missed classes because, if the class is a good one, it will be like trying to read a novel while skipping some of the earlier chapters.  Things that would have made sense and would have been exciting later on will not be, because you missed necessary elements.

The following covers two different class philosophy assignments and is meant to model how to prepare well, not just minimally or adequately, for these classes.  The first assignment was a contemporary article assigned for a class discussion --  Peter Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality".  The second is from the beginning of Book II of Plato's Republic. I realize readers of this web page may not have be familiar with those works, so the point of this for you is to show you how to work through a reading assignment. I am trying to teach you a method. You do not need to worry about knowing the full content of the two works analyzed here.  Even if I have analyzed those works in some incorrect way, perhaps misunderstanding a point or understanding it differently from the course teacher, or even if you do that with works you are assigned, that will be very helpful for your teacher to explain what s/he thinks is right to you, and it should make it easier for you to understand the teacher's perspective. (It should also, normally, impress your teacher that you have been so thorough, so conscientious, and so well prepared, even if partially mistaken.)

I mention below, and have a link to, an introduction to ethics that I have written and that I sell on the Internet, but it is not necessary to buy or read that in order to follow what is written here.  There is another link, to a free online essay that explains about reasoning, however.  That one is helpful, and I think, important, to read and understand.

If the course has any kind of a decent teacher, normally preparation of the sort described below makes the course and each class more interesting for the students and for the teachers so that more stimulating and penetrating ideas about the subject can be discussed instead of "just going over what the reading says" which is typically boring and unproductive.  And, gradewise, this is a good way to prepare because it normally makes studying for any midterm or final exam just a matter of review, rather than a matter of trying to learn everything in a compressed amount of time.  It takes longer to study this way at the beginning but saves a great deal of time and agony at the end of the course or before any exam.  And you usually learn far more and understand the material far better.

For example, it took me some three or four hours to do the part below from Book II of Plato, so this is not something anyone can be expected to do in a short time.  Just "reading" the assignments might take only an hour, but that makes the assignments look deceptively short or easy. College assignments are not meant to be simply "read" but to be understood in ways such as I describe below. As they told us at an honors award ceremony, they understood that scholarship is often a lonely business because it takes time and effort in thinking one's way through things. I think the part about the time and effort is correct, but I don't consider it "lonely" because it can be intrinsically (as well as extrinsically) rewarding, when the assignment is actually worthwhile. If you are really involved in it, you do not feel lonely. Learning good material doesn't make you lonely, though doing terrible assignments can make you very lonely. Instead, learning great material gives you the most wonderful companionship of some of history's and the world's greatest minds and thinkers -- people often far away or long dead, people very distant in space and/or time. If you are willing to put in the time to do this sort of thing, it will often be rewarding. The following is what I wrote to my daughter:

I know you want to do your courses yourself, and I presume you have prepared for your ethics course by reading Singer's article on famine and affluence. But I want to show you a model for doing this sort of thing, and since Singer's article is a good one to use as an example, here is my analysis and response to the main part of it. If you don't want to, or don't get to, read this before ethics class, it should still serve as a model for future assignments of this sort. The main thing is to try to spell out the argument(s) and/or sub-arguments (for each premise, when there are such sub-arguments), and then to examine them for their truth and for their validity (that is their logic or relevance to the conclusion, for there can be true premises which still do not support the conclusion if they do not logically "go together in the right way" to be properly relevant -- as explained in the essay on reasoning). 

Singer's argument is, I believe, the following, though he gives the premises in a somewhat different order, and though he makes some modifications in #1.  What I say about this below will apply to any of his modifications as well, but I will not go through that with you here: 

1) "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it." 
2) "...suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad." 
3) It is within the power of individuals in affluent societies to prevent, in famine-stricken countries, suffering and death from lack of food, by contributing money to famine relief programs. 
4) It will not sacrifice anything of comparable moral importance for individuals in affluent societies to contribute the money to famine relief programs. 
Therefore 5) it is the moral obligation of individuals in affluent societies to contribute money to famine relief programs. 
I believe that the conclusion follows logically (i.e., validly) from the premises, which is to say that I believe that if the premises are true, the conclusion would have to be true also. 

But I believe premise #1 is false or and also possibly ambiguous. I believe that #3 is also false in some cases. I believe that #4 is false in some cases. 

The first premise is false or ambiguous in different ways: 
a) Ambiguity: There are many things which are bad that I could correct individually without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, but which I cannot correct collectively. Hence, I do not have an obligation to prevent every bad thing from happening even though I could prevent any one or few of them from happening. So, to say that I could prevent some specific bad thing from occurring does not mean I have to do that particular thing if I am doing some other good (or preventing some other harm) instead. In other words there might be ten different arguments just like the above, but where premises 3 and 4 are about a particular but different kind of harm that it would be good to prevent -- starvation, poor education, poverty, homelessness, disease control, immunization, old age care, etc.  If the above argument were sound and if the premises of the other nine arguments were also true for each case, that would mean that the conclusions would all be true.  But that might be impossible to do, and therefore not all the conclusions collectively would be obligatory. 

It may be that Singer's phrase "without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance" covers this case, but this spells out a particular situation of that which is important because when someone is focusing on or talking about preventing someone from starving to death (as Singer does in premise #4 above), it may seem that is the only or most important thing to do, and it is easy to lose sight of the fact we may already be doing things of equal or greater importance. E.g., going to medical school may be ultimately more important than joining the Peace Corps at age 22, even though "being a medical student" is not to, at the time, be doing as much good as teaching a village irrigation methods or sanitation. 

b) No one has an obligation to prevent every harm from befalling someone who has willingly and knowingly put himself in jeopardy. So not all harms need be prevented even if one could prevent them. One does not need to keep "bailing out" people who get themselves in trouble and who should know better. The ants in the Aesop fable do not have an obligation to share their stored food with the grasshopper in the winter after he refused to heed their warning to store up food instead of just playing around doing only pleasurable things all summer. This is not to say starving people have put themselves in jeopardy (though a poor country sometimes perpetuates its misery and may, in some cases, be guilty of practices and traditions or lifestyles that prolong or worsen its misery), but this is only meant to give one kind of case of how principle #1 above is false. 

c) It is not necessarily obligatory for anyone to do those things for which someone else has a particular obligation who is perfectly capable of fulfilling that obligation without help. E.g., it is not necessarily my duty to do someone else's job for them even if I could do it. It might be my obligation to save someone from a mugging if police will not help, but it is not my obligation to pay the police out of my own pocket at the time to get them to do their duty they are already being paid to do. I could not be reasonably charged for complicity in a murder because I did not pay police on hand to stop it from happening.  The police would be derelict, not I. 

If there is food available to feed the innocently starving, and that food is otherwise going to waste, it ought to be given to the starving, but that does not mean it is up to me to take the food to them or to pay someone to give up the food. This situation is comparable, it seems to me, to the cases one sees played up in the news periodically where a child needs a $300,000 surgical procedure to save its life, and everyone is seeking donations instead of just putting pressure on the doctors and hospital to do the operation for free or for less money. Why should the doctors and hospital use the patient as a hostage to extract money from us? I spoke with a hospital administrator who said that there were circumstances under which it would not really cost a hospital anything to give patients free care. Of course, it might cost a doctor a day off from playing golf, or it might mean the doctor only makes $4 million dollars that year instead of $3.9 million. 

When part of the the U.S. suffers drought, farmers help each other out without seeking money to pay for the feed they ship to other farmers. There is no reason that the good which Singer seeks requires monetary donations from individuals not involved. 

As to #3 above, it is not clear that we can do much to stop famine in certain countries, or that we can do much to limit population growth. Nor is it clear that is our job to try. It is not like it takes any special knowledge to exercise sexual abstinence or various forms of birth control. It is not necessarily an obligation to save a person's life so that he can create children who will then be put at risk, essentially in his place. Contrary to what Singer simply states about an obligation to help those in need now even if they were to reproduce others who will then be in (greater) need, postponing disaster by transferring it to a different innocent third party is not an obligation. If saving you were to put some other innocent person or people in equal or worse jeopardy as a result, I do not think anyone has the obligation to save you. 

Moreover, it is difficult for individuals to know whether their money is actually going toward famine relief or not in distant parts of the world, just as it is difficult to know whether tax dollars are wisely spent in any enterprise, whether charities have exorbitant administrative costs, or whether giving five dollars to a homeless person will buy him a meal or two bottles of cheap wine. While it is true that one should help others when one can, it does not mean that every action intended to help will actually help. Individuals need at least some assurances that any donations actually supply food to starving people, without their having to go watch what is happening. 

As I said earlier, #4 may be false because many individuals could better spend their money and energy in other worthy causes. 

Moreover with regard to #4 and to #1, while some luxuries may be frivolous, it is not clear that all are either frivolous or in some way wrong. For example, while I am no particular fan of sports or of clergy or university philosophy teachers, I would still not say all sports, churches, or philosophy courses should be banned while athletes, clergymen, and academic philosophers are instead made to help feed the hungry or build homes for the homeless. There is nothing wrong in some cases with some people having some luxuries while others do not have conveniences or perhaps even necessities, as long as the people with the luxuries are not thereby preventing the others from having conveniences or necessities, and particularly if payment for the luxuries helps those who supply them earn a decent living they might otherwise not be able to. If one nation becomes affluent through industry and luck, they may not be able to help other nations do the same other than in serving as a model. They may also not be obligated to save or elevate others, though there are cases where that would be obligatory. It is not easy to explain which cases are obligatory and which are not, but Singer's principle #1 above does not do it at all. 

My daughter did not read this before class.  During class her teacher kept talking about Singer's stronger and weaker version of his main principle involved in the article. She called me and asked about that because she thought there was no significant difference between the two versions in the way her teacher seemed to think there was, but didn't explain sufficiently. She asked whether I could explain what the difference is.

There are three ways Singer states his main principle, and there is a fourth way (in two different versions) he contrasts those three with. 

On page 522, he says what I quoted above in the e-mail I sent this morning: 
1) "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally to do it." 

2) A little further down, he says, as he implies later as well "It [i.e., this principle] requires us only to prevent what is bad, and not to promote what is good". Therefore it is not the principle that would be stated as "if it is in our power to do good, without thereby ...., we ought, morally to do it. 

3) Then he restates the first position in what he calls a more qualified form: if it is in our power to prevent something very [emphasis mine -- RG] bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally to do it. 

4) But on page 525 he states the first and third position even differently: "we ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral value." 

5) And he again, in a slightly different way, contrasts 4 (and therefore also 1 and 3) with the really strong position of 2 above, when he says this is not the principle that "we all ought, morally, to be working full time to increase the balance of happiness over misery." 

So 2 and 5, which he does not hold, would be the really strong positions -- that we ought to be doing as much good (or balance of good, which he considers to be the balance of happiness) as possible all the time. (I do not equate good with happiness, necessarily, but Singer does, I will not go into that here; it is explained in the Introduction to Ethics I sent you.) 

Instead he has three positions, which are: 

1) we ought to prevent bad things.... 
2) we ought to prevent very bad things.... 
3) we ought to prevent suffering 
1 is stronger than 2 because it requires us to prevent more things, since presumably there are more bad things than there are very bad things, because the bad things would also include all the very bad things, and because there are in addition some bad things that are not also very bad. But 3 is difficult to place in order because some suffering might be very bad whereas some suffering may just be bad, and some suffering may not be bad or too bad at all (though I am not sure about this), as in taking the pain out of medical injections -- it is not clear that needs to be a priority of anyone's. 

Anyway, as far as I can see, these are the different positions or different versions of the basic position. Examples of each case would be something like, I only need to prevent you from starving to death, I don't need to give you gourmet meals three times a day -- that would be to prevent very bad harm but not do the most good (or promote the greatest balance of happiness). 

Or I only need to prevent you from starving to death, but I do not need to be sure you are properly nourished. That would be to prevent something very bad, but not necessarily to prevent something bad, nor to do the most possible good. 

To eliminate your suffering depends on what causes you to suffer. Some people suffer when they have to eat leftovers, even if they are good leftovers, or they suffer when they don't have the specific foods they like, even if the foods available would make a perfectly good meal. 

On the other hand, if someone dies could be murdered without suffering, that would not be a thing we need to prevent on the basis of statement 5, but it would be a very bad thing normally. So #5 is open to problems of interpretation or adequate formulation in its own right. 

Still, none of these formulations meet the objections I stated this morning because we do not have an obligation to prevent every even very bad thing we could.  For example, the ants in the Aesop fable  have no obligation necessarily to keep the grasshopper alive; we have no obligation to keep cold blooded killers alive and comfortable. Nor does anyone necessarily have an obligation to do what other people have a greater obligation to do who are in a position to do it. Also, we tend to have our own ways of contributing to society, even if what we do is somehow not as important as feeding the poor.  Construction workers and FAA airline controllers have no obligation to quit their jobs and leave their homes to go feed the poor,   philosophers have no obligation to give up teaching and writing, and preachers have no obligation to give up preaching and running a church in order to help Africans or Indians learn to farm. If someone has a worthwhile "calling", such as, say, writing poetry about urban life, or doing and teaching math at a university, they should be allowed to do that if they can, without their having to give it up to live in some remote area to help someone learn to grow crops. (We have a somewhat greater obligation to ourselves than to others, with regard to things which are important and not just frivolous interests. That is true for everyone -- each person has a greater obligation to him/herself than to others, everything else being equal. That does not mean we do not have obligations to others which override our own interests. But one has to make a case for what those obligations are; not all altruistic acts are even right, let alone obligatory. Some acts can be too self-sacrificing and therefore wrong.) If this were not so, then by Singer's own argument he should give up teaching philosophy and go into famine relief or farming full time, because I think it would be difficult to make a case that teaching philosophy at Princeton is at least as morally significant as saving people from starvation.  And, as to writing philosophy, he should be able to do that from poor areas of the world. 

My general ethical principle is in the intro to ethics I sent you, and it is far more complex than Singer's, and is, I think, far more accurate because it takes into account things that need to be taken into account besides utility -- such as fairness for (or to) the person performing the act, along with rights which may oppose utility, and reasonable or just distribution of benefits and burdens.  And my general ethical principle also would imply that we should save the child drowning in the shallow water, as would many ethical principles imply that, without also then implying conclusions like Singers which are unwarranted.  His principle is too broad, and though it includes the drowning child case, as it and any correct principle should, it also includes too many other cases which are not warranted. 

By the way, you asked how the example Singer gives that you should "prevent a child from drowning in a shallow pool, if you are nearby" supports his claim that distance is not an issue in saving the starving of other countries. It doesn't. After the case of the drowing child in the shallow water, which is meant to exemplify the principle that we should not allow harm when it is within our power to prevent it, he simply changes the subject.   He there considers the objection that people in the countries at issue are too far away.  He says, in answer to that objection, that with modern technology and communications, the world is a global village where distance is not a causal impediment, in the way it used to be, particularly with the network supposedly in place to distribute food easily to famine stricken areas. So although the paragraph about distance follows the paragraph about the drowing child example, it is unrelated in terms of the logical structure and sequence of the arguments. 

There is at least one other aspect to Singer's position. He does not, I believe, own a car, but he has the kind of job and lives in the kind of area where a car is not necessary, so it is not clear that he is giving up anything of importance to him in the way we would have had to by not owning a decent, reliable car. Moreover, his future livelihood is not particularly in jeopardy or precarious and his needs are not particularly great, so he can afford to give away money, though there is always the question of why someone should make more money than he needs in the first place. It is not clear to me that one is being more moral to give away money than not to have charged people the excess in the first place. E.g., while it is good that Bill Gates gives away a billion dollars a year, it is not clear to me that he is not gouging all of us in order to get it in the first place. He is in essence taxing us in order to make him look philanthropic. But for those of us who do not have a secure future, it is difficult to know how much money is "excess" money we will not some day need. Singer's argument is that we should prevent harm before wasting money on frivolous luxuries, but many people even in affluent societies do not necessarily waste money on frivolous luxuries. 

Finally, it is not clear that a small luxury ought to be given up in order to feed someone whose condition one is not responsible for and whose condition will only be improved from starving to malnourished and unproductive other kinds of suffering at best. I try to give to others in ways that I can see will benefit them, not just in monetary contributions that I have no idea what is happening as a result. So I have given money to a single mother who worked hard; I have done publicity photos for free for the Alabama Symphony; I gave a friend a used piano I thought would improve her life; I donate photos as auction presents for charities. I try to help kids on the Internet with their studies. I have given roses to strangers just to brighten their day (when I was in grad school and made more money than I needed), and I once, with his mother's permission, bought a little urban black kid I saw in a department store bakery a chocolate eclair just so he could have an experience of joy he would never have otherwise. I have taught kids to ride a bicycle, to their delight after they couldn't learn otherwise. But I don't give homeless people five dollars, because I pay taxes meant to help the homeless, and because I have no reason to believe they won't just buy booze; I don't write letters to soldiers overseas; I don't donate to the starving in India. I think there are better ways to spend the money I have a somewhat hard time earning. If I were rich, I would probably buy a school to run because I think I can make the world better by doing that than by sending money to Africa to save lives just so they can live longer in dire poverty, in some cases irredeemable poverty and futile, long-suffering existences. 

Most of that would not count for anything on Singer's standards because he is arguing for us to contribute to his favorite cause.  And though that cause may be worthy, it is clearly not the only worthy cause, and it is arguably not even the most worthy cause. 

My daughter then wrote what is in bold blue below, with my responses following.

"I agree that Singer's article is valid based on his assumptions,"

Important language and conceptual issue clarification: Those are not his "assumptions". They are the reasons he states for his conclusion. This is really crucial, not just in philosophy, but in almost every course. The question is almost always "What is the point you are trying to make, and what is your evidence/reasons/premises (all meaning the same thing) for it?" That is the whole crux of rationality, and that is what they are trying to teach you. Unfortunately they get bogged down in the details too often and students don't see what is going on. This is where TOK fell down last year, because the point of the course was to show how all knowledge relies on either direct observation or inferences rationally drawn from direct observations. Moreover, even observations utilize certain kinds of inference. So "inference" -- beliefs based on evidence -- is a primary aspect of all knowledge! 

Assumptions are different sorts of things. They are either hasty conclusions based on scant evidence, as in when I thought I was talking with Janice last week since when you were sick it did not sound like you on the phone at all. 

Or they are things you expect are true, such as your belief that my book has the Plato numbers he uses in his assignments -- but they don't; so you will have to send me the first and last lines of each assignment so I can tell where you are. Or you will need to send me info about how to get into JSTOR from off-campus, assuming the numbers are on the html version of the text. Sorry. 

Or assumptions are the beliefs someone probably unconsciously has that would be required to make his statements be true. E.g., when I write about school stuff, sometimes I am only thinking about suburban schools, and the comments I make would only apply to them. I try to state that when I am doing it, but sometimes I forget. So if what I say only applies to suburban types of schools, someone could say something like "Garlikov must be assuming that all kids are suburban kids in suburban schools" or "Garlikov must be assuming we are only talking about suburban schools." 

Or assumptions are some sort of initial operating procedures to get started thinking about something, as in saying something like, "In order to begin to think about this math problem, let's assume that the speeds are constant; then we will try to look at it afterward if they are not." Or if we want to talk about an ethical principle, we might start out by saying something like "Assume there are only two options, A and B, in the following case...." even though there might be many more options in real life. 

"but I, like you, disagree with some of his assumptions."

I disagree with the truth of his premises!

It is crucial you learn to think in terms of 1) truth of premises, 2) truth of conclusion, and 3) validity of the argument. (Validity means that the logical form or structure of the argument is such that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true.) The only way a conclusion of any argument can be false is either if at least one premise is false or if the argument form is invalid, or both. Now a bad argument does not mean the conclusion is false (because lots of bad arguments can have true conclusions -- as in when one says something like "I think Jones is right, but not for the reasons he gives"), but it means the conclusion is not proved or demonstrated to be true. It means the conclusion is not reasonable to believe based on the evidence given in the argument. 

This is all in the "reasoning paper". That paper is crucial to understand in order to be able to think clearly about all this stuff, and not just in philosophy. 

I agree with most, if not all, of your points. The hardest thing for me was attempting to make Singer's argument/premise/etc. apply to other issues because he wraps it entirely in his cause... just like you say at the end,

But the fact that it does not apply to other cases shows there is something wrong with his general premises. One way you show an argument form is invalid, or the way you show a statement (such as a moral principle) is false, is to give a clear counter example. It does not matter how many examples might fall under his principle that are correct; what matters is that no incorrect examples fall under his principle and that there is not some other problem with his principle either. 

If someone says "humans are featherless two-legged animals" then a plucked chicken will show that not to be true because it will be a featherless two-legged animal but will clearly not be human. (This is supposedly a thing Aristotle did to show some philosophy student he was wrong about his "definition" of human.) 

If someone gives an argument in the form that 

All A are B 
All B are C 
Therefore all C are A 
you show that argument is invalid by showing that the following argument is in that form and yet has true premises with a false conclusion: 
All cats are mammals. 
All mammals are animals. 
Therefore all animals are cats. 
If that is the form of the original argument, it does not matter what the A and B and C categories are; the reasons will not justify the conclusion, because that form never works to justify the conclusion based on those premises. The argument form is invalid, so any argument in that form is invalid, whether the conclusion is true or not. Conclusions of this form which are true are true for reasons unrelated to the reasons in the argument. 

Similarly, if someone gives a general principle as a statement of evidence, if there are counterexamples to that principle's being true, then there is no reason to believe it is true in the kind of case he wants to use it. The principle would need to be fine-tuned or qualified somehow so that it excludes all the counterexamples. 

I will re-read the article again this weekend in addition to reading the 
portion of the Plato which has been assigned.

I was disappointed with the discussion section for today. I'm hoping 
that as the teacher and the class relaxes with time, it will get better. 
Everything today that the teacher asked seemed to be objective things (at least 
to me). "What are his assumptions?"

If that is the word he used, shame on him? 

"What are the objections he refers to?"

That is an okay question to ask, though somewhat boring.  You almost always start, where possible, to begin with stating the guy's main argument, as I did in what I sent you. 

Then you also state, if necessary, any sub-arguments for any of the premises that might be given, since sometimes someone will back up a premise with the reasons he believes it is true. 

Then if there is an objection, you need to know what the objection is, and what the response is. The response, to be any good, must show why the objection is either invalid or has at least one false premise if it is an argument. If the objection is only a statement, then the response must show why that statement is false or is not relevant. (I am leaving out discussions of "circular reasoning" though that sometimes occurs, but for now, just concentrate on invalidity of argument forms and falseness of premises.) 

I suppose I didn't really know what to expect, but I did hope for more than that. I don't recall his asking how we felt about his assumptions.

I would have hoped for much more than that too. 

But you must get over this "how we feel" stuff. Evidence, at this level, is never about "feelings". You either have reasons to believe something is true or false or you have nothing. "Feelings" don't count for dirt unless you are getting to such a basic underlying premise that you can't go any further with reasons. But at the level these articles deal with, you are nowhere near that kind of basic place. 

The language about feelings makes it sound like all this material is just a matter of opinion, but it is not. How I feel about some action I do is not the same sort of thing as to how I feel about which flavor ice cream tastes best. It doesn't matter that some guys feel rape is justified.  That is not like preferring lime to strawberry flavor.  Their feelings don't make it true or even reasonable. It doesn't matter that George W. Bush "feels" Saddam is dangerous or that Bill Clinton used to say he studied some program and "feels" it is the best one to implement. We need hard, objective evidence. And the evidence has to lead to the conclusion that Saddam is dangerous or it is not good evidence for that point, even if the evidence is true. Otherwise it is like feeling someone is guilty because he "doesn't look right, and his fingerprints were at the scene of the crime."  The fingerprints could have been there from when he worked at the scene a day or two prior to the crime, and "looking guilty" to someone is not necessarily compelling evidence.  True evidence is not necessarily conclusive evidence.  Many arguments have true premises but are not in a valid form and do not then necessarily have true conclusions. 

She did say that she felt his argument was valid

Validity is not about "feeling". It is about logical proof. Otherwise it is like saying of a Euclidian geometry proof that you "feel" it is correct. Feeling has nothing to do with it. 

from the points Singer stated, to which one fellow student replied, "Yes, but it 
also matters, however, if you believe his assumptions to be true." The teacher 
nodded in agreement, but there wasn't much from there in spite of the 
fact that I said something about not agreeing with his belief that all 
of these bad things are avoidable.

The teacher should have written out the arguments: the reasons and the conclusion. Nuts! 

He might have, had it not been for this Indian girl who tried to shut down my statement with something I didn't understand about starvation in India...

Sounds like an unfocused, unstructured discussion. One of the two bad ways to teach philosophy (the other using classic readings that are meaningless and unintelligible to students). Nuts! 

then the teacher went over to his computer to see what his next point was. Who knows, maybe it will get better. I will keep trying to keep discussion up at least on my end (all I can do).

Shouldn't be about keeping discussion up. Should only be about analyzing the points and any arguments made in class. 

The sooner you learn how to do this, the better off you will be. The teacher sounds like he is teaching high school -- and teaching even high school badly. Nuts! 

Notice how my exposition of Singer (just about his main argument) is very different, very focused, very structured. That is what you are aiming to be able to do. Unfortunately most writers are not as clear. In the Republic material this is somewhat more difficult,  because they sort of amble along toward the point, and you then have to go back and write down what the conclusions are of each argument and what the reasons are for that conclusion in that argument. That is not always easy to get out of something just written in prose, especially dialogue, format instead of a "leaner", more direct, proof type format. 

Moreover, some of the arguments in the Republic just will not make sense because they involve some sort of idiom or language or conceptual idea that we don't have. It would be saying something like "Jones is a bump on a log (meaning, idiomatically, he is lazy and doesn't do anything he should). Bumps are high places on a surface. Therefore Jones is a high place." And we are sitting there going "What?????????" But hopefully he has only assigned arguments that make sense to us today and are even used today. Then that should not be a problem. 

Try to ferret out and write down (and turn in) what the arguments are for each assignment. Show your teacher you have done this each time. Doing it will help you think about and understand this stuff, and turning it in at the beginning of each class will demonstrate you have done it, and should boost your grade. 

Plato's Republic: First Reading Assignment

[I had previously written a general introduction to Plato's dialogues for my daughter.]
I have located the passages you sent as the bookends of your reading, and I will go over them. [My daughter's course uses a text with line numbers; the text I have is a different translation and does not have line numbers, so she needed to send me the first and last lines of the passages that were assigned so that I could tell what she was reading.]

In the meantime, here is a cool, powerful, and easily understandable passage from Bk I that your readings appear to omit. It is Thrasymachus's speech where he contends, quite articulately and passionately that those who rule, and other strong or powerful people, benefit personally from the injustices they perpetrate on the weaker. Then Socrates responds with his conclusion that the powerful do not benefit by perpetrating injustices on the weaker, which is what he wants to prove as they examine the matter if Thrasymachus will do that. 

Thrasymachus (to Socrates): ... you fancy that the shepherd or neatherd [herdsman] fattens or tends the sheep or oxen with a view to their own good and not to the good of himself or his master; and you further imagine that the rulers of states, if they are true rulers, never think of their subjects as sheep, and that they are not studying their own advantage day and night. Oh, no; and so entirely astray are you in your ideas about the just and unjust as not even to know that justice and the just are in reality another's good; that is to say, the interest of the ruler and stronger, and the loss of the subject and servant; and injustice the opposite; for the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own. Consider further, most foolish Socrates, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts: wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that, when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less. Secondly, in their dealings with the State: when there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income; and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing and the other much. Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintance for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is more apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable --that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace --they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man's own profit and interest. 

Socrates: Thrasymachus, when he had thus spoken, having, like a bathman, deluged our ears with his words, had a mind to go away. But the company would not let him; they insisted that he should remain and defend his position; and I myself added my own humble request that he would not leave us. Thrasymachus, I said to him, excellent man, how suggestive are your remarks! And are you going to run away before you have fairly taught or learned whether they are true or not? Is the attempt 
to determine the way of man's life so small a matter in your eyes --to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? 

Thrasymachus: And do I differ from you, he said, as to the importance of the enquiry? 

Socrates: You appear rather, I replied, to have no care or thought about us, Thrasymachus --whether we live better or worse from not knowing what you say you know, is to you a matter of indifference. Prithee, friend, do not keep your knowledge to yourself; we are a large party; and any benefit which you confer upon us will be amply rewarded. For my own part I openly declare that I am not convinced, and that I do not believe injustice to be more gainful than justice, even if uncontrolled and allowed to have free play. For, granting that there may be an unjust man who is able to commit injustice either by fraud or force, still this does not convince me of the superior advantage of injustice, and there may be others who are in the same predicament with myself. [Emphasis mine -- RG] Perhaps we may be wrong; if so, you in your wisdom should convince us that we are mistaken in preferring justice to injustice. 

Thrasymachus: And how am I to convince you if you are not already convinced by what I have just said; what more can I do for you? Would you have me put the proof bodily into your souls? 


In the previous e-mail, I sent you the speech Thrasymachus made in Bk I [above] that argued that the unjust use power advantage to benefit by being unjust to the weak. Before I get on to the passage you were assigned, which is the arguments of the brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus that it is better to act unjustly than to act justly when you can get away with it, and that you can get away with it, let me first give Socrates' answer to Thrasymachus, that he says he thought would have settled the matter. 

Socrates: ... we have already shown that the just are clearly wiser and better and abler than the unjust [this used an argument that was difficult to make sense of in today's concepts and language, so I won't give it here -- RG], and that the unjust are incapable of common action; nay more, that to speak as we did of men who are evil acting at any time vigorously together, is not strictly true, for if they had been perfectly evil, they would have laid hands upon one another; but it is evident that there must have been some remnant of justice in them, which enabled them to combine; if there had not been they would have injured one another as well as their victims; they were but half --villains in their enterprises; for had they been whole villains, and utterly unjust, they would have been utterly incapable of action. That, as I believe, is the truth of the matter, and not what you said at first. But whether the just have a better and happier life than the unjust is a further question which we also proposed to consider. I think that they have, and for the reasons which to have given; but still I should like to examine further, for no light matter is at stake, nothing less than the rule of human life. 

He has thus argued that unjust people cannot cooperate and will take advantage of each other. The question is whether they are happier being that way though, and he then goes on to argue something like: 
1) the soul is the ruler of the person 
2) therefore an evil soul is an evil ruler, and a good soul a good ruler 
3) therefore the just man -- the man ruled by a just soul -- will live well (and thus be blessed and happy); and the unjust man --the man ruled by an unjust soul-- will live poorly, and thus be unhappy. 

This seems to split people into two components -- a part that is ruled and a part that rules, and it argues that if the ruling component is evil, the ruled component will suffer from that bad rule. I can't see that because it is not clear that the evil component has to be evil to the person it belongs to as opposed to other people. E.g., a selfish person could be bad to others, but not bad to himself.  And a selfish soul could be bad to other people but not bad to the person whose soul it is.  That even sounds funny to have to say, since we would not normally say that someone is selfish not only ot others, but is selfish to himself and takes unfair advantage of himself.  Socrates view, though, is that insofar as any ruler is good to himself or to any of his subjects he is not unjust. That is why Socrates also argues that unjust [gang] members cannot cooperate with each other because cooperation requires them to have some shred of justice in them that they use for the cooperation. But I think that as long as they are getting rich off cheating other people they do not need to cheat each other, so there is still that problem. I don't know whether it is ever addressed or not.  I disagree with Socrates that being unjust requires one to always be unjust, or that an unjust person is being just when he treats anyone favorably or correctly. 

But all this is what leads up to Bk II and the passage you have for your assignment. In the next e-mail, I will spell out the arguments given in that passage, so you can see how to do this, but I will not initiate any more of these. You will have to do them yourself and I will then go over them with you, if you like. This is something you need to learn to do -- for all kinds of courses. 


This is my attempt to put what Glaucon and Adeimantus claim into argument (and structural or summary) form: 

Glaucon's Argument

The following five points are not an argument but lay the groundwork for the argument. #1 explains a conceptual way to order different kinds of goods. It gives a three-option structure or classification. #2 and #3 then go on to say more about the third class and why people choose to do anything in that class. Then #4 and #5 state the conventional view about which category 'acting justly' fits into, and which category Socrates thinks it fits into. 

1) There are three classes of goods: 

a) things which are good in themselves (intrinsic goods), 
b) things which are intrinsically good and also good as means to other things, and 
c) things which are not intrinsically good at all but which are only good as necessary means to goods.
[He gives examples of each class of goods to show the difference and to let you understand the difference.  Make sure you know his, or your own examples.]

2) People do the third class of things because of the extrinsic benefits they bring. 

3) No one would do the third class of thing if they could reap the extrinsic benefits of them without having to do them. 

[2 and 3 together say that people do the third kind of thing because, and only because, of the extrinsic benefits. This is because, by classification category, they have no intrinsic benefit.]

4) (Most people believe that) acting justly belongs to the third class of things -- (that) no one would act justly if they didn't have to for some other good or to avoid some harm. 

5) Socrates believes that it belongs to the second listed class 

[which Socrates also says is the highest class or best class].

Now Glaucon says he does not agree with the view of the masses, but he wants to hear a satisfactory, actually articulated, refutation of it, and Socrates ought to be able to give such a refutation if anyone can. 

Glaucon wants to argue three different points on behalf of the view of the masses: 

a) the nature of justice is to maximize overall social or individual utility, 
b) people act justly only out of necessity to procure the extrinsic good such acts bring, and 
c) the life of the unjust is better than the life of the just [or, to put it another way, it is in one's own best interest to act unjustly rather than to act justly].
The argument for a) is: 
1) Acting unjustly brings benefit to the agent 
2) Injustice brings harm to the victim. 
3) The benefits of everyone's being allowed to act unjustly are outweighed by the harms of everyone's being allowed to act unjustly. 
Therefore 4) it is only prudent for a society not to allow injustice. 
5) People who have acted unjustly and experienced injustice know both 3 and 4. 
Therefore 6) Those people (society in general) have outlawed unjust acts because they are willing to give up their benefits in order to be guarded from their harms. (This is one of the early versions of "the social contract theory" and is a practice that maximizes utility, i.e., the greatest balance of good over evil or benefit over burden.)

As to b), after telling the story of a man named Gyges and a magic ring he found that could render him invisible when he wanted it to: 

1) Gyges had the power, through his ring's being able to make him invisible, to get away with unjust acts for his benefit. 
2) Gyges did unjust acts using the power of the ring for his benefit. 
3) It is unimaginable anyone would act otherwise than Gyges did. 
Therefore 4) everyone would do the same thing as Gyges. 
Therefore 5) no one would act justly unless they had to; that is, no one would act justly if they could get away with acting unjustly.
As to c): 
1) Perfect injustice requires "getting away with" one's unjust acts, including the dishonor and punishment involved in being caught. 

Therefore, 2) the perfectly unjust person will be one who gets away with his unjust acts, and will be one who reaps benefits, and even honors for doing them because he appears to be acting justly while doing them. 

3) To show that acting justly is a good in itself requires showing that it has no reward, including honor or benefit, and that it is good even if it brings harm and shame. 

Therefore 4) the perfectly just person will be one who acts justly even in the face of harm and shame. 

Now, 5) If we were to compare in our imaginations the lives of the perfectly just who only reap harm and shame (so that we know he is not seeking merely honor and reward), and the lives of the perfectly unjust who only reap benefit and honor, clearly 
we would choose the latter as being better off.

At this point he gives, as evidence for 5, examples of how the unjust person would be better off -- he will have honors, be able to marry who he wishes, be rich, best all opponents in any competition, offer more sacrifices to the gods and thus get more of their favor, etc. 

Therefore 6) to be perfectly unjust is clearly to lead the happier life than to be perfectly just. 

That seems pretty strong as an argument, but his brother Adeimantus says there is an even stronger point to make in favor of the conclusion. 

Adeimantus' Argument

1) Everyone who teaches the young extols the benefits of having others see you be virtuous. 
2) Literature also teaches the benefits of appearing virtuous. 
3) Yet, it is admitted that being virtuous is difficult and often causes losses to oneself, and that vice is easy and often profitable. 
4) Moreover, literature and all parents and teachers teach that one can always get out of any punishment in being caught by offering the proper apologies and sacrifices, even after one is dead. 
5) Those "sacrifices" and "apologies" don't really cost all that much, and they guarantee rewards and benefits. 
Therefore 6) it is only reasonable to conclude that acting unjustly while appearing to be just, and appearing to be repentent for being unjust, or being able to pay relatively light penalties to get away with one's injustices, is really the best way to behave -- is in one's best self-interest.
In further support of 4 and 5, he points out that everyone understands the temptations to be unjust when one thinks one can get away with it, and therefore does not really blame, or hold in low regard, those who do it. Therefore even getting caught does not really bring you that much dishonor or sometimes even punishment. 

Then Adeimantus goes on to demand that for Socrates to refute these conclusions, he must show that acting justly is intrinsically good for the person who does it, not that it brings rewards and is therefore simply an extrinsic good -- merely a means to a desirable end: 

"I would ask you in your praise of justice to regard one point only: I mean the essential good and evil which justice and injustice work in the possessors of them. Let others praise justice and censure injustice, magnifying the rewards and honours of the one and abusing the other; that is a manner of arguing which, coming from them, I am ready to tolerate, but from you who have spent your whole life in the consideration of this question, unless I hear the contrary from your own lips, I expect something better. And therefore, I say, not only prove to us that justice is better than injustice, but show what they either of them do to the possessor of them, which makes the one to be a good and the other an evil, whether seen or unseen by gods and men."
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