Plato:  No One Desires what is Bad


SOCRATES: … now it is your turn to do as you promised, and try to tell me the general nature of virtue.  Stop making many out of one, as the humorists say when somebody breaks a plate.  Just leave virtue whole and sound and tell me what it is, as in the examples I have given you.

MENO: It seems to me then, Socrates, that virtue is, in the words of the poet, 'to rejoice in the fine and have power,' and I define it as desiring fine things and being able to acquire them.

SOCRATES: When you speak of a man desiring fine things, do you mean it is good things he desires?

MENO: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then do you think some men desire bad and others good?  Doesn't everyone, in your opinion, desire good things?


SOCRATES: And would you say that the others suppose bad things to be good, or do they still desire them although they recognize them as bad?

MENO: Both, I should say.

SOCRATES: What?  Do you really think that anyone who recognizes bad things for what they are, nevertheless desires them?

MENO: Yes.

SOCRATES: Desires in what way?  To possess them?

MENO: Of course.

SOCRATES: In the belief that bad things bring advantage to their possessor, or harm?

MENO: Some in the first belief, but some also in the second.

SOCRATES: And do you believe that those who suppose bad things bring advantage understand that they are bad?

MENO: No, that I can't really believe.

SOCRATES: Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize bad things for what they are, don't desire bad but what they think is good, though in fact it is bad; those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good?

MENO: For them I suppose that is true.

SOCRATES: Now as for those whom you speak of as desiring bad things in the belief that they do harm to their possessor, these presumably know that they will be injured by them?

MENO: They must.

SOCRATES: And don't they believe that whoever is injured is, in so far as he is injured, unhappy?

MENO: That too they must believe.

SOCRATES: And unfortunate?

MENO: Yes.

SOCRATES: Well, does anybody want to be unhappy and unfortunate?

MENO: I suppose not.

SOCRATES: Then if not, nobody desires what is bad, for what else is unhappiness but desiring bad things and getting them?

MENO: It looks as if you are right, Socrates, and nobody desires what is bad.

SOCRATES: Now you have just said that virtue consists in a wish for good things plus the power to acquire them.  In this definition the wish is common to everyone, and in that respect no one is better than his neighbor.

MENO: So it appears.

SOCRATES: So if one man is better than another, it must evidently be in respect of the power, and virtue, according to your account, is the power of acquiring good things.

MENO: Yes, my opinion is exactly as you now express it (Meno 77b-78c).




Dave’s Notes on this passage:  What are the implications of this view?  If Plato is correct that we cannot knowingly do something that will harm us, or even that we cannot do an action believing that it will harm us (i.e., cause long-term unhappiness to us), then there would be no such thing as sinning, since sinning involves willingly doing some action that is wrong, realizing that it is wrong.  Note that there is a difference between an agent’s thinking that some action will be perceived as being wrong to someone else, and an agent’s thinking that some action is wrong for the agent to do.  For instance, a murderer will kill someone thinking that it is best for them to kill that person, and may realize that others, especially the victim, would consider that it is wrong to kill him or her; however, Plato is also saying that the murderer will only kill the victim in ignorance, mistaking bad things for good things (and thus they still desire the good).  The moral of this passage – we had better acquire knowledge of what is good, in order to know that the actions we perform are really good, and not only apparently good, to us.  Lastly, note that Plato does not in any way suggest that we should not punish anyone, since everyone desires the good; of course we should keep in mind that we’re all essentially same in that respect, but it is also best if we hold people accountable for their actions.