Wednesday, June 22, 2011

David Bostock on Suicide in Plato's Phaedo - Part 1

David Bostock, in his book Plato's Phaedo, sets out to examine the discussion about suicide that is found at the beginning of the Phaedo. He begins by outlining the two main premises that are accepted by Socrates and company.

(1) Some people are better off dead, and

(2) No one should ever commit suicide (p. 16).

Bostock notes that, in and of themselves, these two premises are not contradictory. However, if we add the following third premise, then these two premises, says Bostock, are contradictory.

(3) “If anyone ought to do something, then doing it is good for him (p. 17).”

It seems that the main idea that Bostock wants to get across, in the third premise, is that one should always do what is best for oneself (that which is in one’s own interest or that which is done out of self-interest). However, premise 3 is worded such that it should be read as follows: “If someone has a moral obligation, then it is good for that person to accomplish that moral obligation.” Such a logical formula cannot be inversed and made to say, if some action is good, or best, for a person, then they are morally obligated to do it.” In an if-then formulation, the part following the “then” could come about without the part following the “if”. This is to say, something might be good for someone, without it being morally obligatory for that person to achieve it. Therefore, there does not seem to be a contradiction due to the addition of premise 3. That being said the question is still interesting. Perhaps we could rephrase this formula, and look at the question of suicide in a different light.

We will change our formula so that it reads as follows:

(4)   Some people are better off dead.

(5)   One should always do what is best for oneself.

(6)   Therefore, some people should expedite their own death.

This does not seem to be exactly what Bostock is saying, but, it does seem to be what he is implying. Looking at the problem from this angle Bostock is uncomfortable with the conclusion (premise 6), and claims that there is a problem with premise 5. (Note that premise 5 is the exact opposite of Bostock’s formulation in premise 3. Premise 5 says “If something is good, or best, for someone, then they are morally obligated to achieve it.”) Bostock goes on to expose, and criticize, a couple solutions to the problem posed by the above formula. However, giving us no final solution, he leaves us to think about the question. Is there something wrong with the premises above, or are some people morally obligated to commit suicide?

             I would suggest that the problem is not in premise 3, or its counterpart, premise 5. It seems to me that the problem lies in two places: premise 1, and in Bostock’s understanding of “self-interest”. In the next post I will explain why I think that there is a problem with premise 1.