John M. Rist’s Real Ethics

BY CASEY PRATT, Guest Blogger

rist-realethicsIf you’re interested in Truth, Justice, and Goodness, and weary of postmodernism’s apparent too-easy dismissal of all three, check out John M. Rist’s Real Ethics, published in 2002 by Cambridge. Rist starts by recounting some passages from Plato’s Republic in which Socrates presents Thrasymachus and Glaucon (and anybody else listening) with a fairly stark option: either there is nothing transcendent and your position is moral nihilism, or you are a “transcendental realist” and you believe certain acts are inherently good–you’re a Platonist. Here’s that part:

Plato thus sets up the problem of the objectivity of morality in the starkest possible terms. In the end, he holds, we have to decided between (an improved version of) the moral nihilism of Thrasymachus, for whom goodness is (objectively) whatever we are fool enough to believe if we believe it to be any other than made by man or some men, and the view of Socrates that moral terms, since and only since they have a fixed and transcendental point of reference, cannot be made to mean whatever we like, whatever is convenient, whatever seems to make sense at the moment or whatever we can get people to agree to. (20)

Rist makes clear why Plato will never go away, no matter how many times his work is “deconstructed” or dismissed by contemporary sophistry. However, Rist does what a contemporary critic must do: he suggests that the choice is a false one, that those are not the only two options, that there is a “way out” that is neither idealist nor nihilist. That’s complicated, and that’s a necessary philosophical gesture in a world conversant with postmodernism, but I prefer to think about that choice as a kind of ultimate decision that always has and always will face people. Socrates seemed to forsee the coming crisis of values that resulted from the sophists’ clever language games, and I’ve always felt sympathy for his cause–

But… I’m going to read the rest of Rist’s book, and if I find myself converted into a moral nihilist again, don’t be too disappointed. Truth has nothing to do with convenience.

(This post was crossposted here.)