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Becky Tun


Meno 77-78. How does Socrates attempt to prove in the Meno that nobody knowingly desires evil things? Is he successful?
This discussion starts with Meno's second attempt at defining virtue. Quoting from a poet, he says that virtue is 'to find joy in beautiful things and to have power', which he interprets as to desire beautiful/fine things (kala) and have the power to acquire them. Socrates refutes Meno's definition by arguing that everyone only wants good things, and so what people want cannot be what sets one person above another in virtue. The first crucial move that Socrates makes in his argument is to replace Meno's term kala (fine things) with agatha (good things): so where Meno talked of fine, honourable or classy things, Socrates wants to talk more generally about good things, things which Socrates sees as (or even defines as) beneficial to their possessor. He does this by getting Meno to assent that those who desire fine things desire good things (fine things are a subset of good things), and then runs his argument in terms of good things. And by 'bad' things (kaka) Socrates means things which harm their possessor, although what Meno probably had in mind at first was the opposite of kala
- base, crass things. When Socrates asks Meno if he believes that there are people who desire bad things, Meno replies that he does. And when Socrates asks him whether he believes that these people think those bad things are good, or whether they know that they are bad and nevertheless desire them, Meno replies that he thinks there are both kinds. Socrates then asks Meno whether people who desire bad things believe that the bad things benefit them, or know that the bad things harm them. Meno replies that he thinks there are both kinds of people, those who believe that the bad things benefit them, and those who know that the bad things harm them. So Meno has hypothesised four kinds of people: (1) those who desire bad things believing they are good, (2) those who desire bad things knowing they are bad, (3) those who desire bad things believing they will benefit them, and (4) those who desire bad things knowing they will harm them. Socrates has no problem agreeing that people of type (1) exist. But he then argues that people of type (3) must in fact be of type (1). Those who desire bad things believing that they will benefit them, must surely be mistaking those bad things for good things. Here Socrates is implying that it would be a conceptual contradiction to think of bad things as benefiting their possessors - bad and beneficial are mutually exclusive. Moreover, knowing or believing that something is good/bad is necessary and sufficient for knowing or believing that the thing will benefit/harm its possessor. If Meno were still thinking of bad things as crass things then this argument of Socrates' would not make sense, since crass things do not necessarily harm their possessors. However Meno appears to have come round to accept Socrates' conception of bad things as things which harm their possessors and good things as things which benefit their possessors, since he concedes that someone who desires something, thinking it is beneficial, thinks that thing is good. And so anyone who desires bad things thinking those things beneficial, in fact believes those bad things to be good. Now Socrates goes on to consider the type (2) and (4) people that Meno has hypothesized. Equating these two kinds of people (since knowing or believing that

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