Discussion Question 9

Read: Plotinus 6.8

The text is quite difficult here, and the Greek itself is a bit of a nightmare, which leads to multiple feasible translations. One of the better translations (the one I gave you) skips a couple sections, so I also attached the Loeb version of those sections, although they will be out of order. The translation is more literal in those pages, but they will give you an idea of the content.

In Ennead VI.8, Sections 3-4, what do you take Plotinus’ argument that evil people lack self-determination (i.e. their actions are not “up to them”) and the voluntary to be? Something similar does not hold of those who are good – do you find this asymmetry to be problematic? Why or why not?


4 thoughts on “Discussion Question 9

  1. I understand the reasoning that people only do what they believe to be good, and therefore evil people must not be in control then. However, I would say that some people do evil, with the understanding that it’s evil, however, they’re more interested in doing what’s wrong because they want to see others in suffering. This is different from them being forced to by the desire though, since in these kinds of cases it takes planning and preparation, a thing that is part of the “intellect.” Essentially if the evil is being done with “intelligence” then it’s part of the will.

    I do kind of find the asymmetry to be a problem because there is a fine line between working for the good, and working for the evil. While, at the same time, we want to work for the good, therefore the good is a part of the desires in the same way that those who are “evil” would supposedly work for their desires. Furthermore, we aren’t always aware of the full consequences of our actions, which could in themselves have turned out to be evil later down the line, while we were sure they were good.

  2. An issue I had with the asymmetry of the argument was that it was rooted in the assumption that “evil people” lack the ability to choose to be good, but the good actions are a choice. He argues that a person who takes on a “non-cognitive” state is one whose internal soul is subject to the physical bodies’ desires and appetites making that person “evil”. One who is good must make the choice not to be subject to the overpowering physical body and recognize that the state of good or the “intellectual state” is better than the state of desires and therefore the state of being good is a choice, while being evil is not a choice but a lesser state. This argument makes the assumption that the “evil” don’t understand that there is an intellectual state and instead are stuck in a state subservient to their desires, but that the good are aware that there is a higher state so they choose to be good. It also makes the assumption that everyone lives at a base state of desires/evil and only those with intellect are able to choose to be good. I would argue that all are aware of the two states and make a choice whether or not to be part of that state because not all who are aware of the intellectual state may want to be part of it and that could explain those who are evil as he says that being evil is a lesser state, perhaps the evil make a choice to be subservient to their desires because it’s easier than fighting them therefore being evil is a choice as well.

  3. When Plotinus attempted to define evil people, he thought that they are lack of self-determination. Self-determination, however, in this context, means that one owns the absolute ability to control himself or herself moving towards the good. What’s more, the good is for his or her own sake. Thus, he argues about the relationship between the action and desire (or we say more precisely, the intellectual cognition). Personally, I find that the definition of desire here is mainly about the motivation approaching the good. Thus, it limits the type of desire—it should be a thought to improve instead of degradation. Thus, when this desire could drive human being to do practical action, it turns out to be spontaneous and free to determinate one self finally achieving the good. As desire is the cause of the outcome action, they must possess the consistency and realized by only one person. For instance, if I have the desire to get an A in my mathematics, I should turns this resolution into my following action like practicing more every day by myself instead of plagiarizing others’ work.

    So there comes the doubt, when these two ways I mentioned above are all for the same good goal, admitting that I have the desire to improve, why the second action could not be called as self-determination? The reasons that Plotinus gave are quite vulnerable to me. As he utilized the example of slavedom and servitude, pointing out that they are employed by one who only cared about their own interest and sake, I could argue that there are also some counterexamples to demonstrate that this definition is too narrow and absolute. When a server(generally speaking) provides service in certain careers like barbers, they help others to cut hair which is a kind of specialists’ work and make living at the same time. There seems to be a win-win situation between customers and servers as they both realize the good end as we normally could not direct to the good end without others’ support. Personally, the evil to a certain degree is that the outcome of one’s action brings damage to others’s interest as people form the desire to work for his or her own sake, exploiting others to be self-centered. However, whether self-determination is for the good should not be based on the number of reactors in the process of action. Instead, it should conclude the nature of outcome brought to others from the perspective of self-desire.

  4. “What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.” – T.S. Eliot, from “Burnt Norton”

    I think that this quote really gets at the core of the issue of self-determination as Plotinus sees it in Ennead. (I must admit, I did find passages hard to follow, so I do apologize if my interpretation is lacks the foundation of a truly deep understanding of the text.) To me, it seems that Plotinus draws a distinction between acts: biologically imperative acts, over which we have no choice and for which we, accordingly, cannot be held responsible; and intellectual acts (i.e. conscious decisions we can make, without the fetters of our biological needs and affections), for which we are ethically responsible.
    Next, Plotinus foresees a few reasonable objections along the lines of:
    • How then do we account for the relationship of intellect, biology, and desire?
    • Are we slaves to our nature (i.e. are our intellectual abilities inescapably biased by our more appetitive or animal inclinations and needs)?
    All of the objections get a little involved and convoluted. But Plotinus basically, to my understanding, counters with the irrefutable logic of the facticity of what actually happens in life – hence the Eliot quotation which argues the inevitably of all occurences. To Plotinus, life does not have indeterminate potentialities.
    I know that doesn’t seem to precisely answer the question about “evil people,” but I think this deterministic hypothesis, combined with the exculpation biology is allowed to provide, explains that while an person may have committed an evil act, there was never any other option for them.

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