Anthony Kronman
Max Weber

The goodness of the soul, in Socrates' view, is in no way ambiguous or indeterminate; consequently, when men acquire an accurate knowledge of its true nature, disagreements as to what it is or consists in are bound to disappear.

Ignorance also explains why men lead different sorts of lives and seek happiness in different ways. Everyone, according to Socrates, desires happiness but since men have different conceptions of what happiness is (some thinking it is pleasure, others equating it with honourable actions, others still finding it in the pursuit of wisdom) they are led to act in different ways. That is to say, what individuals find worthwhile and consider to be of value, depends on their conception of what it means for the soul to be in a good and therefore happy condition. It follows that if someone is leading a bad or unvirtuous life it can only be because he has a faulty understanding of the nature of happiness; to assume that he desires something other than happiness would, according to Socrates, be absurd. Consequently, once his ignorance has been removed, his conception of what is good and bad will necessarily be altered and his way of life reformed. It is unthinkable, in Socrates' view, that someone can know what true happiness consists in, and yet fail to act in the way best suited to put the soul in a happy state. In this sense, a person's knowledge of goodness is a necessary and sufficient condition for his having the values that he does—for his regarding certain things, and not others, as valuable or worthwhile. Thus, the ethical attitude which distinguishes the truly virtuous man is not something 'added on' to his knowledge, an attitude requiring an additional act of choice or judgment on his part, distinct from intellectual comprehension. On Socrates' view, a man cannot see the good and act badly;, if he does act badly, this by itself conclusively demonstrates that he has not understood the nature of goodness but still suffers from a kind of ignorance or blindness in the mind's eye.

This view of the relationship between knowledge and values has lasting appeal and has had adherents in every age, including our own. There are, for example, important parallels between Socrates' view and Freud's theory of psychoanalysis. Although Freud does not insist, as Socrates does, that happiness is a determinate and universal condition of the soul which is the same for all men, he does assume that the knowledge a patient acquires regarding his own history makes it possible for him literally to re-evaluate his situation (for example, to rid himself of obsessive symptoms, thereby allowing new interests and desires to emerge with increased effectiveness). More importantly, Freud also suggests that insight unaccompanied by a re-evaluation of this sort, a 'turning about of the soul' as Socrates calls it in the Republic, is not genuine insight at all—that the patient's self-knowledge, on the one hand, and his values and desires on the other, are indistinguishable in precisely the sense maintained by Socrates.

Weber's theory of value rests upon a strikingly different conception of the relationship between knowledge and values. According to Weber, it can never be true that being committed to a particular value is equivalent to having knowledge of a certain sort. Weber does not deny that a person's knowledge—his experience and beliefs—may influence his values in both a negative and positive sense: commitment to a particular value may be psychologically impossible unless one also believes certain things about the world, and particular beliefs may predispose the person holding them (again, at least as a psychological matter) to adopt one value rather than another. Influence of both sorts can be described by saying that a person's knowledge or beliefs are sometimes a necessary condition of his values. But Weber strenuously denies the stronger claim, associated with the Socratic view, that a person's knowledge is also a sufficient condition for his having a particular value or set of values. According to Weber, a person chooses his values; whatever his knowledge or beliefs may be, an additional and distinct act of choice is always necessary to make the object of his choice—whether it be a limited principle of conduct or entire way of life—a value for the person involved. On this view, every value owes its existence to the exercise of a power fundamentally different from cognition or understanding—the frightening power we all possess to affirm or disaffirm even those things we understand most clearly. Weber uses its traditional name to describe this power: he calls it the will.

According to Socrates, knowledge is a kind of sight or vision which has as its object something that exists independently of the knowing person himself and which he sees more or less clearly depending upon the condition of his soul. On the Socratic view, a person acquires his knowledge of values, along with his knowledge of everything else, in this way, through an act of intellectual vision. And since, for Socrates, knowledge of what is right is a necessary and sufficient condition for virtue, i.e., for a commitment to do what is right, this act of intellectual insight is, on his view, the central event—and the power in the soul which it involves the central power—in the moral life of human beings. If one accepts Socrates' view, the basic task of moral life can only be conceived as the attainment of a certain clarity of vision. To achieve this goal, one must put his soul in the right condition by eliminating the ignorance that darkens his vision and limits his powers of comprehension. This may require an active effort over a long period of time; nevertheless, the goal itself should be conceived as an essentially passive state or condition in which the soul looks at the world in an unclouded way and, seeing what is true, finds itself disposed to do the right thing without an intervening act of choice.

For Weber, on the other hand, even the clearest knowledge of values—of what is right and wrong from the standpoint of different normative principles—can never be more than a preparation for the act of choice which alone makes such a principle a value for the person who holds it. According to Weber, all values are in some ultimate sense freely chosen; indeed, on his view, it is only through choice that values come into being. To this extent, Weber's theory of value requires us to think of values as having their foundation not in the world, as Socrates claimed, but in the choosing subject or, more precisely, in the faculty of choice which a person exercises when he commits himself to a norm by adopting it as an evaluative standard.

Because he conceives every value a person holds to be the product or posit of an act of choice, Weber's theory of value may be called positivistic. We should be clear, however, as to what such a theory does and does not imply. To begin with, it does not imply that individuals are always free to choose their values from among an unlimited or even very wide range of alternatives; Weber recognized that a person's choices are in most cases narrowly circumscribed by historical, cultural, economic and personal factors. Nor does Weber's theory of value necessarily imply that an individual's choice of values is always, or ever, made in a fully self-conscious and deliberate manner: the values we have rarely seem to be the product of free choice in this sense. What Weber's positivistic theory of value does imply is that the status of a value, the fact that a particular norm happens to be a value for someone, can be accounted for conceptually only if we view the value in question as the product of an act of choice, no matter how unrealistic this may be in any given case.

Unlike Socrates' theory, which assigns The central role in moral life to our capacity for knowledge or understanding, Weber's positivistic theory of value assigns this same role to an entirely distinct power, to the will, the power of creative choice.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.