REPUBLIC by Plato has one main concern and that is justice. The entire books deals with various facets of justice and injustice to explain what constitutes just behavior. However we must remember that often times, justice has been used as morality or in other words, moral behavior has been described in terms of justice. The two seem to mean the same thing and Plato, Socrates and others apply the term justice to morality on many occasions. For example when describing injustice at one point, Glaucon describes immoral behavior and calls it injustice. For us today, justice and morality are two different things. They may be connected to each other but are cannot be used interchangeably. However that is not the case with Plato so it’s important to remember this distinction of the text.
The points made using the example of Ring of Gyges are important part of the injustice debate. Plato has Glaucon relate the story of a shepherd who had found the ring of gyges that could make him invisible to the world. He had found the ring on the hands of a corpse and had taken it off for his own use. Upon turning the bezel, he discovered something strange: “…he eventually found that turning the bezel inwards made him invisible and turning it outwards made him visible.” (p. 47) Immediately upon making this discovery, his mind started brewing immoral thoughts. He went inside the king’s palace to seduce his wife and with her help also killed the king. He became the king himself and continued his immoral behavior. Glaucon feels that the power of anonymity and invisibility would make any man reach for things that do not belong to him. “There is no one, on this view, who is iron-willed enough to maintain his morality… when he is able to take whatever he wants from the market-stalls without fear of being discovered.” (p. 47-48) in other words, given the chance, everyone would commit acts of injustice. This was the bottom line of Glaucon’s argument. He argued that people are just and moral because they have a fear of being discovered but if that fear were not a factor, everyone would do injustice if it makes him happy.
Socrates refuses to accept this logic and said that only an immoral person would be so deluded. If a person commits acts of injustice because he cannot be seen, he is still hurting his soul and that’s the worst thing anyone can do to himself. But his views are again rejected by Adeimantus who supports Glaucon and says: “Both Glaucon and I, Socrates, are saying to you, “My friend, we can start with those original heroes whose writings are extant and end with our contemporaries, but we find that not a single one of you self-styled supporters of morality has ever found fault with immorality or commended morality except in terms of the reputation, status, and rewards which follow from them.” (p. 55)
Socrates doesn’t argue the point during that discussion but expresses his concern. He later gives many examples to illustrate why morality and justice are more beneficial. However he doesn’t specifically answer the argument that given a chance, everyone would sin. Socrates however makes it clear that a man with a moral sense deeply embedded in him wouldn’t commit sin even if he were to remain invisible from his fellows because he knows that morality has greater rewards. This person is moved by the inner conviction that morality is indeed as good as God makes it sound. He therefore sticks to moral actions in order to please the God and to get ample rewards. “…morality does have the reputation it enjoys among gods and men. We’ve found that actually being moral entails benefits…” (p. 369)
Socrates is a suitable person for making this argument because he remained just even when he had a chance to commit injustice. In the Apology, we learn that Socrates was offered a choice that could lead to a life in exile but would have saved his life. Socrates however refused to retreat and instead embraced death because that was closer to what he believed in. till the very end, Socrates remained true to his moral sense and thus it won’t be wrong to counter the previous argument by saying that visibility or invisibility are not the issue and those who have a strong inner moral compass are more inclined to do justice even when no one is looking.
At the back of our minds, if we accept that morality has greater benefits, then we are more likely to follow that path in tricky situations. However a person who doesn’t accept the benefits accruing from justice would be greatly inclined to commit acts of immorality as and when an opportunity arises. It is more about acceptance and conviction. One doesn’t really need to constantly be afraid of being caught in order to do justice. If he only keeps in mind the long-term benefits, he will choose the path of justice instead of injustice under all circumstances.
Plato, Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)
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