Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

101. The Republic Part 1b

Note: This post is the one hundred and first in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

Note also: this is a continuation from post 100.

"Power Corrupts. Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely"


"Hey Bob, Supe had a straight job
Even though he could have smashed through any bank
in the United States. He had the strength, but he would not


Superman never made any money saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never seen another man,
Like him"

Crash Test Dummies, Superman Song

In Book 2 of the Republic, Thrasymachus has quit the field and Socrates thinks the discussion is over. But Glaucon and Adeimantus pursue the argument further, pressing Socrates to explain to them how justice is not just something that is sought for the benefits it brings, but is also an end in itself.

Glaucon gets Socrates to agree that there are three classes of goods: those which are unpleasant in themselves but serve a worthwhile purpose (e.g. medicine), those which are pleasurable in and of themselves (e.g. eating) and those which serve a worthwhile purpose and are worthwhile on their own merits, and furthermore to agree that justice falls into the third category.

'How would you arrange goods --are there not some which we welcome for their own sakes, and independently of their consequences, as, for example, harmless pleasures and enjoyments, which delight us at the time, although nothing follows from them?

I agree in thinking that there is such a class, I replied.
Is there not also a second class of goods, such as knowledge, sight, health, which are desirable not only in themselves, but also for their results?

Certainly, I said.
And would you not recognize a third class, such as gymnastic, and the care of the sick, and the physician's art; also the various ways of money-making --these do us good but we regard them as disagreeable; and no one would choose them for their own sakes, but only for the sake of some reward or result which flows from them?

There is, I said, this third class also. But why do you ask?
Because I want to know in which of the three classes you would place justice?

In the highest class, I replied, --among those goods which he who would be happy desires both for their own sake and for the sake of their results.

Then the many are of another mind; they think that justice is to be reckoned in the troublesome class, among goods which are to be pursued for the sake of rewards and of reputation, but in themselves are disagreeable and rather to be avoided.'

Glaucon points out that Greek society seems to be of the opinion that justice falls into the 'troublesome' class of goods. From this argument it follows that if a man had the power of avoiding retribution – if, for example he possessed a ring of invisibility - then that man would be foolish to still be just, but instead would be better off pursuing injustice.

'They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; --it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honoured by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such is the received account, Socrates, of the nature and origin of justice.'

It also follows that it is enough to merely seem just rather than actually being just, since this will bring on the rewards from others that are given to the just, and avoid the punishments handed down the unjust.

Glaucon explains how the life of the unjust man who seems just will compare to the life of the just man who is seen as unjust,
'the just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound --will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled: Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not to be, just; the words of Aeschylus may be more truly spoken of the unjust than of the just. For the unjust is pursuing a reality; he does not live with a view to appearances --he wants to be really unjust and not to seem only:--

His mind has a soil deep and fertile,
Out of which spring his prudent counsels. In the first place, he is thought just, and therefore bears rule in the city; he can marry whom he will, and give in marriage to whom he will; also he can trade and deal where he likes, and always to his own advantage, because he has no misgivings about injustice and at every contest, whether in public or private, he gets the better of his antagonists, and gains at their expense, and is rich, and out of his gains he can benefit his friends, and harm his enemies; moreover, he can offer sacrifices, and dedicate gifts to the gods abundantly and magnificently, and can honour the gods or any man whom he wants to honour in a far better style than the just, and therefore he is likely to be dearer than they are to the gods. And thus, Socrates, gods and men are said to unite in making the life of the unjust better than the life of the just.'

At this point Adeimantus jumps in to add that Glaucon’s account of justice is consistent with the message from poets and prose writers and parents and tutors, all of whom encourage the young to become just, not for the sake of justice and their own spirit or soul, but for the rewards that come from being seen as just, with respect to opportunities for advancement and so on.

'Parents and tutors are always telling their sons and their wards that they are to be just; but why? not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of character and reputation; in the hope of obtaining for him who is reputed just some of those offices, marriages, and the like which Glaucon has enumerated among the advantages accruing to the unjust from the reputation of justice. More, however, is made of appearances by this class of persons than by the others; for they throw in the good opinion of the gods, and will tell you of a shower of benefits which the heavens, as they say, rain upon the pious; and this accords with the testimony of the noble Hesiod and Homer, the first of whom says, that the gods make the oaks of the just'

This is, in my opinion, the most eloquent of all the books in the Republic, and I have to say it makes a very convincing case for the notion that justice is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Plato seems to feel the same way as he has Socrates praise the argument made by Glaucon and Adeimantus and admit that he feels unequal to the challenge of refuting it.

Indeed, the rest of the book is a roundabout approach to refuting this argument with Socrates first constructing the ideal state (the Republic) and then showing how someone who has uncontestable power and uses that power for their own ends (a tyrant) will end up the worst off of all men, in the same manner that tyranny is the worst form of government.

To be honest, I'm not really sure what to say about this book other than that it was thought provoking.

On the one hand, like the interlocutors in the Republic, I have a gut feeling that even if one was all powerful, the regular rules of justice should still apply. On the other hand, it does seem that society mostly seems to value justice as an end rather than on its own merits, and I do see how if one person was all powerful, the notion of 'take vengeance' which is a central part of the guardian syndrome would cease to have meaning for everyone else, since they would be powerless to take revenge on an all powerful person.

Certainly, any notion to construct a system of morals which argued that people pursued justice because it was in their own self-interest, would strugg not to admit that the all powerful person could be expected to disregard justice as a notion for lesser beings.

For that reason, David Gauthier took up this issue in his work, 'Morals by Agreement' eventually reaching an argument similar to the one employed in the movie, 'Megamind' - that even an all powerful person would have an interest in society being successful since a successful society is just more pleasant to be around than a downtrodden one. Gauthier ends up by arguing that it is because people have a certain element of socialness, or care for other people, that even if they had absolute power, they would still place a value on behaving justly towards others, even when they have no need of it to get what they want.

But still, at some level, the ability to requite or take vengeance does have to be present in order for the concept of justice to operate. For example, people hardly treat animals with anything resembling the human notion of justice but I suspect that if animals were able to rise up and rebel against their human oppressors, showing that they had the power to 'take an eye for a ribeye' this would lead to a new relationship which might extend the human notion of justice towards animals further than it goes currently.

site note: Posting may move to Wednesday for a while due to other commitments on Tuesday nights.

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