Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

100. The Republic: Part 1a

Note: This post is the one hundredth 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 98.

"I'm gonna getcha, getcha, getcha, getcha.
One way or another"

One Way or Another, Blondie

In the first chapter of 'The Republic', Plato sets out to demonstrate the flaws in the some of the conventional views of what justice is. He does this by, in the words of Jane Jacobs, 'syndrome hopping'.

The way it works is that when given a notion of justice that corresponds to the commercial syndrome, Socrates will then trip the person who suggested it up by putting the commercial notion of justice in a guardian setting, and then vice-versa when a guardian notion of justice is presented.

First off, he asks the businessman, Cephalus, to define justice, and Cepahlus suggests that justice is the repayment of debts, a commercial sort of answer. So Socrates then asks if one should return a weapon to a friend who is not of sound mind, which is a guardian type situation where clearly loyalty and concern for another takes precedence over the commercial virtues of honesty and keeping a promise.

Led in this Guardian direction, Polemarchus who has taken over the argument for his father Cephalus, goes with it, and is led by Socrates into a guardian view of justice which is that giving people what they are owed really means giving good to one's friends and harm to one's enemies.

Socrates then switches back to a commercial argument, suggesting that, as in the the commercial syndrome, it is not right to harm anyone since that will have a negative effect on their well-being, so the idea that part of justice is doing harm to one's enemies (true in a guardian context) must not be right (as seen in the commercial context).

Next, the sophist Thrasymachus enters the fray, with a new twist, offering a definition of justice, quite popular to the present day, which borrows the self-interested parts of both syndromes to build a selfish 'monstrous hybrid' as Jane Jacobs would have called it. Thrasymachus maintains that justice is simply the interest of the stronger or as we might say nowadays, that 'might makes right'.

In his response, Socrates focuses on the inappropriateness of bringing the Commercial syndrome notion of self-interest into the Guardian role of being the ruler (as opposed to the alternative approach which would have been to show the inappropriateness of bring Guardian virtues of deceit and force into a commercial venture).

First, Socrates responds via allegory to various professions such as medicine where fulfilling the duties of that profession successfully entails serving the interest of the subject (e.g. the patient, for a doctor) rather than serving one's own interests. He notes that if people ruled for their own interest, then it wouldn't be necessary to pay people to take on the job in most cases.

Next, Socrates asks about the relationship between the just and the unjust. He shows that in professions, the just, for example, doctor, only professes to exceed in skill non-doctors, not other doctors. His point is that it is the just who only claim to better than the unjust, while it is the unjust who claim to be better than everyone, just or unjust alike.

At this point, I couldn't help but be reminded of the experiments on cooperation conducted by Robert Axelrod, in which a simple tit-for-tat strategy (that only punished the unjust and cooperated with the just) proved to be the most successful in the tournament.

Finally, Socrates points out that even thieves need a willingness to forego their own interests, lest they fall to fighting amongst themselves and all ending up getting long sentences in a prisoner's dilemma (i.e. their lack of unity will preclude them from being effective in any meaningful way).

At the end of book 1, Socrates admits that while he has repeatedly pointed out what justice is not, he has yet to make any progress on saying what justice is.

He leaves that challenge for a later book, and I'll have to leave it for a later post.

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