If Justice Really Matters, It’s Not Just a Matter of Degree: The Significance of Gyges’ Ring in Republic 2 1. Glaucon’s Challenge Republic 2 begins with Glaucon expressing dissatisfaction with Socrates’ arguments for the claim that it is better to be just than unjust. Although he is not entirely skeptical about the value of justice, Glaucon claims he has yet to hear a convincing argument showing that justice is valuable for its own sake (358d). In hopes that Socrates will be able to alleviate his doubts, Glaucon makes his best case for the view that justice is only valued instrumentally. One of his arguments employs the story of Gyges’ Ring. According to the story, a shepherd who was an ancestor of Gyges of Lydia came into possession of a ring that makes its wearer invisible. The shepherd used this power of invisibility to seduce the king’s wife, kill the king, and take over the kingdom (360b). Glaucon argues that anyone who came into possession of such a ring would perform unjust acts, and moreover, anyone who would refrain from injustice in such circumstances “would be thought wretched and stupid by everyone aware of the situation” (360d). Glaucon apparently takes this as good evidence that justice is thought to be valuable only in circumstances in which one lacks the power to get away with injustice (359b). Whenever we can attain greater benefits through injustice, we judge that we ought to do so. Glaucon’s argument appears successful in making an important point. Insofar as we endorse Gyges’ behavior (at least in private) this suggests that justice might not be valued as much as Socrates believes it should be. Yet we might still wonder whether this could be enough to support the stronger claim that we don’t assign intrinsic value to justice at all. Might our endorsing Gyges’ acts of injustice be compatible with assigning some intrinsic value to justice? In “Republic 2: Questions about Justice,” Terence Irwin claims that Glaucon’s argument could not show that we value justice only for the consequences it brings. Irwin argues that believing that self-interest 1
outweighs justice in some circumstances does not commit one to denying that justice is valuable for its own sake—thinking X has intrinsic value is entirely compatible with rationally choosing Y over X in some circumstances. In light of this, Irwin claims that Glaucon’s argument could only support the conditional claim that if we view justice as having mere instrumental value, then we are committed to endorsing Gyges’ behavior. Although the argument succeeds on this score, Irwin suggests that it contributes little to Glaucon’s broader aim of showing that we value justice only insofar as it brings about good consequences. We might value justice for its own sake while at the same time judging that its value can be overridden. Thus, Irwin writes: “Glaucon should ask not only whether we care about justice for its own sake, but also how much we care about it” (Irwin, ‘Republic 2: Questions’, 173). In this paper, I argue contra Irwin that the Gyges argument, if sound, would indeed demonstrate that we assign mere instrumental value to justice. The key to seeing this is recognizing that Glaucon presents the argument in light of two plausible background assumptions about the nature of justice: (1) justice requires taking the interests of others as placing limits on certain selfinterested pursuits (e.g. pursuit of power, wealth, fame, etc.), and (2) no one who values justice for its own sake could coherently endorse showing complete disregard for the interests of others in pursuit of personal gain. In light of these assumptions it appears that a rational endorsement of Gyges’ behavior amounts to a denial of the intrinsic value of justice. The discussion proceeds as follows. I begin in § 2 by further explicating Irwin’s analysis of the Gyges argument and its role in Republic 2. Then, in § 3, I provide an alternative analysis according to which the Gyges argument (if sound) shows that we value justice only for its consequences. My analysis includes a schematization of the argument that fits with a natural reading of the dialogue and generates a more plausible explanation for the inclusion of the argument in Book 2. A brief conclusion follows. 2
2. Irwin’s Analysis According to Irwin, Glaucon introduces the Gyges story to illustrate the idea that valuing justice only for its consequences commits us to rational endorsement of unjust actions in circumstances of immunity. Irwin provides the following schematization of the argument: (1) Justice is good (we suppose) only for its consequences. (2) Hence, in circumstances where we can gain the good consequences of injustice without the normal bad consequences, and the bad consequences of justice are not offset by its good consequences, we have good reason to act unjustly. (3) Gyges’ Ring provides such a situation because it removes the danger of punishment for unjust action. (4) Hence, in a situation relevantly similar to Gyges’ Ring, we have good reason to act unjustly. (Irwin, ‘Republic 2: Questions’, 171) Irwin claims that Glaucon’s argument succeeds in showing that if we value justice only for its consequences, we must endorse behaving as Gyges did (Ibid. 172). But given the context of the debate over the value of justice, we might have expected Glaucon to argue for the converse claim that our endorsement of Gyges’ actions commits us to assigning mere instrumental value to justice. However, Irwin claims that Gyges’ Ring could not be used to support this conclusion because valuing justice for its own sake is compatible with rationally endorsing acts of injustice when the profits are high enough. We can call Irwin’s claim the Compatibility Thesis. In explicating the Compatibility Thesis, Irwin writes: “Gyges might suppose that justice has some slight intrinsic value in addition to the value that depends on its consequences, but he might take the good consequences of injustice to outweigh this intrinsic value of justice” (Ibid. 173). In the same manner, we might endorse Gyges’ acts of injustice given the great benefits that resulted for him while still thinking that justice has some (overrideable) intrinsic value. Irwin suggests that such an attitude is not unfamiliar as illustrated by the following example: 3
Some people are willing to be considerate if it costs them nothing, but unwilling if it involves even the smallest instrumental cost. If I find a private letter of yours that is of no use to me, and I have a choice between putting it back in your letter box and throwing it on the ground, and each action is equally easy, I might think it intrinsically better to put it back in your letter box. But if it cost me the least trouble, I would not put it in your letter box. (Irwin, ‘Republic 2: Questions’, 172) This example nicely illustrates the point that we can coherently think the interests of others generate reasons for action while at the same time believing these reasons can be overridden by considerations of prudence. Irwin believes this way of thinking can be applied to the case of Gyges’ Ring. Thus, even if Glaucon is right that we all agree that Gyges had sufficient reason to act unjustly, this does not rationally commit us to assigning mere instrumental value to justice. If the Compatibility Thesis is correct, this raises questions about the significance of Gyges’ Ring in Republic 2. If Glaucon’s argument only supports the conditional claim that if we value justice for its consequences, then we are committed to endorsing Gyges’ behavior, why does Plato include the argument at all? Taken by itself, the conclusion of the argument tells us nothing about our actual attitudes towards justice. Irwin’s solution to this puzzle generated by the Compatibility Thesis is that what Glaucon aims to show is not that we only value justice instrumentally, but rather that we do not think justice is more valuable than injustice in all circumstances. Irwin notes that in the first paragraph of Book 2, Glaucon frames the debate as over the question of whether justice is better than injustice “in every way” (Ibid. 174). Glaucon asks Socrates, “Do you want to seem to have persuaded us that it is better in every way to be just than unjust, or do you want truly to convince us of this?” (357a, emphasis added). Irwin suggests that we should understand “in every way” to mean “better in every possible circumstance.” Thus, what Glaucon seeks to show with the Gyges argument is not that we think justice is only of instrumental value, but rather that we do not think it
is a non-instrumental good to be chosen in every possible circumstance (Irwin, ‘Republic 2: Questions’, 175). The appeal to the “in every way” clause provides a reasonable explanation for the role of the Gyges argument that is compatible with Irwin’s analysis. However, just before offering the Gyges argument Glaucon provides a threefold classification of goods: (1) goods valued for their own sake (e.g. joy), (2) goods valued for their own sake and also for the sake of their consequences (e.g. knowledge, sight, and health), and (3) goods that are burdensome in themselves, but valued for their consequences (e.g. physical training, medical treatment, the practice of medicine, and the other ways of making money).1 Glaucon then claims that people take justice to be a good of the third kind (358a). This gives the impression that the purpose of the Gyges story is to support the claim that we value justice only for its consequences.2 As we have seen, Irwin argues that this cannot be Glaucon’s aim because valuing justice for its own sake is compatible with rational endorsement of Gyges’ behavior. But is this right? In the following section I raise some worries about Irwin’s Compatibility Thesis. I argue that Glaucon is working under the plausible assumption that the Compatibility Thesis is false, and that the purpose of the Gyges argument is to show that we value justice only for its consequences.
3. Valuing Justice At first blush, the claim that valuing justice for its own sake is compatible with thinking considerations of justice can be outweighed by considerations of prudence seems plausible. Valuing something for its own sake does not commit one to valuing that thing above all else. But sometimes
For extended treatment of the threefold classification of goods see Kirwan (1965) and White (1984). It also suggests an alternative reading of “in every way.” On this reading Glaucon is asking whether justice is more valuable than injustice both intrinsically and instrumentally. If this is the correct reading, we lose the primary motivation for accepting Irwin’s proposed solution to the puzzle generated by his Compatibility Thesis. I thank [removed for blind review] bringing this to my attention. 1 2
our evaluative judgments entail rational commitments. This can happen whenever the object of our valuing is itself partly constituted by certain norms. To illustrate, consider the case of a hiring manager of a successful company who claims to value racial equality for its own sake. Suppose this manager consistently and intentionally favors job applications from members of his own race even when they are less qualified than other applicants. When confronted about his hiring practices the manager says, “I do think racial equality is intrinsically valuable, but whenever someone has a chance to help a member of one’s own race I think that’s the right thing to do.” This response reveals that the manager does not really have the evaluative attitude that he claims to. Valuing racial equality for its own sake is incompatible with endorsing racist attitudes and behaviors. To be clear, engaging in racist hiring practices isn’t necessarily incompatible with valuing racial equality for its own sake. We can imagine a different hiring manager who knows that the CEO of the company is a racist, and that racist hiring practices are thereby in his own best-interest. This manager might value racial equality for its own sake while at the same time judging that this value is overridden by the huge salary he is paid by the CEO. So the relevant point is not that valuing racial equality for its own sake is incompatible with judging that this value can be overridden. Rather, the point is that what overrides the value of racial equality cannot be a belief that individuals should always favor members of their own race. I want to suggest that valuing justice for its own sake also entails certain rational commitments. Although the discussants in Book 2 have yet to complete their investigation into the nature and value of justice, any such investigation must begin with some basic assumptions. One reasonable assumption about justice is what I call the Limiting Requirement.
Limiting Requirement: Justice requires taking the interests of others as placing limits on one’s pursuit of effective goods such as wealth and power.3
Though there is room for debate about the precise stricture of this requirement, it should be uncontroversial that justice places restrictions on what can permissibly be done to others in an effort to become rich and powerful. At the very least, a willingness to cause or allow substantial harms to innocent people because doing so will lead to extravagant wealth or political gain is incompatible with justice. An individual who does not see the welfare of others as placing any limits on the pursuit of personal profit is paradigmatically unjust.4 Not only does the Limiting Requirement seem central to any plausible conception of justice, the context of the dialogue suggests that it is part of the conception of justice that Glaucon is working with. The fact that justice requires placing limits on pursuit of wealth and power explains why Glaucon has doubts about the value of justice in the first place. It is precisely because justice appears to conflict with self-interest in some circumstances that he implores Socrates to provide a rousing defense. One might object that Glaucon is simply thinking of justice as a list of rules such as “always pay your debts,” and so it is not clear that he has anything like the Limiting Requirement in mind. However, such rules essentially involve refraining from certain prudent acts (such as deciding not to repay a debt when one can get away with it) because of the harms they impose on others. Thus,
The label ‘effective goods’ is inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre’s useful distinction between ‘goods of effectiveness’ and ‘goods of excellence’. Whereas the former includes things such as wealth and power, the latter includes the excellences intrinsic to particular sorts of activities (MacIntyre 1988: 32, 35). 4 Common sense seems to suggest that giving some degree of priority to self-interest is compatible with justice, though it is not clear how much. Some of Plato’s remarks suggest that he thinks of justice as requiring complete impartiality (420b, 467b-d), though this is controversial. For present purposes it is not necessary to take a stand on this issue. It is enough to note that most everyone, including Glaucon and Socrates, would agree that Gyges gave his own interests substantially more weight than justice permits. For helpful discussion of the relationship among justice, self-interest, and impartiality in the Republic see Nicholas White (2002 ch. 5), Eric Brown (2004) and M.M. McCabe (2013). 3
even if Glaucon does take such rules to be central to the concept of justice, it is fair to say that something approximating the Limiting Requirement is an implicit background assumption. A second potential objection holds that Thrasymachus’ claim in Book 1 that justice is the advantage of the stronger (339a) casts doubt on my suggestion that the Limiting Requirement is a background assumption about justice. Some of Thrasymachus’ remarks initially seem to suggest that justice does not require placing limits on one’s pursuit of effective goods because the stronger are able to gain even more power as a result of justice. However, Thrasymachus’ position is that the stronger benefit from the justice of the weaker. The weaker are those who obey justice and thereby rein in their own pursuit of wealth and power. Most importantly, the rulers advance their political and financial interests through acts of injustice. This is why “the just man everywhere has less than the unjust man” (343d).5 A third objection is that Socrates (Glaucon’s primary interlocutor) would not accept the Limiting Requirement as a basic background assumption about justice because he rejects the notion of conflict between self-interest and justice. On Socrates’ view, it is always in one’s best interest to act justly. Here it is important to distinguish between two conceptions of self-interest. The first has to do with what is necessary for general flourishing as a human being—things like knowledge, freedom, loving relationships, and psychological harmony. A second conception of self-interest concerns effective goods such as pleasure, wealth, power, honor, etc. Though Socrates does not believe justice places limits on pursuit of genuine human flourishing, he certainly agrees that justice imposes limits on hedonic, political, an financial pursuits, and that it requires giving due consideration to the welfare of others when engaging in practical deliberation.6
For helpful discussion of Thrasymachus’ position see Weiss (2007). As Richard Kraut (1992: 323-4) notes, an essential feature of the just person on Socrates’ conception is that he does not have the common impulse to acquire worldly advantages over other human beings. 5 6
If all this is right, we have reason to doubt Irwin’s claim that valuing justice for its own sake is compatible with judging that the allure of fame and fortune can outweigh considerations of justice. To assign intrinsic value to justice is to judge that taking the interests of others as a constraint on pursuit of effective goods is valuable not as a means to some further end but for its own sake. It is hard to reconcile such a judgment with a rational endorsement of sacrificing innocents for the sake of power and riches. Recall Irwin’s suggestion that an agent might assign some intrinsic value to justice while also judging that this value can be outweighed by sizeable profits. In light of the assumption about justice we have been considering, Irwin’s suggestion would attribute the following set of judgments to the agent in question: (1) It is intrinsically good to take the interests of others as placing limits on one’s pursuit of power and wealth. (2) Whenever the potential gain in power and wealth is sizeable enough, one is justified in disregarding the interests of others. The tension between these judgments undermines the plausibility of the Compatibility Thesis. It is difficult to see how the intrinsic value of justice could be overridden by the very sort of consideration which it constitutively takes precedence over. Irwin’s mailbox example shows that assigning intrinsic value to the interests of others is compatible with judging that self-interest can trump those interests. But assigning intrinsic value to justice appears to entail certain rational commitments that are not entailed by merely assigning some intrinsic value to the welfare of others. A pickpocket who takes the time to remove your driver’s license from your wallet in order to save you the hassle of a trip to the DMV does not value justice for its own sake. In rejecting Irwin’s Compatibility Thesis I do not mean to imply that endorsement of any ostensibly unjust act reveals a lack of commitment to justice as something valuable for its own sake. Consider a person who finds herself in such dire circumstances that she must steal food in order to 9
survive. Though theft is typically thought of as an act of injustice, many who value justice for its own sake may be inclined to endorse stealing food when one’s life is at stake.7 However, this is compatible with everything I have said thus far because the Limiting Requirement does not concern ostensibly unjust acts performed for the sake of having one’s basic need met. Rather, it concerns acts in which the interests of others are sacrificed for the sake of power and wealth. Admittedly, it is not clear where the boundary lies between the satisfaction of one’s basic needs and the type of personal profits precluded by the Limiting Requirement. But for present purposes it is not necessary to locate a sharp boundary. The important point is that endorsement of killing innocents in order to obtain extravagant wealth and political power is not compatible with valuing justice for its own sake because central to the notion of justice is the thought that consideration of the welfare of others places limits on what one can permissibly do in pursuit of wealth and power. We can imagine conceptions of ‘justice’ in which valuing it for its own sake would be compatible with endorsing acts of ‘injustice’ when the profits are sufficiently high. For instance, if justice were merely a matter of being cordial and polite to other people, we could believe this to be valuable for its own sake while also believing that this value is sometimes overridden by self-interest. If I were offered one million dollars to make a rude comment to someone, I would believe I ought to do so even though I think politeness and cordiality are intrinsically valuable. But the ‘polite and cordial’ conception of justice is implausible, and it is certainly not the conception under consideration in the Republic. As I have argued above, the Limiting Requirement seems central to any plausible conception of justice, and there is reason to believe that this notion (or something close to it) is operating in the background of the dialogue. And since the Limiting Requirement makes it difficult to reconcile endorsement of killing innocents for profit with valuing justice for its Not everyone will agree that stealing food to avoid starvation is unjust. Though justice undoubtedly includes a prima facie prohibition on theft (on any plausible conception), it is not unreasonable to believe that justice permits violating this prohibition to avoid starvation, at least in some circumstances. Since justice might allow for such acts of selfpreservation, a person’s endorsement of such an act might be compatible with her valuing justice for its own sake. 7
own sake, we have reason to believe Glaucon is working under the assumption that the Compatibility Thesis is false when he puts forth the Gyges argument. A further reason for attributing this assumption to Glaucon is that doing so gives rise to an explanation of the role of the Gyges story that fits better with a natural reading of Book 2. The reason Glaucon puts forth the Gyges argument immediately following his threefold classification of goods is that he aims to show that justice is not valued for its own sake. Taking the aforementioned assumptions about justice as premises we can schematize Glaucon’s argument as follows: (1) Justice requires taking the interests of others as placing limits on one’s pursuit of power and wealth. (2) Valuing justice for its own sake entails a rational commitment to viewing the interests of others as placing limits on one’s pursuit of power and wealth. (3) No one who values justice for its own sake could coherently judge that one is rationally justified in disregarding the welfare of others for the sake of power and wealth.8 (4) Everyone would agree (if answering honestly) that Gyges’ actions (which involved disregarding the welfare of others for the sake of power and wealth) were rationally justified. (5) Nobody values justice for its own sake. On this characterization, the goal of the Gyges argument is not just to refute the claim that we think justice is always more valuable than injustice. Rather, the goal is to show that we don’t attribute any intrinsic value to justice at all. Not only does the above schematization yield a plausible explanation for Glaucon’s putting forth the argument when he does (right after his threefold classification of goods), it also makes the argument more significant than Irwin’s account suggests. As I hope to have shown, premises 1-3 8
By ‘disregarding’ I do not mean merely failing to take the interest of others into account. The idea is rather that the agent is willing to cause or allow substantial harms to innocent people whenever doing so will lead to substantial financial or political gain. Thus, a person who takes a moment to think about the welfare of those who he is about to harm before deciding that it is worth sacrificing their interests in order to obtain the desired outcome still shows disregard in the relevant sense.
are plausible. Thus, if premise 4 is true, the Gyges argument shows that we value justice solely for its consequences. This is more substantial result than the conclusion that Irwin takes Glaucon to be arguing for—that we don’t view justice as a non-instrumental good to be chosen in every possible circumstance.9
4. Conclusion I have argued that Glaucon’s aim in putting forth the Gyges argument is to show that nobody values justice for its own sake. Glaucon is working under the plausible assumption that attributing intrinsic value to justice rationally commits us to viewing the interests of others as placing limits on the pursuit of effective goods such as power and wealth. If we endorse Gyges’ actions, we reveal that we do not value justice for its own sake. Three ways of responding to Glaucon’s argument suggest themselves. First, we can deny that rational endorsement of Gyges’ actions is as widespread as Glaucon claims. Second, we can try to show that those who endorse Gyges’ actions do so only because they fail to understand the ways in which injustice is ultimately bad for the individual even in cases of anonymity. Third, we can argue that even if we are sometimes made genuinely better-off (i.e. not merely in terms of money or power) by committing acts of injustice, it remains true that we always have decisive reason to be just. Socrates pursues the second strategy. Had I been in his position I would have pursued the third.10
Of course, if Glaucon succeeds in showing that no one values justice for its own sake, it follows that we do not view justice as a non-instrumental good to be chosen in every possible circumstance. Thus, if Irwin is right in claiming that Glaucon’s “in every way” at 357a means “in every possible circumstance,” this is compatible with my analysis. If we endorse Gyges’ actions this shows that we do not value justice for its own sake and that we do not view justice as something to be chosen in every possible circumstance. 10 Acknowledgements 9
Works Cited Brown, E. 2004. “Minding the Gap in Plato’s Republic.” Philosophical Studies 117: 275-302. Cooper, J.M. (ed.) 1997. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis. Irwin, T.H. 1999. “Republic 2: Questions about Justice.” In Plato 2 Ethics, Politics, Religion and the Soul , ed. G. Fine. Oxford. Kirwan, C.A. 1965. “Glaucon’s Challenge.” Phronesis 10: 162-73. Kraut, R. 1992. “The Defense of Justice in Plato’s Republic.” In The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. R. Kraut. Cambridge. MacIntyre, A. McCabe, M.M. 2013. “The Stoic Sage in the Original Position.” Politeia in Greek and Roman Philosophy, eds. V. Harte and M. Lane. Cambridge. Weiss, R. 2007. “Wise Guys and Smart Alecks in Republic 1 and 2.” In The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, ed. G.R.F. Ferrari. Cambridge. White, N.P. 1984. “The Classification of Goods in Plato’s Republic.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 22: 392-421. White, N.P. 2002. Individual and Conflict in Greek Ethics.