05 May 2005

Does Justice Exist?

I rethink Introduction to Philosophy every time I teach it.

This year I once again tried something different. I was inspired by a remark of my colleague, Walter Wright, who said that when he was an undergrad at Yale, one of his professors had solved the 'problem of Intro to Philosophy' (not the problems of philosophy) by simply teaching Plato's Republic. So that's what I attempted this year: introduce students to philosophy, by introducing them to the Republic, and the ethics, politics, epistemology, and metaphysics that it contains. (The text of the footnote, as it were.)

In the course I assigned an essay for which I set a modern Ring of Gyges problem: you're an executive in a Fortune 500 company, and you've noticed a problem in 'internal controls' which would enable you (it's a sure bet) to funnel off $500K without anyone ever noticing: bring forward considerations modelled on those of the Republic to explain why you wouldn't do so (or, contrariwise, explain why such considerations would leave you unaffected or unconvinced, perhaps in contrast to other considerations, which you take to be better).

One student included in his reply his own Ring of Gyges situation. It wasn't quite answering the question (yet) to give another example of the same sort of case, and yet it was noteworthy because he recognized it as the same sort of case, and the story in any case had an intrinsic interest:

I was working as a bartender in a loud Spanish club in Worcester when one man, after ordering his drinks and paying me with a twenty, left without retrieving his eight dollars change. I put the eight dollars in my pocket knowing there could be no negative consequence to this unjust act. There could be no possible reprimand as it could be assumed that because the man left, the eight dollars had either been forgotten, or had been intended as a tip. Rather than deriving a feeling of pleasure from the material gain of acting unjustly, as Thrasymachus would have expected, I was burdened with a feeling of discontent. After withdrawing out of sight to the back of the club for about an hour, the man retuned and ordered more drinks. The discontent that I felt from having unjustly acquired eight of the man's dollars compelled me to act justly, not from fear of reprisal or desire for praise, as Glaucon would have supposed, but merely because I value justness in and of itself.

Under the torment of the insufferably loud music I attempted to explain to the man that he had forgotten his change. He did not speak a word of English and continuously shook his head and denied the money. Eventually, to avoid confusion, I resorted to undercharging him by eight dollars on the next round. I felt a great deal of pleasure after acting justly and this pleasure was felt for justice's sake itself. It cannot be said that this was a pleasure felt from the consequences of acting justly, a pleasure derived from honor or respect earned in the eyes of the man whom I had treated justly. The man was unaware that he had forgotten his change and believed I had merely undercharged him; therefore, he felt no gratitude toward me for having treated him justly. Nor can it be said that I had acted justly out of fear or weakness, as I was the only person who knew that I had acted unjustly. This example challenges the assertion put forth in book II by Glaucon, that justice is of the lowest class of desirable things, things that are desired only for their consequences. I gained personal pleasure from acting justly in spite of the loss of tangible goods and without any gain of intangible goods such as admiration or respect. This is a pleasure that is felt Socrates says that this sort of pleasure is of the highest class of pleasures, pleasures of the soul.

(Posted with the student's permission.)


Anonymous said...

The story of Gyges (at Rep.II. 359d seq) is meant to show that a just man, if given the means to safely pursue injustice in a ways he believes will significantly benefit him, will abandon justice and revert to a life of injustice. The invisible Gyges usurps the kingdom, takes the queen, loots & pillages as he wishes.
The story of Gyges is not the story of a man who can steal $8 from one of his fellow shepherds without being caught. We can imagine Gyges declining such a paltry act of dishonesty merely as “infra dig”. The trivial sum simply would not tempt him.
And neither would it constitute a test of his or anyone else’s professions to remain just or honest in circumstances where there are significant safe “rewards” for injustice. That is Glaucon’s point, I take it. Our professions of virtue will fail if we are offered the safe ways to indulge in vices that really are attractive to us.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Well, I wonder if other blog readers would want to chime in on this one--what exactly is the force of the tale about the ring, and whether more common, or smaller, temptations to act unjustly can be analogous?

In my view, at the beginning of Rep 2, it's agreed that justice is advantageous, that is, that justice is the sort of thing that generally brings good along with it, and that injustice is disadvantageous. What is at issue is then: Once the advantageousness of acting justly is removed, is there any further reason to be just? (Similarly: Once the disadvantageousness of acting unjustly is removed, is there any further reason not to be unjust?)

The Ring story raises these questions in a particularly effective way, because it removes the typical consequences of action 'globally'. In my example of the Fortune 500 executive, one might say that he can never be entirely confident that he'll escape the typical consequences of his action. But someone with the ring is completely immune from the usual consequences of his actions (or, at least, that's the conceit of the story).

Anonymous' dismissing the taking of $8 as 'paltry' to my mind begs the question. Why is it 'paltry' rather than sensible, or efficient, obviously preferable?

Anonymous said...

There are two indispensible features of Glaucon's Gyges story: (1) all of the penalties of acting unjustly are completely & certainly removed, and (2) the rewards for acting unjustly are significant & attractive.
"No man," says Glaucon, "can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice" when he has the opportunity of getting what Gyges got without fear of retribution.
By contrast, what does it show if men aren't generally attracted to minor acts of undetectable dishonesty? It shows no more than that we distain such behaviour & just aren't tempted by it. Glaucon's point is that if you offer men the oppportunity to claim significant rewards by undetectable injustice, you will see how readily they all desert their enforced professions & pretence of justice.