Plato has a multifaceted study of justice, taking up the topic in numerous dialogues throughout his career. Here I will only explore his views as expressed in The Republic, a middle period dialogue written with the aim of describing justice in the individual and in the polity.
One of the most famous sections of justice in the book occurs in Book two, where Socrates’ interlocutor in the dialog, Glaucon, represents the view that there is no intrinsic reason to be just. The only reason to be just is to avoid the consequences of unjust actions. In making this point, Glaucon also highlights an anthropological underpinning for this view, namely the view that people are largely selfishly motivated. He raises the issues of justice (from a perspective that Plato will reject) against the backdrop of a story that was well-known in Greece, the story of Gyges’ ring.
According to the story, Gyges, a young shepherd in the service of the King of Lydia one day was out with his flock when a great storm occurred. Near to where he was tending sheep, there was an earthquake, opening a crevice into the ground. Gyges descended into the crevice where he found, among other things, a bronze horse, with doors. Opening the doors, Gyges saw a human skeletal form possessing a golden ring. Gyges took the ring and ascended from the opening. Later in the month at a gathering of the shepherds of the King, Gyges noticed that twisting the ring on his finger, he disappeared. Those around him began speaking of him as if here weren’t there. Repeating this trial, it worked each time. Now, having acquired this new ability to become invisible, Gyges arranged to become a messenger sent to court. Once in court, Gyges used his magic ring to gain the graces of the queen, who he seduced. With the power to go undetected, he then managed to conspire with the queen to kill the king and to take over the kingdom.
Any man with a similar power, Gyges maintains, would do the same. If we could get away with crimes that advanced our interest, we would all do so. The only reason that we are just is because we do not possess such magical rings and we thus would suffer negative consequences for acts of injustice. The implication of the story is that being just is not fundamentally in our interest. It is something we do as a compromise, because we cannot get away with injustice. In short, no one is just for intrinsic reasons.
Beyond merely asking whether there is an intrinsic reason to be just, Glaucon also sets up the discussion with a clear hurdle. He asks: Is it always better to suffer injustice than to be unjust? Wouldn’t it, in fact, be better to have a reputation for justice while being unjust (at least in some instances we may wonder) than in fact to be just while suffering the negative repercussions of having a reputation for injustice?
We can all imagine situations where a just person is unjustly killed or imprisoned. Plato would certainly have been able to think of Socrates as one such example. But as bad as Socrates’ fate was, he was an aged man, who had lived a full life. What of someone, young and innocent, falsely accused of an injustice who might spend an entire life in prison? How does his life, just though it may be, stack up against the life of someone unjust but who goes undetected?
The view that Glaucon puts forward is a basis for a social contract view of justice such as we will see developed later in the history of philosophy by Hobbes and others. Glaucon’s proposal implies that we are essentially self-interested and amoral. Where we do act morally it is not because morality fulfills our natures but because we have no other alternative.
In responding to Glaucon’s contractarian view Plato proposes an alternative view of human nature to that of the contractarians. We are, Plato will maintain, ultimately only fulfilled as human beings by being virtuous. Justice is thus intrinsically preferable to injustice. Indeed, Plato seems in general to underline Socrates’ view that care for the soul is our fundamental good. The only real harm is harm to the soul.
Plato’s response is taken up in my next post: Plato on Justice.