Plato’s Republic II: Defending Injustice

Plato’s Republic II: Defending Injustice

In Book II of the Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus strengthen and defend Thrasymachus’s earlier claim that justice is merely an instrumental, and not an intrinsic, good.  Though Thrasymachus has conceded to Socrates, Glaucon observes that he has perhaps done so too hastily, being charmed by Socrates “as if he were a snake.” (358b). Socrates case is not yet rationally compelling, and perhaps he has placated Thrasymachus with empty rhetoric. Glaucon thus attempts to bolster Thrasymachus’s arguments so that Socrates can, if possible, cogently refute them. He does this even though he himself vehemently disagrees with the position. He points out:

“It isn’t, Socrates, that I believe any of that myself. I’m perplexed, indeed, and my ears are deafened listening to Thrasymachus and countless others. But I’ve yet to hear anyone defend justice in the way I want, proving that it is better than injustice. I want to hear it praised by itself, and I think that I’m most likely to hear this from you. Therefore, I’m going to speak at length in praise of the unjust life, and in doing so I’ll show you the way I want to hear you praising justice and denouncing injustice” (358d).[1]

Note how here Glaucon not only entertains a position he is opposed to, but also defends it in the hope that it can be rationally defeated (357a). He is not willing for the position to be silenced on anything less than rational grounds. This ability to objectively consider a variety of claims and evaluate them from a logical perspective is a fundamental presupposition of Plato’s dialectical method. Sadly, it is an ability we are currently losing, with even those in authority, who should, and likely do, know better, nonetheless conflating considering a position or holding an opinion, with being a violent extremist. Yet our ability to thoughtfully consider positions we are personally opposed to must be defended and cultivated once more if we are to forestall civilizational collapse. We must, like Glaucon, be able to entertain and rationally engage with all positions, even those we personally oppose or which are opposed by the taste makers of the regime under which we live.

            Glaucon sets forth three arguments in defense of the Thrasymachean claim that justice is an instrumental rather than intrinsic good. Recall that intrinsic goods are desired for their own sakes, whereas instrumental goods are desired for the sake of something else. Glaucon’s first argument is genealogical. Genealogical arguments are quasi-historical accounts that attempt to explicate the social origins of a concept. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is perhaps the most famous example of such an approach. In it, Nietzsche distinguishes between the concepts of Good and Bad, corresponding to the noble and the base respectively, and shows how these categories came to be replaced by the inverted concepts of Good and Evil through the resentment and machinations of a priestly class.  Glaucon’s genealogical argument contends that justice is the result of a social contract arrived at through negotiation. It represents a compromise between the best situation (doing injustice as one pleases) and the worst situation (suffering injustice from others). He explains:

“They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. This, they say, is the origin and essence of justice. It is intermediate between the best and the worst. The best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge” (359a).

If such an account were true, then justice would not be an intrinsic good. It is created merely to prevent the pain of suffering injustice. Rather, it is the unjust life that is intrinsically desirable: it is best to inflict injustice on others without suffering it oneself.

            Glaucon’s second argument concerns empirical psychology. He claims that if we were to examine the inner thoughts and desires of those deemed just, we would see that they pursue justice unwillingly. He maintains:

“We can see most clearly that those who practice justice do it unwillingly and because they lack the power to do injustice, if in our thoughts we grant to a just and an unjust person the freedom to do whatever they like. We can then follow both of them and see where their desires would lead. And we’ll catch the just person red-handed travelling the same road as the unjust. The reason for this is the desire to outdo others and get more and more. This is what anyone’s nature naturally pursues as good, but nature is forced by law into the perversion of treating fairness with respect.” (359b)

Glaucon, like the contemporary capitalist, claims that human nature is characterized by an innate desire to outperform others and by a boundless acquisitiveness. He supports this claim by asking us to carry out a thought experiment concerning the famous ring of Gyges which renders its wearer invisible. A man who possessed such a ring would be able to do whatever he wanted without the fear of being caught. Glaucon claims that, in such a scenario, both the just and the unjust would pursue the same course of life: the life of injustice.

“No one, it seems, would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice or stay away from other people’s property, when he could take whatever he wanted from the marketplace with impunity, go into people’s houses and have sex with anyone he wished, kill or release from prison anyone he wished, and do all the other things that would make him like a god among humans. Rather his actions would be in no way different from those of an unjust person, and both would follow the same path” (360c).

If even ostensibly just people would choose a life of injustice when given the ring of Gyges, then they perform just acts on account of their consequences alone. Justice is thus not an intrinsic good, but an instrumental one.

            Glaucon’s third and final argument calls attention to the extreme nature of Plato’s position. Indeed, it is a position so extreme that Glaucon claims that it results in absurdity. He notes that if justice is an intrinsic good as Socrates contends, then it must remain desirable when its external benefits are removed. Consider, then, a case in which a just man is given the reputation of consummate injustice, and an unjust man is given the reputation of justice. If Socrates is correct, then the former state of affairs should be preferable to the latter (361c-d). It is better to be just and thought unjust than to be unjust and thought just. But Glaucon contends that this is absurd. He notes that:

“A just person in such circumstances will be whipped, stretched on a rack, chained, blinded with fire, and, at the end, when he has suffered every kind of evil, he’ll be impaled, and will realize then that one shouldn’t want to be just but to believed to be just” (362a).

In contrast, the unjust man will use his injustice to secure his position and manipulate public opinion:

“We must suppose that an unjust person will act as clever craftsmen do: A first-rate captain or doctor, for example, knows the difference between what his craft can and can’t do. He attempts the first but lets the second go by, and if he happens to slip, he can put things right. In the same way, an unjust person’s successful attempts at injustice must remain undetected, if he is to be fully unjust. Anyone who is caught should be thought inept, for the extreme of injustice is to be believed to be just without being just. And our completely unjust person must be given complete injustice; nothing may be subtracted from it. We must allow that, while doing the greatest injustice, he has nonetheless provided himself with the greatest reputation for justice. If he happens to make a slip, he must be able to put it right. If any of his unjust activities should be discovered, he must be able to speak persuasively or to use force. And if force is needed, he must have the help of courage and strength and of the substantial wealth and friends with which he has provided himself” (361a-b).

And, as Adeimantus observes later:

““But surely,” someone will object, “it isn’t easy for vice to remain always hidden.” We’ll reply that nothing great is easy. And, in any case, if we’re to be happy, we must follow the path indicated in these accounts. To remain undiscovered we’ll form secret societies and political clubs. And there are teachers of persuasion to make us clever in dealing with assemblies and law courts. Therefore, using persuasion in one place and force in another, we’ll outdo others without paying a penalty” (365d).

And, as a result:

“He rules his city because of his reputation for justice; he marries into any family he wishes; he gives his children in marriage to anyone he wishes; he has contracts and partnerships with anyone he wants; and besides benefiting himself in all these ways, he profits because he has no scruples and outdoes his enemies. And by outdoing them, he becomes wealthy, benefiting his friends and harming his enemies. He makes adequate sacrifices to the gods and sets up magnificent offerings to them. He takes better care of the gods, therefore, (and, indeed, of the human beings he’s fond of) than a just person does. Hence it’s likely that the gods, in turn, will take better care of him than of a just person. That’s what they say, Socrates, that gods and humans provide a better life for unjust people than for just ones” (362b-c).

If Socrates contention is correct, and justice is an intrinsic good, then the just life must be better than the unjust one even in the circumstances sketched above. If one had the choice between being just but believed to be a moral monster, and being unjust but taken to be a great philanthropist and savior of humanity, using one’s ill gotten wealth to shape public opinion and eliminate one’s enemies, Socrates contends that one should choose the former. The just man is happier than the unjust regardless of how others think of and treat him. Yet Glaucon contends this is an absurd result.

            Finally, Glaucon’s brother, Adeimantus, adds a fourth argument to the mix. He claims that Socrates position opposes the traditional accounts of justice handed down by culture and religion. He observes

“When fathers speak to their sons, they say that one must be just, as do all the others who have charge of anyone. But they don’t praise justice itself, only the high reputations it leads to and the consequences of being thought to be just, such as the public offices, marriages, and other things Glaucon listed. But they elaborate even further on the consequences of reputation. By bringing in the esteem of the gods, they are able to talk about the abundant good things…that the gods give to the pious” (363a).

When teaching children, people have traditionally maintained that justice should be pursued for the sake of the rewards it brings. In other words, tradition treats it as an instrumental good, not an intrinsic one. This is bolstered by the fact that the just life is presented as a difficult path that eventually leads to safety, while the unjust life is portrayed as an easy path that ultimately leads to disaster.

“All go on repeating with one voice that justice and moderation are fine things, but hard and onerous, while licentiousness and injustice are sweet and easy to acquire and are shameful only in opinion and law. They add that unjust deeds are for the most part more profitable than just ones, and, whether in public or private, they willingly honor vicious people who have wealth and other types of power and declare them to be happy. But they dishonor and disregard the weak and poor, even though they agree that they are better than others” (364a-b).

And finally, even religion treats justice as if it were an instrumental rather than intrinsic good. Religion, contends Adeimantus, provides various rituals whereby the unjust can not only cancel the negative effects of their actions, but also reap blessings from the gods instead.

“They say that the gods, too, assign misfortune and a bad life to many good people, and the opposite fate to their opposites. Begging priests and prophets frequent the doors of the rich and persuade them that they possess a god-given power founded on sacrifices and incantations. If the rich person or any of his ancestors has committed and injustice, they can fix it with pleasant rituals” (364b-c).

The idea behind ritual and sacrifice, according to Adeimantus, is to manipulate the gods, gaining their favor or removing their disfavor. But this shows that favor and disfavor do not necessarily correspond to one’s just or unjust character. Indeed, one of the core purposes of ritual is to mitigate the effects of injustice. The concern of religion then is not with justice or injustice as such, but with their effects.

It is interesting to note that Adeimantus’s observation appears to hold true even for more recent religions such as Christianity. For example, on many interpretations, a core doctrine of Christianity is that of justification by faith, the idea that though a man is unrighteous, he may nonetheless be declared to be righteous by God if he has faith in Christ. When one has faith, God stops looking at a man’s actual character, and instead looks at him as if he had the character of Jesus. This doctrine is grounded in the teachings of St. Paul, when he claims, for example, that:

“Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” [εἰδότες δὲ ὅτι οὐ δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ἔργων νόμου ἐὰν μὴ διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν, ἵνα δικαιωθῶμεν ἐκ πίστεως Χριστοῦ καὶ οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων νόμου, ὅτι ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται  πᾶσα σάρξ.] Gal 2:16 NIV.

And again, he declares that:

“We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” [λογιζόμεθα γὰρ δικαιοῦσθαι πίστει ἄνθρωπον χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου.] Rom 3:28 NIV

Paul’s assertions here fit well with Adeimantus’s observations that religion is not concerned with justice in itself, but only with its benefits. For a core component of Paul’s teaching concerns the benefits of being declared righteous, justified (δικαιόω), without actually being just. This idea would be picked up by Luther in his distinctions between law and gospel and proper and alien righteousness, and came to be formalized in various Protestant confessions such as the following:

“Men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight” (Augsburg Confession Article 4).

Thus, Adeimantus’s observations about religion seem apt even today. In our day, as in his, Socrates’ contention that justice is an intrinsic good appears to conflict with popular religious teachings.

Socrates thus faces a considerable challenge in light of the four arguments set forth by Glaucon and Adeimantus. Adeimantus concludes:

“Socrates, of all of you who claim to praise justice, from the original heroes of old whose words survive, to the men of the present day, not one has ever blamed injustice or praised justice except by mentioning the reputations, honors, and rewards that are their consequences. No one has ever adequately described what each itself does of its own power by its presence in the soul of the person who possesses it, even if it remains hidden from gods and humans. No one, whether in poetry or in private conversations, has adequately argued that injustice is the worst thing a soul can have in it and that justice is the greatest good. If you had treated the subject in this way and persuaded us from youth, we wouldn’t now be guarding against one another’s injustices, but each would be his own best guardian, afraid that by doing injustice he’d be living with the worst thing possible” (366e-367a).

Undaunted, Socrates takes up the challenge by proposing an analogy. Though he admits that it is hard to determine the nature of justice in the individual, he suggests that perhaps we might be able to see it at work in communities. And, after determining its nature on a large scale, we might then be able to apply it at the individual level. He compares the situation to one in which a man is unable to read small print. Though he can’t read the passage at first, but if he can find the same message writ large, he’ll be able to comprehend it. Socrates explains:  

“The investigation we’re undertaking is not an easy one but requires keen eyesight. Therefore, since we aren’t clever people, we should adopt the method of investigation that we’d use if, lacking keen eyesight, we were told to read small letters from a distance and then noticed that the same letters existed elsewhere in a larger size and on a larger surface. We’d consider it a godsend, I think, to be allowed to read the larger ones first and then to examine the smaller ones, to see whether they really are the same. That’s certainly true, said Adeimantus, but how is this case similar to our investigation of justice? I’ll tell you. We say, don’t we, that there is the justice of a single man and also the justice of a whole city? Certainly. And a city is larger than a single man? It is larger. Perhaps, then, there is more justice in the larger thing, and it will be easier to learn what it is. So, if you’re willing, let’s first find out what sort of thing justice is in a city and afterwards look for it in the individual, observing the ways in which the smaller is similar to the larger. That seems fine to me. If we could watch a city coming to be in theory, wouldn’t we also see its justice coming to be, and its injustice as well [εἰ γιγνομένην πόλιν θεασαίμεθα λόγῳ, καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτῆς ἴδοιμεν ἂν γιγνομένην καὶ τὴν ἀδικίαν]? Probably so” (368d-369a).

It is to the construction of this argument, and this city in words, that the rest of the Republic is devoted. We’ll examine the structure of this city next time. Till then, may we, like Glaucon and Adeimantus, have the courage to use our own understanding, even when it’s disorienting and leads us to uncomfortable places.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this blogpost is in the public domain and can be found here. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jes%C3%BAs_en_casa_de_An%C3%A1s_Museo_del_Prado_Jos%C3%A9_de_Madrazo.jpg ]


[1] Republic, trans. Cooper.

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