Summary the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic

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© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission.)

One of the most famous discussions of justice occurs in Book 2 of Plato’s The Republic
where Socrates’ interlocutor in the dialogue, Glaucon, argues 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 idea 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 was out with his flock one day 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 he 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 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 that 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) than 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. We act morally 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.

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15 thoughts on “Summary the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic

  1. Yes of course I would. There are plenty of perceived injustices I’d love to remedy that I wouldn’t have the courage for otherwise. Also at some point I’d likely also abuse it and not just use it for the good of humanity. That’s to be expected. I’m a terribly flawed human and I’m not an antinatalist out of spite. I think once I put that ring on I’d never take it off.

  2. I divide this entire issue into two parts: social morality and personal morality. Social morality is what society demands of its members. Those elements of social morality that society can clearly specify become laws with criminal sanctions; other elements, such as telling thousands of lies, often bring only social censure.

    But, as the story makes clear, it is possible to commit unethical acts and not be caught, and thereby avoid suffering any repercussions. This is where personal morality comes into play. We have our own personal standards of ethical conduct. These are constraints we place on ourselves out of a sense of personal virtue; they’re what we avoid doing even when nobody is watching. Eastern religion is built around personal morality; where a Christian refrains from sinning because he doesn’t want to be punished by God, the Buddhist refrains from sinning because he does not want to besmirch himself with sin.

    Everybody has some such personal standards, but in many people those personal standards are weak; they indulge themselves in all manner of sin when they think that they can get away with it. What they do not understand is that happiness ultimately comes from a sense of self-worth that one can only have by maintaining the highest standards of personal morality.

  3. I love everything about this thought exercise. About six months ago I suggested an extension: the modern story of the Ring of Gop that makes it so everyone can see your bad acts but no one can make you face consequences for them.

    It’s not theoretical — somehow half of America’s politicians wear it.

  4. “We are, Plato will maintain, ultimately only fulfilled as human beings by being virtuous.”

    True in the past, but no longer so.

    “We act morally not because morality fulfills our natures but because we have no other alternative.”

    You can turn this around to say that in the 21st century we have no alternative to being amoral by past standards, as high tech is eroding the basis of previous virtue.

    Used to be cheating on taxes or spouses was sin. No more.
    Used to be legalizing marijuana was wrong; now it is big business.
    Used to be gay was sin; now Gay is cause for Oscars, Grammys and Emmys.
    Used to be having a complete asshole as chief executive was impossible; but with the alteration of ethics, the impossible becomes possible.

    No longer any need for Gyges’ ring. Someday, no need for Jesus. For better and worse.

  5. Austin, the GOP ring seems to mean that Trump can do and say what he wants, then deny it; and everybody will say that he has not done and said what they saw with their own eyes, but will believe denial instead. It’s amazing. They must have passed out these rings out at Trump rallies. We didn’t all get one, though, so the rest of us look on astounded.

  6. “Glaucon argues that there is no intrinsic reason to be just.”

    There was intrinsic reason to be just.
    Now, with electronic communications, who needs a ring? Or call communications technologies the ring– call them miscommunications technologies.
    ‘Course, one person’s manipulation is another’s liberty. Advertisers have the legal right to dissemble; they can issue disclaimers.

  7. Funny how it usually boils down to partisan politics and bickering. My grandfather had an adage; “Most people are simply not intelligent or educated enough to discuss politics”. I use to think he was nuts – more and more I’m convinced he was absolutely correct.

    I’m guessing that leading a virtuous and educated life in the 21st century may require avoiding the political cesspool all together.

    As to the ring: of course I’d use it. I’d feel powerful and pleasured, guilty and conflicted, gleeful and ashamed. But, at the end of the day, I am a human being hopelessly plagued with all of these emotions simultaneously.

  8. The problem with avoiding the cesspool of politics is that it affects our lives. And the situation in the USA is increasingly dangerous.

  9. André Comte-Sponville mentions the ring of Gyges in his little book of Philosophy. I looked it up and it led me here. Isn’t life amazing!

  10. Lacking such a ring, I’ll have to rely on my conscience. Sometimes I control it; sometimes it holds and checks me. Quite imperfect, but it does allow me to sleep and keeps me out of the pokey.

  11. Just look how injustices (Theft of native lands, and wholesale slaughter of natives. Enslavement of millions of Africans. Continuous oppression and suppression of ethnic minorities) benefited whites in America. They’re still reaping the rewards.

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