The Reading Room
If You Like It, (Don’t) Put a Ring on It
In The Republic, the interlocutor Glaucon asks Plato’s Socrates why we should be just. He relates a story of the shepherd Gyges, who discovers a magic ring that allows him invisibility and anonymity. The formerly decent man becomes a villainous predator thanks to his ability to avoid his exploits’ repercussions.
Glaucon cynically suggests that people act justly only from fear of reprisal or dishonor if they’re caught doing otherwise. They would never aim to cultivate justice as a virtue forming part of a good character and life. Left to his own devices, the average person would screw over other people with alacrity. Glaucon offers a challenge to Socrates: convince us why we should be just even if doing so brings us a terrible reputation and material ruin, and why we should avoid injustice even if committing it brought riches and a great reputation. (Aside: is this a fair challenge?)
The next several books of The Republic comprise Plato’s attempt to address Glaucon. That detour is way too involved to explore here, but Plato aims to suggest that one can’t “get away with” injustice since its harms aren’t primarily about external punishments, while justice’s benefits aren’t about externally bestowed rewards. Rather, (in)justice benefits and harms each person naturally, apart from social or legal conventions.
I wager that most readers wouldn’t be eager to commit sexual assault, murder, or grand larceny if given the chance. For most people, there is that pesky matter of having an unavoidable conscience and feeling guilt’s paralysis at the mere thought of harming identifiable victims in such ways. Still, we might be tempted to commit lesser wrongs. What if the ring doesn’t grant invisibility or anonymity, but only allows you to read other people’s minds? Would you like to know what people are thinking about you?
Socrates might double down by suggesting that snooping like this, while not as unjust as murder, also has negative effects on the snoop. Imagine people are thinking unkind things about you. Is what they’re thinking accurate? If so, are you disheartened to hear such things about yourself? Will you use the info to try becoming a better person? Then it seems like you’re someone disposed to avoid temptations to gather secrets in the first place, moreso if the bad things thought about you are false. Either way, perhaps you only needed a little more trust, rather than literal mind infringement, to learn these matters about yourself.
Suppose instead people are thinking good things about you. Are these things inaccurate? Maybe so, ironically, if you’re inclined to keep spying. Do you want to be merely praised or also praiseworthy? Are the good things thought about you true? Praiseworthy people don’t normally invade others’ privacy, especially not those whose opinion matters to them.
Can you value someone’s opinion without also respecting their freedom to share information at their own discretion? Perhaps. But can you welcome them as a friend or mentor while deceiving them (by omission) about your intrusion? Can you respect them while treating them like an object, a mere source of useful intel? “But they don’t know I’m intruding!” In some ways that lack of disclosure makes what you’re doing worse. Regardless, you aren’t respecting them as an equal moral agent with rightful claims on privacy when you treat them only as a nonconsenting data source.
For Socrates, someone’s opinion of you matters, not because of how it makes you feel, but to the degree that it can help you become more just. Only praiseworthiness can imbue any accurate praise with value—otherwise praise is empty currency. What does it profit someone if he gains the whole world in admiration, including all the nice thoughts he might hear about himself, but loses anything admirable about himself in the process? Such isn’t virtue but mere vanity upholding a false reflection of virtue.
For Plato, in acting unjustly you harm yourself by succumbing to your appetites at the expense of rational control over them. Without this control, your unsatisfiable appetites bring internal disorder that compromises your ability to cultivate all else that matters to you. What he describes sounds like many addictions. The unjust actor seeks something for nothing, where focus becomes entirely on the felt reward itself, isolated from any effort requisite to enjoy (earned) rewards. Addiction to substances, or unwarranted praise, tricks you into thinking you can get something for nothing, when the equanimity of a just soul can only come through the performance of just acts.
Step away from the ring. Obviously, more needs to be said, but this framework suggests something intuitive about how our conceptions of justice are closely tied to our moral psychology. Still, “Why be moral?” remains a question that a future essay will explore.