The Ring of Gyges, Realism, Exceptionalism

On the behaviour of states and international law

Special issues of Political Realism (POL420)

Hello, my name is Protesilaos Stavrou. This seminar launches the new series on Political Realism in the domain of International Relations, which will consist of three or more episodes. Today I will discuss a topic found in Plato’s Republic that concerns human nature, social convention, and the application of justice. Based on that, I will draw parallels with phenomena that occur between states to see how international covenants come about and what is the essence of international law. Part of the analysis is to understand exceptionalism, or else the idea that one can escape the law with impunity because of some perceived privilege bestowed upon them.

The Platonic theme we will be discussing is the myth of the Ring of Gyges. The myth is jointly examined by Socrates and Glaucon. It goes as follows. In the land of Lydia, there was a magical ring. Whoever wore the ring turned invisible. They could, thus, do whatever they wanted without anyone ever realising it was them. The ring fell into the hands of a shepherd named Gyges. He used the ring’s magical properties to conduct a series of crimes that would eventually grant him access to the throne of his country. Using the ring, Gyges became king of Lydia. He escaped punishment because no one knew it was him who was committing the crimes.

This myth serves as the basis of the discussion on human nature and the value of justice. Glaucon holds that humans are inherently self interested. Given the chance, they will rely on their own devices, satisfy their passions, follow their instincts, without concern for the well being of others. So how does society work if each person is not concerned about the rest? Humans understand their nature: they do not want to suffer the consequences of another person’s behaviour. As such, Glaucon claims, what we have as social conventions, laws, and morality, are but a compromise between competing tendencies of individualist gain. Humans know that without social pressure, each will be free to harm all the rest. When generalised, that leads to an incessant struggle for survival, a conflict of all against all.

For Glaucon, what prevents evil is the pressure of others, which typically entails degrees of punishment for various kinds of acts. That is with the proviso that actions are known and can be traced back to the person who committed them. Individuals have an incentive to behave in accordance with social conventions because they know that their deeds can be attributed to them, and thus be punished accordingly. But, if they could somehow disguise themselves from the public eye, just like Gyges, there is no incentive for them to act in conformity with social norms, especially if that runs contrary to their self interest.

Glaucon understands morality as an emergent phenomenon, similar to how Adam Smith conceived of the “invisible hand” as the driving force of economic conduct. Individual self interests cancel each other out. Paradoxically that results in a modicum of understanding, which is rationalised and then expanded upon into a fully fledged moral code. The case of Gyges who abused the ring for his own gain tells us that the effectiveness of justice is contingent on the capacity of the community to punish what it considers inappropriate. Otherwise there can be no restraint on a person’s inclination to pursue their own interest to the detriment of others.

Socrates, on the other hand, holds that there are two separate things that go by the name of “justice”. One is what human convention define as appropriate for that culture. The existing laws, the rules of conduct, social norms. These are all subjective, context-dependent. The other is objective and universal: a person can apply rational thinking to grasp it, without reference to the customs of a given society. To that end, Socrates believes that a genuinely just person, one who follows reason, would not abuse the ring as Gyges did, for they would already have insight of what the state of affairs is and what constitutes a just behaviour.

Socrates does not really disagree with Glaucon’s salient point. He just disambiguates the meaning of justice, by introducing the ideal of objective, universal ethics. He concedes that effective morality is what matters to people. The truly just person—in the Socratic sense of the term—could be deviating from the values that apply in their social milieu. That would make them unjust for not following the conventions, even though they would be just in the ideal sense.

On the matter of convention in inter-subjective affairs, Glaucon and Socrates are in agreement despite their differences of opinion on human nature (which are speculative anyhow). They are both concerned with inter-personal relations, for that is what they understand as ethics: an emergent phenomenon. And above all, they both acknowledge that conventions are what matters in practice together with the effectiveness of counter-measures to the abusive propensities of humans.

The dialectic on the Ring of Gyges suggests that only by means of exception would a person not abuse their power if given the chance. By default, the ring bearer would feel entitled to act selfishly without fear of reprisal. The conventional justice system would have no means of defence in such a case.

From the Ring of Gyges to world politics

For international relations, Plato’s insights are particularly important for appreciating the world order, international law, and the use or abuse of power by different states.

The international community has no overarching authority. All nation states are equal on paper, in terms of their claims on sovereignty and the rights and obligations emanating from their statehood. And all operate on the basis of promoting their own interest, which is perceived as equivalent to their national interest. International law has developed in response to this reality. As there is no international enforcer of justice, only peer pressure can force countries to fall in line with what the international community considers just. The covenants and institutional arrangements that underpin the world order are an extension of the effective morality that Glaucon alludes to. They seek to control the power of states while knowing all too well that each is inclined to circumvent the rules in pursuit of their own interest.

Whether we talk about the principles of sovereignty and statehood, the laws that govern international trade, or regulations on warfare, we are describing sets of measures that are designed to deter unilateral action and to prevent any kind of race to the bottom. The objective is to have states agree on joint initiatives and to follow the same rules in the process. Whenever that works, the international community is successfully delivering justice, in the conventional sense of the term.

Where the international order is not analogous to the myth of the Ring of Gyges is with regard to the presence of regional or global superpowers. There is no equivalent of a magical device that can somehow conceal a state’s actions. Instead, there can be circumstances a state may abuse to bypass international conventions or to somehow claim the moral high ground that justifies its deviation from international law.

A state can escape punishment when conditions are such that it is simply impossible to enforce international standards or the cost would be too great considering the transgression. The possibilities of a systemic failure of the global order are plenty, such as conflicting agendas at the UN Security Council, or the military preponderance of a state in a given region of the world where the international community cannot retaliate with efficacy.

And then there is the logical extension of this, which is what superpowers attribute to themselves. It is the spirit of exceptionalism. Such states do not see themselves as bound by the same restrictions as everyone else, because of their special status, usually understood in terms of economic and military prowess, occasionally combined with tacit claims on cultural supremacy. Exceptionalist regimes depict themselves as protectors of the international order and are the ones to assume responsibility for enforcing the rules—or rather their own rules—across the globe, even though that is not an agreed upon aspect of inter-state covenant.

There are instances where exceptionalism is plausible, where its actions appear to be necessary and proportionate. By and large though, exceptionalism is an ideology that normalises arbitrariness. A nation that does not see itself as equal to all the rest, is effectively feeling entitled to act in ways that others are prevented from. This is a double standard which, over the long term, undermines the credibility of conventions.

Plato’s insights come into focus when we try to think of the bigger picture of international relations:

  • At first, we understand that nation states are guided by their self interest. Consequently, what exists as international law is but a convention to contain competing self interests. Much like how Glaucon conceives of human nature and morality. By acknowledging this fact, we can normalise our expectations about the international community’s capacity to deliver on ideals. Which practically means that we realise that mutually beneficial states of affairs can only come about when there are effective dissuasive mechanisms in place. Appealing to reason or to higher values does not generally suffice.
  • Secondly, we see that the sense of entitlement provides incentives for abusive behaviour. Granted, there is no equivalent of a magical ring that masks the actions of nations. But exceptionalism is close enough in terms of its effects, in that the state making those claims does not follow the same rules as everybody else.
  • Thirdly, the claim of Socrates that only an exalted moral agent would not abuse the ring’s magical properties and would do the right thing regardless, gives us pause about our faith in the pretenses of the world’s superpowers. Can we trust them with the power of bending the rules at will? Can we really believe that they are merely enforcing the ideals of justice? And what if all they care for is the promotion of their own agenda?
  • Fourthly, we come to the conclusion that exceptionalism can only be contained by means of peer pressure, backed by credible claims on the use of hard power. That is how conventional justice is upheld in a system without a central authority. For as long as a superpower remains unchecked, it will have the incentive to bend the rules.
  • And fifthly, we conceive of the global order, with its laws and institutional arrangements, as a context dependent set of conventions. It is a function of the historical balance of power that brought it into being. Some states have privileges, whether it is the veto power of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, or the distribution of voting shares in the International Monetary Fund. As such, there is nothing truly objective about the way it is designed nor about the value of justice it delivers. What keeps this system in place is peer pressure. Without concerted action, the world order cannot be upheld or indeed reformed.

Thank you very much for your attention. Join me next time. I will be disccussing international politics with regard to the Peloponnesian War, specifically the Melian Dialogue.


This seminar was produced using only free and open source software.

  • The audio was captured and edited with Audacity.
  • The presentation slides were prepared in LibreOffice and converted from a .pdf into .jpg using Imagemagick.
  • The video editing was done with Kdenlive.
  • The transcript was written in Vim.
  • All working on a GNU/Linux machine, specifically Debian