On the value of justice (Ring of Gyges)

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  • Introduction
  • The Ring of Gyges
  • Private ethics
  • Relational ethics
  • Concluding remarks


Is the value of justice intrinsic or extrinsic? To address this issue it is thought necessary to consider the locus of ethics: is it a decontextualised individual? Or must the attention turn towards the milieu in which situational moral agents and patients are immersed in and influenced by? The former scenario shall be referred to as private ethics, the latter as relational ethics.

To support our inquiry we will make use of a classic debate directly related to the value of justice: a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, as presented in Book II of Plato’s Republic. Central to it is a tale about the Ring of Gyges, which serves to flesh out the thought experiments of the interlocutors on the nature of the moral subject and their disposition towards justice (the tale also performs a pedagogical function: to make the arguments more accessible to a broader audience, as is Plato’s general didactic style).

Once the [pro]positions regarding the Ring of Gyges have been outlined, we will proceed with two sections dedicated to the themes of private and relational ethics respectively. Their scope is broader than the Platonic opus presented herein, as this is not intended to be a direct commentary or interpretation of that text.

The Ring of Gyges

The ring was purported to be magical, granting invisibility to its bearer. A malevolent owner could harness such power to commit any crime with impunity, as they would be concealed from the public eye. Such was the case of a shepherd by the name of Gyges who, having discovered the exotic properties of the ring and after recognising the potential of committing acts of injustice without ever appearing to having done so, went on to murder his king and eventually usurp the throne of his country.

The tale itself operates as a vehicle for forwarding Glaucon’s position on the matter. He elaborates on his view of justice as a social and political construct; a set of interwoven factors that render an act of justice preferable to one of injustice because of its context-specific implications. The crux of the argument being that justice has no intrinsic value and, conversely, that any act of justice attains its value qua just extrinsically, by means of its consequences or ramifications.

As Glaucon puts it (emphasis added):

They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; –it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honoured by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did.

Within this line of reasoning the Ring of Gyges becomes part of a thought experiment where the purely unjust is compared to the purely just to determine whether justice is worth pursuing in itself or because of the potential gains it may deliver. Glaucon argues:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

Private ethics

The debate centres on the individual and the propensities of their character. The main difference between the two is found in their understanding of human nature. Glaucon assumes that by default human will prefer to do ill works, for they yield greater personal gains. The sole constraint to this propensity for evil is the malice of others, one annulling the benefits of the other.

Socrates approaches the subject by assuming virtues of character to be facets of the good, justice as such to be intrinsically preferable to its opposite and, hence, that the virtuous person will always pursue justice. This grounds justice as a form to be grasped personally and separately, regardless of what society may value as just. To that end Socrates holds that the genuinely just may be seen as unjust, since society’s criterion is not the objective form the good.

For Socrates, the social construct is not necessarily the true manifestation of the form of justice, but most likely a deviation from it. In contradistinction, Glaucon sees the social construct as all there is without however differentiating his approach with regard to the ethical subject. He too focuses on the character of the person.

Glaucon reaches the notion of justice as a social construct by presuming human as naturally bad. Thus while a contemporary critic may agree with Glaucon’s end product of thought, they may not be willing to commit to his presumption; a presumption that seems to be rather dubious as its direct opposite as well as the permutations in between may hold equally true.

Put differently, the proposition human is bad may be equally true to the propositions human is good, human is both bad and good, human is neither bad nor good. Such plurivalence probably stems from the indeterminacy of the subject matter, at least by means of ethics alone.

Both Socrates and Glaucon hold an individualistic view of ethics, which rests on the indeterminacy of human nature. Their reductive exercise may not be erroneous per se, but clearly falls short of its objective in not reaching a definitive foundation. With plurivalence as its underlying characteristic, their [pro]positions are not robust to ambiguity, uncertainty and the potential conflation of aspects of reality that actually differ from one another.

Plurivalence aside, the idea of a private ethics rests on a brave assumption, a chimera perhaps: the decontextualised person. The person is not seen under the scope of the complex web of factors that make up their cultural milieu, social space and political place within which they are, think, act, behave etc. nor are the person’s decisions ever considered to be informed by a broad range of factors exterior to them, such as tradition, legal institutions, primary social rules, the state of their socio-economic development and so on. In fact, the ethical subject is decontextualised definitively. That is to suggest that the process of decontextualisation is the end product rather than being part of a method that ultimately examines the constitution of the case.

To recapitulate, our objection to such individualism is based on two observations:

  1. Its persistence on the indeterminate topic of human nature, which produces plurivalent propositions that can generate uncertainty;
  2. Its questionable starting point — the definitively decontextualised person — that has a strong tendency to engender propositions in oblivion of the case’s constitution.

In the following section we will attempt to outline an alternative view of ethics in light of the [inter-]relations of human.

Relational ethics

The starting point of relational ethics is the claim that moral subjects and objects are situational agents and patients. There is no definitively decontextualised individual to speak of. The focus is on the relation that produces those roles and, in a broader sense, the context that fosters such relations. The person is not omitted from the examination altogether. They are part of an holistic approach but certainly not its midpoint.

Against this backdrop, several subtleties of role may be identified. The question what must I do to tackle persistent unemployment is not equal to what must the state do to tackle persistent unemployment. The constraints and capacity of the former differ from the latter’s, as do their role and array of possible functions.

Externalities of action are more appropriate to a discussion of [inter-]relation. The most preferable moral option, the one having more “moral value” among a set of competing and mutually exclusive alternatives, must then incorporate the necessary evaluation of all the possible external benefits/costs involved and the immediate and direct effects these may produce. A pertinent example of [economic] externalities can be the systemic risk a banking system or a monetary union has incurred through their structural flaws and chronic malignancies, which can then exert a deleterious influence on economic conditions to the point of impoverishing and immiserating people who had no involvement in the matter.

Political issues that generate moral debates can also be more effectively understood through interrelations. Whether the political choices of a generation are binding or not on their posterity is a matter of [public] morality that transcends the narrow confines of the individual. Additionally, the very presence of institutions of an historical-cultural or legal-political sort provides for ample evidence of people doing the prescribed “right thing” regardless of their actual propensities to do good or evil — their much-touted “nature”.

The aforementioned, while they may be drivers for research of complex scenarios, do not address the core issue of justice as such. Socrates would argue that these are emanations of the form, not the form itself. He would, quite admittedly, be raising a valid point. Indeed the principle is to be an irreducible abstraction, the common in the multitude, whose properties are found in its extensions while it does not partake of those germane to them (see Implicit properties in objects and the links therein).

The abstract must indeed be discerned from the multitude, only our assertion is that this “multitude” involves [inter-]relations, not decontextualised persons. There is a network of interwoven relations between subjects and noetic objects within which processes take place; processes whose qualities substantiate their moral value. It is towards the [abstract structure of the] parameters of such processes that we can turn our attention, in an effort to ground an ethics of [inter-]relation.

Concluding remarks

Understandably, this blog post does in no way exhaust the subject of justice’s value. What has been outlined here is but a collection of critical thoughts on the emphasis Socrates and Glaucon place on the decontextualised person. Our objection and the proposal of an alternative approach in the form of relational ethics is predicated on scientific observations in economics and politics. It might therefore be the case that the views propounded herein may themselves be preloaded with ethical assumptions. Put differently, the present article might as well be a clear-cut case of one arbitrary theory juxtaposed to another. To cast aside such doubts one would have to venture in an introspective analysis of relational ethics and of the disparate scientific findings that underpin or have shaped them in one way or another.

The above concluding notes notwithstanding, we may restate our claim that the locus of ethics is not some decontextualised individual, but rather the intersubjective and interobjective relations which render agents and patients as situational; relations whose qualitative parameters determine the value of the relation and inform the possible outcomes, externalities and ramifications. It is in this web of relations that we may discern instances of justice and proceed to consider as the abstraction of justice that form of the good which is common in their multitude. By escaping from the narrow boundaries of the persons and by delving into [inter-]relational issues we are better prepared to incorporate and to properly study those aspects of action that transcend the individual and their character dispositions.

Consequently, we may provide for some modifications to the Socratic position:

  • Justice may be discerned as the form of the good which is common in the multitude of relations;
  • The value of justice derives from the relations, their outcomes, externalities and ramifications — it is extrinsic;
  • The just or unjust nature of the person is of secondary importance, for what matters is whether the parameters substantiating the intersubjective and interobjective relation(s) are themselves permeated by principles of justice;
  • Justice is to be preferred over injustice in that it can be instituted in such ways to enable “the wrong” person to do “the right” thing, so that the interrelational comparison of possible outcomes tends towards the most optimal state of affairs irrespective of the situational agent’s and/or patient’s — the persons’ — disposition.

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